Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Loco One

I ran from work yesterday. I have just as many directions to begin my foot travel as anyone else, in any other location, although some are significantly better than others in some respects. I work in a very urban environment, and to escape this, yesterday I decided to travel just under 2 miles north to the Vollintine Evergreen Greenline. This incredible path in the middle of the city is a 1.7-mile cinder-surfaced old railway. It's great to run on, and gives us urbanites another off-road path to add to our favorite joint-saving Overton Park trails.

The most direct path to the Greenline took me up Cleveland, one of our crosstown north-south thoroughfares. This part of town, between midtown and downtown, in the medical district, is very diverse. Midtown is always proud of its diversity, but I would argue that Cleveland Avenue by itself rivals it. I started taking notice of this when a Spanish-speaking man hollered out to me. I usually don't put much thought into what people are yelling at me while I run, but it suddenly occurred to me that my shorts were emblazoned with "LOS LOCOS" across the butt. I can only imagine what the other Hispanics in the area were thinking of me, one of the few Caucasians and definitely the only person running down the street with "the crazy ones" written on her butt.

And what about the other ethnicities? Cleveland is home to one of the best Vietnamese restaurants in town, Saigon Le, among a few other Asian restaurants and many Asian markets, a Latino market, and a Lebanese restaurant. Then there are variety stores, a permanent indoor flea market, Thong's auto repair, a huge abandoned Sears warehouse, and a nail salon on every corner.

Finally, right across from the old Sears building, I reached the trail. This time of year is perfect running weather, even at 4 p.m., when I went. I was met by budding trees and bushes, countless irises, and friendly dogs and their owners. I ran over bridges, next to streams, under a canopy of new spring leaves. I heard no more cars honking, but instead only the crunch of my shoes hitting the cinder. I smelled no more exhaust and fumes, but instead the fragrance of the flowers. I saw no more trash lining the street, but instead flowers lining the trail.

The trail is only 1.7 miles long right now, but if we support the rails-to-trails program in Memphis called The Greater Memphis Greenline, we may in the near future have 13 more miles of (this time, paved) paths to travel on, right in the middle of the city. Go check it out and support the health of your city.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Holding My Breath

I'm holding my breath, quite literally, for the time when I have a swimming breakthrough. Tuesday morning I went to my usual master's swim, a little late, of course. It was less crowded than usual, which means that I have to lead a few sets more than the normal one out of five. In the lane with me were two guys, one of which, the amazing Charlie, I encouraged to a 1:45 100-yarder a few years ago during my "triathlon class." That same Charlie is now killing me in the pool.

After a warm-up, shortened by my inability to get up when the alarm goes off, and a long pull set, we did 6x200, one easy, one hard. That meant that each of us got to lead an easy one and a hard one. I got the second set, with Charlie hot on my tail. I cruised through the easy one then really tried to push it for the hard one. I really did it all for Charlie's sake. Actually I don't know if it's my pride that makes me want to be so fast that he doesn't have to tickle my feet (or my calves, when he gets really aggressive with his push-offs), or my sympathy for his having to swim behind a slow one like me. Whatever it was motivating me, I swam my little brains out for 200 whole yards. I was cruising at a nice pace through 100, tried to pick it up for the next 25, then hit a wall somewhere in the middle of the pool-- who put that there? I flailed and thrashed around until I made it the rest of the way, reminiscing with the 3 brain cells that were still functional in their oxygen-deprived state, about my brief stint on the Rhodes College swim team.

Yes, friends, I was on a swim team. It was a brief encounter with fear, anxiety, and near-death. My senior year in college there was a new varsity (D3) team at school, and being the seasoned triathlete that I was (I'd done like 8 races by then), I thought it would be no problem. Maybe Coach Steve's snicker when I told him my furthest distance swum was 2200m should have clued me in. But no, I joined the team the day after the regional cross country meet, a full two months after they had started practicing. The first day of practice happened to be an easy day. Really! It was 900m total. Even I could handle that. Maybe this swim team thing wasn't so bad after all. What are all these people complaining about?

