Sunday, August 27, 2017

Fierce or Foolish? A Race Report: SuperiorMan 41.5

Last time I posted, I mentioned that I had asked Julie to help me get over my fear of open water swimming. Well, there was a reason for that. The conversation before that went like this:

Me: I kinda wanna do SuperiorMan. The short course.

Julie: Oh, InferiorMan?

Me: Yeah. That one. But I haven't been swimming or biking at all, I haven't done either since last summer, and I haven't been running much.

Julie: Hmm. Well, I mean, you can complete the distance. Like, you can cover the course.

Me: Okay. I mean that would be my only goal.

And so it went. That was on June 23. I decided to do the race.

The "short course" at SuperiorMan is a 1/2 mile swim, a 35.4 mile bike, and 5.6 mile run (41.5 miles total). (The "long course" is the Half Ironman distance, 70.3 miles total).

Between that day and today, I did the following, triathlon-specific training:

  • I rode my road bike twice, once for 17 miles and once for 20;
  • I swam in open water three times, each time just testing it out (w/wetsuit) but not swimming for any significant distance;
  • I swam laps in the pool once for 20 minutes; and
  • I ran sporadically, never more than 5 miles.
That was it. That was not wise. That is not something I recommend. 

Enough background, let's get to the day.

I wasn't doing this race with anyone and no one was going with me. That's pretty normal for me - I've done most races solo. That said, my friend Christina Meier - who I know from high school (where she was a stellar swimmer) and have stayed in touch with since (to follow her path to becoming an IRONMAN) was there volunteering for the swim portion. And Mike (husband of Julie and my other trainer at Destination Fitness) and Calla, a friend from the gym, were doing a relay so they were there as well. 

If you don't know this race, you can read about it here. I won't describe how it works. But it's kinda fun and quirky and cool. Especially if you love Duluth. 

Calla and I boarded the Vista Star and headed out to the swim start. I was anxious but not particularly nervous. On our boat (which was the second of two) were the fastest swimmers for the 1/2 Ironman distance (who were swimming 1.2 miles) and all of the people doing the 41.5 distance, the slow group (me) and the fast group. We were entering the water in that order. 

The jump off of the Vista and into the water was more jarring than I was expecting. Julie prepared me, but it still knocked me a bit out of sorts. I took a second to gather myself and began to swim. For about 4 strokes. And it was exactly like the sprint triathlon I did last summer. I couldn't breathe. In or out. I just couldn't catch my breath. A dude in front of me was breast-stroking so I tried that. Nope. I was a mess. I saw a kayak and yelled for help. I was literally about 15 yards from the Vista at this point. I grabbed on and tried to calm down. I kept telling the man in the kayak: "I just can't breathe, I have asthma, I just can't breathe." He was very kind, but after a couple minutes he said: "Do you want to get on a rescue boat?" I looked at him and said: "I think so." 

And then all the thoughts went through my head. "What do I care? I didn't even train for this. This isn't a goal race. Barely anyone even knows I am doing this." 

But then I pictured my poor, lonely bike sitting in transition. (This is true, I actually did). And so I said to the man: "Let me try again." So I did. And it was awful. And I kept struggling, but I pushed my way along until I came across a nice woman in a kayak. She became my new best friend. At least for the next half hour or so. I hung on with her for a bit, gathered myself, and swam. And she followed me. And I hung on with her for a bit, and gathered myself, and swam. She was great. Quiet. She didn't say much. Except when I looked at her with sad, embarrassed eyes and kept saying: "I just can't breathe" she would say: "You're doing great. You're gonna get there." She was with me until I entered the slip that led to the end of the swim portion of the race. (For those not familiar with the sport, it is within the rules to hang onto a kayak or boat or really anything at any time while in the water as long as you don't make forward progress). 

And so it went.

When I was between the two buoys that marked the turnaround point for the 1/2 mile swim course, I had stopped and yelled for help (again) and my kayak friend was working her way over to me. I was treading water and I heard someone yell: "IS THAT SARA??"

It was Christina.

Me (yelling): "Ugh. [expletive I can't remember]! Yes, it's me. I can't breathe! This is awful!
Christina: "But you're doing it!!?"
Me: "Am I, though? Am I??? I keep holding on!"
Christina: "That's okay you're out here and you're doing it!"
Me: "I'm a mess!"
Christina: "You're amazing!"

Christina was very excited for me. She should be a motivational speaker. 

Background: I have been talking to Christina about wanting to do triathlons for years. Since 2012, I think. But it's never quite come together - and then I did that first sprint Tri last summer and bombed epically. I'd been texting her all week about how to prepare for this damn thing. Anyway, she had context, she knew this was a huge challenge for me, and also a huge dream. And she was proud. In the moment, though, I was not. 

