Monday, March 26, 2018

“I Swam 9,000+ Yards Today. Now I’m Really Tired.”

I found my swimming practice journal from 1999 when I was a 15-year-old sophomore in high school. Most entries pretty much look like this: “I swam 9,000+ yards today. Now I’m really tired.” And when I got too tired? I took the “day off” and ran five miles instead.

1999 Swimming Practice Journal
Seriously. Page after page of this little blue spiral bound notebook documenting my daily exhaustion. I don’t know how I did it. My workouts were even longer and more frequent the year after that at Mercersburg Academy. I remember at least one of my teachers wrote on my midterm report, “I think Anne will have better class participation when the swim season ends.” That was a very tactful way of saying, “Anne falls asleep in class.”

Now I rarely swim over 5,000 yards per workout, and, thankfully, I’m not quite that tired every day. But some days I am exhausted. Some days my body hurts so bad, my muscles so sore, so twisted up in knots that I wonder how I can get out of bed let alone swim a few thousand more yards. Some days I wonder, why do I do this? I am not going to make the Olympics, or even the Olympic trials, I’m not going to break any national or world records. Hell, I’m a long shot from breaking the local masters swimming league records in my age group. So, what’s the point?

I think my massage therapist—whom I see monthly as part of my training—said it best: “You must really love swimming. Not everyone’s lucky enough to find something they love to do.”

And I thought, I do love swimming. And I am lucky. Swimming allows me to have some structure to my time, helps me create goals, and keeps me healthy—physically and emotionally.

So maybe some days I am very tired, and my muscles feel like a mangled, messy, mass, but it’s a worthwhile trade off to do something that I love. I relate to what Dara Torres (the 41-year-old Olympic silver medalist in the 50 free at the 2008 Olympics) wrote in her memoir: “I’d kept swimming because I wanted to – it made me happy and gave meaning to my life.” Of course, she was swimming as a career, and I’m swimming as a hobby in addition to my career. But still. I can relate.

I am less than three weeks away from my spring goal meet: 2018 Colonies Zones at George Mason University in Fairfax, VA. I am nowhere near my “Wildly Improbable Goal” time in the 500 free, but I have dropped seven seconds in it, almost five seconds in the 200 free, and about a half-second in the 100 free. I feel pretty good about that.

Here’s hoping for a few more (adult) best times at Zones!

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Setting the Baseline for My Wildly Improbable Goal in the 500 Free

I competed in the Germantown Masters Solstice Meet on December 2 because I wanted to set a baseline for my Wildly Improbable Goal for the 500 free. It was at a short course meters pool, so the meet had a 400 meter free, rather than a 500 yard free, but by the time I signed up, the 400 free was already sold out. Bummer. Almost didn’t sign up at all, but then my parents agreed to go with me. “Sounds like fun!” they said (not sarcastically).
Like old times, my dad wrote down my splits.

The pool was lovely: very deep and very bright, and there was a good stock of fast swimmers there from Baltimore, D.C., and surrounding areas. I felt good in warm ups, but as soon as I got out of warm ups, I got nervous! The 200 free was the first event, and I hadn’t been training or mentally preparing for that distance. I love the 200 free, have raced it a hundred times, but it’s a race that’s short enough that you’re supposed to sprint it, but long enough that you can fall apart if you sprint too hard or too soon, especially without the right training.

But then my dad reminded me of the times I swam at the Elite Meet and Junior Olympics when I was 12 years old. There were 28ish heats of 11-12 year old girl’s 200 free, and I was seated first at both (and won both, too). “That’s a lot of pressure, to be seated first out of that many swimmers,” he said. But there certainly wasn’t any pressure at the masters meet. I just needed to get my starting point, my baseline.