My second day was quite different. After a little warm-up we did 1600m of Indian-trail style swimming. If you've ever done this running, you know it consists of a single-file line at a steady pace with the person at the end sprinting up to the front. Swimming this workout is basically of the same design; however, you have these things called walls to deal with. I know several times I couldn't even make the pass within the 25m length of the pool. After that mile was over, I'm sure we kept swimming. I think I blacked out.

During those winter months we had quite an advantage. The Rhodes pool is covered in a bubble at that time, and inside that bubble with the warm water and cold air, it is a thick fog. Steve really couldn't see what was going on even halfway down the pool and I hated backstroke. When I got to where I knew I was out of sight during my "backstroke," out came the freestyle. If he knew, he never said anything.

Usually I was so far behind everyone else in the slowest lane, that they would have already left for their next interval well before I completed the first one. I would be going at about 99%, I'd reach the wall, and the coach would say, "take 5 seconds, Joy!" Thanks Steve. So I'd take 5 panting breaths and push off again.

He'd let me do only the 50 freestyle in most meets, bless his heart. One time I got to do a C-team relay and was the breaststroker for the team. I must've either done a decent job or just impressed my teammates so little before, that many approached me with a look of confusion after the race and said, "wow, you can do breaststroke!" and "maybe you should've been doing the breaststroke this whole season."

Then came the conference meet. I had to do my usual 50 free and also the 100 free. I was so nervous and excited (like an anxiety-filled, wet-your-pants excitement) that I sprinted off the block. By 55 yards, the blackness was creeping in and the gulps of air were consisting of a larger and larger percentage of water. Everything burned, my head was throbbing, and I thought I was going to drown. To this day I'm not sure how I lived through that.

Hours later Steve approached me. "I'm pulling you out of the 200 free." My head was still spinning from my brush with death. "I'm sorry, the what? I was entered in what?" I had mistakenly thought the punishment had ended and I was free to breathe nothing but pure air for the rest of the meet. Steve was actually rewarding me, and more than he knew. My perfect attendance at practice and my effort, despite my lack of ability, had won me the get-out-of-jail-free card. At least that's what he told me. I think it was the blue face of hypoxia he saw when I exited the water after that 100 free.

I have PTSD-like flashbacks of those days every once in a while, so if you see me in the pool on the verge of a panic attack, or more likely, hyperventilating through an open-water swim, don't be surprised. I am still glad I went through that torturous 4 months, because now no workout will ever compare. Something about the abundance of oxygen during exercise on land comforts me. But after swimming 20,000m weeks and working myself to death each and every morning at 6 a.m. (and this is quite a feat in college!), I'm still not significantly better at swimming. In fact, I can't quite make those intervals anymore. So I'm still holding my breath for the day when I have a breakthrough. It's coming, I can feel it in my little oxygen-starved brain!

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

I'm the Lucky One...

... to have these amazing girls be my friends and training partners. The picture above is Damie, Laura and me at last Sunday's Crawfish Festival. We were doing a little post-workout glycogen replenishing on some good ole light beer and... well, that's all. They ran out of crawfish before I could get my hands on any!

Laura is on her way to her first Ironman in July, in Lake Placid. She is counting down the days and I believe she has about 14 weeks left! As she mentioned on her blog, we met when she came to my "triathlon" class back in the day, which consisted of a spin class followed by some running or swimming. She had never done a triathlon just a few years ago, and has turned into this amazing triathlete who blows the competition away! She's going to be in the top 10 of her really tough age group in Gulf Coast in a few weeks.

Speaking of girls who started just a few years ago, Damie is in her 3rd season of triathlons and is going to join me in Panama City in Novemeber for her first Ironman. I had heard of the elusive "Damie" for months before she actually left the classroom and came out with us one night-- with class notes in hand. But I totally understood because I had been in the same exact class just 2 years before. I'm not nearly as tough, however, because I didn't stick around for the follow-up classes, or, oh yeah, graduation. You can see her toughness every day in training and her drive to be the best! I can't wait to watch her Ironman this fall. And my secret is that I'm only doing this IM because I get to train with Damie and Laura all summer. Shhhhh.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Happy Birthday Ethelyn!

