Giving Tri a Try

june 2017 blog

My first triathlon almost did not happen.

Despite months of time and effort, not to mention a kind of spending I have never done before in pursuit of a goal,  I almost quit before getting to  the starting line of the TriMan 2017.

Like most first-timers, I was quite confident  I could nail the run leg. After all, I have done a couple of  marathons, several 21ks, 10ks and 5ks over the  years.

I was also  relatively certain I would enjoy the cycling leg.  I’ve been biking since I was 7. In fact, it  showed during our Cycling 101 practicals  where our  multiple  Iron Man coach complimented me for displaying a sense of balance that would  allow me to easily weave through the horrendous traffic of  the metro.

It was my swimming technique that I’ve always considered my weakest link.  You see I’ve never really been good at swimming. The most I could do was what Pinoys called  “langoy aso”  or dog paddle. Being a believer in  training and coaching,  I signed up not with one but two triathlon training cum coaching schools. Inside Track Athletics covered all three disciplines of multisport  while Swim Academy PH  focused on swimming. Both were ran by veteran Iron Man finishers. While I could be said to have gotten my money’s worth for being able to actually cross a 25m pool without a center snorkel after several months of training, my form is  still far from what Total Immersion founder Terry Laughlin calls the streamline position.  Not surprisingly, a month before the race  I could not swim a 25m pool without stopping for a couple of minutes  in between laps. As if to compound the challenge I was facing,  I traveled abroad unexpectedly three weeks before my first race.  Good thing I am blessed to have a family that supported my triathlon aspirations. They helped me redefine the word traincation as I hopped from one city to another.  To push myself, I set an ultimatum. If I am still unable to cross the 50m pool without stopping  a week before the race, I would abort the whole thing. Roughly 3 days before my race, I did a dry run at the actual pool that would be used for the TriMan 2017. My heart sank when I realized that while I can easily do 25m at a time, I still could not complete a 50m lap without stopping.

I forged ahead anyway.

Thanks to my   tri roadside angels.

Topping my list of heaven-sent tri support crew members is my wife who also happens to be my swim school classmate.  She pointed out that since there is no cut-off anyway, I should swim my swim, ride my ride and run my run. Never mind the bashers and haters.   Never mind the podium finishers and those who obsess about their finishing time. Never mind the onlookers and the photographers.  “Just complete your first race period.”  In the same breath, she  reminded me of all the time and effort I invested in my months of triathlon training along with its attendant financial costs.  All these  would go to waste if I decide not to push through.

And  then there’s my sister who is actually starting her swim class  next month.  She practically said the same thing  as my wife did albeit  in her signature colorful language: “Why not push through? You’ve signed up. You’ve trained. You’ve put in the time.  Sayang naman. (i.e., “It would be such a waste.”)  Go and see for yourself.  You’ll  never know until you try.” Looking back, she definitely had a point. If I withdraw from the race, I would never know the answer to the question, what would have happened had I  given tri a try?

Lastly, there’s my brother in law who has completed a number of Iron Man races.  He gamely provided me with a number of technical insights from articles  to videos  to address my swimming pain points. More importantly, he spent some time checking my technique and sharing  several hard-earned tri insights along the way.  He assured me I would eventually get the hang of it with enough feedback and pool time. “Just keep pushing,” he would quip.

And so it was that I steeled my nerve, prayed really hard and resolved to put my shot at my  perfect effort when I drove my way to Fontana last June 17, 2017, the eve of the 2017 TriMan.

Here’s how it played out.

“I, I wish you could swim like dolphins, like dolphins could swim” 

