It was 4:30 a.m. on August 27th and I was biking in the darkness on the Lakefront trail on my way to the Chicago Triathlon. My lovely, perfect wife was back home, amidst the throng of pillows she has come to rely on for comfort, sleeping with her rounded belly that contains not one, but two children. Yes, babies. Yes, twins! A boy and a girl who will be born, well, by the end of the month for sure. I was looking forward to my race, but also wondering if it was a good idea or not. Not only would I be away from my phone, we still had lots to do to get ready. I’d been calling this summer “the last summer of my youth” and trying to do as much as I could while I had the chance, but I wondered, is this all right? Am I being immature? Selfish? I also wondered if I was even in good enough shape to race. Navigating my way slowly on the dark trail, I asked myself, why am I choosing to do this? I could be back in bed sleeping. Why am I out here?
But once I got into the transition area and saw all the people milling about, chatting and sizing each other up, I started thinking about racing and put these thoughts out of my mind, or at least over to the side. I racked my bike, arranged my gear, and talked a bit with some of my fellow racers. I’d never done the Chicago Triathlon before and was skeptical about it because of the size of the race. Seven thousand triathletes? How could it possibly not be congested the whole way? I wasn’t optimistic, but it was the only race that fit into our schedule. I’d done the Racine 70.3 in July, but the swim had been cancelled, so I didn’t feel I’d gotten a triathlon in, which had been one of my “last summer of my youth” goals.
The first wave of the race went off at 6:00, but I had wait 75 more minutes before my wave, #17, would get in the water. During this time I ate two bananas, waited in the Port-a-Potty line three times, and watched the earlier waves swimming as the sun rose over Monroe Harbor. I didn’t like the waiting. I’d had adrenaline running through me since I’d gotten to transition and I was ready to go. At the same time, I was nervous. I didn’t have my phone with me so if something was happening, I wouldn’t know and there’d be no way for my wife to contact me. I’d decided the best way to minimize the amount of time I was out of reach was to leave my phone with my bike, so I’d checked it as transition closed at 5:45, then I could again after I got out of the swim, again at the end of my bike ride, and then after the finish.
Besides this, I also had all my regular pre-race nerves. How would I feel? How would my breathing go? Had I taken enough puffs on my inhaler? Had I drunk enough water? Had I drunk too much? I mean, I love racing, I really do, but I’m also always afraid of it going badly. On top of all this, ever since I found out we were expecting, I’ve just been just generally more afraid of dying. I mean, I’m always thinking about it now, when I’m driving (will I get in accident?), when I’m eating (what if I choke?) when I go to sleep at night (will I wake up?). Okay, maybe I’m not always thinking about it, but it’s a lot more than I used to. I tell myself if it would’ve happened before we were expecting, sure, it would’ve been terrible, my wife and my kids would miss me, but they are adults. They’d survive. But now that I’ve got little Luke and Leia (those names might change) relying on me, I suddenly feel more important. They’re going to need me. On the one hand, I’ve got no reason to think my days are nearing their end. I’m healthy, I feel good. But on the other hand, there are people I grew up with that are gone. Me and my old friends, we’re old enough to die and for people to say, “too soon, too soon,” but it’s not out of the realm of possibility.
You may be wondering if I’ve considered myself too old to be having babies. Of course I have! My kids are old enough to be having kids (my sons are nowhere near that point in their lives, but they are technically old enough, and I am the about the same age that my father was when he became a grandfather). So yes, I’m maybe too old. On the other hand, Mick Jagger just had another and he’s in his 70’s. Bandmate Ronnie Wood’s wife is also expecting and he’s 68. I’m young compared to those guys. Of course, I shouldn’t be comparing myself to Rolling Stones. I’m no rock star. I go back and forth like this a lot, until inevitably I always hear the voice that says: it doesn’t matter how old you are—this is happening.
And finally, at 7:15, my race was happening too. There were over a hundred people in our wave and I positioned myself near the front of the group as we treaded water waiting for the signal to go. Finally, they blew the horn and we were off. It was a relief to finally be racing! Now I’m no star swimmer, but compared to triathletes, I’m better than most (thanks, knee surgery) and I felt good from the start. The swim course went south towards the Shedd Aquarium about a third of a mile, then we turned back to go past the start and then on to exit the water near the Chicago Yacht Club. The lake was smooth until the final stretch, where the waves came in and hit the seawall and then bounced back out and sloshed us all around. It’s hard to see exactly what’s going around you during the swim, but I sensed I was near the front of my wave (dark green caps) and I had passed a number of neon green caps (the wave that started before us) and maybe a few others.
After exiting the water, we had to run about 350 yards on the carpeted sidewalk to transition. I’d been nervous about running without my brace, and barefoot, but I had no pain and went by a number of people on our way to transition #1. When I got to my bike, one of the guys I’d talked with ahead of time was slipping on his shoes and ready to bike away. But most of the bikes were still racked, which meant I was ahead of most of the people in my age group. But I really wasn’t thinking much about that. I knew there were triathletes of every age and sort much faster than me, and I just wanted to race, give my best effort, and have one more good race before the babies came.
I pulled off my Lava Pants, sat on the grass, and put my biking clothes on. Before I started running my bike out of transition, I zipped open my bike bag to check my phone. I saw I had a message, but it was just my friend Frank, saying: “Good luck today.” All right, thanks, Frank, I thought, and was glad there was no other news. I imagined my wife was still sleeping, or maybe just up and having her first cup of coffee. But whatever, whatever, it was all good and time to ride.
The bike course started north on Lake Shore Drive, with a line of orange traffic cones separating us from traffic. It was unnerving to be riding hard, looking ahead, focusing on getting moving while traffic was going by at 50 or 60 mph just one lane over. I think every biker’s fear is being run up on from behind by an inattentive driver. And you’d think the cones would have made this unlikely, but no, about 5 miles in, I saw a car on the other side of the drive, on the wrong side of the cones! Turns out a driver had ignored them and ended up hitting two bikers who had to be taken to the hospital. It must have happened not long before I’d gone past because there were no ambulances there yet, just a police car, bikers being attended to, and a long line of auto traffic stretched in the other direction.
