Ironwoman Dreams

If I can do this, anyone can.


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Finding No Meaning: A Training Story

Easter holiday time, no matter what your religion, can be a good opportunity to refresh: to make new goals or re-double our efforts toward the ones we set earlier in the year. Life happens pretty fast, and, if we don’t take these chances to pop our heads up and assess how we’re doing, like any open water swimmer can tell you, we can end up way off course.

However, while we assess our goals, we should also take a moment to  ask ourselves: are we packaging our goals with a degree of self care and objectivity?

I ask this question because most athletes that I know work very hard to achieve certain goals. In working toward a goal, taking measurements, striving day after day, we tend to grow emotionally attached to our goals. While these emotions become attached to goals, they are often deeply rooted within ourselves, frequently attached to certain perceptions we have about ourselves, the same perceptions that create inner monologues and value judgements based on what we do or don’t do. These perceptions have been honed over time, and I have yet to meet a person who lacks any. Still, it’s what you do with these perceptions and feelings that have a profound affect on your overall well-being as you work to reach your goals.

A few weeks ago, Coach Mikey had us doing my least favorite breathing exercise: 50 yd breathing every 3, 50 yd breathing every 5, 50 yd breathing every 7, 50 yd breathing every 5. Even though I can do 25 yards without breathing at all, somehow, the counting trips me up, and I find myself gasping for air after the second 50.

Stopping for a second to look up at Mikey, I shook my head and said, “I don’t know why I can’t seem to handle this drill.”

Mikey, completely unconcerned, looked at me briefly, and said, “Don’t make it mean anything.”

Oh. Okay. I shrugged off my concerns and kept swimming, caring less about how crappy I was at the drill, and moving forward, relieved from the burden of over-thinking, without much emotion toward it at all.

But that moment was poignant. Her words were like an arrow plunging straight into the roots and earth of every problem I ever had. Hadn’t I always made pretty much everything mean something? Hadn’t I always related every goal and every interaction with other people to some deep insecurity or value judgment of myself?

While racing, every DNF, while I gave my best speeches about how I tried my best and that’s what counted, somehow, deeply, meant that I just didn’t have it in me to be a real triathlete, that I was foolish for thinking so. While at work, every time I tripped up during a big presentation meant that I just didn’t have what it took to be successful. While dating, every guy who wasn’t in the right place to have a relationship, I secretly thought, “…with me.” Sense a theme here?

I have attached so much meaning to tiny, little blips in the grand scheme of things, that every time I have not been absolutely perfect has threatened to rip down the grand scheme of my life. In reality, the stakes are not that high. Furthermore, stumbles and blips are natural, and can sometimes mean, counterintuitively, that  you ARE making progress.

So, lately, when I’ve caught myself getting wrapped up in those emotional roots over a tiny blip, I pop my head up, look around, take a deep breath, and keep swimming.

Waves have their ups and downs. Keep on swimming!

Waves have their ups and downs. Keep on swimming!


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Moving Targets: A Training Story

The past 7 days have tested me again. Here we are, three months before my big race, and I have had moments where I felt completely broken. Last week, I biked 75 miles and ran for 60 minutes afterward, but was so exhausted that I skipped out on my ocean swim and 15-miler the next day, instead opting to go home and sleep for a few hours, and then, later, I made a feeble attempt at running, only seven miles along the beach.

I felt determined to pick things back up again, but, every workout, my limbs felt weighted, and I struggled against them, from sluggy swim, to burdened, burned-out bike, to ragged run. Finally, on Friday morning, I felt a break-through on the swim, a sudden burst of power that hadn’t been there in ages. My arms and torso pulled and twisted in unison, leaving me gliding through the pool like a regular sea creature, through endless 300s, speed drills and pacing drills. I left the pool that morning thinking that perhaps I’d gotten back that mojo I’d lost in the last few weeks.

We knew Saturday would be hot, and that there would be 80 miles of hills to climb. On top of everything, my knees had been a little achey all week from last week’s hilly bike ride. I asked to take the alternate “below the waist injury” route that the coaches had devised, which skipped the Cat 4 climbs, but still included several Cat 5 climbs. No biggie, considering what we’d been doing.

I clipped myself in and headed out on the route, keeping a high cadence and letting the morning air chill what little arm I had peeking out between my warmers and my sleeveless tri top. I looked down and saw that I was going at a good 18-20 mph. I felt okay, like, maybe I could get through this thing without crumbling, or feeling too much pain. 35 minutes in, I wasn’t feeling that sentiment as much. My leg power reverted back to its mid-week faiblesse, and I knew this whole thing was going to be a struggle. I felt cyclists whom I was perfectly capable of passing, or, at least, staying in time with, zoom by me. I gritted my teeth, turned up my gears, and pushed harder, but my bursts of power faded and became less intense as the sun began to turn up the heat.

As I continued on, struggling against my own physical weakness, I noticed that my new Adamo saddle was also beginning to bug me. Adamos are lauded by many triathletes because they have a cut-out in the front, and no nose, so there is nothing to violently smash and chafe a person’s more sensitive areas. However, they are both wider and a bit harder than your average bike saddle, and their positioning forces a person to sit on the sit-bones, as opposed to the mid or front of the saddle, which takes more than a bit of getting used to. Their site’s FAQ specifically mentions that the body must adapt to the saddle, and that it takes several rides to “build up” to comfort. Well, my body was not used to it yet, and the saddle uncomfortably dug into the crease where my thighs met my body on either side, as well as ground into my sitbones. After a while, it would go numb, and I would have some relief, but a change in position would leave me aching again.

After the first 26-mile loop, I had a feeling that two more rounds were going to be tough on me. By the fourth Cat 5 climb, my knees were unhappy. I stopped at our SAG point, grabbed some water, and met up with Coach Dave, where I told him that my knees were bugging me. He told me to cut myself off at two loops, and, disappointed as I was, I agreed that today just wasn’t my day. Tail between legs, I hopped back on my torture device, and started the slow wheel back home. Meanwhile, my right foot started to hurt, right where the pedal sat, under the fourth toe. At first, it was tolerable, but, by mile 45, it was killing me! I began whimpering as I pushed my foot and pedal up the hill. That was that. I phoned up our rescue SAG person, and he came and scooped me up, defeated and miserable.

