Monday, October 26, 2009

Review: Garmin 405

I got the Garmin 405 last year for Christmas and despite my initial skepticism am now a huge fan. I wear it along with the Garmin premium heart rate monitor (waterproof and more comfortable than the original version) on all my runs, treadmill workouts, bike rides, and bike trainer sessions. I have the Garmin Speed/Cadence sensor mounted on my bike as well. This equipment takes a lot of the guesswork out of training and I’m pretty sure it motivates me to work just a little bit harder since it tells all!

The watch provides up to three customized screens of data with up to three types of data per screen, but I usually just stick to one or two screens which is enough. A touch of the bezel flips between screens. There are many data options, but the basics work fine for me - pace (min/mile), average pace per lap, time, lap time, distance, lap distance, and cadence.

In early morning runs I turn the backlight on and I like to use the autolap feature so I get splits for every mile. With custom bike or run interval type workouts, I use the Garmin software on the computer to easily create a program with the parameters and upload it to the watch. I don’t have to remember the specified times or distances, the watch beeps to tell me when it’s time for the next interval, and it tracks splits appropriately. There are countless other features like the virtual partner, auto lapping based on position, etc but I’ve not used those.

When I ride on the bike trainer, I turn the GPS option off to save power, but use the watch to track heart rate and cadence over time. Training Peaks can use this data to calculate distance and power.

After a run, I review my history on the watch, then upload it to the computer. Garmin provides some rudimentary software for the computer as well as a web site to upload data to share, but by far the best interface is on the Training Peaks site. There you can see your route map with mileage markers and an accompanying graph showing elevation, speed, heart rate, and cadence. You can select portions of the run/ride to see statistics just for that. From there, the daily log reports the time spent in each of the HR zones. That helps to assess, for example, if you indeed kept it aerobic if it was intended to be an aerobic only run.

The equipment works seamlessly together. The watch, because of the large number of options does take some time to get used to so be patient, but it’s really quite well done with the touch bezel and just two buttons. On a few rainy days I have had trouble getting the watch to respond to the touch bezel. I found I could wear the watch under a raincoat and it did not impair its functionality at all and helped with the rain glitch. Even when the watch itself acts up, I have never lost data.

I highly recommend the Garmin 405. It provides important information that foster more effective training practices and it’s well designed and engineered. Garmin also offers the waterproof 310XT, but it does not collect HR data in the water.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Brush Mountain Breakdown

(disclaimer: I ran this race against the advice of trained fitness professionals who rightly thought I was somewhat reckless to do this three weeks before my first marathon and they are probably right but it was still fun.)

I always say how much I love this race, I thought I should take the time to capture my thoughts about yesterday's event. The Brush Mountain Breakdown is half of a weekend event called the "Rowdy Dog" that features Sunday mountain bike races in the same area. Competitors can do one or both events. Ever since I did this race last year, I knew I wanted to do it again. The challenge this year is that it's three weeks before the Richmond Marathon which is the major focus of my fall training. All I kept hearing was "be careful" and as much as I wanted to do this race, I was nervous about my decision.

I woke up at 5 am to hear the wind howling and rain blowing and must admit to second thoughts about this race, but by sun up the weather had settled and the day brightened. I drove to the race site and parked, which involved driving the minivan down a short muddy steep embankment, through a gate, and into a recently used cow pasture. It was nice that this was the second year for me and I knew a number of people including the folks from Runabout Sports who have sold me countless pairs of shoes to help offset countless aches and pains. The running community, especially at this type of race, is incredibly collegial and supportive. This is a small but cherished race. The mountain humbles us all.

After the 3 milers (7 of them) headed off, the 8 (14 of them) and 15 milers (43 of us) took off down the single track trail. Nervousness was replaced with a focus on the business at hand, and the challenge to run my best race. There's not much use in expending energy here to try to pass so I just kept in line behind my student Leah, who in a last minute change of heart upgraded to the 15 miler. It starts up hill for the first mile and a half, so the heart rate gets revved up in a hurry. When things widened out, I passed a few folks and settled in with a group of guys. Two were VT students, and one was a married fellow with kids who goes to our country club.

