Off these feet (Part 3): Chicken or fish?

I’ve always been somewhat scared of the water. I know how to swim. I can get from one end of the pool to the other and maneuver for short distances in a lake or the ocean. But I would harbor varying degrees of anxiety doing it. I was a chicken.

I hated feeling this way. It limited my enjoyment of the natural world, and now that I am a mother of boys who have no fear of the water, it limits my ability to keep my kids safe or at least have fun with them. I needed to set things right.

In July I signed up for evening adult swim classes for a week — one hour a day for five days. The morning of day one, I got a call from the instructor. I expected to hear that class was canceled due to underenrollment. Instead she told me that because I was the only person enrolled, I could pick a more convenient time to have the lessons if I wanted, and, yes, they would be one on one. Panic. I should have been thrilled but all I could think was that I did not want all that attention on me.

The place I grew to know well

Day one of the lesson: I met my instructor. Her name was Anna and she was a competitive swimmer through high school and college. She also coordinated all the summer swim lessons for our neighborhood recreation center. Teaching qualifications – check. She asked about me. I told her about my panic attack in Donner Lake last summer 20 yards into my swim (basically I got early stage hypothermia, felt like I had a piano on my chest, and could not get any power in my limbs). So my goal, I told her, was not to be in that position again. I wanted get better at swimming, to feel comfortable doing it, and ultimately, to do a triathlon. She responded that the first step was to get a wet suit if I wanted to attempt Donner again. The rest she would help me with. She asked me to swim a freestyle lap so she could assess me. When I finished, she said I was actually better than some students she has had who had triathlons under their belt. Huh. Who woulda thunk it? She gave me tips on improving my freestyle then moved to breast stroke, which she was excited to work on because most triathletes use it as a fallback when they need a break. It turned out the breast stroke was the farthest thing from a break for me. It is powered by all the areas where I am weak: chest, upper back, abdomen, glutes and inner thighs. I also had been doing it all wrong, breathing at the wrong time, pulling my arms back the wrong way. What a mess.

Day two: I rushed through 8:30 a.m. drop offs at soccer camp, then rushed home to get my swim stuff. With 10 minutes to go before my lesson, I plopped my gear in the back of my SUV, went to close the tail gate and heard a loud BONK! Just as I pondered where that noise came from, a dull ache came over my skull. That bonk was the sound of the corner of the tail gate door slamming down on my head. I touched the spot that the pain radiated from, looked at my fingers, and saw blood. I called Anna, “Um, I’m sorry to do this but I think I have to cancel today…,” explaining my predicament. She understood, hoped everything was okay. Then I went upstairs to look in the mirror. Yep, definitely still bleeding. I got on the Internet, googled “head laceration treatment.” I wanted to know if I needed to see a doctor or if I could just put antibiotic and a band-aid on it. The rule of thumb, apparently, is if the cut is longer than 1 1/2 inches and “smiles” (gives way and curves) when pinched, you need to seek medical attention. Dang, I thought. How was I going to get this done and pick up my kids in three hours?

Day three: Seven staples, a good night’s rest, and a swim cap later, I was back at the pool. The nurse told me I could swim as long as I covered my head and kept the suture dry. The order of the day was more freestyle, working on turning my body to face the opposite direction as the reaching arm (not staying flat), keeping the hand of the reaching arm close enough to graze the side body from hip to armpit, then extending the arm as far forward as possible before pulling back, not spreading my fingers apart while doing all this, and keeping the legs lifted as close as possible to the surface of the water (not letting them drag down). I also worked on breast stroke fixes — snapping the legs together so that they touch and shooting the arms straight ahead quickly after the pullback.

Day four: I was sore. My chest and inner thighs killed, evidence of having swum more breast stroke in 72 hours than I had my entire life. Anna reminded me that the only way to get over the soreness is to get the muscles accustomed to doing the work. So we did more breast stroke. Then she figured she’d give me a break and try out a couple fun things. Well, unlike the breast stroke, where I felt I had some potential to improve, two swimming skills my body simply was not designed for were the side stroke and flip turns. The side stroke was a sinking exercise for me. And my flip turns came out lopsided every time. I was so hopeless, it was comical. “So when you’re doing a triathlon, you’ll want to stick to the freestyle,” Anna advised.

Day five: We went to the back stroke. On the demo lap, I rocketed across and back, realizing something odd — it felt like no effort. I asked Anna, “That felt easy – why?” She chuckled and said, “Because you’re a runner. That stroke is powered by legs, not arms.” Eureka – I found my fallback stroke! If only I had eyes on top of my head.

Make up lesson: Anna gave me an extra day because of the day two debacle. We reviewed freestyle and breast stroke. Both felt more natural now. My rhythm was still off for breast stroke but I felt nimble and lithe doing freestyle. “You look comfortable and you’re actually getting fast. Remember to slow down to a pace where you can keep swimming longer,” Anna reminded me. Yes, of course; basic endurance strategy. She videotaped me doing freestyle and proudly announced that I had improved by leaps and bounds in just a week. I graduated. Frankenfish (yes, the staples were still in my head) was freed to practice swimming on her own.

I needed no egging to go to the pool. First of all, the Summer Olympics were happening at the time and Team USA swimmers were sweeping up medals left and right. When you see folks swim so powerfully and elegantly, it takes your breath away. It makes you love the sport. What’s more, the pool became my refuge. It was a warm, refreshing and peaceful place to retreat to after a hot grueling run. Swimming was also something new and therefore interesting. I had no expectations and therefore could go easy on myself. Every lap in the pool was a personal best. That’s the beauty of trying new things. You can only get better at it.