During the race, my stroke felt long and smooth and powerful. I was in lane one, but I could see no one near me – I was ahead of everyone, which included a mixed age heat of mostly men and one other woman. By the end of lap 6, I started to feel tired, felt a heaviness in my shoulders, but by then I only had two laps to go, so I gave it what I had left. The results astounded me:

200m Free Results
  • 2:20.67 (roughly a 2:06.72 converted to yards, which is three seconds faster than my previous best adult time)
  • 1st place age group winner
  • Broke the meet record for my age group by just over two seconds
  • 2nd place female overall
Between races, I sat with my parents in the spectator gallery that overlooked the pool. We passed the program back and forth, marveling at the ages of some of the competitors (62, 74, 81). I told my mom she could be in there competing, if she wanted to. We cheered for one of my childhood teammates as she swam the 50 backstroke. Soon, it was 100 free time.
Winning my heat of the 200 free
The 100 free is a pure sprint: just go out fast and hold it. This was my best, most competitive event when I was younger. But still I felt no pressure to do anything in particular. I had an end lane again, lane 8, but it didn’t matter because I was competing against myself, against the clock. I felt great for the whole race, though of course felt the fatigue in my legs and shoulders by the last 25. I didn’t have a great second turn, but it wasn’t hugely detrimental, though noticeable enough that my parents asked about it afterwards. But despite that, I did way better than expected:

100m Free Results
  • 1:03.99 (roughly a 57.64 in yards, about a half second faster than my fastest adult time)
  • 1st place age group winner
  • Broke the meet record for my age group by just over two seconds
  • 3rd place female overall
My parents took me to a BBQ place on the way home, which was delicious and worth mentioning here because no swim meet excursion is complete without an epic meal with family and/or friends.

Couldn’t have been happier about my races. Set a great baseline. It shows that the way I’ve been training lately has helped, so I will keep it up.

I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Wildly Improbable Goals: Swimming a 4:59.99 in the 500 Free

As a competitive swimmer, I learned to set SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time) goals.
For example, when I was 10, my goal was to break a minute in the 100 yard freestyle, and I did it when I was 11.

And then I wanted to break two minutes in the 200 yard freestyle, and I eventually did that, too.

Later I wanted to break five minutes in the 500 yard freestyle. 4:59. But I never did. At a 5:11, which I did as a 15-year-old high school sophomore, I never even got close.

When I returned to swimming as an adult, I knew I’d have to set new swimming goals. There was no way I would ever be as fast as I was when I was 15, half my life ago when I trained 10 times a week, often 8 to 9,000 yards per practice. Plus weights. And some running.

As an adult, even in “peak” training time, like when I trained for the 4.4 mile Great Chesapeake Bay Swim or USMS Nationals, I never trained more than three times a week, rarely logging more than 9,000 yards in a week, let alone in one workout.

But I started to wonder: how fast could I be if I trained like that again? Could I ever train like that again?

I found an old set of workouts that the college swim team coach sent home with us for a Christmas break. Last week, I completed one of the 5,000 yard workouts on the same intervals as I had in college with no problem. But, in college, I would have woken up the next morning and done another workout of the same caliber, and then again the next evening, too, and then again the next morning, and so on.
Swimming in College
Would I be able to do that again now? I don’t know. I mean, maybe. My body doesn’t recover as quickly as it used to, but maybe I could do it if I took time and built up to it. But why would I want to? What would be the purpose?

I don’t know why I’d want to...but I want to! I want to know how fast I can be. I want to know if I could ever break five minutes in the 500 free. OK. That’s outrageous, especially considering that the last time I raced it I went somewhere around a 5:55. But...what if?

Last year while hating my job and contemplating new career paths, someone suggested that I read Finding Your Own North Star: Claiming the Life You Were Meant to Live by Martha Beck. What I remember most was the discussion about Wildly Improbable Goals, which, as the name suggests, are goals that are wildly improbable—but not impossible.

Beck states that when you write down your goals, you create a search image: “Forming a goal, especially if you write it down and visualize it, creates a search image that programs your brain to focus on anything resembling or leading to that objective.” She means that if you have a goal and mean to achieve it, you will start to find—and seek—ways to make it happen.

So here it is: my goal is to break 5 minutes in the 500 free before I’m 40 years old.
Look, I don’t actually think I can break 5 minutes in the 500 free. The top time in the nation in my USMS age group this year was a 5:16. A commendable time, but still a far cry from a 4:59. The national USMS age group record, however, is a 4:46.92, set in 2012. So...improbable—but not impossible—for a woman in her mid-30s to break five minutes in the 500 free.

Although I don’t think I can break five minutes, I’m going to love trying to. I’m going to be wowed in some other way as I test myself and push my swimming body to the limits. For the first time in my swimming career, this goal feels like it’s more about the journey of accomplishing a goal, rather than about the goal itself.