So I was going at sub max efforts, to keep myself alert (and alive!) and also because I knew from my ride down to the start that once we turned around at Hollywood Avenue, we’d be fighting a headwind and I didn’t want to be spent before that. I wasn’t tracking my speed, just pacing myself and measuring my effort so I could stay strong until the end. I had turned on my Garmin when I started riding and it had beeped at 5 miles and again at 10 but I hadn’t looked down to see what my splits were. The bike leg is my weakest of the three and though I was being passed by some of the stronger, but they weren’t blowing by me that quickly, which I took that as a good sign.
After the 7 miles north and 7 miles south into the wind, the course took us underground onto lower Wacker Drive, where scenes from The Dark Knight had been filmed. This was wind-free and the riding felt fast and easy. Unfortunately, it was also pretty dim and I had 2 of my short-distance contacts in (I usually wear one for long distances but had run out) so I could only see clearly about the next 10-15 feet ahead of me, which isn’t very far when moving at about 20 mph, which is what I was doing. Luckily, the race had spread out by this point. I was passing more people than were passing me even though I was being cautious. My Garmin had beeped pretty close to the 5 and 10 mile markers but once we got underground, the GPS must’ve lost the signal because I stole a glance at it once about 59 minutes in and it said the distance was only 17 miles. That’s not possible, is it? I thought. That would’ve been terrible riding for me. I’d been a little sick the week before the race so it was possible I was going that slowly, but 17, really? Luckily, about a minute later I passed by the official 20 mile marker so I knew I was moving well and that my GPS had just cut out when I was underground.
The last 4 miles of the ride flew by and before I knew it, I was back in transition, jogging in my bike shoes over the grass back to rack my bike. Hardcore triathletes are super-fast in transition, just switching shoes and darting away, but for me getting ready to run was a long process, which meant putting lubricant on the skin behind my knee, pulling on neoprene knee sleeve, then my knee brace, tightening the Velcro straps, adjusting it, pulling on half-tights above the brace, then putting on my shoes, and of course, this day, checking my phone. I had another message. This time it was from my wife, who apparently was tracking me online and said: “Looks like you’re doing amazing! Nearly 20 mph on the bike. You’ll be done in a flash!” So all right, I thought, everything’s good, and I tightened the bungy laces on my shoes and set off.
I’m not sure how others feel about the run portion of the triathlon but I love it. I mean, the swim was the swim, and I enjoyed the hard biking, but I couldn’t wait to run because I knew I’d be in my element finally. I’ve always been able to run pretty well straight off the bike. So even though my legs were a little rubbery and wobbly, like everyone else’s, I was passing people immediately on the run course. And there was a lot of them. By the time I started running, there were people from my race, the International Distance, and people from the Sprint Distance, who had started later all running down the same narrow course. I’d enjoyed the race up to this point but suddenly, I was having great fun! And even though I knew a lot of the people I was passing were really not moving fast, zipping by them I felt I was really fast again, like I was young again!
The run course was out-and back, mostly on the lakefront trail, heading south around the Shedd Aquarium then on past Soldier Field and McCormick Place before heading back to the finish in Grant Park. Besides concentrating on good form, I had to constantly be looking where I was going as there were lots of runners going in both directions. Again, I’d started my watch for run but wasn’t going to check splits. I was in a good rhythm and just told myself to stay there, at that effort, until halfway, and then if I felt good, I could push harder.
Well, when I passed the three mile mark but still hadn’t reached the turnaround, I told myself, okay, no need to get too ambitious, just keep this effort until we head back and pick it up then. I was still passing people, but not in big bunches like earlier. When I got to the turnaround, I told myself again, don’t push yet, just keep it right here. I told myself the same thing when I passed the 4 mile mark–just keep this effort for another mile. So you can probably see where this is going, somewhere along the way I realized I was not going to be able to pick it up, but instead would have to increase my effort just to keep up the same pace. When I got to the 5 mile mark, I was pretty spent. Okay, just keep this up to the finish, I told myself. Just hold on. I didn’t see this as failure, just evidence that I’d been right to hold back. Fatigue always creeps up on you if you are pacing correctly and that was what was happening.
With a mile to go I really had to concentrate–my legs were heavy, my arms were heavy, my breathing was heavy. I wasn’t upset though. I told myself my race was a success, was going to be a success, most of the work was done and all I left to do was finish it. I was still passing people, but much more slowly and whereas earlier, I felt like I was almost just watching them from some other place as I ran by, I was one of them now, struggling, fighting through the pain, wanting to be done.
In this triathlon, like most today, they write your age on your left calf. I guess this is to make it clear who they are racing against for awards and such. Like I said earlier, I had no great ambitions along these lines, but I did notice that whenever I’d pass someone in my age group, I’d pick up my pace a bit. This wasn’t to make any sort of statement, it was more about self-preservation, so they wouldn’t fight back and make it harder on me. It’s true that racing is about pain, and that working through it somehow part of the appeal, but during the race, avoiding pain, as long as it is possible, is still one of the goals and keys to a good race. I don’t think anyone wants the pain.
With less than a half mile to go, I was coming slowly up on a guy in my age group. He was moving pretty well and I thought to myself, oh boy, this one could be tough. Would I catch him? Yes, I could see that I definitely would, but for the first time in the race I thought a little about strategy—when should I pass him? Do I have enough energy if he tries to pass me back? I could sense, from his form and his racing outfit that he was taking this race seriously, and I figured he wouldn’t let go of me easily.
At this point the race was on sidewalk that led under Lake Shore Drive towards Grant Park and it ramped slightly uphill before turning us onto Columbus Drive and the finish. I pulled up behind him and stayed there. When we hit the incline, slight as it was, I could really feel it and hoped I wouldn’t fall apart. Wait until the top to pass, I told myself. Wait. But he slowed even more than I wanted to, and before I knew it, I was going by him. Oh no, I thought, now I have to start my kick to the finish already, which is what I did, and it was tough, everything had caught up to me–the swim, the bike, the 6 miles of running. I didn’t dare look back as I turned and saw the finish line. I was sure this was guy was tracking me, trying to pass me back. Maybe he will, I thought, but I’m going to make him work for it.
