Saturday, April 14, 2018

SwimRun Lake James Race Report 2018: “Adventure!”


SwimRun Lake James was my first swimrun event and I've been looking giddily forward to it since Whiting and I registered for the race in November. The experience was all that I expected and more.

The concept is pretty simple – you race with a partner across the natural terrain of a location. When there’s water, you swim across it, and when there’s land, you run. You’re required to stay within 10 meters of your partner at all times and you can use whatever equipment you want as long as you cross the finish line carrying all the gear you started with. This means that if you want to use fins to swim, you can (we saw one team that did). If you want to bring a rolling suitcase containing various changes of clothing and meals, which Whiting and I joked about many times leading up to race day, I guess you can do that too. The only mandatory equipment for this race was a wetsuit, a whistle, a compression bandage, and a course map.

Equipment 


Wetsuit: Whiting and I both raced in the Zone 3 Evolution wetsuit. This swimrun-specific wetsuit has long neoprene sleeves but the legs are made of thinner material than a normal swimming wetsuit and only go to the knee. This allows for comfortable running. Because you’ll likely be pulling the top of the wetsuit down throughout the day for the longer run segments, there’s a zipper on the front of the suit instead of the back. The suit has pockets inside and out to carry the things you need (gels, etc.). Whiting and I each wore a sleeveless two-piece tri kit under the wetsuit. Shameless Big Sexy Racing sponsor plug: You guys. We spent nearly five and a half hours in these wetsuits and both of us exclaimed after the race about how we had ZERO chafing and none of the normal wetsuit-induced shoulder fatigue.

Trail shoes and wool socks: I raced in Inov-8 Terraclaw 250 trail shoes and mid-length CEP wool socks. The shoes were grippy and perfect on the terrain of the day: slippery wet clay, gravel jeep trails, and soft pine-needle coated forest floor. The wool socks kept my feet warm and the taller sock length kept sand and grit out of my socks. A generous pre-race coating of Ruby’s Lube on my feet kept them free of hot spots and blisters.

Paddles and buoy: Most swimrun competitors choose to use this equipment because swimming with paddles and a buoy offsets the drag of swimming with your shoes on. You strap a buoy to your leg with a bungee cord. You spin it around to the front to use while swimming, then spin it off to the side of your leg to keep it out of the way while running. We used size 1 Strokemaker paddles with wrist straps that made them easy to spin to the outside of the wrist and keep out of the way while running.
The paddles were also handy for writing the lengths of the course segments and the location of the aid stations to keep track of the day. 
Neoprene cap and gloves: Whiting opted to use these wonderful warm items, but I did not. I chose instead to use two regular swim caps “just in case” and no gloves because I “never get cold.” I’m sure you can already guess what happened.

Nutrition: We each carried a soft 17 oz. body bottle (the kind that you carry in a hydration pack for a trail run) that we refilled with water at aid stations and stuffed into the front of our wetsuits for swimming. Although there was nutrition available along the course, we opted to bring our own Gu.

Course


Lake James State Park in Nebo, North Carolina, is beautiful, lush, and green and smells of pine. The lake is clear and cold with little islands scattered about. The race consisted of 3.5 miles of swimming and 13 miles of running inside the state park, broken into 13 swims and 14 runs. The shortest swim was 50 yards and the longest was 1600. The shortest run was across a tiny island, less than a tenth of a mile, and the longest was about 7.5 miles. On race day, the air temperature was about 50 degrees and the water temperature was 56, which turned out to be almost ideal temperatures for alternating swimming and running. Each swim exit was marked with a large American flag and the longer swims were also marked with a small strobe light that you could see from the far shore. The run course was marked with fluttering pieces of pink and orange tape tied to trees, plus the occasional signage.
Course map with swim and run segments 
We swam and ran all over this picture!
Enchanted forest

Participants 


There were about 50 teams taking part in the race, with the men's division and the mixed division containing most of the competitors. I expected most participants to be long-course triathletes like me, but that wasn’t the case at all. We met former ITU racers, former college swimmers, ultrarunners, and ironman triathletes. The one thing all the participants shared was a sense of adventure, because nearly everyone was new to this sport.

Training and Race Plan 


Whiting and I had trained together every Sunday for several weeks before the race, blowing up our friends’ Strava feeds with millions of alternating swims and runs. Our longest workout was 5x (1600 pull/30 minutes of running). These training sessions were invaluable: we learned what kind of encouragement works (shouting “Wheeeee!” when feeling tired was a good one), what paces work for both of us, and what fueling strategy works for a 5-hour day (a gel every 30 minutes with intermittent sips of sports drink). We made a small spectacle of ourselves when we practiced once with full gear in the pool at the Colorado Athletic Center in Boulder and on the Boulder Creek Path. Whiting and I went into the race feeling fully prepared for everything…except swimming in open water! Race day would be our first open water swim of the season, which is definitely a first for me. 

Whiting’s coach, Matt Smith, had generously coached me “as part of the team” for the weekend training sessions with Whiting. He gave us a race plan: Stay comfortable until you get through the long run (7.5 miles, which was right in the middle of the race), then push the pace on all the shorter segments after that. What I say next may surprise you, because you’re reading a blog filled mostly with stories of race plans that were, at best, half-executed. My entire ironman experience has been about making the best out of a situation that has gone wrong, which is great for life lessons, but also, I’m fully aware of how hard it is to actually execute a race plan. It could only be more difficult to execute with a partner – right? Wrong. This was possibly the best executed race of my life, and it was because I had a partner.