I still managed to get in an hour run immediately afterward, but I felt so disappointed in myself that I hadn’t been able to complete 80 miles with the rest of the team. Well, not everyone finished the whole thing. Some had worse days than I did. Still, I have yet to have an amazing bike ride. I don’t even know what that feels like.

Jason suggested that I stop mashing such heavy gears, focus on my quad strength and my technique, which I will attempt in the near future. Still, I worry about making my cutoff at Wildflower if I go that route. I know mashing is bad for a person’s knees, but, if that’s the only way I know how to go faster, how can I train myself the other way in time for a tough race? It’s a concern, that’s for sure.

The next day, we gathered in Santa Monica for our regular ocean swim session. As we got up to the water, I choked, remembering the high, scary waves that had occurred last time I found myself in that big body of brine. Coach Quinton stayed with me the whole time, making sure he was in my line of sight as we navigated the smallish waves on the way out. I found it hard to catch my breath in the chilly water, but, eventually, I was able to keep going more than a few strokes at a time.

Before I knew it, I was out of the water, exhausted, but feeling accomplished that I didn’t let my fear get the best of me. Finally, we were onto the run, and I was feeling ready for the 17 miles we were about to accomplish.

Our coaches planned the route along the CicLAvia To The Sea event, a city-wide block party in Los Angeles that ran from Downtown L.A. to Venice Beach. What a sight for L.A! No cars, just people of all ages and races out enjoying the weather on bikes, rollerblades, and on foot. As we ran along sidewalks in our purple TNT gear, random folks would shout, “Go Team!” from the crowd in the street. It felt like some kind of crazy, reverse-world marathon!

The sun was working overtime that day as well, as we ran up Venice Blvd. My Nuun-filled water bottles were sucked dry by the time I got to SAG at Mile 6 (and we had stopped at a Taco Bell to refill them and go to the bathroom at Mile 4), and I was down to very little by the time we neared Fairfax, our turnaround point, two and a half miles up the road. Luckily, one of our teammates, Rob, came to the rescue, offering us ice pops, ice and water to fuel us forward on the next leg.

By the time I got back to Kris, my bottles were again drying up. I refilled with more Nuun, which wasn’t my typical long run electrolyte (I’m a Gatorade gal on a long run), but I’d thought, “I’ll be fine. I have two GUs and a Stinger waffle–what could go wrong?” Not even a mile out of our last SAG stop, I felt it happening. My legs slowed down, my eyes felt droopy. I was bonking, hard. Wuh-oh! Luckily, I still had Gu #2 stashed away. I slowed to a walk, and sucked it down, along with some sips of Nuun. I hoped it would get me through the last five miles of the run.

About ten or fifteen minutes after my Gu shot, my energy returned for a bit. My pace picked up and I managed to get in some conversation as I continued forward. The initial burst of energy flagged a bit by Mile 14, where I took a couple of early walk breaks to get through the rough patches. The last mile, my endurance returned, and I finished strong. All in all, I finished in under three hours and ten minutes, and, with all of the stopping (stop lights, SAG stops, bathroom breaks), the crowds, and lallygagging, and bonking because of the heat, I think that wasn’t half bad.

Afterward, a teammate and I stood in the ocean for a bit to cool off our legs, a natural ice bath. What a weekend!

Sometimes I think that I’m not getting any better as an athlete, because of these hardships, but, as Coach Quinton put it to me this weekend, “You’re trying to hit a goal, but the goal post keeps moving, the training keeps getting harder. So, you are getting better, but you won’t know it until your race.” I sure hope he’s right!

Here are some pix:

[All photos are credited to Paiwei Wei]

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Like A Fish To Water: A Swimming Story

The crippling fatigue I’ve felt for the last two weeks during practice has made me feel a bit defeated. Heavy legs and burning arms made me feel like a wet noodle during most practices, and I wondered how my teammates possibly had the energy to continue on at their normal pace. I cut a bike ride and a swim short this week because my legs and arms just would not revive. They needed more recovery time, and they were going to take it, whether I was willing to give it or not.

Luckily, the week ended in a great victory for me: my first real ocean swim. In weeks prior, I’d hung back with a small group of my OWS-panicked teammates, and we’d practiced diving under waves and getting used to the icy hug of the Pacific around our wetsuited bodies. Today, with Coach Holly as my oceanic tour guide, I set out to conquer the surf (and my cold water panic). As we dove under the towering swells, my breath quickened, but I kept diving, swimming out, diving, until we were far enough away from the shore and the waves flattened out until their only presence was a gentle rocking as we paddled forward toward the far-away pier.

I charged forward, stopping once to catch my breath, shortened not only by exertion in the freezing cold water, but by both amazement and exhilaration of being out in the open ocean. No panic had set in and I WAS doing this. Wow. I plowed on, sighting the pier and Coach Holly to make sure that I was heading in the right direction and wasn’t going to end up in Canada or something. Midway through, the pier wasn’t appearing to be getting any larger, as we swam against the current. It felt like I was paddling in place for a while.

“Trust me,” Holly said. “We are getting closer.”

I paused a few times to catch my breath, and to get my bearings. Eventually the pier did get closer, and, before we knew it, we were heading into shore.

“Watch out for the surfers. Try to stay in between them,” Holly said.

A long-haired Fabio-lookalike surfer guy who was floating by, smiled and said, “Oh, don’t worry. We won’t hit ya.”

“It’s her first time swimming in the ocean,” Holly explained to to surfer.

“Ah, cool!” he replied.

“She just swam a mile!” Holly boasted for me.

“Wow! Way to go! That’s hardcore,” Surfer Guy grinned.

“Thanks!” I beamed, having just been bobbing there, grinning in acknowledgement this whole time.

We let the waves carry us back into shore, diving under a few tall ones that would have knocked us for a loop. As I trudged onto the sand, I gathered high-fives from a few teammates, feeling triumphant that I’d slayed yet another fear dragon.

I’ll chalk this week up as another success story, in spite of some of the not-so-fun parts.

In other news:  I got a job! I start tomorrow and I couldn’t be more excited! Now it’s going to be a whole lesson in time management, but that’s a story for another post (stay tuned tomorrow for more). Yayy!


