Sunday, July 19, 2009

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

My First Triathlon: Or How to Challenge Myself in New and Unusual Ways

At the start of this year I looked at myself in the mirror and decided that I needed to do something about the ever-expanding muffin top and flab that seems to have appeared everywhere - middle-age spread some might say! While I could just trot out that old stand-by that "pregnancy weight is so hard to lose", well, almost 5 1/2 years after N's birth I don't really have that excuse anymore. I started to make some changes in my diet but I really needed to get exercise into my daily routine. I turned the corner one day in March.

A colleague came into the office lunch room with a salad in hand, which immediately caught everyone's attention (with so many convenience and "fast" foods available here, the majority of people do not reach for a salad when considering what to eat for lunch each day). "You're not on a diet, are you?" they all cried to which the coworker replied, "No, I'm training for a triathlon". Well, you could have heard a pin drop (I think I heard some crickets chirping). She had never done a triathlon before but was going to give it a go and that really started to capture my imagination. My job is generally very sedentary and I really needed something to get me off my butt and getting active. More than that, I also need a target, something to focus on to keep me motivated. A triathlon would be perfect.

The triathlon that my coworker was going to do was in Anthem in Phoenix. The swim leg of the race would be in a lake which is an immediate turn-off for me - I can swim but I don't yet have the endurance to be able to do the entire distance without stopping. At least with a pool you can stop at the end before doing the next lap if necessary. My coworker started asking if anyone else wanted to do it and her enthusiasm encouraged me to put my hand up and say "Yes". We talked about it a bit and decided that the idea of swimming in a murky lake full of duck poo where we couldn't touch the bottom was not our idea of a good time, so we started looking around for other triathlons that included a pool swim rather than open water. I found a mini triathlon (150 yard swim, 7 mile bike, 1 mile run) at Chino Valley (about 2 hours from Bagdad) scheduled for mid-May which seemed like the perfect first event for us to try. After a short time about a dozen people were "signed up" (or at least nominated by their peers) to join the triathlon "team" from our department, who would compete at Chino Valley. Searching on the internet yielded an excellent beginner triathlon training program from which seemed to be exactly what we needed: a gradual build-up, lots of details, and written in a very easy-going style. We printed out the program and tried our best to stick to it.

As with so many things, the enthusiasm of many of the "team members" peaked too early and the "team" dwindled from a dozen participants to about 8 to about 6 then eventually the Final Four. The date of the mini triathlon came and went and for a variety of reasons, none of us participated. Rather than give up completely, we decided instead to attempt a Sprint distance triathlon (300 yard swim, 15 mile bike and 3 mile run), also to be held in Chino Valley, on July 12th. We semi-diligently followed our training prescription, juggling the workouts around work schedules, family commitments, real life, the need for sleep and other such inconveniences that often seem to get in the way and threaten to stop us from achieving our goals. There's no doubt about it: it's hard to do it all and not get exhausted or lose your sanity but we gave it a red-hot go and made it work the best we could. As we progressed through the 11-week training program it was clear that we were getting fitter but approaching the end of the program the workouts get a lot longer and there are only a finite number of hours in each day. Not to be discouraged, we did what we could and hoped that the training we had managed to do would be enough to get us through on race day. For my part I was only in it to participate so my goal was just to finish.

I've done some swimming training before so I wasn't too worried about that leg but the bike and run were a different story. I'm definitely no cyclist and usually I am very cautious and don't like to let go of my death grip on the handlebars. Riding my husband's mountain bike (which is configured in such a way that a lot of weight is directed down onto the handlbars) caused me a great deal of numbness in my right hand particularly (the so-called "Handlebar Palsy", caused by compression of the ulnar nerve and apparently not uncommon in cyclists), which I'm told will eventually go away. It took some practice and now I can let go one hand for a few seconds but it will take more confidence and trust in myself (that I'm not going to immediately crash) for me to be able to get my water bottle out and drink from it while riding along. Most of my bike training was done on the local high school running track (with permission from the school district, thank you so much! With the big trucks we get around here, the track is a much safer option than riding on the road). The running training was very sedate. After having surgery in January this year my doctor advised me against running so I stuck to the walking and did what I was told. At the gym in our small town several people came up to me and said, "I heard you're doing a marathon" - well, not a marathon, but long enough for me. Many times I wondered how I was going to be able to do all three legs one after another but knowing that I could do them separately I just hoped that on the day I would be able to put it all together (and not expire trying).

