A Major Minor Breakthrough

Hello all from the cold, dark northeast.

I wanted to share a thing that happened. For me, it was a breakthrough, even though on the grand scale of things, it was pretty small. But that, in fact, is kind of the point. More on that in a sec.

I have been working on my swim technique for a while now. Like a lot of us, I’m an ‘adult onset’ swimmer, so all of the technique I have has come from foggy memories of childhood lessons, two video analyses by Robbie, and a crap ton of practice. Just grinding out the laps, trying to be aware of my body and figuring it out as I go. Sometimes it’s a little bewildering because I never exactly know if I’m ‘doing it right’ and there’s nobody I can ask in person (my usual pool is pretty much an old folks’ home. Sometimes I swim at a university pool but they have a very different style there. They are zippy but I don’t think they’d last 500 yards in open water).

One of the things I’ve been trying to figure out is paddles. Every now and then, I get a paddle workout. What the heck is the deal with these uncomfortable things? What am I supposed to be accomplishing with them? Are they supposed to make me faster or slower? Looking at my TP data, I have seen that they usually slow me down. Intuitively, I thought this was probably not quite right. It seemed like I should be faster when using a paddle instead of just my hand. But I rarely was.

Trying out my paddles for the first time. On the advice of my coach, I removed the wrist strap.

Separately from that, I have been trying to sort out my stroke finish. I know the theory: push the ‘book’ back against the wall. Don’t drop the ‘book’ early by your hip and pull your hand out of the water too soon. But knowing the theory and putting it into practice are two different things. Once I feel something, I can usually latch on to it. But I’ve been having trouble finding that feeling.

So earlier this week, I was doing 15×200 in the pool, all upper body work. I was supposed to alternate three 200’s with pull buoy, then three 200’s with pull buoy and paddles. As I worked through the first three 200’s, I was trying to find the feeling of that finish motion, trying to figure out the mechanics of getting my arm from the catch, through the high elbow forearm motion to ‘pushing the book.’ The timing of that last transition has been eluding me. As I anticipated putting on the paddles for the next three 200’s, I realized I would actually have what I could imagine as a book in my hand: the paddle.

It seems painfully obvious to me now, but thinking of it like this had never occurred to me before this. I had just strapped the paddles on and tried to muscle through. But what would happen if I tried to use them to deliberately enhance my technique? Because you can use them to build strength, sure, but they can also exaggerate technique so it’s easier to understand. But you have to be looking at them with that in mind, rather than just seeing them as resistance training aids. At least, that’s how it was for me, never having talked to anyone in person about paddles before.

The paddle is the book. The book is the paddle. I tried it. I started pushing that book-paddle against the back wall deliberately and with specific focus. I stopped thinking about building strength. I thought only about form.

The results were pretty staggering. I was instantly fifteen seconds faster over 200 yards. It was kind of hard to believe. But the data never lies. (Okay sometimes it does but that’s another story).

This really cemented for me how much of swimming is about technique over strength. Suddenly I understood how all those skinny-armed women (and men) can absolutely demolish me, a fairly strong male, in the water.

Since figuring this out, I have been literally pretending that I have paddles on whenever I swim without them, visualizing and mimicking the feel and form that they gave me, to transfer it to my normal swim technique. I’m already seeing results, and my average swim paces are dropping.

As I said at the start, this is a pretty small and highly specific breakthrough. On the grand scheme of things, it’s pretty insignificant. But to me, it felt enormous. And I realized that the victory of figuring this puzzle piece out was almost as satisfying to me as pulling off a race. It was a moment of ‘process achievement.’ By definition, a process-minded approach never ends, wins or loses. It continues. The process itself is the goal, the joy and the accomplishment. But there are milestones along the way, and those are what give process its shape. Some milestones look large from the outside, while others look smaller, but from the inside of the process, they can be almost equal. Because the gauge of a milestone is not the impressiveness of its stature, but rather what it teaches you — what it gives you to carry forward. I could have a good race and ultimately learn very little, because everything just went well. But learning that ‘the paddle is the book’ took my entire process to a new place. And that makes it much bigger than it looks on the outside.

Injuries

Early in this year of training, I hurt my calf. Just running along, then all of a sudden whoops, my calf is busted. It was a bad pull if not a tear, and it was debilitating and discouraging and basically awful. When you’ve built so much into your training, not just as physical conditioning but also as an emotional and mental therapy, being prevented from doing it is close to nightmare.