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Transforming Into A Real IronWoman: A Training Story

3100 hard yards in the pool last night, after the brutal weekend. Coming to practice, I felt exhausted, like my body had not had a full chance to recover from the torture of the heat, OWS panic, and the emotional stress I’d endured over my first triathlon. Somehow I knew they weren’t going to go easy on us, and I hoped that I would wake up somehow midway through the swim.

200 warm up, then two 400s, the second one faster than the first. Amazingly, the first one I finished in a speedy 7:20, but the second took eight minutes. My arms and legs felt like lead. Next up, one 100, 80% effort. I seemed to slow myself down through that sprint effort. Coach Jason said that my arms weren’t getting out of the water enough, creating drag. Ugh. It’s always something with swimming, isn’t it? The rest of the workout went as follows:

3×300, descending set
100 sprint (90% effort)
4×200 steady pace
100 all out sprint

After our all out sprint, I thought, “Okay, we’re done, time for cool down, right?” No, not so much. Coach Jason crowded all of us within the same pace into the same lane for a simulated race start. The first time, he made me and a female teammate take the lead. I sprinted hard toward the finish, feeling the hands of the guys in back brush my legs as I fought to keep the lead. It was actually pretty exhilarating.

We swam 25 yards back easy, and, onto sprint #2. This time, Jason put the gals in the back row, guys in front, saying, “Okay girls, kick their asses!” Challenge accepted. I fought my way between the swimmers, beating out two of the guys by the time we got to the wall. I was shocked that I still had it in me to sprint after all of that swimming. I think I might like this whole competitive swim start thing after all!

Ironman training is no joke, but it proves how your body can develop high levels of endurance and strength. For someone who has only been swimming for six months, it’s amazing to me how far I’ve come. In the three months that I’ve been training with the team, I’ve learned immeasurable lessons about myself, and I’m watching myself change inside and out, with every passing week.

It’s hard to believe that, just a little over a year ago, I weighed well over 200 lbs, I couldn’t ride a bike, and I had no confidence in my physical abilities. Not only have I lost tons of weight (I weigh 145-150 lbs now, depending on which way the wind blows the scale numbers), but I have started to really change my body and my feelings about whether I can be an athlete.

I looked in the mirror this morning and saw the beginnings of really sculpted abs, less jiggle in the tummy area, trimmer hips, and muscular legs. I’m beginning to LOOK like an athlete, and feel more like one too.

I remembered sighing dispiritedly at the results of my first tape measuring back when I started my journey (I refused to weigh myself because I didn’t want to be even more depressed). My waist measurement read 35″; my hips,  47″. As of today ‘s measurement, my waist is 28″ and my hips are 38″, and I feel strong, energized, the best I’ve ever felt in my entire life! And, mind you, we’re only three months into training!

Plus, I’m about to start a bootcamp on Wednesdays at Elevation Fitness in West Hollywood, led by the awesome Beth Bishop, to help boost my speed and strength. It’s going to hurt, but I’m going to love it! Bring it on!!!

Just a reminder of how far I’ve come:

Me (right) with my sister in Florida, March 2011 (225 lbs)

Me (right) with my sister in Florida, March 2011 (225 lbs)

Me (center) March 2013 (145 lbs) finishing my first Tri!

Me (center) March 2013 (145 lbs) finishing my first Tri! (photo credit: Laura Crow)


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It Doesn’t Always Happen On The First Tri: A Racing Story

Well, folks, I’m back from the desert to tell the tale of my first triathlon. This story is far from a fairy-tale, but I think it has its value just the same.

I arrived in Palm Desert on a Friday night, after spending nearly four endless hours in traffic trying to get out of Los Angeles. On top of the usual rush hour and weekend getaway insanity, I had forgotten two of my water bottles early on, and was forced to backtrack through the mounting lines of vehicles, tacking on an extra half hour to my journey. I actually screamed, “Just get me out of here!” inside of my car while idling in an unforgivingly slow stream of vehicles inching their way out of town.

When I finally did get there, all I could think was, “I can’t believe that I’m actually doing this.” I felt overcome with a sense of frantic backpedaling, like someone was behind me, about to push me off of a cliff. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep very well Friday night in the hotel, even though we were only practicing the next day, not racing. I woke up every few hours, and my dreams were filled with pre-race anxieties.

By 9 a.m. on Saturday, it was already about 75 degrees F. The forecast had predicted soaring into the 90s. Luckily, I had been downing Gatorade and extra hydration since Thursday, but my body was still not used to physical activity in the heat. Keep in mind that, just last week, we’d practiced in 40-degree weather. This heat was a total head trip and I only hoped that I wouldn’t melt into a puddle.

We headed out on the bike route fairly quickly upon arrival at Lake Cahuilla. The sprint triathletes had just finished their race earlier in the morning, so there was a steady stream of vehicular traffic to contend with as the team rolled out onto the practice course. You know how much I love riding around cars on narrow roads with no bike lane. Joy.

My team pre-bike, Saturday morning, Lake Cahuilla.

My team pre-bike, Saturday morning, Lake Cahuilla.

The reason that most triathletes in California choose Desert Tri as a first triathlon is that it’s a really flat course. Granted, there are desert headwinds to compete with, but, overall, it’s pretty easy peasey. I was keeping a pretty consistent 17-20 mph pace, according to my GPS, which, for me, is fairly insane. I finished the 24 mile course in about an hour and 25 minutes, flipped my bike over in our makeshift transition area, scratching my right leg on the big chainring in the process (of course, what practice would be complete without my bloodshed?), switched my shoes, and headed out on the run.

Desert mountains, towering over transition.

Desert mountains, towering over transition.

The desert sun was brutal for the run. It made my black jersey feel like it was on fire. Finally, I removed it and felt tons better, even if I was exposing more of myself than I wanted to (no six pack abs just yet). I consumed all of my Gatorade by mile 3, and looped back around to grab more water and electrolytes in the transition area. My run pace was about a 9:30, not too terrible for the extreme conditions. I felt tired, extremely hot, but okay.

We broke midday and grabbed our race packets, ate what we could get down (I only had a recovery drink and 1/4 of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich because of the heat and all of the hydration), and chilled for a moment before getting into our wetsuits for a quick swim sesh. I hoped that it would be easier this time. We practiced a swim start, but, after feeling the icy shock of the water after such a hot workout, I panicked.