And Finally, The Report 


We started 100% dead last, at the very back of the pack. The first segment was a two mile run in which we kept our pace consistent with Whiting’s zone 2 heart rate or below (I chose not to wear a strap, which will not be the case next time). We told ourselves that it would be a long day, that anything could happen, and that we didn’t need to blow up right out of the gate. Follow the plan. I expected this would allow us to make our way through the pack over the course of the day. In the first two miles of running, we slowly passed a couple of teams and then arrived at the first swim entrance.
We're probably behind the photographer in this photo.
The water was a very cold 56 degrees and it felt crazy that we were going to swim it in with wetsuits that had no legs. Whiting was especially concerned about panicking in the cold water, so we took it really easy getting in and getting started. As always it was hard to put my face into cold water and we both paddled heads-up for several strokes – it takes your breath away! Once we were rolling, swimming with paddles and a buoy with a wetsuit and shoes became instantly natural, and we passed another couple of teams in the first 800 yard swim. Then, after a couple of short segments, we came to a swim exit with an American flag and...my parents! Mom and Dad cheered for us as we went on our way. It was really awesome to have them there to pop out and surprise us with support throughout the day.

Pre-race pic with Mom and Dad who just happened to be in the area after attending the Masters golf tournament in Augusta a few days before the race.
We had contact with a couple of teams after that. The general rule was that if there were people in the water when we arrived at a swim start, they’d probably be behind us at the exit. Swimming is a strength for both of us and our confidence certainly allowed our team to shine in the swim segments. However, once we reached the long run segment, we didn’t see another team again for at least 90 minutes. I guess we’re not working our way through the field. We’re on track for our goal time of 5 hours, so who cares if we're out here all alone at the back of the pack? 

Whiting and I moved relentlessly forward but at a comfortable pace, following the fluttering ribbons that marked the way, climbing over fallen trees (and sometimes attempting to crawl under them), squealing when we stepped on "baby Christmas trees" as we made our way through the pine forest. We chattered incessantly, feeling like we were solving all the problems of the world with happy girl talk. We've both been obsessed with reading race reports of the Barkley Marathons, and taking a tip from one of them, we began randomly shouting “Adventure!” when we reached terrain that was slightly more technical.

After the long run came the longest swim of the event: 1600 yards. We saw another team for the first time in almost 2 hours ahead of us in the water. We pulled up the tops of our wetsuits and put our caps and goggles back on, and plunged into the icy water. It. Was. Cold. After running for 90 minutes, we were warm and had gotten over the initial shock of the cold water at the beginning of the race. Now we had to accustom ourselves to it all over again. I felt the icy coldness moving up my feet and legs into my core.

We climbed up onto the shore and started the island-hopping section of short swims and runs. At one point, we ran out of the water onto an island where another team had stopped. One of the men was running in circles on the tiny island. “He’s trying to warm up,” said a race volunteer, “the course is that way.” Okay, so I'm not the only one struggling with the cold. We ran across the island, plunged into the water and swam a short distance to the next exit. This one had a steep, slippery bank with a rope hanging down for us to use to climb up. I tried first and immediately fell back down as a tree branch snapped beneath my feet. As Whiting and I searched for a solution, looking for another way up, the cold team that we had passed came by us and effortlessly leaped up, barely using the rope. One of them turned to grab our hands and help pull us up, and I’m certain that if he hadn’t done that, we’d still be in the lake right now! (Note: Upper body strength is needed for this sport.)

Even with the course segments listed on our paddles, Whiting and I both became a little disoriented and couldn't figure out what segment of the race we were on, or when to expect to be finished. At this point I was really feeling the cold and dreading the last long swim that I knew was coming – 1300 yards. I didn’t want to get back into the cold water for that long (we learned later that 4 teams had been pulled from the race due to the cold).

Eventually as we picked our way through the woods and around a corner, we saw, for the first time that day, a swim course that resembled a triathlon. There were teams of swimmers everywhere. Whiting and I had worked our way into the middle of the pack! My competitive nature perked up and I turned to her and excitedly said, "Okay Whiting, now we do what we do." I was confident that I'd lead and we’d swim well. But as soon as we entered the water, the cold hit me, and I felt like I could barely move my arms. I saw Whiting swim around me and I scrambled to get behind her and draft. Just stay on her feet. It felt impossible at times and I worked as hard as I could to stay with her. That was the fastest swim of our day. Whiting led us past every team that was in the water as I held on for dear life. Teamwork! Execution!

When we arrived at the shore, I screamed with excitement at our progress. Happy to be out of the water, I raced up the hill through the trees. It was Whiting’s turn to hold on, but she wasn’t complaining. We raced past two more teams, giggling and shrieking “Wheeee!” and then we finally approached the last swim of the day. It was a 50 yard swim across to a boat ramp where all the spectators, including Mom and Dad, were waiting and cheering. It was impossible to prevent ourselves from laughing and smiling as we swam side by side across the water. We ran up the boat ramp to the finish line,  where a spectator yelled to us, "those are the best smiles we've seen all day!" We congratulated each other and hugged and exclaimed practically in unison, “This sport was made for us!” Our final time was 5:23 – just 23 minutes longer than our goal time. Our time even ended up being good enough for third place in the female division! What an incredible day, and truly a team effort. I can’t wait for the next one.

The last 50 yards.

Women's division podium pic (photo found online by our amazing friend Maggie who we felt cheering along with us in spirit every step of the way!)
The next one is SwimRun San Juan Islands in Washington in September. Finishing that race qualifies a team to enter the lottery for Otillo, so we’re crossing our fingers to see what happens when that lottery opens later this year. There is no doubt that Whiting and I will do whatever we can to get a spot at the original swimrun race at Otillo in Sweden. Until September, we’ll both be spending more time on the trails to improve our trail running so that our running confidence can match the confidence that we both have in the water. We’ve made a list of things to do differently next time, but I couldn’t be happier with this first experience.