                                                                                     -David Bowie

Shortly before the start of the race, a number of participating triathletes warmed up in the pool.  When I saw that they were practically swimming effortlessly like dolphins from one end of the pool to the next,  I reprimanded myself for listening to the encouragement provided by my tri roadside angels along with the assurance of the SBR PH organizers that there is no cut-off time.  My strategy, you see,  was to do my best to swim 50m continuously. If such is not possible, my go-to was  to swim for 25m and rest in between.  In the course of completing the 3 sets of 300m loops in the Olympic size pool, I realized that a good number  of the participants could easily swim from one end of the pool to the next without stopping.  Their pace subsequently got in the way of my strategy as I found myself trying to keep up with them in the first 300m loop. This turned out to be a mistake as I paid for it later with  fatigue and exhaustion.  As if to balance my perception, I also noted that there were clearly other participants who also considered swimming their Achilles heel. In fact, a number of them walked in the pool so much so that the organizers called their attention on the PA system. Still others cut corners by not touching the wall thereby earning  gentle reprimands  from the organizers.  Their plight  unwittingly encouraged me to stick to my resolve to swim all the way even if it meant stopping to rest before continuing on.  My coach’s joking admonition kept playing in my head: “If you walk in the pool, I will disown you.” And so despite the preceding, despite my pace, despite the distracting presence of  a live audience, despite the photographers,  despite the well-meaning observers who would shout: “Kaya mo yan” or “Bubbles lang,” I sought to follow my strategy even if I had to stop to rest or to wait for those ahead of me to continue swimming  or to give way to the next wave of swimmers coming from behind. Thankfully, mercifully, eventually, I finally completed my first 900m race. “This too shall pass” has subsequently acquired a whole new meaning for me.

“And it takes a long time to go, to make it to the border of Mexico

so I ride like the wind, ride like the wind.”

                                                                               – Christopher Cross

From the swim leg, it was with  great relief that I ran-walked to the  so-called  T1 or Transition 1 where I surprised myself for not taking forever in  pinning my bib number, wearing my socks, shoes and helmet and mounting my bike.  As promised by the organizer,  the first 8 kilometers were all downhill so it really felt like that iconic Christopher Cross song.  That Clark Field happens to boast of wide open spaces and well-paved roads ideal for biking made the ride even more enjoyable. After my first U  turn though, I fidgeted with my gear shifting as I went uphill. Not as enjoyable but definitely interesting and challenging as I worked double time to figure out which among the many techniques I was taught would prove most useful to ride smartly.  The key was to have  enough energy and power  left for the run leg. Just like practice, I would stop every 10kms to drink water before continuing on.  It was during my three stops that I realized I forgot to bring along an energy drink and the requisite energy gels I have gotten used to taking every 10k.  As I completed the two loops comprising the 30km race course, I quietly thanked my coaches for making me do 60 km long rides on Sundays even if I was only preparing for a 30km bike leg.

“Running on, running on empty

running into the sun but I’m running behind.”

                                              – Jackson Browne

After dismounting  from my bike for the  5km race course , I was still pretty confident that I would finish strong.  Alas, the tactical errors I committed in the first two legs of  the race took their toll on my body.  The effort that went into the swim and my nutrition oversight during the bike leg along with the unbelievable heat  eventually slowed me down. Worse, the water stations ran out of water of all things.  And so what should have taken less than 30 minutes took considerably longer.   Consequently, I was literally a spent force when I  finally crossed the finish line.

As I was awarded my finisher’s medal, I had mixed emotions about my first triathlon experience.

Nothing can compare to the redemption of completing one’s first triathlon. I could truly say now that all those months of waking up early,   training with Inside Track Athletics and Swim Academy PH even on days I’d rather watch my favorite series and spending for the seemingly endless prerequisites of multi sport were worth it. It is happiness pure and simple. I’m glad I decided to push through.

Even as I celebrated my modest baby step, my first triathlon experience pointed me to two opportunity areas crying out to be addressed.  If I truly wish to   leverage my running experience and finish strong in my next sprint races, I need to double time on improving in these two areas.

There’s the mastery of the  streamline position in swimming which would inevitably make my breathing more efficient  and ensure that I use my legs for balance rather than propulsion. And there’s the  mastery of gear shifting to a point where I can easily adapt to the terrain without guessing.

“Padayon!” (i.e., Visayan for forge ahead.)  

june blog 2

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Move On

tbr2017k

“Life is  like  a box of chocolates,”  as Forrest Gump once put it,  “You’ll never know what you’re gonna get.”  Take my second stab at the full marathon last February 19, 2017. Up until the start of the second half which is where  my coaches point out  the real marathon starts, I was still hopeful that I would beat my personal best from 2016.  Alas, what played out was not what I thought things would turn out to be.