Yesterday I went out for a run in the cold rain. I started on hills, which was nothing particularly new. At my turnaround point, I felt something in my upper inner thigh. And it wouldn’t go away. It wasn’t one of those normal running pains that come and go. It was flaring when my thigh went back and when I brought it forward, a sharp kind of pain that felt white and distinct. Before long, I was walking. The first time I’d had to walk since I hurt my calf. I walked for about a mile and then was able to jog home slowly. I knew I couldn’t do my scheduled strength workout though. My first scratched workout in this 12-week plan.

I didn’t pay enough attention to myself when my calf got hurt. That is, I didn’t take note of the process of what happened after. At least not in a way that I internalized as any kind of useful information. If I had, I wouldn’t be so devastated right now. I would have learned something. I would believe in temporary, not permanent things. I would feel the value in rest and recovery, even if it’s forced. I would be okay.

I don’t feel okay.

I was able to swim today, a strength workout of about 2,000 yards total. Just an hour. I did it with a pull buoy so there was very little load on my legs. Still, I felt it when I had to stabilize myself in the water. It was hard to force out of my mind.

In the parking lot, I jogged to the car. Just to see. I felt it. Sore and tight. I wouldn’t make my run feeling how it felt. Another scratch.

It’s not failure. It’s part of the process. It happens. Injury and recovery. Build up and taper. Still.

I don’t feel okay.

My first triathlon!

I finished my first sprint distance triathlon! Getting here was the culmination of 10 weeks of training, with a focus on changing my eating habits and trying to lose weight. It was a milestone I worked hard on, and I was proud to achieve it.

It took the week beforehand off almost entirely, doing only an easy swim where I tried out a couple of techniques I had seen online. Other than that, I didn’t exercise at all. I knew I was really stretching the definition of “taper” but considering my recent calf injury, which had only just begun to feel normal again, I thought it was best to go the route of complete recovery.  Certainly nothing I did in the week beforehand would make much a difference fitness-wise; it was up to the 10 weeks prior to see if that was up to snuff or not.

I spent the day before the race in something of a haze of nerves and intermittent preparation.  I ended up taking two separate naps by accident, and it took me probably 4-6 hours to actually get my kits together.  Mentally, I was in a fog. Eventually I did manage to get things laid out, though, and then packed them up into two reusable grocery store shopping bags, for T1 and T2.

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On the left we’ve got tri suit, race-provided swim cap, sunscreen, goggles and earplugs, and race manual. In the middle is T1 – spare bike bottle, helmet, gloves, numbers, bike shoes and socks, 2 towels and large water bottle. T2 has running shoes, an energy snack, another large water bottle and a towel.

The race was about an hour from my house, so the wife and I were up early to get there. I had my usual breakfast of oatmeal, and hydrated on the drive.  The weather was perfect, so I was glad to see that wasn’t a factor I’d have to contend with.

The logistics of transition setup had me more nervous than almost anything else.  The two transitions were in two different spots, as opposed to being in one location, and I didn’t really know how most people would be traveling from one to the other. Everything seemed roped off, so parking at T2 didn’t seem to be an option. Parking at T1 wasn’t an option either, for that matter; we had to park at a 3rd location and then walk (or ride) to the Ts.  So we ended up walking pretty far, carrying my shopping bags, which almost immediately demonstrated how poorly chosen they were.  Why it didn’t occur to me to use a backpack, or at least a duffel with a shoulder strap, I have no idea.  The fog was pretty thick the day before, I guess.

I got my stuff set up at T2, then headed to the beach for T1.  After being handed my bike stake, I asked someone why people were leaving their bib numbers at T2 – because the race manual said you had to wear it on the bike.  Did they get two numbers somehow, did I miss something?  No, they said, they’re just not following the rules.  Cool.  At least I knew I wasn’t screwing something up.

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T1 setup

I got my T1 spot set up, then headed to the overlook just above the beach to check out the swim course. It looked to be a long way, standing on shore. It was hard to tell how it measured up to the training I had been doing. Only one way to find out, though.

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Swim course

Due to how the timing mats worked, they had us all line up in a crowded mass on a pathway before entering the beach area, and once we were there, we weren’t allowed to leave.  Due to the low water level, it was going to be a water start, so everyone waded out to a first set of buoys to await the start signal.

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Getting set for the start

The start was in two waves, with the men going first and the women and teams going second. I positioned myself to the outside and toward the back of the pack, thinking that would be safest and easiest to manage.  I had never swum in a pack before so I had no idea what it was going to be like. I was just hoping I wouldn’t get panicky.