I have a lot of questions about how I should approach this, but I feel confident I'll find ways to answer them. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Recovering from Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome: The Left Knee Edition

In my short running career, I have received (earned? accumulated?) the following running injuries that halted my training:

Stress fracture (fibula)
Walking Cast. Ended high school freshman year cross-country season.
Torn quadriceps
Ended high school freshman year track season.  I did not train for a running race until I started training for my first half-marathon about 16 years later.
Stress fractures (foot bones)
Soft cast. Ended training for my first half-marathon.
Nearly ruptured Achilles tendon
Walking brace. Luckily happened after my first half-marathon and (only) marathon.
Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome (a.k.a. runner’s knee) in right knee
Ended training for my first ultramarathon.
Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome in left knee
Ending training for general trail running/hiking.

I’m slowly recovering from my latest bout of knee pain. With the help of some PT exercises to strengthen a very specific part of my glutes, I’m running about three times a week, five miles at a time with no knee pain! I keep track of my workouts and paces, and I have definitely seen an improvement.

I missed running, and I’m thrilled to be building mileage again, but it’s discouraging to have my progress halted with each injury. It feels like I’m starting from scratch each time, even though I have kept up my fitness level through swimming.

Usually, it takes me at least three miles to warm up and feel good during my run. I haven’t quite gotten back to the point of feeling good—it’s all a struggle. My body feels heavy and slow, and I can feel that I’m not running as well as I had before my injury. With more training, I know that I’ll get back to feeling good again, but this in-between stage is frustrating. I want to push harder because I want to get faster, but I don’t want to push so hard that I get injured again.

I also have to consider my running goals. Do I want to train for the Ironmaster’s 50K again and hope I stay healthy and uninjured? Or do I just want to use running as cross-training to supplement my swimming goals? Or run to build strength/endurance for multi-day hikes? 

For now, I’m just going to slowly build mileage, keep up with my PT exercises, and see what happens in a few more weeks. 

Monday, July 24, 2017

On the Rocks 20-Mile Trail Race

I loved racing the 15K at On the Rocks last year in the 100+ degree heat so much that I wanted to run it again.

This year, like last year, had a loop course and participants had the option of racing one, two, or three laps. Last year the lap was a 15K; this year it was a completely different course and a slightly longer lap at 10 miles.

I would have loved to race three laps to complete my first 50K, but after spending most of my spring training for swimming and rehabbing a knee after a running injury, I knew I wasn’t in shape to do that yet. I debated for weeks between signing up for the 10-mile or the 20-mile event. I knew could actually race the 10 miles, but 20 miles would be a little long with my recent lack of running. If I did the 20-mile race, I’d have to go into it know it wouldn’t be a “race” but a supported training run.

If you know me, you know I love a challenge, so I signed up for the 20-mile run on the morning of the event. I knew there would be an aid station every three miles, so I decided not to run with a hydration pack. I had never relied so heavily on aid stations before.

And although I told myself it was a training run, I got to the starting line and felt all of the nervous/excited flutter of a race in my gut. So I took it out like it was a race. I mean, I tried not to take it out too fast, and I definitely could have gone faster in the first 10 miles if I knew I was stopping after one loop. But it was still probably too fast given that I had another 10 miles to go and I had barely been running 20 miles in a week let alone in one morning.

My 10 mile split—1:52—was about two minutes faster than my 15K time at this event last year! I saw my boyfriend after the first loop and he helped me get through the aid station. Said I looked strong. It was hot, but not as hot as last year. Humid, but bearable. My clothes were so drenched I could wring them out.

But it quickly went downhill from there, and I don’t mean literally downhill. I was tired after 10 miles, but my body felt OK. As I neared 11.5 miles, my body started to rebel. I felt the tightness in my hips that slowly crept down my thighs. The calluses on the sides of my big toes started to pulse. My skin was salty and I knew I needed to replenish, but the aid stations mostly had sugary foods.

The 10 mile race started a few minutes after I made my first loop, so the faster runners in that event kept catching up and passing me; even though I knew they were in a different race, it was difficult mentally to watch so many people pass me.

I got some salty potato chips around 13 miles and felt OK for the next mile and a half, then I felt tired and sore again. I slowed my pace but kept going. Hiked fast uphill and ran when I could. At the next aid station, around 15.5 miles, I grabbed more to eat and drink. The volunteers told me they thought I was the lead female runner for the 20-mile race. I knew some women had passed me, but they must have been in the 10-miler.

