I Thought They Said “Rum”

I had all but convinced myself last week that the pain in my right calf, which started the day after the Cottage Lake Tri, was just taper week jitters. Ah, taper week. When each ache is a stress fracture, a torn muscle, a shin splint, a PF horror, an IT band disaster; your nervous tummy is the start of the flu that is rampaging through your office; that rash is the sign of another bout of  schistosomiasis that you contracted in Borneo– oh, wait– you’ve never actually been to Borneo. Nor have you been infected by parasitic worms. But it could happen–just days before The Race, your body could conspire against you, derailing your months of training, trading your blood and sweat for a puddle of tears.

So, I resigned myself to the inevitable taper week body reset. I iced, I stretched, I cut short a run. I swam, I iced, I massaged, I sacrificed small animals with cloven hooves at the altar of the goddess of running, Atalanta. I iced some more.

My alarm went off at 3:45 a.m. Saturday morning. The day of the Seattle Rock and Roll Marathon and Half Marathon had dawned. Or it would in about thirty minutes. I slipped out of bed and stood on my right leg. Why hello, Pain. Guess you’re coming along for this ride. My calf felt bruised deep down. I wondered if I’d massaged too hard.  I’d actually burned my skin from all the icing. But no, I never considered not running.

That thought didn’t occur to me until around Mile 4.  I was counting on the Mile 3 Settle-In, when the body is warm, the rhythm takes over, you stop THINKING about running and just DO the thing — the point at which your body says, “Thanks so much, Brain. I’ll take over from here. See you around Mile 11 when I’m tired – I’ll hand her back off to you then.”

Mile 3 Settle-In? Nope, didn’t happen. It was around Mile 4 that I felt something give way in my right leg, a minute crumpling, as if a small stitch had torn loose. Righty-ho. Nine more miles of this. I’m basically at the Point of No Return.

My Garmin showed me moving at a good clip. At a pace that could propel me to a 2 hr finish if I could keep it up and run a faster negative split. I truly wasn’t aiming for a  2 hr  half —  I’d given that up in April to spend 2 1/2 glorious weeks in France, where I had dumped my running shoes in a rubbish bin outside Montpellier. But suddenly it was possible.  If it wasn’t for the white-hot needle of pain, I could do the unimaginable — a 2 hr half, or better.

Ah, the ego and the body, duking it out right there, inside my calf muscle.

It was a perfect day for a race. Overcast, cool, rain threatening, but nary a drop spilled from the sky. I was alone, one runner among 26,000, but I had started the day in the company of friends, with laughter and bananas, in long Porta-Potty lines. The first wave of runners was set to cross the start line at 7:00. I said my farewell around 6:40, to stand in line one last time for a rank-smelling toilet.

I spent 10 miles thinking about pain. Uphill stretches were a welcome relief but the downhill bits were agony. I analyzed my pain from every possible angle: “Am I doing lasting damage?” “Should I stop and stretch?” “This will probably work itself out, just need to get some endorphins cranking.”  “If I fall over, will someone stop to help me?” “Should I have brought my cell phone so Brendan could come get me?” “Oh, wait, those last five steps, I think it’s gone… hey, nope, there it is.”

Mile 7.  The road followed Lake Washington, past the green, manicured neighborhoods of Seward Park. Standing just off the road was a long line of men and women, each holding a large American flag and wearing a blue tee-shirt that read: wear blue: run to remember. They stood silently with flag raised to honor a soldier killed in combat. I first saw this group, along this same stretch, at the Seattle Marathon in the fall. And as at that race, I began to hyperventilate as I tried to keep my tears in check. I raised my hand to the sky to express my support, since I couldn’t breathe out to say “Thank you.” Many others from run blue were participating in the race. They are the wives and husbands, fathers, mothers, siblings, friends, and fellow soldiers of those lost in Afghanistan and Iraq. They came together in grief and found release through running.

