Sunday, October 26, 2014

Benchmarks


Life has been ticking along here now for a little over 8 weeks.

Mackenzie is smiling, giggling and cooing.  She loves to cuddle and enjoys time on those mats with all of the bright, colorful dangly things that you think are a gimmick until you put your baby on it and realize they think it’s party.  She makes eyes with the zebra, swats at the giraffe, kicks her legs and laughs until she passes out into a nap.

It’s hard work being a baby.

Myself, I have been doing my own version of baby exercise mat as I stack on week after week of consistent “fitness building” activity.  Training to train.  For the first 6 to 7 weeks it was slow going.  Rather, I was slow going.  Like I tell my athletes, a little patience here goes a long way.  But it’s hard to trust and accept that when you’re shuffling along at a very slow pace.

And that’s just for running!

In the pool, I’ve gotten back into some challenging swims.  The swimming comes back quickly.  My top end is missing so I’ve included some all out 25's and lots of fly.  Anyone who says they can’t get their heart rate up during swimming needs to do more fly! I’ve been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to chase Amanda a few times in the pool with the swim workouts I write for her.  When I gave her 60 x 50, she said she would only do it if I did the swim with her.  Deal.  When we got 50 into it, she did some quick math and said hey, this adds up to 70.  It was no surprise but for the first time I got a taste of my own bad math.  As I told her, it could have been worse – could have been an extra 10 x 100!

Last weekend, I made myself do a bike test.  I’ve been riding mostly easy with some short (as in 30 seconds) bursts of intensity.  As soon as I got really uncomfortable, the interval would be over.  But if you’re going to make progress you have to do the thing you don’t want to do and get really uncomfortable.  For me that was a bike test.  To improve you must be willing to look at yourself in the mirror (or look straight into the power meter/Garmin), accept what you see and then put forth the effort to work on it.  I know I’m not fast or strong right now but I felt it was important to quantify how much so I could measure (and be motivated by) progress.

Before the test, I did my best magic trick yet: I got both children to nap simultaneously for 3 hours.  I deserve a wooden bowl for that.  I was so excited to test – so much so that my HR was running hot even before I got onto the bike.  A little anxiety!  It had been over 18 months since my last test!  And about 5 minutes into the test, I realized that those damn things never get any easier.  EVER.  They hurt for every single pedal stroke.  10 minutes.  15 minutes.  HURT.  At that point I told myself it was only 5 x 1 minute as hard as I could go.  In the end I finished just a few watts lower than I thought I would be.  I have a starting point but also a refresher in how to do the bike test.  Part of doing a test to your ability is mastering how to execute the test.  It takes some practice to learn how to pace and when to dig!   

Next up, a 5K the following weekend.  Running is always the slowest to come back.  I ran until the end of pregnancy but I use the term running lightly.  Until about week 36, I was able to run nonstop for 30+ minutes.  Then, it became a “wait and see” variation of run some, walk some.  Sometimes run 30 seconds, walk 30 seconds.  Sometimes run 30 seconds, walk 5 minutes!  My pace had slowed down to over 4 minutes per mile slower than my usual easy run pace.  It was more like fast walking.  

In the past 8 weeks I’ve been (IM)patiently building run fitness.  I did what I knew would drive myself crazy: set a HR cap.  But it was a very important restraint.  Right now what feels biomechanically good is much faster than my fitness can support.  So I’ve run s-l-o-w-l-y.  At first, it took at pace SLOWER than my pregnancy pace to keep my HR down.  How can you lose 20+ lbs and be slower?  ‘Tis the mystery of post-partum fitness.  But each run I’ve gotten a little bit faster.  All by running “easy."

Perfect time, then, to sign up for a local 5K on the path.  I had no expectations other than “hoping” I would break a 7:00 mile.  (FYI: hoping is a VERY effective race strategy)  I ate a sensible pre-race dinner at our neighborhood block party: a bratwurst (for the first time in my life, hey try at least ONE new thing before every race, right?), two soft pretzels (I NEEDED THE CARBS), 3 cupcakes that I only licked the frosting off of and just to be safe – a giant plate of salad.  Fiber loading.  Frosting loading.  Something like that.