After the aid station, we crossed the forest service road and were down in the valley I guess you call it. This meant more level trails, but also the first of many creek crossings. I picked my way through the first trying to keep my feet dry, but after watching the fellow in front just charge through, I decided I needed to do that too. I was amazed how quickly my feet seemed to dry after each of these. We probably had 8 creek crossings in total. At one point, we ran along a beautiful trail framed completely in mountain laurels. The trail is peppered with little mud bogs that force you into a kind of slalom step side stepping and leaping so you are not left running with mud-laden shoes. I was surprised I never pulled any muscles with those acrobatics. The other challenge were the stretches of trail that were just boulders and rocks to pick through. I got safely through those and the ankle-twisters seemed to come on the seemingly groomed trails with the random rock here and there.

Before long we were climbing up Jacob's ladder, represented by the large elevation change on this profile below, taken from my Garmin watch.

In my little crowd, NO ONE made it up Jacob's without walking parts of it. The challenge was to not walk all of it. I made it as far as possible, then with my heart just pounding, backed off a few times. It took all my willpower to pick up the slowest jog and resume the ascent. The topmost part was a series of switchbacks but no one even thought to just head straight up, it would have been too difficult. At the top we were rewarded with another aid station - fully stocked. After about a 45 second stop, a group of four of us headed off again. My glutes were feeling a bit fatigued, not something I was used to, and I wondered if they would bother me later in the race or the next day. Thankfully, they were never an issue.

Last year I ran this part alone and was never really certain that I was not lost. This year I had one guy in my sights and remembered the course so it was nice to not have that anxiety. I needed all my mental facilities to make it back down the mountain. It starts off with rocky, washed out switchbacks that all but catapult you from tree to tree. After making it through that, there is a long stretch of thin but non-rocky trail that is terraced into the mountain side. The guy in front of me bellowed "look at that VIEW!!!" It was incredible to look across the valley to the adjacent mountainside. You can't help but think that this is how mountain goats must feel perched up on a little ledge. It's one of my favorite parts.

Things open up again and you come across the third aid station. This one was unmanned, but well stocked, AND it included a special treat....FIG NEWTONS!! Oh, joy! I grabbed one of those, maybe two, and off I went again. The trail puts you back on Poverty Creek, where you are lulled back into a false sense of "I got this licked!" My legs never really seem to get tired on runs, and this was no exception. What gets me is when my heart rate starts to max out and breathing is labored, that's the thing that backs me off.

Around mile 11 things change when it's back UP the mountain and then into a series of ups and downs, ups and downs, and at that point, the UPS got really tough. I tried every trick in the book, thinking about the laps of lunges, tough treadmill workouts, and hill sprints that had toughened me up. I concentrated on the guy in front of me, but he's an ultra trail runner (runs over 26 miles) and was just a machine. He'd pull ahead up the hills, but I managed without trying to catch back up on the downhills. We caught up to two other guys near mile 14 and I (half) jokingly asked if we should try to take them! He was not interested but offered to let me go, but I said, no they weren't girls so I didn't care. I was feeling strong and good, but ready to be done.

We were cruising down the final stretch, headed back to the road and the finish chute, when out of nowhere, I caught a toe on something and went down hard on my left side. I was completely and totally shocked. That was not something I had prepared for or experienced and I was at a loss for what to do. This is what went through my mind in the .4 seconds that elapsed as I crashed to the ground. (1) I am jinxed (2) everyone who told me to be careful knew something I didn't (3) there are many people who will certainly kill me for doing this (4) am I injured? (5) how do I know if I'm injured? (6) what do I do now? (7) no way in hell I'm not finishing strong.

The fellow in front stopped, but I waved him on saying I was OK. I distinctly recall that my calf and quad felt like they had gone into a massive contraction. I had a knick on my knee that was trickling blood down my shin. I got up, took a few tentative steps, then broke into a run and finished. As soon as I crossed the finish line, I stopped, put my hands on my knees in the exhausted runner pose, and froze. My friend Kim who had finished 6 minutes before me in an awesome performance, ushered me to the hillside and brought me water. I sat there in my own little world for a few.

Finally, I wandered over to check my time and placing (23/43, 3/16 women; 2:20:16), then headed off to my car for the final challenge of the day. I had to get the minivan back up the muddy hill through the gate and out of the cow pasture.

Was it worth it? Absolutely. Will I do it again? Positively. There is something special about this small and intimate race, where ultimately it's not about man versus man, but man versus self and man versus mountain.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Mental toughness

The theme for fall is mental toughness. I have come to learn that it is every bit as important as physical conditioning for success in training and racing, and it is something that JRP has stressed as we work toward the Richmond Marathon.