My favorite person of all time, my great-aunt, Ethelyn, has a birthday today! Ethelyn is an amazing person for so many reasons that I can't even post them all, but here are a few:

*Ethelyn was the youngest of 5 children, 4 girls and 1 boy, and still lives in the house she was born in. Her brother was 19 years older.
*She was the only girl in her class in medical school -- class of 1945.
*She worked as a general practitioner for over 50 years in Senatobia, from her downtown office, making frequent house calls, and seeing patients on her back porch after (and before) hours.

*It cost $2 to see her. My mom remembers when it was $1, but all my life it was $2. (A guy tipped her once. He handed her a $5 bill and told her to keep the change.)
*She always has a good joke for me. She also has more funny stories than anyone I know.
*She hates parties and get-togethers, hates having pictures taken of herself, and would KILL me for putting a picture of her on my blog. But here she is teaching little Jackson how to drive her boat.
*She has taught more people to water ski than any of us can count. She gave up skiing herself when she was about 75. I still don't know why, and I think we can convince her to try again this summer.
*She's up for going to The Dam (Sardis Lake dam) anytime it's not too cold, not too hot, or not too windy. If it's any of those things, she'd rather go fishing. She's a great fisherman!
*She's the most patient person I know. She'll drag someone behind the boat for miles, reminding them to "keep your arms straight and your knees bent" over and over, and when they don't get up on the skis, she'll say it's her fault for driving the boat wrong.
*She taught me to fish, to hike creeks, to water ski, ride a horse, drive a car, drive a boat, dig potatoes, pick beans, diagnose hepatitis, and untangle anything (ropes, fishing line, etc.) by just shaking it loose.
*She takes care of people young and old, has delivered thousands of babies, adopted hundreds of animals, and made millions of friends.
*No matter where shes goes in the whole country, somebody will know her. She was just telling me about the time she and a friend were visiting somebody at the old Baptist Central. It was dark and late when they began their walk to the parking garage. Out of the shadows came a group of tough-looking young men. Just as she was starting to get nervous and think about how to protect her friend, one of the guys called out, "Hey Dr. Ethelyn! What are you doing up here?" I believe it was the Miami airport we were in on our way to Cayman one time that somebody else recognized her. It happens all the time.
*Police officers apologize for inconveniencing her when they stop her (which rarely ever happens!).
*She doesn't drive like a little old lady, even though she's probably older than most of them. In fact, she makes fun of how they drive. She can back down my parents' crazy driveway, back a boat into a very narrow garage, drive a tractor or a boat better than anybody. Except me someday. I learned how to do it from her.
*She has the most beautiful yard and garden that she works on all the time. Here are some pictures of her flowers.
There are so many more stories about Ethelyn I could tell! She is one amazing person. I wish that everyone had the opportunity to know someone like her. But really, there aren't any others like her.

Monday, April 14, 2008

The Trace

What a beautiful place to ride -- the Natchez Trace. It meanders for 444 miles from Natchez, Mississippi to Nashville, Tennessee. The parkway that now connects these cities is part of the National Park system, and it follows the trail that many boat captains would take in the late 1700s and early 1800s after steering their boats down the Mississippi. They sold the boats for lumber and walked back home along this corridor. They might not have been the first to use this path, since mounds dating back 2000 years are also found along the route.

This past Saturday a fully-supported century from Ridgeland was held on the Trace. The key to riding on this smooth, flat parkway is the support. Many hot months ago we drove out to Tupelo to ride the Trace, unsupported. Little did we know just how unsupported that would be. With a couple of granola bars and two bottles of water, you figure you can make it 30 or 40 miles, find a gas station or something, and refuel. However, gas stations and convenience stores are not to be found along this road. What we did find was a small rest stop about 30 miles into our planned century that provided us water, a good thing to have when it's 95 degrees outside. Turning around at 50 miles, we realized there wasn't much chance of coming upon a store or lone vending machine sitting on the side of the road. Getting desperate, hungry, and a bit hallucinatory, we pulled over at each side road and scenic view pull-off, just in case. JUST IN CASE. Finally, our savior came in the form of a manned hut full of parkway information and a COKE MACHINE! Of course it wouldn't take our dollar bills, but we had enough change to buy ourselves the most fantastic life nourishment ever to enter our mouths. We made it back to Tupelo on those 300 calories of coke and lived to tell the tale. Barely.