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First wave start

The signal sounded and we were off. I took a few steps, plunged in, and almost immediately it was chaos.  People were thrashing and kicking all around me. I got kicked and whacked several times right from the start. Because it mostly happened underwater, it didn’t really hurt, but it was always unexpected and somewhat disorienting. It was hard to find a route forward that wasn’t full of arms and legs. The pack didn’t really thin out until we had rounded the second corner and were on the way back toward the beach, so I probably only had about 40% of the course when I could really swim comfortably and try to find my own pace. The rest of the time was spent primarily fighting my way through and trying to navigate. The water was terrible, too – almost uncomfortably warm, full of weeds and smelling like boat fuel. Not the most pleasant environment to swim in. 

I ended up working pretty hard on the swim.  By my watch, I was out of the water in about 10 minutes, not including the run up the beach, which was 3-5 minutes faster than I expected. I think I swam a lot faster than I had trained.

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Out of the water (on the far right)

It was over soon enough, though, and I was back on the beach, heading up for T1. As I ran up the hill, I discovered that one of my earplugs had suction-locked into my ear, and I couldn’t for the life of me get it out. There was nothing I could do but leave it in and do the rest of the race with one ear plugged. I hoped it wouldn’t affect my balance.

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Drying my feet and getting ready for the bike

I dried my feet and got my biking gear on, then jogged my bike out to the mount line and headed out on the bike course. I wasn’t really paying much attention to the transition times, since this was my first triathlon. I primarily wanted to get through them successfully, so I didn’t mind taking a little extra time.  As it turned out, I took a lot of extra time and had some of the slowest transitions of the entire field. 

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Heading out on the bike

Cycling is definitely my strongest discipline, and the course was pretty flat, so I was eager to put down a good time. I realized right away that the effort I’d put out on the swim was definitely too much, because I was eating people up left and right in the first mile.  That meant I could have swum a bit slower and made up time on the bike.  Lesson learned.

As I rounded a corner to head up one of the only hills, passing another cyclist on my right, I learned another hard lesson – never forget to check your tire pressure.  Like, with a gauge.  And a pump. My tire seemed to roll out from under me and go soft, and I was sure I’d blown a flat.  I stopped at the top of the hill and got off my bike to check.  My rear tire was soft, but it wasn’t flat.  It was rideable, and I wasn’t about to take the time to pump air into it with my little hand pump.  I decided to keep riding as far as I could.  If it went flat on the course, so be it.  For the time being, it was low but usable.

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The low tire definitely slowed me down.  I couldn’t corner very well, for fear of losing stability, and whenever I tried to stand and power over small rises, the back end of the bike went all wobbly.  It didn’t feel safe at all. I kept it conservative when maneuvering and put as much power in as I could when the road was straight. That got me to the end of the course with an average of about 19 mph.

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Coming back in to T2

I found my transition spot easily enough and put my bike down. I basically ignored everything else there except for my running shoes. I carried one of my bike bottles with me for a short distance to douse myself with before tossing it to my wife, who was there cheering me on, then bricked on out to do the run.

The legs felt dead and weird for the first mile, as expected, but my pace was good and my calf felt great. I felt the exertion in my lungs but I still had legs, so I pushed it pretty much as hard as I had left.  The course wound through some residential areas and back along the lakeside, finishing up along a bike path.

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I came into the finish with an overall time of 01:21:34. I didn’t have a fixed goal to shoot for going into this; I was aiming just for completion.  But under 1:30:00 seemed to be fairly respectable, and I was placed somewhere in the middle of the field, both in my age group and overall. The distances for the race were allegedly 500m in the water, 12 miles on the bike and 3 miles on the road (but I’m not sure I trust their measurements, either, particularly for the run).

I say somewhere because the timing for this event was completely messed up and none of the splits ended up being reliable.  The only time I trust from the official results is the overall.  When I got home, I checked the results and saw one set of split times and placing; the next day, they had completely changed. Neither of them made any sense, either, and didn’t align anywhere close to what I had on my devices during the race. 

Luckily, the times didn’t matter all that much to me.  This one was about learning how to do a triathlon, completing it and having a foundation for the next one.  In terms of those goals, it was a complete success.