The morning of the race, I woke up at 3:38 am.  Something wasn’t right.  Mackenzie and I fell asleep at 8:30 pm.  It was now 3:38 am.  OH MY GOD WE BOTH SLEPT 7 HOURS.  STRAIGHT!  It’s been MONTHS since I’ve done that.  AMAZING!  But – was she still breathing?  A quick check of the monitor and I see her roll her head.  Breathing, check.  And so, the day began.  So did my pre-race ritual which included oatmeal, pumping (I pumped 4 ounces of milk and when trying to run fast- EVERY OUNCE COUNTS) and 12 ounces of fully leaded coffee.  Between that and 7 hours of sleep I felt like I would crack a 6:00 mile!

(wishful thinking, also a highly effective race strategy)

I warmed up, lined up near the front and got ready for something I knew would be very painful.  And then waited.  For the gun.  It had been a long time since I heard the sound of a starting gun and you know what – I was excited.  Every time I go away from racing and then come back I realize how much fun racing is.  To spend the morning doing something you love, surrounded by people with similar interests, outside with the backdrop of the beautiful autumn, I remind myself that no matter how much this hurts to always connect to the fun of it.  

And before I knew it I WAS RACING! 

The gun went off.  The course started off with 800 meters around a grass horse track.  The footing was sketchy – slippery from morning frost, uneven from horse hooves and thick.  I held back to avoid overworking this section until we turned on to the path.  But then I said to myself Liz, are you running or racing?  It’s an honest question you need to ask yourself if you’re going to give it your best.  Running is comfortable.  Running is backing off when you it starts to hurt badly.  Racing is uncomfortable.  Racing is taking risks.  It’s ignoring data and instead answering only to yourself – are you really redlining it?  Is that all you have?  Can you give it a little more?  No Garmin can tell you that!  

I decide to start racing.  I started to reel in some of the women that bolted too fast before we entered the forested area.  I know this path well – I’ve done the majority of my runs here over the past 15 years!  I’ve seen this path in all 4 seasons, in fitness, in pregnancy, in lack of fitness, for easy runs, for mile repeats.  I tell myself to use what I know to my advantage.  We head towards a long downhill where I make a move past the 3rd place woman.  But in the next short hill she surges past me.  We turnaround and then climb the big hill we descended.  I get to the top, catch my breath and see 3rd place still dangling in front of me.  

And just like that --- I settled.  I was running.  Not racing.  Honestly.  I know I could have done better but I didn’t.  I didn’t want it bad enough.  And this is why I race.  To face myself.  To see what I’m made of.  To put myself on the edge and ask now what?  Today I was chasing but I didn’t give it 100 percent.  I didn’t take a risk when it was necessary.  Was it fitness?  Was it fear?  Call it rusty.  Out of practice.  Perhaps weakness.  “An area of opportunity.”  If I want to get better, I must work on it.

We descend the last hill before a short climb towards the grass track again.  I’m gaining on her but lacked the push or kick, either mentally or physically, to bridge the distance.  I cross the finish line 4th overall and 1st in age group.  When I tell Chris that I was beat by a 12 year old and two 24 year olds, he tells me I could have mothered all of them.

(doing the math and realizing this is true) And I feel pretty good about that.  

Now, I have a benchmark: physically and mentally.  Physically, I went faster than I thought I could right now.  Mentally, I held back.  Real racing has to be more gritty, more aggressive, more animal.  I was nowhere close to winning but 3rd place?  A little over 10 seconds ahead of me.  That wasn’t fitness.  That was just me not wanting it badly.  

Over the years, I’ve learned tons of lessons like this.  It’s why I go back to racing.  There’s always something new to learn about yourself.  And when you finally master the lesson, you feel a sense of pride and accomplishment.  Until you find the new lesson.  It’s why I love sports – you’re always learning.  

You know what I else I love about sports and racing?  POST RACE FOOD TABLE.  Brownies and hot chocolate.  Yes to both, thank you.  Cool down run while holding a Reeses Peanut Butter Cup in hand.  Got home and ate a piece of bacon.  I’ll try Whole 30 again tomorrow.  But for today, nothing spells recovery like chocolate and bacon.