We celebrated with ice cream as we usually do. This photo is proof that Whiting went from "Otillo is scary, I'm not sure" to gleefully googling "How to get into Otillo" after the race.

Takeaways 


The team aspect of this sport is a major part of the appeal for me. I loved racing with Whiting. It was so much fun to share a racing experience with a partner who was experiencing the whole thing right along with me. Endurance racing is often so much about pushing yourself through setbacks to accomplish a personal goal for personal reasons, but racing as a team brings a whole new wonderful dynamic to it. To steal a phrase, it's not triathlon without a bike. It's not a relay. It's a team effort and it's amazing.

Swimming and running across the natural terrain instead of a precisely measured urban course makes it feel like an adventure, and as I've made my way off the roads over the past year in both running and biking, this fits right in. I would never have guessed that I'd love so much the feeling of being a part of the natural environment. This race allowed us to see parts of the state park that you can't get to easily from the roads. It felt untouched and wild.

Although this sport has been growing in Europe for 10+ years, it's new to the US. The race at Lake James was relatively small and there was a feeling of community around it. After the race, Dad commented that "this is what running used to be like." It's really cool to feel like I'm part of something new and a little bit fringey.

A feeling of community at the pre-race meeting.

Join Us!


There were two swimrun races in the US last year. This year there are at least 18 on the schedule. I invite everyone reading to grab a partner and sign up for one of these things and be a part of this growing sport. Adventure!

Sunday, February 11, 2018

You Are In! - The SwimRun Adventure Begins

Nearly four years ago, I returned from Norseman with my eyes opened to a world of endurance racing and multisport challenges that I'd never heard about before. The most appealing event that I learned about from fellow competitors in Norway was Otillo - a SwimRun event in Sweden. "Otillo" translates to "island to island." In this challenging endurance race, you swim to an island and then run across it, and then repeat, repeatedly: 10K of swimming and 40 miles of trail running makes it a beast of an event.

In the past few years, SwimRun has become an increasingly popular sport in Europe. Then, it hopped across the pond - the first SwimRun event in the US was held in 2016 in Maine. The original Otillo event in Sweden is now a world championship race that you have to qualify to participate in. You can also get in by participating in regional SwimRun events and entering a lottery. The wheels in my head started turning as soon as the first US race was announced.

The thing that makes SwimRun different from triathlon (besides the absence of a bike) is that you do the race with a partner. The rules state that you have to stay within 10 meters of your partner at all times while swimming and running, and many teams have opted to accomplish this by tethering themselves together. The team aspect of the event appealed strongly to me, I think because in the early days of running with Shelly, we always behaved like a team, even when racing, and it was difficult to give that up and race "alone" in triathlon.

The appealing team aspect of SwimRun is also a challenge - how do you find a partner who swims and runs at about your same pace, and is willing to train for and participate in this adventure with you? Many have taken to Facebook groups and online forums to look for partners.

Luckily for me, I have a friend who's just as excited about this new sport as I am! Whiting and I met at a Smash triathlon camp three years ago in Arizona. We were placed in the same lane for the 100x100 swim at camp, and became friends that week. Whiting lives in Boulder and encouraged my move to Colorado. A couple of years later, here we are, signed up for not one, but TWO SwimRun adventures: SwimRun Lake James in April in North Carolina, and SwimRun San Juan Islands in Washington in September. The one in September is an Otillo qualifier. We immediately purchased new cool SwimRun specific wetsuits from our Big Sexy Racing team sponsor, Zone 3, which also sponsors SwimRun Lake James.
Another appealing thing about SwimRun - you get to use paddles to offset the drag of swimming with running shoes on.
Whiting and I had our first real SwimRun practice today. We swam/ran/swam/ran in the pool and on the treadmill at her gym in Boulder, and blew up our friends' Strava feeds with 4 workouts. We learned that the second swim was much more difficult than the first, and are both looking forward to our next practice set.
All smiles after our second treadmill run of the day today.
I'm thrilled to be back smashing myself on the weekend, training with a friend. It's exhausting and leaves you starving with jello legs, but there is nothing like it. I came home and emailed the race director of the San Juan Islands event; there had been some confusion over whether the acceptance email we received upon registration was acceptance into the event, or confirmation that our application had been received. He replied within minutes, "You are In!!"

Indeed, we aren't just in - we are ALL IN! I'm so excited for this adventure. I believe 100% that we are both going to love it and will be racing in Sweden one day. I'm really looking forward to our first race in April.

For an interesting and inspiring read about SwimRun, take a look at this article: Why a Swimrun Race Is the Crazy New Fitness Challenge You need to Try. Maybe we'll see you at the start line. :)

Saturday, January 27, 2018

What Matters Most

In early December, at the same time as the "race prep/speed" portion of my Houston Marathon training was getting started, another appealing challenge began. My masters group, the Lakewood Dawgs, started their annual Dawg Days of Winter challenge: 12 days of swimming over a 2-week period. There was no question about whether I would take part in it. This was my biggest year of swimming so far, and I was up for the challenge!
I just love swimming, swimming's my favorite! Awesome silly selfie taken by Whiting. 
The swim challenge was fun. Each day had a different theme, sort of like the 12 days of Christmas. For example, day one was "an endless set of 50s, free" (yes, sing along to the tune of "a Partridge in a Pear Tree"). I learned immediately that the actual challenge of Dawg Days was to get up and swim at 5:30 a.m. masters for 6 days a week for 2 weeks. 

With 4 days left in the challenge, I felt smug about being disciplined enough to get up so early in the morning every day to swim. But I was also feeling a little tickle in the back of my throat. As the day progressed, a cough developed, and I called Dawn to ask for her advice about whether to do my scheduled run that day or to skip it.