The final stretch was slightly downhill, which helped, but still all I could think was: form, form, form. Hold on, I told myself, you’re almost there. Closer to the finish all I could think about was my breathing, trying to breathe, and I kept my eyes on the finish banner, watching it coming closer, closer, closer. Finally, I was coming up on it, then going across the line, and then done. Ugghh, that was hard, I thought, and walked a few steps then stopped and put my hands on my knees, trying to catch my breath. After a few moments I was able to stand up and look back and my rival was just finishing up, and surprisingly had taken no notice of me. Oh well, I thought, that mad dash was all for naught, but that was a fun way to finish, I’m glad I did it, even if he wasn’t up to race me (later I realized that my knee sleeve and knee brace had been covering my calf the whole run so no one knew my age and every time I’d passed someone in my age group, including this guy, they hadn’t cared one extra bit. Ha!).
I slowly made my way down the long finish chute, guzzled some water, told myself, “good work,” and then before my breathing had even returned to normal, my thoughts were back to getting to my phone as quickly as possible. Any news from home? Was anything happening? I would’ve liked to hang out a bit, in the happy haze of the finish area, but I began to feel irresponsible again, leaving my 8-months pregnant wife at home alone while I was hustling through the morning doing a triathlon! How silly! I hurried through the tent serving food (grabbing a sandwich, even though I wasn’t hungry yet, I knew I would be) and began the walk back to the transition area. I felt good about my race, satisfied. I didn’t know my time, but knew I had done well enough on all three parts. But who cares? I thought. We’re having babies soon, two of them! All this triathlon hubabaloo, who cares? This isn’t important! This is not to say I had any sort of revelation and put things in perspective. I’d known this all before the race started, I’d just been able to put it out of my mind, forced it out of my mind while I knew I still could.
As I got close to transition, the last waves of the sprint triathlon were still getting out of the water, so I got to watch people swimming, running to their bikes, and setting out eagerly on the run course. It was strange to think they were just starting out while it was all behind me already. Funny, I used to think that way about having kids too, little ones, at least–changing diapers, feeding them, dropping them off at school, arranging sleepovers, helping with homework, all that kid stuff. Now I’m starting over again! I hope it’s clear that I’m pretty excited, though it’s also true that sometimes I say to myself, or to my wife: What have we gotten ourselves into? We had it so good. Life was easy and we were happy. What if something goes wrong? What if it’s too hard? But I know having and raising kids has been the greatest thing in my life and that’s no revelation either–I’m sure most every parent would agree with that. And now I get to do it again. Lucky, lucky me. That’s what I’m thinking most of the time.
I got to my bike and checked my phone. No new messages, a big relief, so I texted my wife and told her I was done and would be home soon. She sent back a quick “Woohoo” and I felt myself relax. The race was done and everything was good. I changed into a dry shirt, went to sit on the grass a few minutes to stretch and soak it all in, then got on my bike and pointed myself back down the path towards home, the last race of the last summer of my youth behind me. I was glad I’d done it. I was glad about everything.
I have been too busy to write a recap of last weekend’s Half-Ironman Tri in Racine and I’m still too busy (and I’m hardly exaggerating) but I thought I better write a quick note in case anyone is wondering how it went.
Well, the swim was cancelled (reportedly 51 degrees) so I still can’t say I have completed a Half-Ironman (when I signed up for one some twenty years ago, the swim was cancelled that day too) (thanks, Lake Michigan!)
I was disappointed, but what could I do? They set us off two at a time, the professionals first, and then the rest of us in order of our race numbers and I was 1542 out of 1600 so I spent an hour just watching people take off before I got to go. My goal for the bike was around 3 hours and I did it in just over (though my GPS had the distance measured at only 55 miles). The course was flat but it was very windy, so I was happy enough. Some people flew by me in the first third of the ride but I passed quite a few others on the back half, especially on the uphills and long stretches into the wind. I was pleased, especially because my longest training ride had been only 45 miles with a 15 minute break at halfway.
My upper shin bone had been bothering me for over a week before the race so most of race week I was limping around pretty good and not even sure I could run. I iced it aggressively and used half a tube of Arnica gel and thankfully it recovered. I felt good off the bike and though I didn’t count, I passed hundreds and hundreds of people on the run, which made the 13 miles go by pretty quickly. I averaged 7:25 per mile, right around where I hoped I might be. I felt pretty good on the two-loop course except on the two short uphills near the start of each loop. I didn’t check my splits, just kept looking ahead but my GPS had me at just over 7 minute pace for the first half and then slower for the second. This makes sense as I slowed to take my gels, stopped and walk to drink a few glasses of water, and even ducked into the Port-a-Potty just before ten miles (it was a cool day, great for running, and I obviously had no dehydration issues). After that stop, I felt good enough to push to the finish but ran out gas and had a rough stretch between 11-12. But I felt better towards the end and was able to finish strong and enjoy it too.
Recovery week has been okay (though, as I said, I’ve been busy). I took a couple days off, have done a few runs without much of that shin pain, and survived my nephew’s Bachelor Party on Saturday, a day that started with paintball in the woods at 9 a.m. and ended in a downtown bar at 2 a.m. (Last Uncle Standing!).
All right, got to go. Things to do, places to go, people to see…..
Ugh, two bad races in a row (bad and then worse). I’d rather keep the bad news to myself but I promised races and recaps so here you go:
The Bad Race: Originally I’d planned to run the Lincoln Park Run for the Zoo 10K June 4, but my legs were feeling heavy all that week so I decided to skip it. They were feeling a bit better the next week so I signed up for The Run for the Pig 5K in Milwaukee June 10. On the drive up from Chicago I was optimistic, but during the warmup I felt sluggish. No matter, at 8:30 it was time to go. On the first flat half mile, I felt okay. For the next two miles the course was all up and down, nothing too steep or long, and all I knew was that I was working very hard. After the mile marker (6:12, though I suspect that marker may have come too soon) I was all alone in 6th or 7th place (obviously a small race). On every uphill I just kept telling myself to pump my arms and get to the top and on every downhill I’d try to recover before I had to start punching up the next hill. I was able to find a better rhythm on the final flat half mile, but was too spent to really speed up and I ran right at my limit all the way and finished in about 19:50. It was humbling to see that time on the clock as I pushed to the finish line, but after I caught my breath I told myself: ah, it’s not that bad. I hadn’t felt good, I was undertrained on hills, and I hadn’t been racing, so it made sense. And I was really aiming for the Steamboat Classic 4 miler in Peoria the next week. That course fit me perfectly. I’d always run well there.