To be sure, one can easily argue that, notwithstanding my more elaborate marathon preparation this year compared to my preparation for my first marathon, my 2017 race results is clearly a failure. Numbers, as they say, do not lie. But, more than a week after I crossed the finish line, I am all the more convinced that it would be grossly unfair to me and those who helped me cross the finish line a second time to dismiss it as such.

You see I just recovered from a serious case of what is called the ITB Syndrome. Even worse, as I began training for my second marathon, I had to endure what turned out to be an  Achilles tendonitis on my right foot.  This was precisely why I decided to sign up for a series of therapy sessions and a triathlon coaching program. In my effort to figure out how to overcome my injuries, I came across several readings which pointed to triathlon as a tried and tested way of strengthening the runner’s legs even as it ups the ante of endurance training by introducing the runner to two other disciplines: swimming and cycling.  Part of my therapy session was a video analysis of my running form.  The year before I really appreciated the insights occasioned by the Chi Running video analysis that I invested in.  I was hoping to arrive at even more instructive insights.  I was not  disappointed as  I discovered through the analysis that my  left leg apparently  had faster ground contact compared to my right leg. To address this, I was advised to try two things: form the letter T with my thumb and forefinger to ensure my arms were not crossing when I ran and improve my cadence by investing in a metronome.  The theraphy sessions provide by PACE Prehab managed by Coach Francis Diano along with my determination and drive to stick to the 22-week plan designed by Coach Jim Lafferty,  The Bull Runner Dream Marathon (TBR DM) founder Jaymie Pizarro and Coach Lit Onrubia which in turn was modified by Coaches Noy Basa, Al Gonzalez and Pao Leano of Inside Track Athletics gave me hope  that I would not only  triumph over my injury. I would eventually achieve a PR this year.

Here’s how it  actually went down on February 19, 2017.

The Sweet  Half

A running skeptic in the office would often say, what’s the point of running long distances when you can always take the car or get an Uber or a Grab alternatively? He misses the point completely. Running a marathon  is not about getting from point A to point B. It is about the 22-week preparation and the 3 to 6-hour validation of one’s passion, hard work and dedication on race day itself. It’s about the journey rather than the destination, as the cliché goes.

Enjoy the journey I did particularly during the first 21 kilometers  of the race.  The festive atmosphere, the smiles of friends and fellow runners at the starting line  and  the encouraging words of the TBR Dream Chasers were more than enough to pump us up with enthusiasm and excitement as we started at 2am.  The cool temperature, the happy exchange of comments and stories among fellow runners, the endless cheering by past TBR alumni along the course track, the expansive  sky full of stars and, for the first time in  a long time,   my playlist in the background made the experience even more awesome.  It is not an exaggeration to say that the TBR DM experience is really such a powerful experience of pure, unadulterated energy, positivity and affirmation compared to  all the other races I’ve ran for the past 4 years. Nothing comes close.

The Bitter Half

As I  entered km 22, I started to detect muscle tightness on my right calf. It surfaced in trickles to a point where I thought it would go away.  Having gotten a preview of the experience in my past races and my recent LSDs,   I knew what to do.  I did what worked during my training particularly  the 30km practice run.  I ran backward and sideward every so often. I also walked uphill and ran downhill. By km 30, I saw a number of runners doing the same thing. Were they imitating me or did their coaches and teams also teach them the same thing?  I smiled at the thought.

Shortly after  going up the round-about for the second time, I modified my approach to  a 1- minute run, 2-minute  walk to lessen the muscle tightness which gradually became progressive. There was a routine though that I discarded upon my therapist’s  advice (i.e., forward leg swinging and sideward leg swinging), as he said it would just worsen the cramping. By the time, I got to the Miriam College uphill leg of the race course  for the second time, the 1:2 gave way to the lamp post technique I learned from both Coach Lit and Coach Francis. I stuck to this until I got to the u-turn of the Republic Wakeboard leg of the course. To my dismay, that was where the cramping practically  forced  me to stop dead in my tracks.  Remembering my coaches’ advice, I decided to walk.  The tightness appeared to lessen. To my horror, my left toes also started cramping along with my right calf.  Thankfully, I had the good sense to head for the nearest first aid station where I borrowed a foam roller stick. That helped a great deal. God bless the Dream Chaser who handed me a salt stick.