Dawn asked me, "well, what matters most to you? The swim challenge or the marathon?" I answered without hesitation: the swim challenge, of course! And I skipped the run. I felt worse the next day, but still showed up to swim, commiserating with other swimmers who confessed that they weren't feeling great either. I showed up to swim the next day, and skipped that day's run as well.

Eventually I couldn't argue that I was "getting sick" anymore. I had a really bad cold that was moving into my chest. I finished the swim challenge and earned my Dawg Days T-shirt, slept for 3 days, and skipped a total of 9 days of running. It took more than 3 weeks to completely get rid of the cold.

Marathon weekend rolled around a few weeks later. I wasn't feeling confident about the race, but I figured I would see what I could do. Houston is a special race for me, especially this year living far away from my family. I was so excited to get to meet up with them in Texas and run this race for a third year.

The Expo displayed shirts from every year of the race's long history.
Here's Dad with the shirt from his race 1989: he still has his shirts from both of his Houston marathons at home.
My awesome nephews and niece - these kids actually enjoy spectating marathons. I'm assuming one (or more) of them will keep up the family tradition and run this race someday. 
On race day, I tried to hold a "moderate" pace at the beginning of the race, but even that felt too hard. I backed off the pace, and as the wheels fell off around mile 14, I thought about that conversation with Dawn. I had picked swimming over running; I had made my bed and now I was lying in it! If I had quit the swim challenge and given myself a chance to rest, I probably wouldn't have gotten so sick, and my performance at the marathon would have been much better. As I plodded along, my pace slowing, I grimly remembered my answer to Dawn's question.

I ended up with one of my slowest marathon times in recent years, a 4:32, and although my legs were hating it, I enjoyed the day. I loved seeing my family on the course and all the volunteers and spectators who had come out to experience the day. After Houston's difficult year, the city was displaying strength and resilience in celebrating their marathon, and I was grateful to be a part of it.

Faking happiness for the sake of Mom's camera.
That being said, until today, I've been feeling uncomfortable about my fitness based on that marathon time. Am I just getting old? Am I slow now? Do I just need to make peace with that? Today, I went for a swim with Whiting and Maggie, my two super-swimmer Boulder friends, and I was so happy to hit my paces on a challenging 4000 meter set. I beamed when Maggie and Whiting complimented me afterwards about how much my swimming has improved. The weeks and months of high volume swimming that I've been doing since September and the 12-day challenge in December have paid off. I gained a little bit of confidence today.

My amazing swimmy friends Maggie and Whiting at our New Year's Eve 100x100 swim.
Happy swim today with matchy matchy paddles, Whiting and I are training for our first SwimRun race.
I'm always excited to see what the lesson is, even if I don't like how it feels at the time. This year's marathon provided a lesson in making decisions and living with the consequences. My goal wasn't really to have a fast marathon, it was to keep up my swim and run volume through the winter to get ready for the next season of swim/run races and trail runs. Even though it would have been really cool to have a fast marathon too, I couldn't have it both ways. I'm grateful to have a mentor who asked me the right question and forced me to be honest. What matters most? Answer that question honestly and you're halfway there.

On the schedule for 2018 (so far):

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Ultra Baby!


After pacing our friend Doug at the Leadville 100 in August, it was inevitable that I'd be inspired to try an ultramarathon. Of course my first wouldn't be a 100 mile race, but I wanted to know what it felt like to run more than 26.2 miles at one time, on trails. Following Doug's advice, I signed up for the Bear Chase 50K, which would take place approximately 6 weeks after inspiration struck at Leadville.

I was concerned that there wouldn't be enough time for a real build for this 31-mile trail race. I haven't been doing that much running this year anyway; I was barely trained to run the 13.1 miles at the end of Boulder 70.3 in August. But a trail race is very different from a road race, and I'd learned in Leadville that there would be a fair amount of hiking instead of running. Without allowing myself to think too carefully about it, I signed up for the race, and the wave of fear-induced nausea that came over me when I pressed the "submit" button was wonderful.

Besides the lack of time to prepare, I had another potential complication going into this first ultra: I would be self-coached for the first time in 7 years. I could write an entire post about the agony of that decision, but the short story is that I couldn't justify the financial cost of having a coach against what I was willing to put into training. I loved having a coach, and it was a fairly large sacrifice to go off on my own. Two months later, I do ultimately feel like it was the best decision for me at the time.

After some online research and some great tips and advice from my lovely friend and original coach(ie) Dawn Elder, I put together a plan for this trail race. It wasn't particularly sophisticated: training consisted of running and swimming a lot, and putting my bike away for a few weeks (our relationship needed a break anyway).

I felt super cool buying all the important necessary gear: a new pair of trail shoes, a hydration backpack, and a hat with a picture of a runner on it. Trent joked that I was wasting no time "rebranding" myself as an ultrarunner. I have to say that it felt very cool to be doing something different.
Super cool, super necessary gear.
The great thing about the race that I picked is that it was right next our apartment. That meant that I got to practice on the course nearly every weekend. Whiting and I had signed up for the race together, and we ran one unlucky training run on the course where she literally broke her foot. I felt terrible for her having to end her season that way, and I wasn't thrilled about continuing to train by myself, but I was committed.

Whiting standing in one of the water crossings on one of our training runs.
It takes a lot longer to run on trails with elevation gain than it does to run on pavement. My 17, 19, and 20-mile training runs were taking upwards of 4 hours. But, in a very short amount of time, I developed an intense love for running on trails. It's the kind of running where you don't have to be distracted by music. You somehow get connected with the air and sky and the ground beneath you and although it hurts to run for several hours at a time, it feels completely different from training to run a particular pace for a road race. It's somehow just completely freeing. Maybe because as a beginner, there are no expectations (from myself or others) of time or pace. I loved training for this race.