The Worse Race: In the short term, I recovered well from the bad race, actually going for a 1 mile swim in the lake later that morning then meeting with friends for a hot, windy bike ride in the afternoon and slogging my way through a steamy 10-miler the next day. Early the next week I was feeling a little dull so after some moderate effort 400’s on the track on Wednesday, I took off completely the 2 days so my legs would feel good for the race. But on my warmup in Peoria, I was heavy again. It was a muggy, humid morning so when I got to the start line, a gloomy 3 miles warmup behind me, I was already drenched in sweat and didn’t even do any strides—I just wanted to stand still for those last five minutes and hoped my body would generate some energy. Things were not looking good.
But when the race started, I told myself it was still on, my goal of 25 flat, or 6:15 per mile. No matter what had happened in the past, there was no reason I couldn’t do it. The Steamboat is a big race with a lot of fast starters so I just found myself a spot in the pack and tried to find a good rhythm. I told myself to hold back a bit on the first mile and then start racing, but by the time I got to the mile mark, in about 6:22, I was already dragging. Still, that’s not terrible, I told myself. The first mile included the uphill start and I knew if I could maintain close to that pace for the next two miles, I’d get to finish with the fast downhill last mile.
On mile 2 things really started falling apart. I didn’t realize it at the time, focused as I was, working on good turnover, staying on top of my breathing, maintaining good posture, all the things I knew were key when running got hard. I passed a few people, but others passed me. As we all huffed and puffed our way up, I was struck by the odd assortment of runners around me. There were a few that looked like runners (like I hoped I also looked), but one guy just ahead of me for most of that mile was thick and leaned back and had a comically short stride. How can this guy be ahead of me? I thought. He is moving so slowly, so inefficiently, how am I barely inching by him?
After that a young girl went traipsing by on my right. She looked to be 11 or 12, long and skinny, and I know some kids are pretty fast and serious runners, but the look on her face wasn’t one of determination, it was more like she was asking herself, am I doing this right? Am I going too fast? Should I be passing all these people? Lucky girl, I thought then watched her disappear into the crowd of runners ahead of me.
Another guy passed right by me after that. He was wearing sunglasses and a t-shirt. He also had really nice hair, right in place and his face showed no effort. He looked like he was steering his boat into its slip after a day on the lake. He seemed about my age, but instead of a grizzled vet who’s been running all his life, looked more like a guy who’d been sitting around the night before, heard about the race, went to Target to buy some running clothes, and decided to see what it was all about. He left me behind too.
At this point I didn’t pause to consider how I fit in with these other runners. I was taking it all in, but staying focused like a real runner. Just before the 2 mile mark there’s a short uphill and then a 180 degree turn, both of which required all my concentration. But no worries, I told myself, all that matters is the 2-mile split. 12:45 would be great. 12:50 would be acceptable. Hopefully, not much slower than that.
But as I approached the clock, I saw it was already over 13 minutes. By the time I passed it, I think it may have been 13:10, which meant I’d run nearly a 7-minute mile. A 7-minute mile. In a race! And I’d been working so hard! Now there may have been a good reason—worn out from hard training, the dew point too high, something in the air contributing to my asthma, but I have a “no excuses” policy during races, which means if I feel good enough to sign up, to start the race, I tell myself I should be able to run at least pretty well.
Because I was not allowing any excuses, I had to face the facts: I was straining, but moving very slowly. There was also no indication this was going to change, so I decided right there, just a few steps past the two mile clock, that it was futile, that I could never run fast again, and that my running career was once-and-for-all over.
So I retired. Yes, there in the middle of the race, I retired from racing. I realized this was funny, in a pathetic sort of way, but that’s what happened. I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself. I was mostly angry—why couldn’t I run faster? And I was also ashamed–I’d spent a lot of time training for and thinking about the race. For the couple days beforehand I’d been mentally preparing myself, excited about the race, visualizing a good one. But all of a sudden I realized it was so selfish and pointless. I began to think of all the other more important things I could’ve been thinking about, could have done with my time. I mean, all for nothing? To just be disappointed in myself? What was the point?
Over the next mile I wondered what I’d do with my life. Obviously, never race again, but would I run at all? Maybe. I’d probably spend more time biking and swimming. Maybe I’d even play basketball again, as preserving my knee for running would no longer be important. But besides what I’d do, who would I be? I didn’t know. I’ve stopped running for stretches before, but this seemed different. More permanent. It was all going to be behind me. I started to reminisce about workouts and races I’d run. I thought about my friends who were still running and knew they’d be disappointed in me. Sorry, guys, I thought. I tried, but I just don’t have it anymore.
Meanwhile, I was running down Madison Avenue in Peoria, another mile at just under seven minute pace, though I wasn’t thinking about running anymore, my form or my breathing, I was just waiting for the race to be over. And I could hardly believe it, but no one was passing me. When we got onto the last mile of the race, I noticed that a number of people ahead of me were actually coming back. Not that I cared. I wasn’t racing anymore. But then I spied the guy in the Target t-shirt about 10 seconds ahead and moving slowly and I said, well, I’ll probably catch that guy without even trying, so at least there’s that.
I knew it was pitiful, one last grab at pride, but I didn’t want to finish my last race watching him run. When I caught him with about a half mile to go, the old racing instincts kicked in and I went by him pretty hard (if you are going to pass someone, go by decisively, to get a little gap before the other runner realizes what is happening). When we turned for the downhill finish I just let my stride open up. I passed a few people without trying, just because I have always been good on the downhills, but didn’t go after any others like I normally would. In fact, when I saw my lovely perfect wife and my son standing on the street with just over a quarter mile to go and I steered myself close to them and proclaimed, “This is my last race ever!”
They’d known I was aiming for 25 minutes and surely they’d been standing there wondering for the last two minutes where I was. When I got across the finish line (a couple people sprinting past me on the final flat stretch—I didn’t fight them at all), I paused to take it in, that scene in the chute just after a race, one last time: people smiling, or gasping, hunched over hands-on-knees, giving each other fist bumps and high fives. I’ll never be here again, I thought as I grabbed a bottle of water, walked back to find my wife and son, and repeated my proclamation, “Never again.”
As soon I said this, I thought maybe I shouldn’t have been so cavalier about it, not because I didn’t mean it, but because I didn’t want to serve as a bad example to my son, who had been injured for exactly one year (hamstring tendinitis), had missed both cross country and track seasons for his sophomore year of college, and was just starting to get back into a regular running routine. Even though our situations were very different, I didn’t want him to think quitting was an option. So I began to downplay it, talked about other things, asked him about watching the race, how did the 18 minute 4 milers look when they went flying by? We talked about him doing the race next year. “And I can watch you,” I said.