My pain didn’t lessen after the emotional and heartbreaking Mile 7, but I stopped struggling against it. The adrenalin rush soothed my rawest nerves and I was past the critical halfway point. The rhythm of the mantra in my brain — “Dig Deep” — began to match my breathing.

Mile 9 held that dreadful stretch through the I-90 tunnel, when I lost the satellite feed on my Garmin. I tried to speed up, just to get through the claustrophobic cement enclosure (“What if an earthquake strikes RIGHT NOW?!”);  it was like those dreams where you are running flat out, but going nowhere.

Then came Mile 10, when all aches in my body equalized into one mass of hurt, and suddenly my calf wasn’t such a nuisance. My Garmin found the satellite, caught up with my run, and showed me that a 2 hr Half was just beyond my reach. But I picked up my pace anyway, feeling that glorious rush of endorphins that comes with an end in sight. I ran on nothing but the steam of having already run 10 painful miles.

I crossed the finish line at 2:06:50. So close to a goal that wasn’t even my goal. But it sure as hell is now. Sub 2 hr, baby. Seattle Marathon, November 27, 2011.

And yeah, I hurt. It’s not injury-hurt. I went for a long bike ride yesterday and a swim today. Both felt so good — my body stretching, healing, moving through some different paces. I wouldn’t be able to do this if I had a real injury. But my calf is shouting at me, quite distinctly. It’s tired of running. I’m not. Not really. Wish I could get my gear together for an easy 5 in the morning. But I won’t. Not yet.

Participant Detail
Finished In:
Julie Johnson
Seattle, WA
Age: 41 | Gender: F
Overall: 5429 out of 17083 · Division: 401 out of 1691 · Gender: 2633 out of 11458
Pace 5 Km 10 Km 9 Mile ChipTime  
9:41 29:54 59:44 1:28:00 02:06:50  

Into The Murky Deep

The sky was overcast, but mercifully, no rain fell. The air temperature at Madrona Park was 53, water temperature of Lake Washington a few degrees higher. Both should have been warmer in mid-June, but we’re still waiting for the arrival of spring here in the Northwest, even as the month ticks away to summer solstice. I was at Madrona early Saturday for two triathlon clinics: Transition Prep, followed by Open-Water Swim Clinic.

Struggling into my wetsuit was a great warm-up. Sharing my struggle and laughter was Marina, a college friend who just happened to be sitting next to me at the Intro to Triathlon lecture at REI in May. We met in North Hall at Central Washington University in 1988. Twenty-three years- a few lifetimes- later we found each other again. Marina is as beautiful and sassy as ever. Her spirit and determination are contagious- if I can mainline that energy, I’ll get through this crazy adventure.

By the time the transition demo lecture concluded and we entered Lake Washington to run through the clinic’s “try-a-tri”, I was shaking with the chill and with nerves. My breath was shallow and rapid as I doused my face and poured the cold water down the front of my wetsuit. Below the waterline, oily tendrils curled around my ankles and wrists- plantlife straining to reach the light from the murky, green deep.

My group members and I swam back and forth between buoys, the comfort of sand and smooth rocks never far from our white and wrinkled soles. The water inside my wetsuit regulated quickly to my body temperature, providing welcome insulation. I practiced the catch-up drill that has been my physical and mental mantra since entering the swimming pool in February. I forced myself to slow down, to exhale with force, to celebrate the past months’ training that allowed me to glide for yards on the force of my stroke. The buoyancy of the wetsuit was a marvel- my strokes felt almost effortless as the wetsuit kept my legs lifted and allowed my feet to become little motors, churning behind me.

But then I’d have to lift my head to sight my direction, someone would jostle me, or I’d have to maneuver around a pair of kicking feet inches from my face, and I’d lose my rhythm. Anxiety would flood my blood and suddenly I was aware of the vegetal muck grasping at my limbs, the cold tea that was slapping my face, the distance to the shore. The thought of facing a half mile in August’s Danskin tri, with no lakebed beneath my feet to support me when my courage failed- I simply couldn’t fathom it. Even knowing I’d done this once before, in this same lake, without a wetsuit-was no comfort. Thinking ahead to certain failure revved my panic button into high gear.