Race day itself was a total celebration. The course was 1 small loop and 2 big loops around the Bear Creek Lake park. It was marked by little ribbons tied to trees. There were 7 knee-deep water crossings and 3 hikes up a hill labeled Mt. Carbon, so I am going to say that I ran up a mountain 3 times during this race. It was such a small event with barely any fanfare and just over 100 participants. Basically, it was totally the opposite of an Ironman. I loved it.

I spent the first 20 miles smiling and giggling and apparently breaking into song and dance and jazz hands every time I saw someone with a camera. After I began the 3rd loop, with 11 miles left, the wheels began to come off, and there was plenty of walking from that point on. At the 26 mile mark, I marveled to myself that every step after this would be further than I'd ever ran before. And then the guy in front of me yelled "rattlesnake" and 3 of us had to jump over a terrifying snake, which at that point in the day, took quite a great deal of energy!

Jazz hands

More jazz hands
Doug was volunteering to direct traffic about halfway through the big loop. Seeing him was amazing and I cheerfully thanked him for the inspiration. Doug and Whiting's kids were volunteering at an aid station just down the hill, and it was so fun to see familiar happy faces three times on the course. I finished the race with a cheering section led by Trent, Whiting, and Annette, whose husband had also raced.

My race took seven hours. I have never run for such a long time in my life. After talking with friends post-race, I realized that starting my triathlon journey as a fairly slow participant actually gave me a huge mental advantage as a beginner at this event. There was a ton of suffering out there on the last loop of the run, but mine was minimal compared to that of other participants. I know what it's like to suffer through a 7 hour half ironman, and a 16 hour ironman race. Other folks making the leap to "ultramarathon" likely do it after a few successful marathons, and running 26.2 fast miles on a road is very different from running 31 miles on trails.

I wasn't even close to fast; in fact, of 133 entrants, I finished in 100th place, near the bottom of my age group. None of that mattered. I was so excited to finish my first ultra and to be able to say with pride, "I am an ultrarunner!"

Although I know my true love is triathlon, running is always like coming home. Trail running is quickly becoming one of my favorite things to do. I think back to some camp experiences where I described trail running as "the seventh circle of hell," and it makes me laugh to think about how different my mindset is now.

As always there is a common denominator in endurance racing of any kind. I love that all of it has the same kind of lesson for me - what can I do? How far can I push myself out of my comfort zone? I think the answer is "pretty far," and I'm fairly certain I haven't even scratched the surface yet. I say it every year around this time, and I'm saying it again: I can't wait to see what's next.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Like Father, Like Daughter: Dad's First Tri


I have a guest blogger for you this week: my Dad!

An accomplished runner, Dad has always been my endurance sports inspiration. When he encouraged me to enter my first 10k race 17 years ago, I would never have guessed where that road would lead. After he and Mom spent the last 10 years cheering for me at triathlons and even crewing for me at Norseman, imagine my surprise and delight when Dad announced that he'd like to try a triathlon.

I loved cheering for Dad this weekend as he raced the Olympic distance race at the Kerrville Triathlon Festival! Here's the story of his day - in his own words.

Kerrville Tri Race Report 2017
by John Swann

Here I stand, at the start-line of my very first triathlon. I’ve finally plucked up the courage to be standing here, looking out at the lines of buoys that mark the 1000 meter swim course. My bike, and helmet, and shoes and other stuff are waiting at T1. My running shoes, hat, number belt, drinks, and other stuff are hanging in a bag at T2. I’m wishing I could be at one of those places now.

Everyone says that open-water swimming is a beast to conquer. I’ve been swimming for over two years, going up and down the lap pool, fighting off little old ladies who insist on doing their aqua-bounces in the middle of my lane. My regular training distance is more than double this triathlon swim. So this should be a breeze, right?

I swam in the open sea, in Bali. I swam out to a buoy, perhaps 100 meters offshore. The farther from shore I got, the bigger the imagined sharks became, and the stronger the imaginary rip tide was becoming. I was freaked out. The next day, I did it again and, was it my imagination, or were those sharks just a little less menacing?

A year ago I had done a practice swim to the first buoy of today’s course. I was gasping for breath from the start, and I just wanted to get back to shore, where I could touch bottom.

But also a year ago, I had watched the triathletes on the run part of the course. Some were out of shape, some were barely walking, but I remember thinking that every one of them had done that swim.

I signed up for this event after years of watching Kristina and her friends compete in, and destroy, Ironman courses all over the nation. I always wanted to give it a shot. And the Kerrville Tri is right on our doorstep. Word got out that I was entering, and almost immediately, Kristina and Trent had booked their flights from Denver. Kristina’s San Antonio friends decided to join the festival, And our neighbors were asking about the race. So there was no way to back out.

Kristina had given swim-coaching tips (after watching videos of my stroke), and the coach at the local pool declared that I was a good swimmer. (although his final piece of advice was “if you get into trouble just raise your hand and the kayaks will get you!). The day before the race I had done a practice swim on the first part of the course, with Orissa and Kristina. They had estimated the distance to be about 700 or 800 meters. I was ready.

Start-line thoughts: don’t go out too fast, go easy to the first buoy, stay out of the way of others, follow the shoreline, I’ve got this. Other start-line thoughts: did I get enough to eat, did I drink too much, will my goggles leak, will I get leg cramp and, I hope I didn’t do too much yesterday!