The biggest racing takeaway I got was that I don’t need to go that hard on the swim. I’m not such a good swimmer that it will make much difference, except to tire me out. Meanwhile, I’m much better at biking so I can easily make up the time on wheels. Logistically, the biggest lesson was to pare down my transition gear, to put it in a backpack and to not take so much stuff!  I brought two giant water bottles I never even touched during the race, and I had way too many towels. I also didn’t need any food for such a relatively short race.

I didn’t walk away with any medals, but I got a cool training shirt, some free food and a whole bunch of knowledge. It was a good day.

Calculating swim distance

Because I do most of my swimming in an Endless Pool that doesn’t have an operating distance gauge, I don’t really know how far I swim. When I’ve done open water swims, I’ve estimated distance using Google Maps and the “round-about-there” method of marking out a real-life course. I researched some past results of the triathlons I plan to do and used those times as a reality check.

While on vacation, we were at a place with access to an outdoor pool.  I went down there one day for a swim and decided to try to calculate its length, using methods just as scientific as my other methods, namely: walking along the length and counting my footsteps and then guesstimating the total and converting it to meters.  Seemed close enough for government work, as they say.

The thing was, when I swam what I thought was 550 meters, it was over much sooner than I thought it would be.  I figured some of that happened because I was able to push off the walls, which gave me an added bonus of speed without doing any work, but it was still a significant difference. So either I was way faster than I thought, or my distance calculations were off and it wasn’t anywhere close to how far I thought it was.  Or maybe swimming in a pool just wasn’t anything like swimming in open water and the discrepancy was due to some other unknown variable.

Combined with the state of my calf injury, it was another unknown that I was adding to a slowly growing stack, which would only ultimately be answered by actually doing a triathlon.

Bad food and baseball

I went to great lengths last week to ensure that my training would stay intact despite a planned trip to Toronto for the weekend. I rearranged training days so that all of my swimming would be over the weekend, and made sure that the hotel we stayed in would have a pool. I packed light, carrying just a backpack, but made sure it contained my swim gear. I was ready to stick to the plan.

Unfortunately, it didn’t turn out that way. For one thing, it turned out that the pool at the hotel was out of service for some reason. They hadn’t bothered to tell us before arrival. I guess it’s normally just an amenity, but to me it felt like I had gone to a fair amount of effort focused around that pool in particular, only to find out it wasn’t available. I was annoyed.

However, it didn’t take more than a few blocks of walking after leaving the airport to realize that I had also made a fatal undergarments error. What is comfortable on an airplane is not comfortable for walking, especially after being cooped up in stuffy cabins and terminals all day. I was severely chafed by the time I got to the room.

What was worse, though, was a bug I seemed to have picked up just before leaving. Gastrointestinally speaking, things were not good. And they would stay not good for the entire trip. Swimming was definitely not happening.

I salvaged what I could. I got a lot of walking in, as one inevitably does in a city, and managed to keep the chafing under control. I was extremely uncomfortable at times, but luckily it didn’t progress much beyond frequent bathroom visits and awkward walks.

We got to see a lot of baseball, and the Jays swept the series. We went up the CN Tower, an overpriced tourist trap that at least afforded some nice views.

On Monday I had a rest day, and I took it. Since picking things back up this week, I feel pretty good overall. I think the few days of extra rest may have been better for me than I realized.

Frustratingly, my weight remains immobile. I haven’t made any significant diet changes, so I knew weight loss would be slower than I’ve done it in the past, but I really thought I’d see some kind of shift by now.

Day 2 – Swim

Time: 11 minutes

Distance: ~150m

Weight: 271 lbs

My primary venue for swim training is going to be an Endless Pool, at least for the foreseeable future. In some ways, this is convenient. It’s at my parents’ house, so I can use it whenever I want. They keep it warm, so I can train at any time of year without a wetsuit. It’s free and easy – I just have to drive there and hop in.

It’s not going to be the same as open water, of course, which is where I’ll most likely be swimming in my first tri. It also doesn’t have a distance gauge on the current generator, so all I have to go on is my watch.

I’m using the Fitbit Ionic, which has a swim exercise function and tells me its estimate of how far I’ve gone. I don’t really know where that comes from, though. My height, and how many times I move my arm, I guess?

So I’ll call that a rough estimate, and focus on time. According to some past tri results I’ve looked at, it seems like I’ll need to be able to swim for 15-20 minutes without stopping to cover the distance of a sprint triathlon. If I can do that, I should be in a good place to compete with triathletes who are 30 years older than me.

I’m ok with that. I’m here to finish.