For me, mental toughness is about the ability to turn the screws on myself and redline it longer than I think I can. It's about producing the required effort to meet demand even if I am tired or not 100%. It's also about mental toughness with even the smallest choices of the day - doing what I need to do and not necessarily what I want to do.

Mental toughness was put to the test at the 15 mile Brush Mountain Breakdown in the Jefferson National Forest yesterday. It's a very hilly course with leaf-covered obstructions, rocky paths, creek crossings, mud bogs, singletrack mountainside trails, slick downhill switchbacks, and the famous (and humbling) Jacob's Ladder. This run allows for no lapses in concentration to assure solid footing. Examples of mental toughness on this run -
  • Running as much of Jacob's Ladder as possible, and when walking was unavoidable, having the fortitude to pick the run back up despite the fact that it was all uphill.
  • Recovering fast from a fall and resuming running, not knowing if I was OK or not, and still finishing strong.
Other examples I can draw on from the past few months:
  • The treadmill workout that began with successive quarter miles of 9 mph, 9.5, and 10 and ended with those in reverse. I was anxious about that workout for days leading up to it but dug in and did it. It showed me that I had more speed in me than I thought.
  • Being super tired but fixing rice, pasta, eggs, and chicken late at night for the next day's carb loading.
  • Running a strong 19 miles on a Friday morning before work because a weekend run didn't fit the schedule.
  • Pushing without letup for 21:27 in the Homecoming 5K, remembering the 3 seconds that knocked me out of first in the triathlon and vowing not to give up anything that day. Finished with a strong kick - no other way to do it.
  • Running 13 miles after not feeling well the day before
  • Cycling up the steep hill of Happy Hollow at Harding, legs burning, counting pedal strokes, suffering oxygen debt, but not letting up.
  • The last 400 yards or so of the 8 mile trail run when I just let everything out, had faith that my feet would find stable footing, and just watched the woods go by in a blur.
  • Stadium switchbacks with legs screaming stop by the end, but not giving in.
  • 10 sets of 7 dips, thinking there was just no possible way, but I did it.
  • Working out this morning at the gym and hitting the day's benchmarks despite being worn out and sore.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Homecoming 5K

Today was the Homecoming 5K. Grant ran in the 1-mile Fun Run with me alongside. He finished in a very respectable 9:38! Spencer ran in the 5K with our trainer Jake and he managed a strong race and is inspired to continue training and push things to the next level. I'm really proud of both kids!! It was a beautiful day, and that is such a fun, low-key race with maybe just 150 people in total. All the speedy women must have stayed home today since I pulled off the win for overall fastest woman with a 21:27. I was happy - first time I broke a 7:00 pace in a 5K. It earned me sufficient winnings to pay for a nice lunch for us all afterward!! Here's the VIDEO.

I have to admit it was REALLY fun to look up ahead and see it was only BOYS ahead of me! They inspired me and helped me turn the screws a little tighter. Jake reminded me to "run your own race" but even so I guess I got caught up in it all and went out too fast with a 6:25 first mile and a 7:25 last mile. Oops. Great day and fun to see Spencer getting excited about running too!!

Jake and some of his clients

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Pushing past perceived limits

One of the best parts of building a relationship with a good trainer over time is that they get to know your capabilities often better than you do.

There were several example of this in yesterdays workout. One involved doing parallel bar dips near the end of my session. These primarily work triceps with some chest and shoulders. Normally I'll do three sets to failure, which is anywhere from 5 to 15 reps, depending on the exercises that I've done prior and how fatigued those muscle groups are.

Yesterday I was challenged to do ten sets of seven with timed rest intervals between. I really truly thought there was NO way I could do this, and that I had been set up to fail. I gave it my best shot, taking it one set and one rep at a time, knocking them out, and having to dig hard for that last rep and next set. But I did it, and left the gym with a great sense of accomplishment.

I once read that people can typically run twice as far as they think they can, but we are so programmed to put limits on ourselves. It's good to have people around us to push us beyond our self-imposed boundaries.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

What Commitment to Exercise Really Means

So often I hear people say, "I just don't have time to work out." The translation is likely, "I'm not interested in fitness (right now)." That's fine, but let's call a spade a spade. The truth is, most of us DO have time but choose NOT to.