This weekend's ride on the Trace included cool temperatures, lots of riders to draft, and SAG stops every 12 miles. It also included some swirling winds, slivers of sunburned skin, and too many chocolate chip cookies.

The picture posted above is from Heatwave Triathlon, an early June, almost-Olympic-distance, non-draft-legal (honestly!) race on this same part of the Trace, that features fantastic, one-of-a-kind awards of local handpainted pottery. Another notable point of interest is the lake at which Heatwave takes place, Ross Barnett Resevoir. Two years ago the friend who I drove down with filled our drive with stories of the lake, in particular the latest story she'd read in the Commercial Appeal. It seems that in 2006 they legalized the hunting of alligators at the Resevoir, since the population had grown too large and it was time to start controlling it. Only later did I find out that the head count was not 300 alligators, as she'd told me, but rather 3000 alligators. The number of those that were over the 12-foot mark had increased enough that it was starting to become a threat to the pets of the residents living on the lake. What about the triathletes in the water with them?! Needless to say, I had two really hard, anxiety-filled swims at that race, if not fast times. And yes, I went back a second time even after knowing the gator population there is twice that of the my entire college campus. Most of my bike ride is filled with scanning the banks of the lake for funny lumps and bumps and eyes protruding from the water's surface. But I haven't yet seen one, so my search isn't over. I'm sure I'll be going back again in June.
The alligator photo is taken from the Mississippi Wildlife, Fisheries, and Parks website. This was a 9-footer they've observed several times at RBR (he's been tagged), and this photo was taken on March 30th of this year. I think he could easily swallow me whole.

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Muddy Mississip'

My beautiful Mud Island park is flooded. In the picture you'll see the line of trees, beyond which the river usually follows its rocky boundary. Under the trees is a well-worn footpath, my favorite line to follow for an off-road run out my door. It's best at sunset, when the sky over Arkansas turns red and orange and the sun fades into the distant treeline. Too much after sunset, and you'll risk stumbling over a root or two, or in the summer, you won't see the large clouds of gnats that will also be oblivious to your presence, sticking to your sweaty arms, legs, and face.

It has been a few weeks since the waters first covered the grassy field that the hill of the bluff flattens into. The water has receded a few feet since its highest point, evident by the line of sticks and logs, old shoes and bottles, pieces of foam and styrofoam. But I doubt I will be able to run on my path for many more weeks. The water must fall further, the land has to dry.

The flooding of the Mississippi is one of those signs of spring, just like the blossoms of the trees, the nice warm temperatures, long spring bike rides. We finally brought spring to the mid-south after our Ride Into Spring on Saturday, which Laura has described well. I hope to be able to enjoy all spring has to offer before summer hits us full-force soon!

(Laura inspired me to get a picture of the trees that welcome me into my apartment complex this time of year.)

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Engine or Equipment?

What really matters more in sports, your equipment or your engine?

Damie and I have been talking about spending money on new bikes and wheels versus training programs and coaches. What's more important, and what is the best bargain for your money? Do we as amateur athletes who train 10-15 hours per week really need to be spending thousands on bikes that are a pound lighter, or a fraction more aerodynamic? Is that aero helmet going to make more difference than an extra few miles on the bike each week? Could I just swim an extra day each week, or should I pay Speedo, Adidas, or BlueSeventy a few hundred (make that $550 for the new Speedo LZR that takes milliseconds off world record times) bucks to make me faster?

(Thanks Norman, for modeling the BlueSeventy.)

As triathletes, it seems like we are hungry for quick and easy ways to make ourselves faster. Are we like overweight America who wants a pill to make them instantly lose weight? We rely on our gear to make us fast, and we blame our gear if we don't perform well. What about good old hard work? It's understandable that not everyone has an extra 5 or 10 hours a week to train. But that's not all of it. It the quality of training, the good nutrition, the rest and sleep.

I have to admit that I get caught up in this too. I have a skinsuit, an aero helmet, a carbon bike, and race wheels that I give sole responsibility to for the completion of my last Ironman. Of course, I had a really slow swim and a pain-filled painfully slow bike, but a run to be proud of. Hey, maybe it's the $85 shoes! Maybe I should invest in some $200 Newtons, because if I run well in my current shoes, I can only be better with technology...

Good Luck to Damie this weekend in her marathon!