“How in the world could this happen to me despite all my preventive measures on top of following my training?,” I asked myself.  Consider the following: I’ve pumped my body with 500ml of buco juice every single day one week before the race. I was eating bananas daily 2 weeks before race day. I followed my race nutrition plan taking in energy gels  every 45 minutes. I did all the stops to sip water and interspersed the same with Gatorade even if I did not feel thirsty. I lost count of the number of bananas I ate on the race course when the muscle tightness started surfaced.  I followed the metronome setting of  180 strides per minute until it became problematic to do so.

As I made my way back from the junction, I decided to just walk off the rest of the race. I knew my target of  finishing within 5 hours was gone. I just smiled and muttered my thanks to the kind and generous Dream Chasers who cheered me on. I really wanted to run as I passed by them if only  to reward them for their kindness and generosity but I was terrified of repeating  my Run United 3 experience  where I limped to the finish line after I cramped at km 18. A number of the Dream Chasers, it turned out,  were my batchmates from TBR 2016 who gleefully cheered me on: “Takbo, Von, takbo!” “Von, may camera, run!” I just smiled at them after waving  and sharing  that I have cramped.

My heart sank further as I passed by Head TBR Coach Jim Lafferty who was waiting at km 38. I wanted to explain my situation and tell him that except for the week in December when I got sick, I followed the TBR plan like my life depended on it and more but I kept this to myself. I  wanted to thank him for the program  but I was not so sure how it would have come across. Walked on I did until km 39 where I came across Coach Al who was all smiles and who encouraged me by saying: “Konti na lang. Good job!” He also recommended that I try running and walking backwards but I said I’ve done that already.

By km 40, an unexpected grace came my way by way of 2 lady runner friends of Team Bulalo who coaxed me to run by pacing me. One of them, Anne, reminded me that: “lalong bibigat yan.” So run I did out of “hiya.” Surprisingly, the salt tablet may have kicked in along with whatever was left of my adrenaline.  I actually got to run the last 2km without any issues. That I guess was what made me smile as I  capped a bittersweet finish.  I actually ran my way to the finish line despite my cramping earlier.

I teach a module on Adversity Quotient (AQ) which espouses the growth mindset. Stating the thing broadly, it is not what happens to you but what you do with what happens to you that will make you grow and develop. Failure is to be regarded as a stepping stone to improvement. It is not the last chapter of your life.   The centerpiece of the module is what AQ researcher Dr. Paul Stoltz calls the LEAD approach.

Listen to your adversity response

The way I see it, there  are two options available to me.

The low AQ response says: I should be sorry for myself and this failure is massive. The high AQ response says: I should be grateful I still managed to finish the race despite my injury. This failure is but a detour to better things to come.

Explore the origins and ownership

The low AQ response is not grounded in reality. The fact of the matter is that the race results revealed that I need to strengthen my body further and I need to heal completely  to run faster.   The cross-training did help. The techniques taught by Tai Chi and Yoga would no doubt also prove helpful as my coaches in swim and cycling also point to my stiffness and tension as a development opportunity.

Analyze the evidence

The evidence clearly says this setback is not permanent. There are tons of lessons to learn from this which would help me become a better runner and, at the same time, help me gear up for my first sprint triathlon.

Mindset is clearly part and parcel of race preparation. Rest should not be underestimated. Food intake should be scrutinized and reviewed consistently. Being at the starting line an hour before gun start is much better. Strength training is not an option. Flexibility training is just as critical.  Forgiveness of oneself is a grace to pray for. Gratitude and appreciation for those who helped you cross the finish line is a must.

Decide to take action

I suppose this is why the following day,  I readily signed up for my first Triman even as I capped my second marathon day with a 2-hour swim drill which validated my readings once again. Swimming does hasten muscle recovery and is a perfect sport for the runner.

While signing up for another race makes your succeeding efforts more focused and intentional, I strongly felt that part of moving on is to allow my body to get a much needed rest so my injury could heal more completely.  Then and only then could I truly say, it is time to move on. The best is yet to come.