Instead of pretending to be a runner, I thought to myself. Then I told myself not to be depressed, but just move on. Instead of my traditional post-race run back up to my wife’s parents’ house (which would have been important if my weekly mileage mattered any more), I walked those two miles with my lovely, perfect wife trying to convince her I was really done with running. But I don’t think she realized how poorly I’d run. I’d run 32 minutes for 8K in April and I had stepped up my running since then. I could see no reason why I’d be slower, which I took to mean only one thing: I just am–I’m too old and too slow. Still, I don’t think she quite believed me. And to be fair, it is hard to stay retired. Michael Jordan couldn’t do it, Michael Phelps, Rocky Balboa. Of course, they all had good performances left in them. I was pretty sure that wasn’t the case for me.
Anyway, I realize these have got to be some of most depressing race recaps ever, but what can I say? I’m giving you the truth. However, my “retirement” from running has been pretty active. In fact, I’ve been training even more because I am doing a half-ironman (1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike, 13.1 mile run) on July 16th in Racine, one month earlier than I had planned to do one. I moved this up to July because on the same weekend as the triathlon in August, I’m doing a 100 mile ride with my biking crew (Race the Lake) and we’ve done this together 3 of the last 4 years and I want to keep the tradition going.
Doing this 70.3 race in July means I’ll be much less prepared for it than I’d hoped. I was thinking of time goals when I was planning to race in August, but since it’s moved up a month, I just want to finish it. I’m sure I can. It’s just a matter of how hard will it be and how long will it take. And why am I doing it? Well, I’ve been wanting to for some time and this summer, well, for reasons I’ll get into at a later date, will work out best.
I’ve got more to say but have gone on too long already and it’s been all bad news so I’m going to let you off the hook. If you are wondering why it took me so long to recap these races, it’s because I’ve been so busy. Besides a bit of work, we just moved into a new house and all the packing, moving, and unpacking has sucked up lots of time. Doing all that and trying to train for the triathlon has kept me too busy to sit down at my computer and send out my dispatches. But I’ve been feeling pretty good lately, had some good runs, I actually did a 2 hour run yesterday in the heat, my longest run in years, and it wasn’t that awful. My knee hasn’t been an issue at all. So let’s all hope these next two weeks of training go well, I survive the Racine 70.3, and then check back in with you with some better news. As always, thanks for reading!
So just an update on my training as I move into summer and my big, big plans. That means no sweet or sad, aww-shucks, human-interest angles this time around. Trust me, there will be plenty of that coming soon. And lots of posts—because this is it (I’m saying it), the summer of my comeback (finally).
Winter went as well as could be expected, and though I had modest goals, I accomplished them (I think this will be part of my new strategy: set attainable goals, meet them, and then move on to the next, more difficult one–instead of drawing that line in the sand (like a 5 minute mile or a 18 minute 5K) that is so far away I can’t even see it).
January to April I averaged 27 miles of running a week with an average weekly workout time of 7.25 hours (so roughly half my training hours were swimming, weights, and a little biking). My goals at the start of the year were to get to April with my knee feeling good, stay in reasonable running shape, and do lots of swimming to prepare for the Illinois Masters State swim meet and get some best times there. I paid close attention to my times during swim workouts and made a conscious decision not to pay attention to my running pace, even on the days I went faster than usual, doing a fartlek or strides or just running harder than usual. I went just on feel, knowing that once the swim season was over I’d have plenty of time to focus on it.
One week before the State swim meet, I ran the Shamrock Shuffle 8K in Chicago. I signed up for this mid-winter to make sure I stayed focused enough on running and because I knew it would be a good place to check my fitness before I started getting more serious about my speed. Because I hadn’t been timing any of my workouts, I had no idea how fast (or maybe slow is a better word) I would run. I thought anywhere between 31 and 34 was possible, though 31 would’ve been a delightful surprise and 34 may have been the end of me (as in I would’ve been too depressed to carry on). But I ran exactly 32 minutes, which I was happy enough with, and more importantly, really enjoyed the race. It’s a big one with lots of packs and people to run with, the weather was great, and I felt pretty good until the last mile when my legs got a little heavy and a few people passed me going up Mount Roosevelt, but it was loads of fun and I know I can go a lot faster once I start to get more deliberate about my speed.
I actually ran 8 miles home from Grant Park after that race, which gave me 16 for the day, and I was sore in various ways afterwards. I had planned to do a little light running that week, though my main focus was going to be tapering and sharpening up for the swim meet the next weekend, but once I got to Thursday and still hadn’t run, I decided to take the whole week off. Crazy! But I figured I’d swim better and would be refreshed for my next phase of run training.
The swim meet went well. I am now a proud (but completely non-essential) member of the 3-time Illinois Masters State Championships swim team! I did a total of 8 races in two days (including relays) and got best times in a number (but not all) events. Swim races are intense, especially the sprints. They go by in blur of effort and pain. I think I’ve become not a bad swimmer for a runner, but I’m still slow when compared to real swimmers, and that will never change. Still, the meet was a blast and swimming is great training as my heart and lungs are always working hard, hard, hard when I’m in the pool.
My plan was to get right into more serious run training, but I had an unexpected lag, just from life taking up too much time. To be specific, my lovely, perfect wife and I went to France (Paris and Normandy) with her parents and met up with her brother and his wife and family. A great adventure, but I did miss some days of running. Then work got busier than usual and I had a number of early morning meetings and long days. Finally, we are in the process of buying a house and selling our condo and that’s taken up a bit of time and energy too. So, over the last 5 weeks while I’ve averaged 29 miles a week, which is not bad, I’ve done only 5.5 hours of workouts per week, way down from earlier in the year.
But the semester is over and this last week has been much better (I think I’ll get in over 35 miles running and 10 hours total). My knee has been relatively sound. I hadn’t needed a cortisone shot since October (7 months–good work, knee!) but I’d been feeling more frequent discomfort up steps and sometimes just when twisting so I got another shot last week and everything feels strong now. And if you are reading this blog because you’ve also got knee trouble, the two other things which may have helped are icing the knee frequently, especially after runs, and taking Celadrin (both in capsule and lotion form). This is in addition to the other supplements I take. Who knows which, if any of my methods, are working, but I feel good now so I will just keep doing it all.