“Solange, put your face in the water!” Coach Holly called to me.

“I can’t!” I sputtered back, frustration gripping me.

Holly swam over and talked me through my breathing. Eventually, I got to where I could breathe out in the water. I tried taking it 10 strokes at a time, slowing down, and feeling slightly more comfortable.

We didn’t have that much time for the swim that day, as the lake was only open to swimmers for one hour. I emerged feeling terrified as all get-out that I would be stuck floundering in the middle of this 3/4 mile swim, and have to be fished out later with a net by park maintenance staff.

Needless (again) to say, I didn’t sleep all that well the night before the race, although, because the heat had tired me out a bit, I did get a smidge more sleep. My thoughts were filled with panic about the swim. Of course, I managed to wake up just six minutes before the alarm went off at 4:30 a.m. There was no snoozing going on, just a whole lot of, “Oh, crap, what am I doing?”

After arriving at the lake around 5:30 a.m. and getting my transition area set up, I walked around trying to calm my nerves a bit. The coaches all took turns giving me a pep talk, and then I went on a little 10 minute jog to warm up my sleepy muscles. Five minutes in, I felt a sharp pain at the inner-backside of my left leg. Greeeeaaaattt. Just what I needed. I’d pulled that muscle very slightly earlier in the week, getting up weirdly the morning after a really hard trainer ride. It must have stiffened up after the prior day’s activities.  I limped back to transition and stretched, hoping that the swim and bike would loosen it up.

After seeing a few teammates all wetsuited up, I decided to pull on mine. Well, actually, it wasn’t mine. I’d borrowed a full-sleeve wetsuit from my teammate, as mine was a sleeveless, and this water was going to be unpleasantly cold. Putting on a wetsuit is worse than wriggling into support hose, and, at this early morning hour, with my brain totally overwhelmed, it was probably all the more difficult to shimmy into.

Walking up to my teammates, wetsuit pulled up, I suddenly noticed an odd calm coming over me. It was as if my body and mind had succumbed to the impending doom. My “fight or flight” instinct had exhausted itself.

Wading into the water, I felt a slight shock at first, but found my breath. I was swimming! I wasn’t panicking! Phew! We spent about ten minutes in the water before wading back onto shore for our respective wave starts.

Before I knew it, us yellow caps were up. I stood toward the back of the pack, waded in, and began to swim out. This was it. Not 100 meters in, and my breath quickened. I flipped over on my back and started to backstroke, trying to catch my breath. I flipped back over, swam a few more strokes, lost my breath, stopped, flipped over backstroked, and so on. The wetsuit felt like a boa constrictor, gripping my chest at full force. I couldn’t breathe. I tried stopping completely, hanging out in the water for a minute to catch my breath. That didn’t work. I tried deep breathing, but it only made things worse. I tried backstroking and thinking how pretty the sky was, which worked for a moment, then, when I flipped back over and tried to swim, the panic came back.  I watched as wave after wave of caps swam past me. The yellow caps were almost non-existent by the time I was midway through. This was my worst nightmare. And, of course, it got worse.

Halfway through, my left calf decided to seize up into the worst cramp I’ve ever felt in my life. I fought to stretch it, while I hung out pitifully in the water, watching caps swim by. Finally, it passed, and I resumed backstroking, by now thoroughly exhausted, hyperventilating, but trying to just get through the whole thing. And, at long, long last, I did. I stumbled out of the water, breathing like a beast, feeling sick to my stomach, where some of the coaches were waiting for me at the chute, cheering me on.

I weebled, bewildered to transition. Was I actually going to get on my bike after this? Actually, during the whole swim, I’d been looking forward to the bike, that smooth, flat bike course, where I felt fast and free. Three months ago I never would have thought that I would look forward to getting on the bike so much. Ha.

Then, it hit me. My stomach was not only nauseous, but it wanted to eliminate its contents, and not the way they came in (sexy, eh?). Maybe this feeling will pass, I thought. Just keep transitioning, get on the bike, you’ll be fine.

My race number ripped from its pins as I put my shirt on. It took me a few minutes to force the pin back through the tough race paper with my feeble, shaking hands. It didn’t seem like that long, but this transition actually took me over nine minutes. Yikes.

Once, on my bike, I struggled to get my legs, find my cadence and my bearings. At first, I sailed smoothly along, thinking, “Everything’s going to be okay from here-on-out!” I was pedaling along at 17 mph, I felt the wind in my face, and things were a-okay.

About seven miles later, I noticed that it was getting harder and harder to pedal. Whew, these headwinds are strong! –I thought. I watched my bike slow to a 13 or 14 mph pace. Fellow racers seemed to whiz by, but I thought, Those guys must be really fast! It wasn’t until I was passed by a few really old ladies that I realized that it was not the course, it was me. My legs were trashed from the swim, all of the furious kicking, the struggling, On top of that, my digestive issues continued and I fought, with every bump, to keep everything in my body from coming out. I had often heard of people having accidents while racing and, to someone who had never had major digestive issues during a race until now, it sounded horrifying. Please, PLEASE don’t let me be THAT person! I begged the unseen Race Gods.

Finally, I rounded the second loop, climbed a tiny hill, and headed into T2. I could not wait to get off of my bike and back to my bread and butter–the run. However, I wasn’t sure how I was going to manage all of that bouncing around with my digestive issues. I needed to find a bathroom, fast. Heading out on the run, I found a small cabin bathroom, the only toilet on the premises that wasn’t a port-o-potty. After taking care of that business, I focused on working out the kinks in my brick legs, and keeping light, quick steps, as Coach Jason had taught me.

The sun was out in full force again this time, and I took full advantage of every water station, dumping cups and cups on myself to keep cool, sipping it and Gatorade to keep myself hydrated. I stuck to 10 minute intervals, walking one minute each time. As I rounded the first loop, I saw Coach Holly, dressed in a Luigi outfit, which was welcome comic relief in all of this torture. She ran with me, asked how I was doing, and I told her about my issues. She encouraged me onward, I kept going. I felt strong, even though the second loop was even hotter than the first. My digestive issues had settled...er…no…wait, they were back. By Mile 4 of the run, things were no bueno again. I was forced to walk a few times just to let things calm down.