I muddled through the rest of the swim like that, and I finished. How slow was I? Let's just say that all of the people doing the 1.2 mile swim that started with me? They beat me. But, I didn't quit. And I got there. Now? Onto the bike.

The bike was by far my favorite part of this race. Even though I baaaaarely know how to operate my road bike. I am not fast on the bike, but I like that you can just kinda kick back and decide how hard you want to work. For me, today, that was a gift. I spun along the course at a comfortable pace and I completed it. Now, it was no small task. Before today I'd probably been on my road bike no more than a dozen times. Total. Ever. I am still scared to clip in and out of the pedals. And, before today, I had never, ever, ridden this bike, or any bike, more than 20 miles. But it never felt long. It was quiet and private and the lake was beautiful as always. I finished the 35.4 miles and, as compared to the swim exit, I felt pretty fierce.

I got back to transition and Christina cheered me in and met me near my stuff. I changed into my running shoes and noticed that the bottom plate on one of my bike shoes had come almost completely off. Apparently I really WAS feeling zen out on the bike! I had no idea until I took off the shoe.

Anyway, the run. So, this is the part that's actually my sport. This is what I do. It was 5.6 miles. I ran 40 miles once. But, of course, that was not without training. And not after 35 miles on the bike.

OUCH! Sweet Jesus. This run was unpleasant. 

My quads rebelled like nothing I've ever felt before - including when I ran that 50 (40) miler on killer hills and technical terrain. So, I ran/walked it. Some people go into a race planning to do that. I defaulted to it and felt fine about it. I ran a little, I walked a little, and so on.

And, after all was said and done, I finished. I wasn't last. I almost was. And if I had been? Meh. I finished. Such as it was. 

Final thoughts:
  • I AM proud that I finished...because I started, and, well, I was very close to getting on a rescue boat and calling it a day.
  • I am NOT happy that I did this. It was not wise. Yes, I had the underlying fitness and innate athletic ability to complete the course. But I had no business being out there. I was presumptuous to think that I could or should do it without training. I shouldn't have. No one should.
  • I had a blast today. I was in pain a lot of the time, but I loved the event. Clint Agar and Duluth Running Co. do a tremendous job putting on this race. And everyone on the race course was so kind and supportive. It was a great atmosphere. I am grateful.
What now? Well, I have to figure out if this (the swim, mainly) is a demon I want to battle or something I want to let go of while I go chase other goals. I don't know yet. Both times I've done a triathlon the swim has been extremely traumatic. Terrifying, really. That said, in talking to other triathletes, I know my experience isn't abnormal. I also haven't ever really trained, or practiced, swimming. So to write it off now might be a bit premature. And also a lame excuse.

Anyway, I march on with my plan to be #FITfor40. I honestly do not know what's next, other than continuing to show up for classes with Julie and Mike. Stay posted. 

Here are some shots from the day:

Transition Area a Dawn

I really "tore it up" on the bike course!

Bike to Run Transition
Almost there!

Yay! A friend! (Thanks Christina!)

The Finish

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Facing Fears & Chasing Goals

It's amazing what we can accomplish when we get out of our own way.

"Are we swimming Friday or Saturday?" Julie texted me this annoying question on Wednesday of last week. Crap, I thought. She never forgets anything. A couple weeks before I had told her that I wanted to work on curing the fear and terror with which I associated open water swimming and asked her if that is something that she could work on with me. I knew that Julie, and her husband Mike, have done many triathlons and that it is part of the palette of training services that they provide. That said - even though I posed the question, it wasn't something I was actually anxious to do...

In June of 2016 I participated in my first triathlon. I didn't write about it because I wasn't blogging at the time, but it was an eventful, and fairly traumatic, experience. The race was a short, sprint triathlon in my mother's hometown of Fairmont, MN. I hadn't ever swum in open water before - and had only truly learned how to swim laps in a pool in 2012 - but it was only 400 yards, so I figured I could muscle through. I was wrong. It was 90 degrees, so I wasn't wearing a wetsuit. And I couldn't have worn one if I wanted to. (More on that below). Anyway, about 15 yards into the race, I started to have a total panic/asthma attack. I couldn't breathe. I was terrified. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. Thankfully, there was a kayak nearby and I grabbed on and tried to pull myself together. Long story short, that kayak followed me the entire length of the swim and I made it back to shore by alternating breast stroke with breaks while hanging onto the kayak. Needless to say, I was dead last - by a long shot - when I exited the water. But I still enjoyed the day. I got on my bike and was able to pass a lot of people, which helped me feel like slightly less of a moron. But I was completely shaken. I had intended to do several more triathlons throughout the summer. I scrapped those plans.