But if/when a person chooses to adopt a healthier lifestyle and incorporate regular exercise, the time to work out CAN almost always be found. No one was more surprised to discover that than me.

By way of background, I'm married with two sons (7 & 9 years), working full-time at Virginia Tech juggling two faculty roles in addition to participating in several community projects and organizations. My husband works long days with an hour-long commute at each end, and the kids are each involved in a number of extracurricular activities. Needless to say, there's not a lot of surplus time in the schedule for anything extra.

How in the world (and why) would I squeeze workouts into an already crazy schedule??

Looking back on the past 18 months since I began working with my trainer and made the decision to adopt a fitness lifestyle I've seen through his example and for myself that it takes motivation, goals, discipline, perseverance, time management, streamlining, and accountability. It's a daily choice to continue along this path and obviously the payoff turns out to be pretty good or it wouldn't be sustainable.

Motivation: When I began, my motivation was to lose weight, get fit, and feel better. My motivation now? Well, it's that I really DO feel better and I start to go a little stir crazy after a day without exercise. (I'd heard that from other people, but I never believed it.) I just feel healthier, more energetic, and like I am able to squeeze more out of life. The important thing is to identify, deep down, and in all honesty, your individual motivations, no matter how silly they might seem. Here are some of my quirky motivators. I am motivated to run in the dark hours of the early morning, when hardly anyone is out because it makes me feel strong and powerful and a little unique to know that few people would do that. I like knowing I can swim a mile, and seeing that my biceps pop out just a bit. I don't want to lose all I have worked so hard for, so heck yes, I'll keep investing.

Goals: Early on my trainer encouraged me to identify and work toward a goal. It began, reluctantly at the time, with a half-marathon goal (I thought he was crazy initially) and continued on with additional objectives: more races, lifting goals, a triathlon, and an upcoming marathon. These bring focus and purpose to my efforts. Each and every workout, for better or worse, is an important investment in a long-term effort. It's like a financial investment - regular, modest deposits are the way to go. Races and competitions at once excite and terrify me, but as I complete each one, my confidence grows sending me headlong into the next challenge.

Goals give my trainer and I a common focus, and he does a great job of coming up with interesting and sometimes unique (!) ways to prepare for them. He makes sure that things never get boring, that's for sure.

Discipline: I have been challenged to become more disciplined in every aspect of my life. My trainer gave me an excerpt from the Competitive Runner's Handbook (Glover and Florence-Glover, 1999) entitled "Warrior" that reminds me that being an athlete is a 24-hour a day commitment, reflected in all the small daily choices I make. As a Warrior I must be disciplined to balance family/work/fitness, perform efficiently at my job, eat for performance, sleep and rest as needed, complete scheduled workouts, and tend to injuries. Am I perfect at this? No, I still eat chocolate here and there and stay up too long, get behind on my work, arrive late to pick up the kids from school, etc. but it gives me something to strive for, a direction to head. However, my life is still far more organized than it would be otherwise.

I don't miss a workout unless I am really sick (fever), injured in a way that precludes a particular workout, or at a point of overtraining. Even while I recovered from a leg fracture, I still enjoyed working upper body at the gym with my trainer several times a week and made great gains. Go with what you can do!

I bring myself fully to each and every workout, striving to be rested and well fueled. Again, not every workout turns out to be stellar, but with a long-range perspective, each is still a good investment and learning experience.

Oddly enough, one of my bigger issues right now is having the discipline to NOT work out and truly rest on days off and not adding unscheduled workouts into the mix. Discipline is as much about knowing how to push and persevere as knowing when to back off and rest. I'm still working on that one.

Perseverance: This is the one area where I have probably been challenged the most and grown the most. I envisioned a nice smooth upward path to improved fitness, not knowing that physical issues can and will pop up, especially in that first year when connective tissues are adapting to increased demands. Perseverance and faith are critical!

My first scheduled race ever was a 10K, and about six weeks out I had sudden iliotibial band issues. The IT is a thick band that runs from the hip down through the outer knee and can cause acute pain when inflamed. It severely curtailed my running at time when things were just taking off for me as a newbie runner. I couldn't believe what an emotional wreck I became, but my trainer got me through it physically and mentally and I recovered enough to run a strong race. At that point I started to understand the importance of stretching, icing, and attending to pain.