For the summer, I’ve got a few races planned already. I am probably going to do the Lincoln Park Run for the Zoo 10K on June 4, just as another see-where-I-am race. I am definitely going to run the Steamboat Classic 4 miler in Peoria June 17th, and for my big goal for the summer I am planning to do the Steelhead 70.3 Half-Ironman Triathlon in Michigan on August 13th (I’m a little hesitant to sign up for this as I want to be sure my knee can handle it, and it costs $300!) but I’m pretty sure I’ll register soon. Hopefully I will add in some other low-key races over the summer if all goes well and then ideally a couple faster races in the fall and don’t worry, I’ll be sure to tell you all about them. So check back if you are curious. And have a good summer yourself!
Sure, I’ve missed out on enough running days this October to last a lifetime, but it’s all good. Yes, each runner I biked past on the lakefront trail this month put a little stab in my heart, but I’m not complaining. Because it’s fall, glorious fall, and with every run I get to enjoy, all the bad feelings go away and I thank the running gods (and my doctor) that I can get out and lose myself in the crisp air, sunshine, falling leaves, and all the glory of the season. I feel optimistic for what is to come, because we all know anything can happen, I mean, the Cubs are in the World Series, which just goes to show (again) that good things come to those who wait, and not just wait, but wait and plan and look ever forward and believe.
So at my last report I was coming off of my amazing summer of travel and feeling pretty good (knee, legs, fitness, et cetera) but not sure what kind of shape I was really in. I hoped, as we all hope, and has actually happened for me in the past, to find myself somehow stronger and faster than expected (you know how it is when sometimes you put away the watch for a while and then bring it back out to be pleasantly surprised). Alas, it was not to be….
Wait, before I get to that, I should explain that I couldn’t start back on a hard running program right away because I had to prepare for a 5K swim! Yes, the Big Shoulders 5K swim in Lake Michigan on September 10th. I remember saying to myself when I saw my lovely, perfect wife swim this six years ago that I could never swim that far. Well, a couple knee surgeries and lots of swimming later, I did it. Luckily, the water was flat that day (I probably could have made it in rough water, but I’m not sure) (and I wore a wetsuit, which real swimmers will say is cheating, but I’m not a real swimmer—I’m a runner). But in the service of being able to survive the event, I focused a lot of attention on swimming the last few weeks before Big Shoulders and couldn’t fully dedicate myself to running faster.
Okay, so back to my running…I did a few sessions on the track, including a broken 5K, which I enjoyed (“broken” is a swim term which means you break up the total distance but only keep track of the total time–I ran 200, 400, 600, 800, 1000, then back down the ladder (with about a minute rest between each) in 18:01.) Not great, but at least I knew where I was (and I plan to do this workout again to see how I am progressing). For my next workout, I met my friend Bill for a set of half-mile repeats on the bike path in Milwaukee. We did 4 and I had to fight to average 3 minutes (Bill maybe 4-5 seconds ahead of me). But these were very instructive. As I tried to keep up with Bill, I could feel my legs were simply not strong enough so I decided (literally that day, as we were jogging back to our cars) to be more deliberate about lifting weights/doing core workouts, including lifting with my legs, 1-2 times per week. It seems this is always my plan and I haven’t been able to maintain it, at least to the level I want, but I think it’s key for me. Because of my knee, I can’t rely on high mileage or hill repeats get stronger. I’ve got to find other ways. And so far, so good. I’m even doing squats every time (which does not bother my knee, even when it’s bothering me) and I’m going to keep adding reps and weight and see what happens.
So, a week after our first day of half-mile repeats, Bill and I met again that day I was able to average 2:55, and felt better doing it. I did a few other workouts (by myself, which means I’m inevitably a little slower than with someone else) but was happy with my progress. I thought about doing a fall race, maybe a 5K or maybe something longer, but I’ve ruled that out now because it seems like every time I just start thinking about signing up for a race, my knee starts to hurt. In fact, my knee was achy after my run on October 5th and I took a couple days off. Then I had to actually stop only a half-mile into my run on the 8th. Walking back home was depressing, yes, but I also knew it was just time for another shot of cortisone. It had been only 4 ½ months since my last, and I’ve been trying to make each last six months (though my doctor says every 4 months is fine) and so I missed a lot of beautiful days running both waiting to see my doctor and then for the inflammation to really go down after the injection.
But now I’m feeling good again and it’s full-speed ahead (that’s a relative phrase, of course) for the rest of October and into November. I am NOT going to sign up to do any races or even think about it, but I do have 2 workout goals I’ll be working towards. The first is 3 times a mile averaging under 6 minutes a mile. The second is 8 quarter-miles (well, 400 meters) averaging under 80 seconds. These are not wildly ambitious, but I could not go out and do either one today so they are ambitious enough. If I accomplish these, I may do a time trial on the track in lieu of a race, maybe 4000 meters or maybe a full 5000 just to see where I am before winter comes.
I remember when I did this some years back, it was November or maybe even early December after recovering from a fall marathon. I hadn’t timed any workouts since the race and was just wondering what kind of shape I was in. When I got to the track it was already so dark I couldn’t read my watch so I just set my countdown timer for 18 minutes and wanted to see how close I could get to cruising 3 miles in that time. I felt great that night from the start, better after each lap, and was thinking to myself, I’m surely going to get to 3 miles or very close. As I got closer and closerto 3 miles, I picked up my pace and when I crossed the line for the completion of 12 laps my timer still hadn’t gone off so I kept on going. I hadn’t planned for this and every stride thereafter felt like a gift, I grew more and more buoyant with each one, like I was floating through the darkness, and I was able to run a whole nother half a lap, going a few strides past the 5000 meter mark and into the turn before my timer congratulated me and it was really one of my most enjoyable, memorable runs ever.
So I’d love to be able to replicate something like that, not quite that fast, but maybe close. Of course, it’s probably not healthy, or productive really, to want to go back in time, though in a way that’s what I want to do. I suppose that is one the burdens of life, wanting things we cannot have. Does this make life more interesting or just more frustrating? I don’t know, and right now I don’t care. It is a beautiful October morning and I am going out for a run 🙂
Well, this has been an unusual, extraordinary summer. Unusual because, as the word implies, much about it was “not” usual. And extraordinary because, well, before I explain that, I’d like to look at that word: extraordinary. It’s been bothering me for a while. At face value, it seems to mean “extra” ordinary, or “super” ordinary, or “very very” ordinary, but that’s not what it means. No, it means “beyond” ordinary, “better than” ordinary, and that fits because this last summer has been, well, let me tell you about it….