Again, I felt OK for a mile and a half after that aid station but then plummeted again quickly after that. I had to walk more than I wanted, even on easier terrain, just because I was so tired. My calves started to cramp up and if I ran on them, it felt like they could move into a full-blown charley horse. My watch hadn’t been fully charged, so it stopped giving me my pace and mile splits, so I didn’t know how far I was from the next aid station. It felt like it was taking forever. But I did eventually make it to the aid station where I refueled, re-hydrated, and got some ice for my wrists and neck. I needed a break, so I spent a lot of time there, watched more 10-milers pass me, but I know I needed to pause there for as long as I did. As I left the aid station, the volunteers told me I had three miles to go.

The next mile and a half felt OK, but again I crashed. And the last two miles of the loop were the hardest because they were mostly uphill. I felt slow and discouraged. But I reminded myself why I was there: it was a training run. I wanted to do the event because I wanted to spend a few hours roaming around in the woods, which is exactly what I was doing, even if I was just walking slowly. So that took some pressure off. I’m not sure I could say I enjoyed the last two miles, but I knew I would make it to the end.

And I did make it! I finished in 4:26:08, which means my second 10 miles was a half hour slower than the first.

I knew I was under-prepared for 20 miles, but I was pleased with myself for finishing. I learned a lot of useful things that I can use in future long training runs or races, such as carry salty food or salt tablets and don’t be afraid to walk when needed. I got an idea of what my body will feel like and what I can push through for the next time.

I posted on facebook that I felt like I wanted to die: I had a hard time catching my breath even though I had walked most of the last two miles. Legs hurt. Hungry. Tired. Tender feet. All of those typical running ailments. But I gave myself time to rest, ate some pizza and chocolate chip cookies, and I felt better—but not recovered.

I was the top female in the 20-mile race, and got 4th place overall, which is more because of the low number of participants (21 total finishers—there were more but some dropped out after one loop) than my speed. But still. Not bad for my longest-ever trail race.

Friday, July 21, 2017

4.4 Miles Great Chesapeake Bay Swim 2017

I was accepted by lottery to race in the 4.4 mile swim across the Chesapeake Bay in early 2017, so I spent the next six months training for it, which included a 100x100 workout with some friends about a month before the race.

I completed the Bay Swim in 2015 with a wetsuit but without much training. I did well, though, getting 2nd place in my age group and finishing under two hours, but mid-way through my shoulder gave out and I spent the rest of the summer rehabbing it.

So, for this year, I had a few goals:

  • Train enough that, at the very least, I wouldn’t reinjure my shoulder
  • Compete in the non-wetsuit category (which makes it more difficult and slower but more comfortable for me)
  • Go under two hours again
  • Win my age group (not that it mattered, but I was hopeful)

Sunday, June 11 was the perfect day for an open water swim. It was in the 90s, clear, sunny. The water temperature was about 71 degrees, so I didn’t need a wetsuit for warmth.

My boyfriend drove to the event with me in the morning. We parked and then got on separate shuttles—he to the finish line and me to the start—and didn’t see each other again until I finished the race over three hours later. I’m so grateful when family and friends come to support me at these events, and a little baffled that they’re willing to wait for so many hours when they only see me compete for a few seconds. Even if I can’t see them for most of the day, it’s very comforting to know they’re there.

I found some swimming friends on the shuttle and sat with them in a shady spot at Sandy Point State Park after we checked in and while waited for the start of the second wave of swimmers. Although I had swum it before, my nerves kicked in—the excited kind! I had trained, prepared as much as I could with the time I had. So I just had to get in there and trust the training.

At the start, I was relieved when I felt the water: nice and cool and refreshing. I swam a little crooked, I think, getting out to the bridge from the shore, but then was able to swim relatively straight. We were meant to use the two bridges as lane ropes: stay between them at all times or get disqualified. I hugged the left side until about ¾ of the way through, then hugged the right side till the end. The water was calm enough, though it did get wavy. There were long stretches when every time I tried to breathe to the side, I got a face full of water in my mouth. So I’d have to look straight up to breathe instead. My right hand went numb about half way through. And my left shoulder started to twinge around mile three. But otherwise, I felt great. I just kept swimming, stroke after stroke after stroke.

When I got to shore at Hemingway Marina’s beach, I ran (sort of) up a small hill to go through the finish line. Remembering how I had a dirt beard the last time I swam it, I tried to wipe it off as the volunteers collected my timing chip from my ankle and paper number out of my swimming cap.