We inched toward the start-line and timing mat. An announcement “and now at the start-line, in his first triathlon, at age 69….” Even the competitors behind me wished me well! And then I was swimming. “Go easy, get your stroke going.” The first two kayaks along the course already had competitors hanging from them. The water was choppy and murky, and I couldn’t even see my hand at the bottom of the stroke. After rounding the first turn, it was time to just swim parallel to the shore for about 500 meters, each stroke taking me farther away from the start-line. My swim stroke was horrible, my breathing was ragged, and more than once I took on water. But I had a crowd waiting at the swim-out, so I couldn’t stop.

The farthest point on the course was marked by a red triangle buoy. Reaching it took forever, but when I got there, it turned out to be the most beautiful red buoy I’ve ever set eyes on. And, once I got around it, something magical happened. I was now swimming towards the finish line. My breathing evened out, my stroke became more confident. Now, I really had got this!

At swim-out, another announcement “in his first triathlon at age 69, lets have a cheer for…”. It was great to be done with the swim. There were lots of high fives on the way to T1. Just a wonderful feeling.

I love to ride a bike. I love my bike with aero-bars fitted. And I love the Big Sexy Racing tri-suit that Kristina had given to me. I know all the roads around here like the back of my hand. What could go wrong? Well, from the first pedal stroke my quads tried to cramp up. Now that was a new experience on a bike. I suppose that’s a post-swim phenomenon. It took two miles of easy riding, and some coaxing, for things to get back to normal.

Riding through Kerrville’s main streets with police stopping all other traffic was awesome. Then the rain started, and I love riding in the rain! The outward ride was into the wind, which is how I always plan my training rides. Fellow competitors were courteous, no-one drafted, many had kind words as we passed each other. Several people had flats along the way, and there was one crash at the top of the only hill on the course. But for me, the ride was perfect. I used up the last of my onboard fluids with a mile to go. Everything was going according to plan. And the cheering crew was in full voice.

After trading my bike for running shoes at T2, it was time to walk/jog 6.5 miles. Those were long miles. And the sun made them hot and humid after all the rain. My pre-race goal was to get to the finish line. But it’s so frustrating not to be able to run and compete anymore. So I walked and jogged the whole way. It was tough even so.

At the finish line, a final announcement “and now crossing the line, in his first triathlon, at age 69, from Big Sexy Racing,…..”

Hugs and high fives all round. And Kristina took me immediately to the food area “drink this coke, drink all that water, you need protein, chips, something sweet, a beer…”

So that was it. I now have a whole new perspective on triathlons. Swimming 1000 meters is pretty straight forward (especially in hind-sight), biking 29 miles is easy, and walking/jogging 6.5 miles is a piece of cake. But put all those things back-to-back-to-back and it gets tough.

Now, its even harder for me to fathom how Kristina and her Ironman buddies do what they do. And how do you jump into a darkened fjord and swim two and a half miles to shore?

What a great day, start to finish. A huge thank you to all the folks who came out to Kerrville. Kristina’s triathlon buddies (Aixa, Orissa, Shelly, and Linda), and their families. Thank you Kristina for all the pointers, advice, coaching, and for the Big Sexy Racing suit. It meant a lot to have you and Trent on the sideline.

And an even bigger thank you to Maria for her support and encouragement all along the way. Thanks for taking those swim videos, for encouraging me to get that beautiful neon-green bike, and for always being there in the cheering crew. And finally, I’m in a new age-group next year…woohoo!
Practice swim on Saturday
Triumphant coming out of the water!
I'm so proud of Dad's matchy matchy here - bike, kit, helmet!
On the run!
Family and friends came out to cheer: Lisa, Mom, Me, Shelly and Avery, Harper, Trent, and Miles
Pre-race pic: Mom and Dad

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Leadville Trail 100: Pace Report


Earlier this summer, Whiting mentioned that her husband, Doug, was going to be racing the Leadville 100 Trail Race for the fourth time, and she asked if Trent and I had any interest in pacing him. Any interest? Are you kidding?! We jumped at the chance to be involved in this iconic event: a 100 mile ultrarun that begins and ends in Leadville, Colorado, the highest incorporated city in the United States, sitting at 10,200 feet above sea level.

Even though Doug had sent detailed instructions for pacing, Trent and I really didn’t have any idea what we were doing when we drove up to the mountains on Saturday morning. We met Whiting and the rest of the crew in Twin Lakes, which is where one of the checkpoints is located. We left my car in Twin Lakes, jumped into Whiting’s car, and headed to Winfield, which was the turnaround point of this out-and-back race.
Doug's detailed instructions for my leg.
The moment I stepped out onto the dirt road to walk with our supplies to the checkpoint to meet Doug, I realized we had entered crazytown. The race started at 4:00 on Saturday morning. By the time we arrived in Winfield, 50 miles away from the start, the runners had been out on the course for 12 hours. Twelve hours...and they were halfway through. As we unpacked our gear and stood around waiting for Doug to arrive, I began to learn more about what this journey entails.

Each runner has a Crew Chief. Doug’s was Whiting. This person is in charge of meeting up with the runner at each checkpoint and providing fresh shoes, clothes, food, drink, and support. She was also in charge of Doug’s pacing crew. Once a runner reaches the halfway point, they can have a pacer to run along with them, keep them company, remind them to eat and drink, and basically do whatever it takes to get them to the checkpoints along the course before the time cutoffs. Doug had 4 pacers: Trent, me, Maggie, and Ariana. Each of us would take a section of the course after mile 50.

I still can’t wrap my head around what it means to run 100 miles in a row. The Leadville course record is somewhere around 16 hours. The final cutoff is 30 hours. I've completed more than a couple of ironman races around the 15-hour range. I cannot fathom completing that and then TURNING AROUND AND RUNNING BACK. This is what these athletes intended to do.