Finally, I rounded the turn toward the finish, and Mario (Coach Emily) was waiting for me. We ran forward toward the finish together, and then, my team mentor, met up with us, and then another teammate, plus her dog, joined in too. I could see my team cheering on all sides as I sprinted on toward my grand finale, left hamstring screaming at me (it had to turn up sooner or later, right?), furious bowels, and all. Phew! I was never so relieved to see a finish line. My teammates circled around me, giving me hugs and congratulating me as I sobbed and snotted everywhere. What a mess I was.

All of my other tri-newbie teammates did outstandingly well, one girl winning 2nd place in her age group. Other teammates shattered PRs and chattered happily about what a great race it was. For me, things were a little different. I was fairly quiet throughout our post-race meal, listening to everyone else’s excited banter with nothing particularly great to contribute.

When I got home, I looked at my medal and felt nothing. With all of my other races I’d felt gleeful, proud, and strong looking at those medals. I didn’t even feel like I deserved it. Calling myself a triathlete made me feel like an impostor. Triathletes were fast, strong, tough. They didn’t flounder like I had. I felt embarrassed, frustrated and defeated. I cried most of the night.

I emailed Coach Jason about my feelings and experiences, Mikey called and I’d talked to her about them too. Both of them wanted me to focus on the positives, that I overcame obstacles and still finished a triathlon. I was reluctant to hear it at first, I felt like a failure, like something was fundamentally wrong with me, but, in the end, I knew that they were right.

So, here’s what I’m going to do right now. I’m going to tell you why I deserve that medal. Here goes:

1) I worked through a fear of swimming in open water, getting through 3/4 of a mile no matter how tough it was.

2) I swam almost the whole 3/4 mile in a stroke that I had not trained in.

3) I finished the swim, in spite of hyperventilation and feeling completely exhausted.

4) I got on my bike, in spite of feeling exhausted.

5) I got on my bike, in spite of feeling sick to my stomach.

6) I rode 24 miles on my bike, with heavy legs and serious digestive distress, and did not give up.

7) I ran six miles in the heat, after being exhausted from the bike and swim.

8) I ran six miles, even though I was experiencing digestive distress.

9) I managed to pick up my pace on the run, even though I was exhausted and sick.

10) I finished with a HUGE smile on my face.

Both Coach Amy and Coach Holly sent me emails today also. Holly, as my swim expert coach, assured me that the swim would get better, and that I might even end up liking it (I have no doubt of that, if I could only shake the boa constrictor). Amy reminded me that triathlon is a solo sport, that I was always going to be running my own race, and that, in the end, I was doing this for myself. An Ace of Hearts is not an Ace of Spades, but they’re both still aces in their own right.

I had to realize that it was my pride, mostly, that was hurt, but I had put my pride in the wrong place. As one of my marathon coaches once told me, “It’s the days when you have the worst time of it that make you the strongest.” Instead of the experience proving that I could not do this, it has showed me that I can, that I will, and that you’re all going to watch me ace this Ironman thing.

I am a Triathlete!

I am a Triathlete!

Palos Verdes Parking Lot


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Recommitment: A Training Story

WARNING: LONG READ (BUT, OF COURSE, WORTH IT)

January 29th, recommitment paperwork due date. I held the papers in my hands and read over the terms. This was it. We were committing to fundraising the whole $5000+ by early July, and committing to completing the ultimate endurance challenge, an Ironman triathlon. Up until now, I had just been going head-first into the Ironman, without questioning or really wondering what exactly it was going to take out of me. I started to think: What was it that I was really trying to accomplish with this goal?

My Swim With Heart coach, Mikey, had said to me a few weeks ago, “You’ve got to find goals that are worth hanging onto, because those are the things that are going to get you through a 10-hour plus race. Why are you doing this? You need to start thinking about those goals now.”

Sure, I had goals, to be an Ironwoman, to achieve what the majority of “normal” athletes would never attempt, to prove to myself that I could do it.  I thought those were pretty great goals to hang onto. I wasn’t quite sure what she was getting at there. I stared at the paperwork one more time before heading off to Saturday practice.

At 7:30 a.m. the outside air wasn’t too bad around 61 degrees F. We were all gathering around a manmade lake, Hansen Dam, for our first open water swim. The goal was to swim two 500m loops in there in under 30 minutes. Piece of cake, right? The problem was that the water was, well, about as cold as Hell would be on Earth.

As we submerged our bodies and let the ice-cold water flood into our wetsuits, the yelps and screams from fellow teammates made us sound like a group of sea lions (no wonder those things bark so much). I followed the pack out as we headed out to the first buoy, my breath quickened and my face elevated above the surface of the water. For the first loop, very few of us had the gumption to place our faces in the giant ice bath. However, by the second loop, several of my teammates had taken the plunge and had headed out, face first, around the buoys.

Several times, I tried to submerge my face, and each time, my face seized up and refused to breathe out. As we know, the general rule to swimming is to breathe in above water and breathe out through the nose while the face is submerged. As hard as I tried, nothing would come out, just paralysis that made me panic further and breathe harder, making my head-above-water swimming all the more difficult.

“You’re tiring yourself out by keeping your head above the water,” Coach Jason explained.

My breath came in short spurts. My mouth hung open over the water. Cold Water Panic had taken over my body. One of the swim practice helpers tried to coax me to put my face in the water. Her saccharine, kindergarten-teacher-esque voice calling out, “Let’s just do two strokes in, two strokes out, ready?”

I know that she was trying to be nice and provide me with some support, but, by the fifth painful face plunge and sputtering gasp out of the water, I wanted to put her face in the water…and hold it there (just for a few lengthy seconds–gawwwrrrsh). The whole thing was extraordinarily traumatizing, and I staggered onto shore. Actually, I half expected to have popped out of the water in one of those cartoon ice blocks, where my teammates would have had to chisel me out for the run.

I weebled my way over to my transition area, trying to “maintain” and pretend that I wasn’t traumatized. I peeled off my wetsuit, dried off my body, threw on my running hoodie, shoes and belt, and hit the route for a nine-miler. This was the first run I was going to experience since I broke my pinky toe last week, but I’d taped it up with gobs of waterproof tape so that it would be nice and secure in my cushiony Nikes.