My eight-year-old still swims better than me (he’s the one who did the kiddie triathlon this summer), but at least I feel like the swimming pool is my friend. Next I need to make friends with the open water. I’ll save that for next summer. This chicken might one day become a fish after all.

To be continued in Part 4: Tough as trails


Off these feet (Part 2): Lean mean Hood to Coast machine

That title was penned in jest.

In truth my biggest fear while up in Truckee was that I would blow my training for Hood to Coast because of the cards stacked against me: the altitude (6000-6600 feet), the hilly terrain and the usual distractions of summer in paradise. Here I was finally going to experience the Hood to Coast relay. I didn’t know how serious of a runner my teammates were but I refused to become the deadweight. So I set out to be 100% ready to do my share. Lean and mean was never the goal. Just in shape to give a solid effort.

My preparation can be best summarized as “opportunistic training loosely based on the Ryan Hall Half Marathon plan.” It was summer, and I have kids, so things had to be fitted in on whatever days they could. The plan provided clear targets. I adapted purposefully around them.

There were a few key elements that I knew, based on prior experience with the training plan and my own quirks, were non-negotiable. One, I had to adhere to the prescribed paces — no faster and no slower. Two, I could not skip the speed work. And three, I had to cross- and strength-train.

Within those boundaries, I began tinkering. The first big switch-up was to focus more on speed than distance. A running coach friend said that for relay racing it was more important to get used to running fast each time you run than to run long. The same point was made in various articles I found online. They all concurred that to train optimally for a relay, specificity is key. This meant practicing the individual distances and target paces, if possible on the same (or harder) type of terrain for each leg.

Truckee proved to be the perfect training ground for my H2C legs, which were 4.84 miles flat and paved, 4.18 miles rolling hills and paved, and 7.2 miles uphill mostly unpaved. The 6-mile tempos along Donner Lake and 5-mile tempos on the Legacy Trail strengthened my legs for rolling hills. The 800s at 5K pace – to the point of visibly gritting my teeth and feeling like I was about to puke and pee my pants at the same time – gave my neuromuscular system a jolt. The hilly roads in my neighborhood tested my resolve on hot afternoons to keep the legs turning and not stop or walk. And the trails familiarized me with the leg and lung burn associated with continuous climbing on uneven ground. Two weeks before H2C, my training peaked with a 6-mile, 2280-foot trot to the summit of Mount Pluto in Northstar. I had no fear of hills left in me after that.

The Legacy Trail

Other changes had to do with being flexible, listening to my body and not spoiling my summer. I would miss a workout (or two or three) because I had no childcare or made social plans, then have to decide whether to move the runs to another day or scrap the entire week and reattempt them the following week. I would listen to my body and err on the side of taking it easy. If I was struggling to complete workouts, I would repeat them rather than move ahead.

And by the way, I struggled a lot. If there was a phrase to be emblazoned on the tombstone of my summer training cycle, it would be: “Truckee Summer 2012, wherein Tita struggled.” I rarely felt good during a run. Even when I podiumed at a race, I did not feel like a winner. It took me four weeks to complete a prescribed speed workout on pace. I ended up falling permanently two weeks behind schedule. I sank to a very low place during the eight weeks. I found that the only way out of the doldrums was to accept struggle as a necessary part of training…and to indulge in diversions.

Diversions consisted of any and all other opportunities to be active. If someone invited me to run a trail on a tempo run day, I went on the trail run and called it tempo workout, figuring the effort was probably about the same. I played tennis with friends, biked with my kids and paddleboarded despite my fear of falling into frigid Donner Lake. I would jump at opportunities to do these things even if it meant working out twice in a day or skipping a run.

Even the cross- and strength-training became welcome diversions. Just when I thought I had seen plenty when it came to producing sweat while riding a spin bike, or tormenting one’s core, I was introduced to yet another plethora of instructor-led torture. The spin instructor was fond of simulating long, slow climbs (ouch). The core instructor’s MO was to do 25 reps of each exercise with no rest for 45 minutes (there was a day when I began to see stars in this class). But week after week I went, because I liked the instructors and the people in the class. Some were fellow moms, most were locals, and all were friendly down-to-earth folks. The classes were a counterpoint to my solitary running. I looked forward to my hour of catching up on local gossip and getting tips on fun things to do around town.

The beauty of these diversions was that they contributed to my fitness and, more importantly, gave me the mental balance to keep slogging through the training. They made me enjoy the experience as a whole. And who would have guessed that my favorite secret indulgence by summer’s end would be…swimming?

To be continued in Part 3: Chicken or fish?

New Year’s Day diversion

Parents versus Kids soccer match on New Year’s Day, Truckee, California.

It was sick fun! Kids won (ouch). They ranged in age from 6 to 13. Grownups were all 40-something. At least the injuries were minimal. One kid hurt her finger, and one mom hurt her ankle, um, squatting behind the bushes to pee. Mind you, she is a runner/ skier/ triathlete extraordinaire. Yes, aging is painful.

My soreness level the day after is not bad, given this old body normally only goes forward, not side to side. Hip flexors and glutes are pretty angry. I’m calling it cross training.