I was told that less than 50% of the ~700 entrants finish the race each year. As I watched the runners entering the halfway checkpoint at mile 50, I started to understand why. Nobody looked cute or happy. By that point, they had been running for at least 12 hours. They had crossed over a mountain pass (Hope Pass), where they were rained and hailed on. They were having stomach issues, likely from the heat and altitude. Most of them looked miserable and hopeful at the same time as they ran into the checkpoint at Winfield.

We stood waiting for Doug to come around the corner. And waited. And waited. Waited until his expected arrival time had come and gone. Waited until there were only 15 minutes left before the 6:30 pm time cutoff. And then he came running around the corner, and we all cheered. Yelled at him to hurry up and cross the timing mat to make sure he was officially within the time cutoff. Trent carried a backpack containing food, water, and gear for both of them, and they ran away again, up and over Hope Pass, back toward the town of Twin Lakes where they had to arrive before the cutoff time of 10 pm.

Doug accompanied by Trent, Whiting, and Melina, their daughter.
We learned that Doug had arrived at the checkpoint 45 minutes later than expected because this year's course had 2 extra miles added to the Hope Pass segment. They didn't adjust the Winfield time cutoff to account for the extra distance. On terrain where it takes 30 minutes to hike a mile, this was kind of a big deal. It meant that many athletes ended their day at Winfield. It meant that Doug would spend the rest of the race chasing time cutoffs.
Maggie is pointing at Hope Pass from Winfield.
While Trent ran with Doug, the rest of the crew headed back to the cabin in Leadville to grab something to eat. Then we headed over to the Twin Lakes checkpoint, where I would take over pacing duties. We had the same stressful waiting situation there. We stood in the dark with a hundred other crews, waiting next to our little makeshift changing area that had a folding chair for Doug to sit in, warm clothes and dry shoes for him to change into, and supplies to take with us. Shivering in a beanie, tights, gloves, and 3 shirts, I became more nervous by the minute. Nervous that Doug would not make the cutoff, and nervous that he would make it, and that I'd really have to run off into the dark and pace him for five hours. With less than three minutes to spare, Doug came sprinting into the checkpoint. Trent had pushed him to his limit, but he had made the cutoff!

After a quick transition, Doug and I were off and running. Well, hiking. At this point, it was 10 pm and Doug had been racing for 16 hours. And we were walking straight up a gravel hill. As I huffed and puffed, Doug nonchalantly said, "this part lasts about 4 miles, and then it levels out a bit." As we climbed, the air temperature dropped. Eventually we could see each breath in the light of our headlamps.

We stopped every few minutes for Doug to take water from the hydration pack that I was wearing. He was great about remembering to eat. We paid attention to the time; we had to be at the Half Pipe checkpoint by 1:15 am. It took us nearly 3 hours to hike/walk/run/shuffle the 8.5 miles that it took to get there. We arrived with 10 minutes to spare.

We needed to complete our next 6 mile segment by 3 am. A 16 minute mile pace is what was necessary, and although that sounds easy, it wasn't. When we were "fast hiking" we went at a 16:30ish pace. When we were running, we ran 11:30s.

I learned that Doug moves faster when he's talking, especially when he's talking about Whiting and his girls, but as we continued into the night, there were longer silences. When my legs became tired after several hours, I couldn't possibly complain, because Doug had been on his feet for nearly a day. There were green glowsticks tied to the trees to guide us, and we ran from glowstick to glowstick, willing each other to move forward.

In the 14.5 miles that I traveled with Doug, we ran/hiked on singletrack trail, jeep paths and asphalt. The final mile was across a prairie dog field, where we had to be aware of holes we might fall in. The course seemed beautiful, but of course I couldn't see it. Every once in a while I glanced up at the sky, and beyond the glow of my headlamp I saw the brightest stars I've ever seen. The experience of running at night in the middle of nowhere was surreal and beautiful.

The night sky. Photo by Daniel Benjamin Morefield, a local photographer who was camping at Twin Lakes.
As we approached the final mile of our leg, we knew we'd make the cutoff, and we arrived at the Twin Lakes checkpoint with 5 minutes to spare. Maggie and Whiting ran out to the middle of the field to greet us with hot chocolate and warm ramen noodles. It was 3 am. Maggie took over pacing duties, and Whiting drove me back to the cabin to sleep.

We knew that Maggie's section would be a challenge because it covered some difficult terrain and Doug had no time to spare to slow down. He needed to arrive at the May Queen checkpoint by 6:30 am. He didn't get there in time, and after 87 miles, the race officials at May Queen cut his wristband.

Doug: Ultrarunner Extraordinaire
This is the part where the mindset of ultrarunning, especially at this distance, diverges from your typical road running/triathlon point of view. You don't enter Leadville and say "I just want to finish." You say, "I wonder how far I can get." Doug made it almost to the end, and he was satisfied with his race. He's finished the race twice before, so he knows exactly what it takes: training, planning, discipline, and luck. He'll definitely attempt it again, and I hope my pacing skills were good enough to get me a return trip to Leadville with Whiting, Doug, and family.

I left Leadville on Sunday feeling sore, tired, and completely inspired. Although I've learned to enjoy trail running, there has never been anything appealing to me about ultrarunning...until this weekend. As we were leaving the cabin on Sunday, I told Whiting that I wanted to try a trail race. I think she surprised both of us by agreeing that she'd like to try one too. So of course, the next logical step was for both of us to sign up for a 50k at the end of September! I'm so excited to be excited to have something new to train for. There's no expectations because this will be our first one, and I love that. I can't wait!

I've told them a few times but I want to say it again here: I'm so grateful that Whiting and Doug invited us to join them this weekend. It was such a powerful experience and has opened a new chapter of things to come. When we signed up for the 50k today, I felt giddy with excitement and fear. I haven't felt this inspired in a while, and I love it. Hopefully I'll have a great race report for you in approximately 6 weeks!