Then, suddenly, the transition whistle blew. I splashed to shore and ran toward my bike, fighting a wave of dizziness. I remembered to undo the velcro neck closure, unzip my suit, and strip to the waist as I ran across the grass, but once to my bike, I struggled to remain upright as I kicked free of the wetsuit. I nearly collapsed, but remembered advice from the morning’s demo: “If you sit down, you’ll never get back up.” A coach was beside me, yelling “Step on it with your other foot and pull!” Note to self: douse ankles and calves with Suit Juice or spray. Make like a Silpat and slip free from the suit that clings like a leech to your wet skin… Suit off, hands shaking, I crammed my wet feet into socks and shoes. Other note to self: baby powder in socks and shoes, Yankz laces.

Settling onto my bike saddle was like coming home to a waiting martini and dinner on the table after a horrible day at work. I was so happy to be free of the water’s chill and my panicked thoughts that I wasn’t aware of the squish in my shoes or the damp soaking through from my tri top to my jacket. Powering up a few hills kept the muscles warm and the downhill sweep dried most of the wet. The run portion was anticlimactic; we practiced chi-style running back and forth on the sidewalk in front of the park. First clinic, done. I was tired, hungry, I had to pee. The adrenalin rush had passed through and left me feeling hollow. I had thoughts of bagging the Open Water Clinic that followed this Transition experience, doubting I had the courage to enter the water a second time.

But I did. I yanked and tugged my way back into that a cold, damp wetsuit, swallowed a couple of gel Shotblocks and sipped a cup of hot water as an even larger group gathered for the pre-workout lecture. Once again, I was shaking with cold and fear as I re-entered the water. This time, I joined the designated “terrified of open water” group. But the drills gave me confidence. We went longer each time, passing into deep water. I focused on long, smooth strokes, on power-exhalations, on moving forward no matter what. Again the transition whistle blew, signaling the end of the open water clinic. Finished. I’d made it.

Not so fast. We were corralled to shallow water and there I learned we were going to swim the quarter mile distance, marked off in a triangle by bright yellow buoys. As much as I wanted to dash to the shore and call it a day, I pushed off from solid ground and began my stroke. I got as far as I could, but suddenly my will bottomed out. It wasn’t a physical failure or even the cold- my body felt capable of continuing the swim. My mind simply shut down and my limbs refused to remain in motion. A coach caught up with me and a few other swimmers around who were struggling as much as I. She got us through five strokes and then five more, to the safety of a dock. Then we swam to the end of the dock, regrouped, swam around it to the end, then swam to one buoy and one buoy more. Another coach said, as we panted and hung onto a buoy by our fingertips, that he’d never swam a tri distance in his life. He swam from one landmark or buoy to the next, breaking the distance into manageable bites until it was behind him. That tidbit got me back to shore.

I don’t know if I can do this. I am registered for the Cottage Lake mini-tri in Woodinville this Saturday. It’s an easygoing 1/4 mile swim, 9 mile bike, 1.6 mile run meant to be a tri-for-all, a way to break into the tri experience in a non-competitive, supportive atmosphere. I’ve got five days to do battle with the demons that press my panic button at the thought submerging my body into the claustrophobic clutch of the cold, bottomless, murky deep.

Those demons followed me yesterday during my run, sniggering on my shoulder and weighing me down so that I felt as if I was dragging lead weights through Lake Washington. I ran 10 miles on sheer spite.  If I can do that, surely I can splash my way to shore on Saturday. There’s always the backstroke…




Use the Force, Luke.