I walked through the gauntlet of spectators to get to the food tables where I downed a bottle of Gatorade, a bottle of water, a 6-inch sub, and two chocolate donuts all within about five minutes. My boyfriend found me as I was getting water, congratulated and embraced me, and then told me I was filthy. Get it off! I said. With what? he asked. He said he needed to take a photo first, which he did, then he wiped the dirt off of my face with his bare hands.
So, did I meet my goals this year?

  • My shoulders ached for a few days after the race, but it was just muscle soreness and I was back to normal about a week later.
  • I did not wear a wetsuit, which, again, made me slower but it was more comfortable.
  • I went under two hours again, and did almost the exact time I had done in 2015 1:56:58.
  • And I won my age group!

Other results:

  • 1st place in my gender/age group out of 15
  • 19th woman overall out of 198
  • 101st overall out of 621 finishers (a few more than that dropped out during the race)
  • 6th woman in the non-wetsuit category 46
  • 22nd overall in non-wetsuit category out of 145

Loved it! Happy I did it and did well, especially after putting the time and effort into the training for months. Felt a little burnt out on swimming for a few weeks afterwards, but I’m starting to swim again now, about six weeks later. There may be a two-mile or 5K swim for me at the end of the summer...

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Ragnar PA: 200+ Mile Relay Race from Stauffer Park Lancaster to Mount Pocono

Ragnar PA: 200+ mile 6- or 12-person relay race from Stauffer Park Lancaster to Mount Pocono.
Team Name: Fleet Feet’s Feet Fleet
I was privileged to be invited to run on the Fleet Feet Mechanicsburg’s Ragnar PA Relay Team on June 2 – 3, 2017.

There are many sources through which you can get the logistical information about Ragnar Relays and how they’re set up, so I’m going to skip that here and give you my insights about this event.

I call it an “event” because, although it was a race, I never felt like we were in a competition. It was a goal-oriented team task in which we had to safely run from one point to another while driving large decorated vans, not sleeping, and following an entire manual of event rules and regulations.

And although getting “kills,” a.k.a. passing people while we were running, was a fun way to keep ourselves motivated, it was much more about the camaraderie. I loved the upbeat, positive attitudes of every member on our team, our determination to work together to complete our journey, and the unwavering support we gave each other.
We had a 12-person relay, so we each ran three legs of varying distances and elevations. My three legs were 6.3, 6.5, and 7.1 miles and pretty hilly. I was just coming off a knee injury in which I spent four weeks in physical therapy and who knows how much money rehabbing it, so I had not been running for probably two months, then I trained for two weeks, then ran in this event.

So I was worried that a) I wouldn’t be in good enough shape to complete my legs at the speed I wanted to complete them, and b) that I would reinjure my knee. I realized early on that no one cared how fast I ran—just that I ran, had a good time, and supported the rest of the team. Happily I did just that and did not reinjure my knee :)

I was runner #11 of 12, so by the time I ran my first leg, it was 3 p.m.-ish (our start time was 6:45 a.m.) and I was more than ready to go. I took out my first mile in 7:20 (ha) but then evened out my splits in the low 8 minutes range.

I ran my second leg around 2:30 a.m. in the dark wearing a mandatory headlamp and reflective vest and blinking light on country roads with no lights except the occasional Ragnar van headlights. I did not see another runner for about 4.5 miles of that 6.5 mile leg. This wasn’t as fast as my first leg, but it was my favorite to run and made me want to do more night running—though preferably on trails.
My third leg, which I ran around 3 p.m. the next afternoon after getting maybe an hour of light sleep in the past 32 hours, was the hilliest and slowest. I had a hard time breathing during the leg and immediately after—possibly had an allergic reaction to something in the air because my eyes were burning so badly that I occasionally couldn’t open them—and I thought about asking a teammate to sub in for me, but I didn’t. I was slower than I hoped, but and I was able to finish it on my own.
I have not looked at roads the same since this event. Now when I’m driving in my car I think, “I wonder what it would be like to run this. Maybe I could run this route.” Every road becomes a practice course. I consider commute running—running not just for the joy of it or the exercise, but to get to places, like the gym, the post office, the ice cream shop.

I knew when I was selected for this team, this event that I was embarking on something special and this team, this event exceeded all expectations.