This was no regular brick. My legs felt heavier than they ever had felt after a bike ride. All of the swim trauma really seemed to do a number on my body. Plus, my toe really didn’t seem to think that the tape was doing that great of a job. Oh, and by the end of the first three-mile loop, my tendonitis on my right ankle started flaring up, just to make things interesting.

It’s those kinds of runs where you have to focus on something, anything that will take your mind off of the nagging pain. Ambling along on this run, I let my eyes wander over the beautiful landscape, the mountains, the trees, the valleys, all which could be seen from a nice long stretch of the Dam’s recreational path. Seeing teammates and encouraging them onward seemed to fuel me as well, and hearing their shouts of, “Good job!” or “Looking good!” brought me a little spark of joy as I chugged on to the finish.

The last two miles were the most painful. I could not even run up or down a small, but steep-ish hill that led up to the lofty Dam path. When I returned home later and had a gander at my toe, I realized that the tape had removed itself in the water, so I was running the entire thing on an unsupported broken bone. Not cool. Still, that explained a lot about the pain. Anyway, the toe was red and swollen, and I decided that it would not be a good idea to do a run again for at least a week or so, and also to find a new method of supporting the thing while it healed.

So, on to Day Two of our training weekend, a 40-mile bike route in Palos Verdes, a place known and loved by hardcore cyclists for both its beautiful ocean views and its good climbs (and by good, I, of course, mean “scary” for me).  I prepped that morning for my ride like a shy kid who has to give a presentation for school: I didn’t wanna, and please, “Mom,” don’t make me. I told myself that, if I wussed out, I would never get comfortable on the bike and I would never achieve my goals of being a super awesome cyclist and triathlete.

Of course, to make things worse, the wind had to be about a million degrees colder down in PV than it was up in nice, cozy Culver City. I could have been in my bed, I could have been anywhere, but I was there, facing a potentially treacherous ride, with unknown hills, unknown bike paths, an unfamiliar route, all with my feet nailed into my bike.

Palos Verdes Parking Lot

Here’s the view from the parking lot. See that road that goes up? Yeah, that’s just the beginning.

The hills loomed ahead, and, before I knew it, we were off. I clipped in and headed out, easily wheeling up the moderate hills, complete with midway stop sign, before we got to the first intersection. Somehow my confidence faltered there, along with my balance. As I started up to make a right turn, I fell over, in front of a few teammates. They helped me up, I felt an orb of heat flash over my cheeks, and my frustration well up inside of me. Why in the heck was this so hard for me?

Slightly shaken and frustrated, I got through another stop and another turn, and fell again at yet another awkward intersection. This time, my shoe came off, as it was still clipped into the bike, my knee was skinned, and I just sat on the sidewalk, feeling defeated. I couldn’t even get through a mile on this ride without falling twice, how in the heck was I going to get through 40 miles? Let alone 112. Maybe I just had no business being here, a newbie cyclist, trying to pull of a full Ironman. I knew it was ambitious, and all I’d accomplished so far was to perfect my falling so that I thoroughly mutilated my right knee (and, not to worry, it’ll come back to haunt me later in life).

I picked up my phone to call Coach Jason and to tell him, quite plainly, that I couldn’t complete the ride, that it just wasn’t in the cards for me. Of course, right then, he rode up.

“What’s the matter?” he asked. “Are you okay?”

The tears began to flow. “I can’t do this,” I sniffled. “I keep falling and falling. I’m behind everyone else in the group. I can’t keep up.”

Jason sat down next to me on the curb. “First of all, you’re not behind everyone in the group,” he said. “I’ve seen you out there. When you’re up and going, you’re right in the middle of the pack. You may not be the first one, but you’re not the last. Now, as for the falling, let’s go walk down to the market across the street and get your knee cleaned up, we’ll join the rest of the pack when they loop back around, and we’ll try to figure out why you keep tipping over. I’ll stay with you for a while, okay?”

“Okay,” I said, and together we scraped my disgraced carcass and bike off of the sidewalk and walked down to the market. Jason disappeared inside and returned with some ice and napkins for my knee, then went back in and grabbed a box of Band-Aids so I could tape myself up.

“You ready to get back on?” he asked.

I remembered back to being a kid and falling off of horses, and that initial fear of getting back on after a nasty or scary fall, but my instructors always made me get back on, even if it was only for a brief saunter around the riding ring. The theory of “getting back on the horse” holds true for most anything, though. If you quit after a failure, that failure sticks in your mind and attaches itself to that activity, kind of like when you leave food drying on a plate. Then you have to get a scrub brush and let it soak, and–okay, wait, we’re way off topic. Back to cycling, I knew that I had to get on, at least for a little while. I couldn’t just quit on myself like that.

Jason watched me push off and stop and a stop sign, where I came to a regular stop. I started up again easily and we rode alongside each other for a while. He instructed me to add more resistance, that I always wanted to feel something under my pedals, and that I should never be just spinning my legs. He also told me to practice keeping more of my weight over my pedals rather than at the front of the bike, a trait that is common in newbies, but it also causes more hardship with steering than is necessary.

“Did you play sports as a kid?” he asked randomly.

“Ha, no,” I almost laughed out loud. “I was very bookish,” I replied, letting my mind float back to those younger years. Kids could be exceptionally cruel, laughing and pointing fingers at the less athletic kids as they made weakling attempts to do pull-ups, run a relay race, or smack at a softball with a plastic bat.  I would have given anything to have a lithe, athletic physique as a kid. Instead, I was a sometimes-fat (depending on the year), uncoordinated fumbler, who had to fail repeatedly in front of a hateful audience. When you think about it, I guess, it’s pretty traumatizing. I remember, in third grade, I even asked my gym teacher for extra help during recess so that I could learn how to dribble and throw a ball.

“You have a competitive edge in you,” Jason observed. “I see it. I saw it when you were in the water yesterday too.”

Hmm, a competitive edge, eh? “Well, I think, if anything, I’m competitive with myself,” I responded, thoughtfully.

“Well, that’s even better for endurance sports,” he said, as we approached another stop sign. I stopped and started with a fine and dandy execution.