Friday, July 7, 2017

Buffalo Springs 70.3 2017 Race Report: "Just for Fun" Does Not Mean "Easy"

This is my second race report about Buffalo Springs 70.3 that starts with, "for two months leading up to the race, I tried to figure out how to ask my coach if I could race it." I couldn't think of a reasonable way to approach Emily before Ironman Boulder about doing Buffalo Springs two weeks later, so I let it go. But after Boulder, which was this year's "main event," I started to rationalize. Lots of people race 2 full ironmans 2 weeks apart: this would be just a full and then a half. I didn't even run the whole run at Boulder; my body was probably fine. Maybe I could go to Buffalo Springs to race "just for fun." What do you think, Coach? Of course she said yes, but with a caveat: I was not allowed to have any expectations about my performance.

I found 2 awesome, willing friends, Whiting and Ariana, to travel down to Texas with me for the quickest weekend trip ever. I was thrilled to get on the road for a girls' trip to race my favorite race for the fifth time, meet up with several of my Big Sexy teammates in Lubbock, and see many friends from Texas, including bestie Linda and bff training buddy Michael from San Antonio.

On a mission to "just have fun," I consumed as much Whataburger as possible both pre- and post-race. 
Of course we had our team dinner at Chili's. It was wonderful to see great friends and meet new ones!
My race plan from Emily read like this: Use this race to practice being in the moment, taking what your body is giving you and deal with it. Don't judge good/bad and decide how the day is going to be (i.e., don't write your race report on the bike). Nothing is forever and things can turn around. Coming off a race at Boulder that *did not* turn around, staying positive and in the moment would be key. I don't know how Emily knows that when I lose focus on the bike, I start writing my race report in my head, but it was wonderful to actually be instructed not to do that.

Race morning arrived and we packed up and headed over to the lake. The temperatures were unusually cool and the sky was overcast. It was perfect. We all had plenty of time to rack bikes, snap a few photos, and head down to the lake.

It was simply amazing to race with Linda for the first time in years, as she has been coming back from hip surgery.
I chose to swim in my sleeveless wetsuit for the first time in 3 years. I know that a fullsleeve wetsuit is always faster, but today I cared more about comfort than speed. As I took my first few strokes in that warm lake, I knew I had made the right decision. With the pressure off, I had fun running into the lake with the rest of the 40+ women and racing to the first turn buoy. The swim was smooth and pleasant, and I swam by myself for most of it. For the last stretch into the shore, I was able to draft successfully off another swimmer for the first time this year. I know the swim here is traditionally short and this year was no exception, but when I ran out of the water at 33 minutes, I let out a scream of joy.

EVIDENCE! That I was drafting on the swim. Woo hoo! Thank you Whiting for the pic.
 On to the bike! This is what I had been looking forward to most. I zoomed out of the park at 185 watts, wondered if I could sustain it, but didn't really care. I was having fun racing my bike, leaning into the wind on the flats, charging up the hills, and descending with confidence. As always, I loved looking for my friends on the out-and-back sections and exchanging screams of encouragement with them. After my fueling mishap at Boulder, I was mindful about drinking and eating. My watts started to drop in the second half of the ride, but my smile never faltered. As always, I wanted to go under 3 hours, but even pushing as hard as I could back into the park, I missed it by over a minute. But, you guys...at no time during this bike ride was I forcing myself to be positive. Instead, I was actually Having Fun! It felt awesome.

I love this photo taken by Scott Flathouse.
A few miles into the run, my body started telling me that I'd done an ironman a couple of weeks ago. I suppose my legs were also feeling a little bit of overbiking at this race. My pace slowed, but I was determined to fuel correctly and run the whole run, and I accomplished both of those goals.

With a 2:17 run split, it might surprise you to hear that I feel like I raced the run. The out-and-back sections on this run course always allow you to know where you are compared to others. I first saw teammate Mike running down the big hill at mile 3 while I was running up it. We exchanged a high five and I yelled that I was coming for him. A minute later, a friend from San Antonio, Lexa, ran past me. I know that she's a fast runner, so it didn't surprise me, but at that point I went into race mode. Let's see how small I can keep the gap between us. On my way back down the hill, I saw Linda running up. Although she is one of my best friends, there was no way I was going to let her catch me. The race was on.

Big Sexy himself was out on the run course snapping selfies. With him out there, I was not about to walk an inch or stop smiling for a second (especially after my bad behavior on the run course in Boulder).
I never caught up with Mike. Lexa put some time into me but not as much as I expected, and I held Linda off. I was happy to cross the finish line just under 6 hours, which was not my best time at this race, but not my worst either. Lexa, Linda, and I chattered enthusiastically after the race about how each of us pushed the others to excel. This is what I love about racing; we brought out the best in each other! It was also incredibly refreshing that we were all honest about it, as females are often taught that it's impolite to appear to be competitive.

The day was perfect. The race was fun because I had no expectations for how the day was going to go, which allowed me to take some chances on the bike and have some fun on the run racing other people instead of worrying (too much) about the clock. I also made the surprising, important discovery that "fun" does not have to mean "easy." When I told Emily how much fun I had because I had no pressure of expectations, she gently reminded me that this is all supposed to be fun. That's why we do it, right? If you focus on having fun pushing yourself, in training and in racing, you get faster. Simple.

I'm so glad that I raced Buffalo Springs "just for fun" this year. Part of the reason that I wanted to go was that I was afraid the race would be cancelled, like so many other races have been lately. Luckily, registration is already open for next year's race, so we get at least one more year of awesome racing in Lubbock. It's definitely on my 2018 schedule, not as an afterthought, but as a main event. If you haven't raced there already, you need to put it on your list too. Hopefully I'll see you there next June!