First, as you may know, summers past I’ve focused on getting in as many workouts as possible. All the way back to high school (back then getting ready for cross-country season) that’s been my focus. With my job teaching, because I have more time in summer and the weather’s great and there’s more daylight and I have more energy, I’ve kept it up. Lots of years, a fall marathon was that big goal to work for. Since my knee surgery, it’s been, “Just get back into the best shape you can. This might be the time to really get back to being yourself again.” But no matter the goal, I’ve spent my summer stacking up runs, rides, and swims until my body couldn’t take any more. I mean, within reason, of course. I was never a superstar, just enthusiastic, and enjoyed throwing myself into it and the feeling of getting in shape made me happy. So why not?
But this summer, my perfect lovely wife was taking a sabbatical. Partly because she wanted (and had earned a break) from her job and partly because she always gets a little envious of my summer schedule. She’s an athlete too, super fast in the pool and she also enjoys running, but she’s got probably a healthier, better outlook on what one should do with one’s time in life. So our sabbatical summer would not be endless days of: wake up, enjoy a lazy morning, get in a workout, recover, work out again, eat a big dinner, stay off our feet, and get to bed early. We were going to do more with the time we had and we’d been dreaming of a big trip for some time. After much deliberation, we decided on….South Africa and, uh oh, I can feel myself falling into a detailed travelogue, which is not my intention, so let me just say we left for South Africa July 11th, returned home on 30th, then pick up the kids and went to the wilds of Alaska (where my wife’s brother and family live) from Aug 3-11th. Both trips were fantastic, but instead of describing them, I’ll share some pictures:
The Wild Coast, South Africa:
Bulungula, an African village:
Franschhoek (wine country):
Cape Town and the Cape of Good Hope:
And then Alaska:
As you can see, only a fool would complain about trips like these and I’m no fool and I’m not complaining and I had no hesitation in going full-on forward for our adventures. But I was also aware that for a full month in the heart of summer, my prime training days would be otherwise spoken for, and I’ve got to tell you, I was a little worried about it, both how it would feel and to what extent I’d lose the fitness I’d been working to regain.
I knew that even if I’d been in racing shape, this would’ve been worth taking time off for. No doubts. No regrets. Still, it was strange, to not be plotting out my summer schedule, not doing workouts, wondering where my training would lead me. And when I did run, it didn’t feel like summer—it wasn’t hot, I wasn’t sweating and thirsty and spent like I’d usually be in July and August. This was because I wasn’t doing hard workouts and also because it was winter in South Africa with moderate temps and we got about the same in Alaska (40’s-50’s at night, 60’s-70’s during the day).
We didn’t plan any of our days around running, but ran when we could and over the 32 days, I was able to get out 17 times, more than I’d expected, with some great runs on the beach along the coast of the Indian Ocean…
and along a beautiful strip of highway in the Alaskan wilderness (bear spray in hand)…
But none of these were timed, none very far, or fast, and I didn’t really think of them as training (as I had nothing to train for), just running.
So the point I sat down to make today is that I expected to return home mid-August feeling out of shape (I’d been feeling good before we left—ran Steamboat Classic 4 miler in June in 25:29 (cutting 1:20 from last year) and did a triathlon in July and was able to run the 5th fastest run time of all entrants (it was supposed to be a 10K but my time was 39:02 and I know I didn’t run that fast, but it was still a good run). But I’m not feeling out of shape. My legs, in terms of strength and form, actually feel better than they did when I left. Maybe it was my less ambitious schedule, or the beach runs, or the long, hilly hikes we did in both South Africa and Alaska, but my legs feel great. I don’t know how far I am from racing shape because I haven’t timed myself yet, just wanting to enjoy it as long as I can, the feeling of feeling good running. And it’s been so nice to run again in the heat and sun and I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be, feeling good on my feet in the middle of nice, long summer.
But that’s not true because summer is nearly over. I mean, I’m back to school next week, cross country season has started, the Packers will be embarking on their run to the Super Bowl (I hope) in a couple weeks. It’s back to work time and I know I’m going to break out the watch soon. I may even do it today—I’m heading to the track as soon as I finish this morning’s coffee, and I might run some 300’s just to see where I’m at. Of course, 300’s won’t tell the whole story. I’ll need longer runs to see where I’m really at. I know I’m not in great shape, don’t have that lightness that comes with being fast and fit. But I’m in a good, solid place. My knee is good, my form feels good, I feel strong, healthy, optimistic. Over the course of the next couple months I do hope to get in some good weeks, some fast workouts, then maybe a race or two in November if I think I can really do them with some level of success.
So it’s been a great summer, unusual and extraordinary, once-in-a-lifetime, at least only once so far in my lifetime, but this summer, even more than most, is going to be over too soon. I want these last few days to slow down. It’s like, I’m finally ready for summer, but summer is ready to leave.
I just wanted to write a short note before our time together fades too far into memory, as these things tend to do. To cut to the chase: I had a great time with you. I mean, it all went by so quickly and I never stopped to say, “Wow, this is great” or “I didn’t expect it to feel this way.” I guess I didn’t want to break the spell and was always looking forward: to the next run, or bike, or swim. But it’s over now and I feel I should say something, while I can still feel it. That’s the thing about memories—it’s easy to remember what happened, but not the feelings one had. I could say that won’t happen this time, but I’ve lived long enough to know it will. August is here now commanding my full attention, September’s coming soon, and before long it’ll be January, and you’ll be like a stranger to me then: faded, distant, exotic, untouchable.
Though I know it’s usually better to let moments of strong emotion pass without saying anything, there are times I can’t take my own advice and I guess this is one of them. But rest assured, I don’t want anything more from you. All I want to say is, Thanks. For being there for me. For being yourself. For letting me do the same.
I guess that’s what this is really about, and it’s not like I’m that crazy about myself, but it sure was nice to wake up in the morning and look forward to that day’s training: to be able to run and not think so much about my knee or feeling heavy or slow or having all my good days behind me, all those bad feelings I’ve had as I’ve worked and waited to get it back. And then to lounge and stretch afterwards, to be hungry, plan a second workout (either a bike ride where my legs would spin like they are supposed to spin, or a cold, but invigorating swim in the lake), to crawl into bed feeling accomplished and spent, to wake up and want to do it all again. These are all joyful moments for me: getting in shape, feeling like myself again.