Cruising along, with no stop signs in sight, I began to relax and get my mojo working on some little rollers along the coast. We approached that same roller coaster hill we’d approached over a month ago, with its surprising “can’t see over it to the bottom” drop. It was still a little scary, but not nearly as scary as it had been last month. I suspected a little bit of progress had happened there.

Jason had dropped behind for a while to check up with another teammate who we’d caught up to and passed, so I was cruising along on my own, enjoying the cruising, but keeping an eye out for the next potential obstacle. Suddenly, I heard slight huffing and puffing to my left.

“Whoah, man! I have a new fitness goal for myself,” Jason breathed. “I’ll let you get about a minute head start and then try to catch up to you. You’ve got some power!”

I chuckled and we kept cruising, up and down a few more little rollers, but nothing major.

“We’re approaching our first big hill,” Jason pointed out. “Now, it’s not steep, but it is long. Just keep pedaling, or you’ll tip over. I’m going to stay with you, don’t worry.”

Coach Riz was at the bottom of the hill, directing people up the switchback as they approached.

“Let’s go, Lady! You’ve got this!” she called out to me as I passed.

The hill wasn’t really anything, grade-wise, that I hadn’t managed before, but it was really, really, really long. The Griffith Park hill was a flimsy excuse for a hill compared to this bad boy. My windbreaker became a sauna as I pumped up the endlessly snaking road. I kept remembering Jason’s words, Keep pedaling, or you’ll tip over.  I didn’t want to tip over, not again, not on a hill. I kept at it.

The crest of the hill ended at a stoplight, where my weakened fingers slipped off of the brake handle, causing me to, once again, topple. Frustrated again with myself, I took a nice long break at the top, as the coaches approached, offering mad props to all of us who had made it to the summit. We were at the top of Palos Verdes (well, almost)!

As I stood guzzling my sports drink, Riz asked me if I had any water. I thought it an odd question, considering the fact that I had two full 20-oz bottles of liquids. Then I realized that she was looking down at my outer leg, which was dripping blood, with two sizeable and deep slashes across it from the chainring. Yikes.

“Oh, crap,” I said. “Maybe I should get medical attention…”

“You’re fine. You didn’t even feel it until I said something. We’ll call the SAG van and get you cleaned up, and then I’ll ride with you. Don’t worry, you’ll be okay,” Riz abruptly responded, giving me no option but to suck it up and keep riding, wounds and all.

Note: This image is graphic, so you may want to scroll down fast.

My first real "warrior wound"!

My first real “warrior wound”!

Water, more bandages, and I was off yet again to finish the route. We wound down through some kind of scary downhill switchbacks, but I pumped my brakes and found my way down to the bottom, where there were a few rollers and some pretty, New-England-esque horse properties. Riz signaled that we were approaching our second big hill, Hawthorne Blvd. It wasn’t nearly as long as the switchback, but crazy steep.

Keep pedaling, or you’ll tip over, I remembered. I quickly found myself in my lowest gears, and the huffing and puffing intensified as I pushed and pulled my way up. It was getting harder and harder to get up the hill.

“Come on, lady! You’ve got this.” Riz cheered from behind me. “Push down, pull up!”

My bike began to weave a little as I pushed with all of my might. At any moment I thought that my legs were going to fail me, that I’d just collapse before I hit the peak. It burned and burned. Primal grunts and frustrated yelps came out of me as I kept my legs ever churning, one leg, then the other. Grunt, scream, UGH! I wasn’t going to let it beat me. I was going to get up that thing, come Hell or high water.

When I finally, finally reached the top, at yet another light, my legs were so shaky, I toppled yet again. This time, I was so weak, I fell like a feather. Riz managed to shuffle me and the bike out of the way of oncoming traffic and onto the sidewalk.

“You are a bad ass! You made it all the way up that hill without stopping! You don’t think you have what it takes? That’s it, right there!” Riz said, beaming and putting her hands on my shoulders.

I put my head on my knees and let out a sob, my tears a strange elixir of relief, joy, accomplishment and self pity. We mounted up again for the remaining mileage. Of course, not before another semi-steep uphill presented itself (and, of course, allowed me to make it my bitch).

Most of the rest of the ride was a downhill slope, in some parts shockingly steep. Riz told us that a great way to feel more in-control and secure on a downhill is to put your feet at 3 o’clock and coast, holding the top tube between your thighs. It definitely helped with most of them, although one hill was so steep and fast, I pumped my brakes for dear life and hoped that I wouldn’t go flying off.

I didn’t fly off, and, in fact, that weak topple at the crest of Hawthorne was the last time I fell on that ride. My GPS had me in at over 36 miles once we got to the parking lot. Almost 40 miles, and two crazy hills, and I did it!!!!

A teammate actually mapped out the elevation and compared it to Wildflower long course, which is one of the hardcore half Ironman races out this way, with lots of hills on the bike and run.  Our Sunday ride is on top, Wildflower’s on bottom.

Our Sunday ride (top) vs. Wildflower long course (bottom). Yeeks!

Our Sunday ride (top) vs. Wildflower long course (bottom). Yeeks!

And, of course, I got awesome medical attention from my teammate, Clare, who is also a nurse. Luckily, my wound wasn’t actually deep enough to get stitches. A few butterfly bandages and some disinfectant, and I was good to go:

"This is how tough girls roll"--says Coach Jason (photo credit: Jason Schneider)

“This is how tough girls roll”–says Coach Jason (photo credit: Jason Schneider)

You never think that one practice, one ride, one swim, or one run, can change your life, but, really, it can. I had doubt, I questioned whether I had the mettle to be an IronWoman, and, in the end, I found my answer within myself by facing my fears, by digging deep into those ugly places, by facing those doubts, head-on, and getting to the other side, triumphant.

Coach Emily sent me a great quote:

“The relationship between commitment and doubt is by no means an antagonistic one. Commitment is healthiest when it is not without doubt, but in spite of doubt. (p. 21)” ― Rollo May

Even if I never run another step or bike another mile, or swim another stroke, I will know this about myself: I have what it takes to slay my fears, and to reach for whatever stars in the sky that I might be wishing on.

I will never again be that shy, self-conscious kid who never tried because she never wanted to look foolish. I will always move forward knowing that I can and will accomplish the things I put before myself.