Late Friday afternoon, the work week behind, the weekend to unfold. The pool is lit from the natural light that flows in from the glass walls of the lobby. Fleet Foxes rumble from hidden speakers, bouncing into the high ceilings and against the splashes and chops of the few swimmers churning out laps. I sink into the 85 degree water, adjust the strap of my goggles, and push off from the wall into the waiting blue. It’s my favorite moment of the week.

I’m swimming again, after a multi-year hiatus. I decided late last year to attempt another sprint tri summer or autumn 2011.  After setting this goal, I took another four months to screw up the courage to seek swim lessons. I’ve attended the weekly clinic on Sunday mornings for the past month, in addition to swimming laps on one morning during the week and on these blissful Friday afternoons.

September 2005 was the first and last time I donned a wetsuit. I completed- by sheer piss and vinegar-a sprint tri that started in the chill waters of Lake Washington. I trained methodically and took a few private lessons with a member of the CWU swim team. I dutifully cranked out my laps until I was certain I could survive a 1/2 mile in the water. I’d hop on my bike at the Ellensburg Pool and Fitness Center, bike around for miles and end up at home to drop the bike in the garage, run into the house for a pee, then head out for 3 miles’ run around campus. So, I was ready.

Or, not so much. I went twice to People’s Pond southwest of town, to try my freestyle in the open water. I never ventured more than a couple dozen yards from shore, weirded out by the murky water and the hidden vegetation that wrapped its rotting fronds around my calves. Being out there alone felt too much like a scene from a teen horror flick, so I scared myself back to the delineated comfort of swimming pool lanes.

Utterly unprepared was I to face the world of flailing bodies, jabbing elbows, and the adrenalin rush that made my heart slam into my throat as my inaugural triathlon experience got underway in Lake Washington. Within moments, my freestyle sank to the bottom of the lake along with all coherent thought. I was unable to breathe.  I let the wave of swimmers pass me, keeping my head above water with some variant of dog-breast-paddle-stroke. Once I had space to myself, I tried again with freestyle, but I couldn’t slow down my heart rate or catch more than a gasping breath.  I couldn’t bear to submerge my face in the dark water- to lose, even for an instant, my connection with the sky.

I made it to the first buoy, the turning point that designated the halfway mark. I hung on, to rest, to have a chat with myself. In an instant, a lifeguard in a kayak came paddling up. “Are you all right?” He asked. “Do I need to pull you in?” His calm voice was a balm on my frayed nerves. I could see the shore a mere quarter mile away. The swimmers were emerging like black silkies from the water and running to the bike station. I was so far behind. And suddenly very pissed off.

“No. I’m good. I just needed a rest.” The lifeguard stayed with me for a few moments longer, until I pushed off from the buoy. I finished that piece of shit quarter-mile with a meandering backstroke. And I had the time of my life biking and running another 17 miles, to end up right where I’d started: on the shores of Lake Washington. There’s nothing like kicking your demons in the ass to get the endorphins revving.

I’ve just registered for the Danskin Triathlon, August 14. It’s a course that will force me to stare down another 1/2 mile of Lake Washington. This time, however, I do not have the bliss of ignorance. I know the heart-shrieking grip of panic, that moment when your lungs seize and you think you could, quite possibly, die right here, amidst dozens of thrashing bodies.

Last night I had a lap lane to myself and I practiced closing my eyes during the downstroke, as I planted my face in the water. The first few times, panic seized me and I gulped in a nasty mouthful of pool water. Then I calmed down, and other than running into the wall a couple of times, I found my stride. I told myself that it’s like an asana flow with eyes closed. Your body knows what to do, just let go and go with the flow. Use the Force, Luke.

And I’ve got a plan. The awesome swim clinic in which I’m enrolled (Mary Meyer Life Fitness) offers an Open Water/Triathlon prep series beginning in June. I’ll be there, the weekend after the Seattle Rock-n-Roll 1/2 marathon on June 23, when my tri training will kick into high gear. I also live one mile from Green Lake, an ideal open water training ground. Later this spring, I’ll hit those murky waters and face my open water demons once again. May the Force be with me.