Fast forward to last week, when I am texting Julie about having a lesson. "Listen, I told her. I don't think my wetsuit fits. I bought it in 2012 when I was 25 pounds lighter. I tried putting it on last summer, by myself in my living room, couldn't get it on, and cried." The lakes are warming up here in Northern Minnesota, but they are still pretty cold. "Bring it anyway," she said. "You may just need some help."

Anyway, yesterday morning I found myself up at Pike Lake, standing in the parking lot, spraying myself with lubricant, and preparing to stretch a tight piece of rubber over my not-so-tight body. While Julie pumped up her inflatable stand up paddleboard (or SUP, as I was informed) I prepared to face my first demon of the day: putting on my wetsuit.

Now, it's not just the cold water that made me want the wetsuit. (Remember, I considered using it on that 90 degree day last summer before I realized that it no longer fit.) I am a weak, and fairly new, swimmer and I've been told over and over again how much the wetsuit helps. I desperately wanted to be able to try this out and see if I could face my open water swim demons head on with the help of little bit of buoyancy. While the prospect of trying, and possibly failing, to get my wetsuit on was scary and rather humiliating, the thought of swimming in the lake without it might have been an outright deal breaker.

Much to my surprise and delight: WE GOT IT ON! And it wasn't even that terrible! Following the crying/wrestling-with-my-wetsuit-by-myself-in-my-living-room-incident-of-2016, Coach Wendy had told me that her husband Tim, an experienced triathlete, couldn't get his wetsuit on without help. But when I initially purchased mine five years ago, I could. So instead of just finding help and trying, I shamed and blamed and hated myself and my extra 25 pounds for an entire year and simply abstained from pursuing my goal of not only swimming in a lake, but also participating in triathlon at all.

She's in!

Now, as pleased as I was to get into the wetsuit, I still had no idea if I'd be able to swim. I assumed there was still a strong possibility that I would have a panic and/or asthma attack and call it a day. Both Julie and I went into the session knowing that it may be a total bust. But I also knew that I had to at least try.

As I waded into the lake and crunched my toes on zebra mussels, I told myself to just stay calm and not get ahead of myself. What I wanted most to get from the day was to get in there, to move around a bit, and to know that with practice and effort, I'd be able to do it some day. Well, it turned out that some day was yesterday. First, it's true what they say about the wetsuit: it's basically cheating. It keeps you afloat so you can truly just focus on your stroke (as opposed to having to focus on surviving and not dying). But second, I was for some reason in the right head space, with the right instructor, at the right time, to just keep my wits about myself, go after it, and succeed. And there I was. Swimming across a lake.
First steps

She swims!

Thanks as always to Julie for the encouragement and the lesson. Destination Fitness indeed. 

I was feeling so empowered that I went home, threw my road bike in my car, and took it for a 17-mile spin up the north shore. I hadn't been on my road bike since last July due to another silly, debilitating mental block. More on that one next time. 

Just past Brighton Beach on the side of scenic hwy 61 - ready to head out

It's amazing what we can accomplish when we get out of our own way.


Monday, May 29, 2017


To start things off with my #FITfor40 challenge, I wanted to get some baseline measurements of both me and my fitness level. I like numbers. I like objective assessments. I like seeing my progress (and knowing when I need to kick it up a notch).

I started last Sunday with a MAF treadmill test. I've done this treadmill test for years, so I am able to see the result and know what it means about my own, personal fitness level. I first started using my heart rate as part of my training in 2007, when I first Melissa Simmens. Melissa was initially a personal trainer I hired at my gym while living in Columbia, MD. She's since become an great friend and training partner. Melissa is an experienced ultramarathoner and only made her own, real breakthrough progress in endurance training when she started paying attention to her heart rate. So many people undertake run training with a constant goal of seeing how fast they can run every single time they lace up their shoes. I used to do that too and it never worked. That is to say, I was never able to truly develop an aerobic system that allowed me to run longer distances at faster and faster speeds. Melissa changed all that.

I don't train completely by heart rate, but I do pay attention to it. And I love doing my own, mini version of a MAF test whenever I decide to get serious about building my aerobic fitness. What I do is this: I get on the treadmill, with a HR monitor, and run for 60 minutes (0% incline) at my MAF HR (currently 142 beats per minute) and see how far I go. Then, as I train and get fitter, I do it again...and I see improvement. That is, at the same HR, and for the same amount of time, I run farther. Every time I try to just train "by feel" I always end up going back to a MAF test and focusing on my HR training. It's the only thing that has ever worked and that has ever allowed me to make real progress in my run fitness. For me, it's been the fastest, most reliable way to truly get into shape.

So I did that last Sunday. On kickoff day. My half birthday.

Then, on Wednesday, I did some personal training with Julie that included both body measurements and fitness testing. I don't have a whole lot to report on that now, except that, like the MAF test, it gave me baselines against which I will compare my progress three months from now. It was fun. I love personal training sessions with Julie. She's great in group classes, but one-on-one time is a different kind of fun. More on Julie, and our history, in a later post.