It’s funny. Through all of those tears, a newfound joy has emerged. Yes, I have what it takes.

I’ll be handing in my recommitment paperwork tomorrow. 🙂


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(Un)Lucky Breaks: A Training Story

It seems like, when something in a person’s life happens to gain momentum, other, similar things in a person’s life follow suite. If that momentum-gathering thing happens to be something that is not a happy thing, other unhappy things knock loose and tumble like a rockslide into a person’s otherwise merry way. In other words, life really appears to be throwing rocks in my direction. If I didn’t know better, I’d suspect that the universe was trying to bring my IronWoman dreams to an untimely conclusion. I know better, though, and it’s just a challenge, an obstacle, like ay other.

It all started last week, when a dreaded all-too-familiar tickle in my chest, as if a family of porcupines had begun building a nest in there. Colds that immediately settle into my chest make me nervous, as I am ridiculously prone to secondary chest infections (I once had four bouts of bronchitis in four months when I lived in London–and they don’t believe in prescribing antibiotics). Tuesday night was still unseasonably frigid, with temps in the mid-forties. There was no way I was going to put my body through swim while it was trying to fight off this wretched thing.

I rested the chest until Thursday evening, when, after driving six hours up to San Francisco for a job interview, I joined one of the TNT teams for a swim. Midway into a kick set, my chest seized. I had to stop kicking entirely and stood to the side to dry-cough my lungs out before starting up again. I managed to choke and cough through a few more sets until my chest calmed down. The sets were short, much shorter than what I was used to doing. My body felt stiff from being in the car all day, even midway through the set. The team captain criticized my form, saying my “glide” was non-existent, and he didn’t see how I was going to make it through 2.4 miles like that. I knew I hadn’t been performing at my best, but, still, I felt embarrassed to be representing our LA IronTEAM and doing such a shoddy job. Oh, smell, I thought. I probably won’t see these folks again anyway.

My congestion worsened throughout the weekend, thickening and causing me to embarrass myself in public several times with extended coughing fits (never, ever leave home without a cough drop, people). I was beginning to envision myself as a tiny speck behind all of my teammates as they sped off on those wheelie cartoon legs into the rising sun, leaving me with my cough drops, hacking uncontrollably in a billowing cloud of desert dust.

Determined to get at least one run in, I took off from home with a friend (who was visiting from out of town),taking on some rollers into Beverly Hills, and hoofing it for seven miles,  stopping many times to launch into phlegm-loosening activity, down more water, and to recover from the chest-gripping uphills. At the end, I actually felt slightly better, and I was glad that I’d gotten one run over with, in spite of all of the pestering side effects.

Monday morning I’d lent my friend Shadow Comet so that he could meet some friends for a ride, but I planned on taking Little Glory, my poor, neglected hybrid out for a leisurely beach spin. As I bustled around the apartment, putting things away, I accidentally knocked a box of straight pins onto the floor in the hallway. As I spun around to pick them up, CRACK! I slammed my pinkie toe right into the door frame.

It didn’t sound pretty, it didn’t feel pretty. Maybe, maybe I could just “walk” it off. The toe flamed red and started to swell. The pain didn’t subside as it normally did with a usual stub situation. My attempt at wrapping an ice pack around it only resulted in achieving borderline frostbite. I decided to put it up for a bit, no bike ride, and then we’d see where we were.

My friend texted, saying he’d gotten a flat and, in spite of the fact that I’d equipped him with spare tubes, would be arriving in a pick-up. The bike is fine (as am I), he reassured me.

When he got there, it was the rear tire that had gotten the flat. The CO2 cartridge had popped the new tube. Well, it was about time for me to learn to change the rear tire anyway (which I did, pretty quickly, and with no issues). I also purchased a hand-pump. No more CO2 monkey business for me.

Later in the evening, after I’d dropped my friend off at the airport, I got a good luck at the toe aftermath. There was a lot of blue and purple, and it still hurt to walk, with a kind of shifty-feeling in the bone area. A break, most likely, and, for a pinky toe, not much can be done, except tape.

The next day, I arrived at TNT coached swim, feeling pretty deflated by recent events. Still, part of me was excited to get into the pool, to do something that would relieve some of the stress. Then, of course, I heard what we were actually going to be doing. Today we were doing a marker set, 1000-yards timed. I fretted a little bit over my remaining congestion, the toe, and my lack of continuous training, but, at this point, I was so defeated, I just decided to let it all go, to get into the water, and to have fun, without worrying too much about being a Speedy McSpeedster.

We warmed up with 15 minutes of continuous swimming, took a full minute break, and started our set. Of course, in true SD Mulligan fashion, I managed to have a goggle band break right before my set, which delayed things a bit. I ended up starting off 100 yards behind the rest of the group in my lane.

Since my pride had been bruised the week before, I decided to focus on my length and glide through the water. Pretty soon I was overlapping my lane mates. I passed a couple of people, but then stayed stuck behind a teammate whose wildly flailing legs made going around seem a little more risky than it ought to have been. I slowed my “roll” and stayed back, managing to keep the front of my stroke away from the churning leg blades in front of me. Halfway through, the teammate actually stopped and allowed me to pass, and I took off, accelerating slightly, but mostly out of the pure enjoyment of gliding through the water, feeling unfettered by my stupid toe, flat tires, or dragging body weight. My congestion still bugged me, forcing me to take a breath every two strokes, but, in spite of the rattling, short breaths, I still managed to appreciate the rhythm and flow of my time in the water.

In the end, my coach told me my average split was at 2:03, which, while not great, was at an intermediate level. After our time trial, we had a 200 easy swim, and then a series of 100s at “cruising speed,” which, for me, seemed much faster than my 1000-yard speed. Maybe I was finally warmed up? I felt like I could have done the 1000 set again, with faster times. Maybe I am an endurance racer after all!

Maybe this swim is a sign that things might be headed back to normalcy. Maybe there isn’t such a thing as normalcy. Maybe you just have to take the bad with the good and put peanut butter on it (because PB makes everything better). Anyway, here’s to developing IronWoman emotional, physical and mental toughness!

P.S. I would have posted pics of my gorgeously purple toe, but my phone fell in the toilet last night and is drying out (yep, it’s been one of those weeks, for sure).