I don’t know if I told you this, but I’ve kept track of the most important things we did together. I hope you don’t find that odd. I just like to write things down. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t completely with you while all these things happened. I was. This just helps me keep things in perspective, helps me appreciate each day.
I just added up all your totals, July, and without trying to I had exactly 15 runs, 15 rides, and 15 swims. I couldn’t have planned it better than that, but that’s like what I was saying–everything just happened so naturally for us. Anyway, I’ll let you look over this list, and hope you’ll look back on our days together fondly as I do. Before I say good-bye, though, there are a few days that deserve special mention, ones that I’m sure will stick with me even as the months ahead pull me further and further from you.
Do you remember the 4th? I know you had a lot going on that day, but do you remember that 80 minute run in Texas right along the gulf? That was the hottest I’d been in a long, long time, especially on the return when that wind was blowing on my back and it felt like there was nothing left for me to breathe. Do you remember scanning the side yards of the houses along for shore for garden hoses? When I found one, I doused my head and then took a long cool drink. It had been a long time since I’d had hosewater in the midst of a long run, but you helped me remember that there’s nothing more refreshing.
We had two other long ones: that nice ten-miler at under 7:30 pace and the muggy hot eleven-miler on those hilly central Wisconsin roads. There were stretches of that run that were even harder than in Texas. Going up some of some of the inclines that day, it was all I could do to keep myself moving forward. I’d look down at my legs and think to myself: pitiful, pitiful. But then I’d say: no, this is how you get stronger. And that’s what I kept telling myself, especially deeper into the run, each step is making you stronger. I mean, you know I love to run, and sometimes it’s enough just to be doing it. But other times I need to tell myself why I’m doing it, what I have to gain from keeping going.
We had some good days at the track as well. Truth be told, I approached each session with trepidation as I knew, well, there’s no hiding from the truth on those days. And while what I discovered with each lap was not the big surprise of speed I’m always hoping for, it was always good enough so that when I was done, I was able to say to myself, that was good, that was progress, and I was glad, to be getting a little faster.
We’ve had some good rides and swims as well, and no, I am not discounting that triathlon on the 26th. In fact, that was one of my favorite days, even if my ride was slow and most of the first mile of the run was uphill (steep to the point we really couldn’t take full advantage of it on the way back down). I’ll remember that race because it was the first time I’d been fully engaged for that long since I hurt my knee, what’s it been, almost 3 years ago. From diving in at the start of the swim to running hard through the finishing chute at the end of the run I felt I was pushing myself right on that edge, and when I was able to let go, that was a real deep satisfaction.
Hopefully I’ll be faster in my next triathlon (August 8th) but again, like I said, I felt like myself that day, and all month really, and though I’m not back yet, I’m getting there, and there’s no doubt I have you to thank for it. So to end I’ll just say it again: Thank you, July. Thank you. You’ll always have a special place in my heart.
As promised, here is the rundown of our time together:
July 1: 20 minute swim, 90 minute bike ride, with middle hour intervals, legs felt good
July 2: 3 mile run in Austin, TX: very hard (but not very fast)
July 3: 45 minute continuous swim in pool in Austin, felt good
July 4: 80 minutes run in Rockport (10 miles), very hot and muggy!
July 5: 15 minute swim in canal in Rockport, arms heavy
July 6: track workout in Chicago, 5 miles total with 1 mile strides/drills then 8 400’s
in 89, 87, 87, 84, 84, 86, 85, 83 (90 seconds rest)(av. 86), body tired, tried to
run with good form, biked 50 miles
July 7: 3000 yard swim workout in pool, felt okay, biked 25 miles with good effort
July 8: easy 4 mile run, felt okay
July 9: morning swim in lake at Klode park, Storm the Bastille 5K in 20:40 at night (good time if the course is accurate), felt okay, 6 miles total
July 10: 25 mile bike ride, steady effort, felt okay
July 11: Big Swell 1.2 mile swim in Devil’s Lake
July 12: easy swim in lake (45 minutes), 10 mile run in 74:00, plus 4 strides
July 13: 2 hour bike ride, moderate effort (32 miles)
July 14: track workout, 3 wu including strides and drills, 4 1200’s in 4:32, 4:31, 4:28,
4:28 (felt pretty good), 4 barefoot strides during cooldown, 7 miles total, then biked 35 miles, windy, moderate effort
July 15: biked to Ohio Street Beach (7), then hard 20 minute swim (wavy)
July 16: evening run, sluggish at start then loosened up and felt better, 5+ miles
July 17: easy bike ride (18 miles)
July 18: 11 mile run, hilly course, heat, humidity, and tired body made for a tough run!
July 19: easy bike ride, 20 miles
July 20: 6 mile route in 44:15 (7:15 pace), muggy but felt pretty good, muggy + swim practice in pool in evening
July 21: 20 miles bike back and forth to Ohio Street Beach, 1 mile swim (lake was wavy) in 36 minutes
July 22: track workout at Wilson: plyometrics + 8 300’s in 64, 60, 60, 60, 59, 58, 59, 57 + 4 hills + 3 miles steady, 7 miles total
July 23: swim in lake at Klode Park, felt pretty good
July 24: 4 miles, sluggish (muggy), easy hour bike ride
July 25: 3 miles easy, felt pretty good
July 26: Ripon Medical Center Triathlon in 2:43:03: swim 28:14, bike 18.0 mph (25+ miles), run 45:39 (7:21 pace on a very slow, hilly course)
July 27: 50 mile bike ride, mostly flat, rode steady/easy
July 28: track workout, 2 wu + plyometrics & strides, 3 1200’s in 4:29, 4:29, 4:28 (felt okay), 6 miles total, 30 + minute cold Klode park swim in evening
July 29: 30 mile bike ride, warm and windy, pretty easy ride, 30+ minute cold lake swim (full wetsuit + gloves + booties), felt good
July 30: hills/track workout: 2 wu + 8 Kletszch hills + 2 miles + 8 100m sprints + mile in 6:23 (felt very good first 800) + 8 barefoot strides, hot day, 7 miles total
July 31: 40 miles of biking, second half pretty hard (very windy)! 30 minute full moon swim in lake (beautiful!)