And, while I'll refrain from posting my general "before" pictures at this stage in the game, I will share this one from my wall-sit test. Which, by the look on my face, I took very seriously!

"You have a perfect 90-degrees! I have to take a picture...stay right there." -Julie

So, there we are. For now. I am still working on developing a plan for my running. For now, I am just getting in a few miles here and there. And while that feels good, I do need to start planning and implementing something a bit more formal. Cheers! #FITfor40.

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Sunday, May 21, 2017

Fast-Twitch Follies: #FITfor40

It's been three years since my last post. There's no mystery as to why that is. In short: I've become unfit, unmotivated, overweight, and uninspired. The completion of my 50 for 35 challenge (if not the race) was an epic achievement. I was very proud. I graduated from law school a week after running 40, hilly, miles of trail: another epic achievement. But after that, life got complex, confusing, upsetting, and just plain hard. It happens.

I've tried, throughout these past three years, to regain my fitness. I miss it. Terribly. I miss feeling good in my body and in my skin and in my soul. I miss having reasons to feel proud and fierce. I miss having the ability to go for long runs and for hilly-scary-difficult runs, and to participate in running events. I've still participated in a few races here and there...but it's been unfulfilling and frustrating - despite the only intention being to just show up. I'm a born athlete, I'm a natural athlete, and I get a lot of my positive energy and positive reinforcement from the universe by being an athlete. Now, this is all in the eye of the beholder - I get that. I can still call myself an athlete. The reality is: I am not happy with myself and I am not being honest with myself. And that unhappiness goes beyond fitness. My life has taken twists and turns that were not what I wanted, not what I imagined, and that have caused me excessive amounts of pain, illness, heartbreak, and disappointment. Not only have I struggled with my physical well-being, but also with pretty serious health diagnoses that are not new, but that have reared their ugly head more and more over the past few years.

Anyway, I decided it's time to just stop the madness. All of it. There is only so much I can control, but there is a whole lot that I can control. One thing I believe that I can grab by the horns, slam on the breaks, screech a 180, and steer in a different direction, is my physical fitness and by proxy my overall wellness.

Welcome to FIT for 40. Or, since we are in the era of social media: #FITfor40. Why? Because why the fu** not?

What is #FITfor40? Well, I am not exactly sure...yet. But I have a ton of ideas, and a ton of goals, and currently a ton of inspiration. I want to keep it rollin'...

Of note: My 40th birthday is 18 months from today, on November 21, 2018. I have decided that I want to snap myself out of my funk, re-engage with my innate physical abilities, tap into my former athlete, and get myself back to doing things epic.

So, stay tuned. And, if you'd like, I hope you'll join me on this adventure. You don't need to be unfit, or frustrated, or flirting with 40 to join me or this challenge. All you have to have is a desire to start engaging in physical fitness - and healthy living - more than you are right now.

So why am I saying all of this "publicly" (to the four of you who will read this)? Because it helps to say things out-loud, even if it's the social-media version of out-loud. It helps because it makes it real, it makes a "thing," and it makes me accountable. I am nostalgic for the focus and dedication I had while I was fundraising and training for my 50-miler. And while this is a different sort of journey, I am still committed to making it real and not just an idea in my head or my private journal.

So, what am I gonna do? Well, that's also a work in progress...more to come in ensuing posts. I am gonna start by signing up for a few races: organized events are key for me and while my goal is to be better equipped to participate in them at a higher level, for now I am going to throw myself back into the mix and remind my body what it feels like. I also plan to get back to regular, and intensified, run training, and to kick up my attendance record in classes and with my trainer at Destination Fitness. I'll also be working with my trainer on doing fitness tests and measurements at three month intervals throughout this process; I like measuring concrete, objective progress!

I've learned so much from running, and training, and experimenting with my fitness and abilities through the years. I hope to share some of that here. I also hope to explore some new training methods and fitness ideas and share those too. I've run over 20 half marathons, 10 marathons, and a couple of ultramarathons. -- And all this for a girl who excelled in, and is better suited to run, the 100 meter dash!

And, as with my 50 for 35 challenge, this entire journey will culminate with an attempt at one, epic physical challenge.

FIT, for me, means: Fierceness, Integrity, Tenacity.

I'm also on twitter with a new handle. For my twitter photo, I chose a day in 2012 when I was, perhaps, more inspired than I have ever been: In London, after watching one of my dearest (and fittest!) friends pour her heart out in the Olympic marathon. Watching the race that day I was inspired to work hard to get the most out of myself,...whatever that is. I don't think I've done that yet. And I'd still like to try. I have 18 months until I turn 40, and while there's truly no deadline, in those 18 months I intend to focus on getting my body, and my mind, #FITfor40.