Fast forward nine months, and an awkward lateral step on a routine run left me with shooting pains up my right leg. I was a month away from running in my first marathon and had been training diligently and strongly. It was a very rocky, emotional, and frustrating two weeks before I got a final diagnosis of a fractured fibula. Weeks of a cast, crutches, and a boot put my marathon dreams on hold. Once again, my trainer helped me through by getting me to focus on complete healing, short-term goals (upper body strength-training), and long-term goals (summer triathlon, upcoming marathonz0. Looking back now, I see the silver lining to the whole experience. I learned that I can get through setbacks; was encouraged me to branch out with my cross training; completed a triathlon that I would not have otherwise done; made gains in upper body strength; and returned to running stronger than before. Keep a long-term perspective when setbacks occur and work around them creatively.

Time Management: With work and family obligations, I have needed to be creative to fit in workouts. I've also relied on the help of my family. Most of my running is completed before 7:30 am so I can be home in time to finish getting the kids ready and drive them to school. This means some mornings I am running as early as 5:45 am. I choose routes that have streetlights and enjoy the peaceful solitude on the roads. Resistance training is done 3x a week after work. I am fortunate to have the support of my mother-in-law who takes care of the children during this time. Swimming happens either at 6 am or at 11 am. I am fortunate that the VT pool is halfway between my office and my 12:30 T/H class. I got a locker and towel service so I can easily swing by for a swim on my way to class. I try to plan and be efficient with my time.

Am I totally excited every time I need to get up early for a run or to hit the pool? Most of the time, yes, but there are days that I have to talk myself into workouts or drag myself out of bed, but I never regret it and sometimes those turn out to be my best workouts!

I look for ways to save time. I rarely go out to lunch, keep work and books in the car to take advantage of spare moments, and keep social engagements to a minimum.

Streamlining: I originally called this section "sacrifice" except that the things I've given up I really don't miss and really don't need. Some things that have been jettisoned, either completely or mostly, include: TV (I hardly watch any anymore), alcoholic beverages (they interfere with sleep and workouts), and shopping (I do what I have to online). I sleep a little less now too, but with energy levels higher, I seem to need less anyway

Accountability: Ultimately I'm accountable to myself, but having a trainer makes a big, big difference! Knowing the time and effort that has gone into tailoring, crafting, and balancing workouts and schedules, I am very hesitant to omit a workout (and it rarely RARELY happens). I risk throwing the whole thing out of balance and robbing myself of an opportunity. It's like a contract. I demonstrate my commitment to the training plan and in return I know my trainer is fully invested and there for the ups and downs. And there are downs, usually when pressures and stresses of life threaten to bury me and he finds ways to keep me going.

So after a year and a half, I'm pretty certain that these are habits for a lifetime. I feel really blessed to have discovered the real joy of hard work, a soaking sweat, labored breathing, and discovering I can challenge and push myself harder than I thought I could. My kids are seeing first-hand how to work hard to reach goals. I see the impact it has on them as my 9 year old is about to run his second 5K and my 7 year old demonstrates great focus and perseverance in Karate.

I don't expect that my approach will work for everyone (or maybe not anyone), nor do I claim that I have this perfectly figured out. It's a daily and weekly commitment and juggling act but one that I am humbly privileged to be able to do. It is with the support of my family and my trainer that it works, but it was me who had to make the commitment and the changes. If I can do it, anyone can do it. It just takes desire and willingness to adapt. But the payoffs are tremendous and far-reaching to self and family. I promise!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

My car tells the story

Among the things with a permanent (or seasonal) home in my car are:
  • two stainless steel Nathan water bottles
  • large canister of Extend (branched chain amino acids for during/after workouts)
  • two iPods (one of podcasts, one of music)
  • spare car key with safety pin for use in running shorts
  • heart rate chest strap
  • running watch
  • towels for the gym
  • two pairs of running gloves
  • hat, ear warmers, scarf for when it gets really cold
  • arm warmers
  • calf compression sleeves for post-run shin issues
  • hydration belt with 22oz water bottle and pepper spray (just in case)
  • ibuprofen
  • bandaids
  • ziplock bags for icing body parts
  • lip balm
  • wrestling shoes (for deadlifts)
  • belt (for deadlifts)
  • gym bag with PINK lifting straps, small thing of chalk, gym passes
  • extra swim things - cap, goggles, etc
  • copies of weekly workout programs for me and for Spencer
  • assorted kid Clif Z bars in the storage drawer under the passenger seat