I searched on the internet for beginner triathlete advice, information and stories, some of which were hilarious. The accounts of other people's first triathlons inspired me and helped me to keep up my training. Many of them were ordinary people like me who were just out there giving it a go. In June my friends and I bought triathlon outfits and started getting psyched about our first race which by now was not far away.

Leading up to The Day there were plenty of nerves and anxious, sleepless hours as I went over and over the day in my head: how I would lay out my transition area, where I would have to run, what gear I would need, and how would I fit the bike in our car? What if it didn't fit? Could I take the wheel off? What if I couldn't get the wheel off? This endless barrage of maybes, worst-case-scenarios and what ifs ran continually in my head for days leading up to the race.

Race day dawned very early at 4am. We had stayed in a hotel the night before to avoid the 2 -hour drive from Bagdad. There were probably a couple of hundred other competitors taking part in the race (many of whom had travelled from Phoenix) and the sight of all those aerobars and ripped bodies was enough to turn us green horns very pale. I asked an older man (who looked like it wasn't his first rodeo) about the protocol for the transition area and he very kindly explained the set up to me, and how the T1 and T2 transitions would work. One thing that we discovered very quickly is the wonderful camerarderie between triathletes. Everyone was so friendly and helpful and if we mentioned that we were first-timers they were very encouraging and really supportive. Having been so nervous prior to the day I was very surprised to find that rather than being stressed out at the race, I actually felt relaxed. It felt good to be there and I was excited that soon the race would start and I would get to find out if I could actually do this after all. I thought that I could but I wanted to prove it to myself and everyone else.

We started the swim in 20 second intervals and although I needed a couple of quick breaks I felt good about how I was going. I tried to relax and treat it like a training swim so that I wouldn't use up too much energy too soon. Getting out of the pool I was pretty out of breath and anxious to not forget anything getting ready for the ride. The relatively cool morning and the wet triathlon clothing helped to make the ride comfortable for at least the first lap (the bike course was two laps of 7.5 miles each, and horror of horrors, included the dreaded HILLS - I had not prepared for HILLS!), but by the second lap the day had started to heat up, the outfit was dry and it took more effort to get around the course. I tried to approach the ride in much the same way as the swim, just pretending that I was out for a leisurely ride and enjoying the scenery. The scenery was indeed lovely but was regularly interrupted by the blur of the fast riders blazing past me with their aero helmets and honed calves, barely raising a sweat. Another lady and I took turns at passing each other (a thrill after a lifetime of coming last in almost every sport I've tried) then I got the advantage when she got a flat tyre and had to call for a back-up bike. Since I hadn't yet figured out the trick to drinking and riding at the same time (walking and chewing gum I can do) I had to stop a few times to have a drink and take a quick breather, but I finished the ride within the time frame that I hoped to and I still felt good. Hot, but good.

Going into the run (in my case, walk) I knew that I was near the back of the field (second to last, in fact) and just after I started Flat Tyre Lady rode past on her replacement bike so I knew that I'd better keep the pace up unless I wanted to be Tail End Charlie, slower than someone who had a flat tyre. As I finished the walk I jogged across the finish line and soaked up the cheers of the waiting crowd. It was an amazing feeling but after drinking heaps of water for almost 3 hours, I really needed the bathroom! I got a big hug from N and although I was tired I felt wonderful, so proud to have achieved my goal. At no time during the race did I entertain a single negative thought. I never doubted my ability and never wanted to quit. I didn't go hard but I didn't go home without doing what I'd gone there to do. I am very proud of myself and can't wait to do it all again (I'm signing up this week for Prescott Valley in September).

Monday, July 13, 2009

The Project Takes Off: No Dig Vege Gardening Part 2

Well, the no-dig vege garden has definitely been a success: at the time of writing this (about 4 weeks after this photo was taken) the garden has gone absolutely crazy! We have been picking State Fair-worthy zucchini, eating sweet sugar-snap peas and delicious bok choy. Now the corn has developing ears and the pumpkins are starting to take over their end of the garden... so I have started work on Garden #2 (photos to come soon). Apart from being able to enjoy fresh, home-grown produce it has been fantastic to be able to grow it on otherwise barren, rocky soil, without having to break the ground. I have not needed to use any kind of insecticide so I have also managed to fulfill my other goal of keeping the garden completely organic. The soaker hose usually only gets turned on for about 15 minutes a day and that has been plenty to keep everything looking as healthy as you see it here. Shredded paper mulch salvaged from the office helps with water retention and the whole thing is doing marvelously.