ustermedal.jpgIf I ever get really serious about racing and competition, the first thing I need to work on is 'how to eat breakfast the morning of the race'. Nerves and food don't mix well in my stomach, and never have. I remember when I did the London to Paris bike ride, I was surrounded by hotel breakfast offerings each morning and couldn't stomach the thought of anything else but an energy bar or two. Hydration is a little better - I do understand the need to drink and my nerves don't get in the way - but I'm still not that good at finding the balance between drinking enough and not needing the (revolting, portable, queue-inducing) toilet too much.

So I left the house a little after 7:30 with my stuff in a backpack and riding my bike to the train station, with Sophie insisting on watching Mummy ride off on the bike. The plan was to register, get my stuff sorted out, find a source of water to fill my bottles, and give myself time not to feel rushed (and maybe even time to stand in a queue for the toilet!) before my start at 10:15. I didn't have time to grab anything for breakfast before I left the house, and the hunger only started overriding the nerves about 9:45, but I did at least have some of Sophie's snacks (a squeezy pouch of applesauce and a cereal bar) with me by chance. And that's how I started an Olympic triathlon on nothing but water and applesauce.

I did have time to cheer for some of the people doing the sprint triathlon. I've made a Twitter acquaintance over the last few days of an English woman living in Zürich who is also new to triathlon, and so I was looking for her. I spotted her taking off on the bike, but didn't see her come in before I had to go to my own start. I also saw some people wearing my club's kit, so I cheered for them and got this 'Gosh thanks but who on earth are you?' look, since I don't actually know very many people in my club. Still, cheering took my mind off being nervous.

And in a way it is a little mystifying that I was so nervous, that I needed to be distracted. I know that the thing I am best at is endurance, and so I very rarely actually doubt that I will be able to finish the races I start. It might totally suck and I might be totally slow and of course an accident could happen that would take me out of the race, but generally I have confidence that I'll finish. So what am I scared of? Being slow? Being last? Well there's a certain honor to being the 'lanterne rouge', and people tend to cheer extra hard for the valiant stragglers, so that shouldn't scare me either and I don't think it does. But possibly it's the fear of proving that I'm simply not good enough at whatever it is I'm trying to do. (But then, what is 'good enough' if not finishing the thing, which I already have reasonable confidence of doing?)

Until the morning of the race it wasn't clear whether wetsuits would be allowed for the swim or not. The lake temperature had been bouncing up and down around the cutoff point, and then on Friday night the online temperature graph stopped updating. As it happens I acquired a wetsuit last month as a birthday present and so I was looking forward to an opportunity to use it. I took it along just in case, and sure enough the lake had cooled enough that they were allowed.

So there I was, wearing my wetsuit for a swim for the second time ever, standing with a bunch of other women in the lake ready to go. Fortunately, it was also the second time ever (the second time that week, in fact) that I had covered the required distance in open water, so I did at least know I could swim that far without stopping. Admittedly, it still wasn't a pleasant prospect, but I told myself that all I had to do was get through this and then it would all get easier.

Swimming is still my bugbear in this triathlon business. If there's anything I doubt being able to finish it's the swim, particularly the open water swim. When I cycle, if I get tired I can change to a lower gear or freewheel for short spells. When I run, I can slow to a walk if I need to or even stand still, for a little while. But when I swim it is relentless. There is nothing to hold on to, no lower gear to change down to, nothing to do but keep going, going, going, quite literally no way to take a breather. It is stressful - doubly stressful when I have to pay close attention to my breathing rhythm and make sure I'm getting enough air and make sure I don't push myself into needing to gasp for air, which would wreck my whole swimming rhythm and might, you know, make me inhale water and cough and splutter and really need to stop even though I can't really stop. In the pool I get a wall every 50 meters, but in the lake it is just me and my buoyancy.

Well, I tried to push these thoughts away while I was swimming but it was hard. I did my best simply to focus on getting to the next buoy, and the next, and I noticed the sun come out which was nice and unexpected since the forecast had been for rain rain rain. And then I was on the home stretch and I knew I could make it but I was still intimidated by the effort it would take for me to actually make it. And then I was being pulled out of the water and my watch read 39:40 or some such. This isn't a great 1500-meter swim time in the world of triathlon (in fact I was the 3rd- or 4th-to-last woman out of the water), but for me it was a wonderful surprise. The official time ended up being 40:25 but still way better than the 45 minutes I hoped to beat.

I tried to be efficient through transition without rushing, because I knew very well that if I tried to rush I would just fumble. And still, the swim had taken something out of me because I did find it pretty hard to accomplish some basic motor skills. Step 1 was to run 400 meters while trying to pull off a wetsuit and not trip. I took somewhere between 4 and 5 minutes to finish getting the wetsuit off, get my socks & cycling shoes on, helmet, gloves, race number, get myself on the bike and on my way. (The fastest women went through this transition in under 2 minutes. This blows my mind - the fastest 400m I have ever sprinted is 1:43 or something, and I can assure you I was not barefoot at the time, nor pulling a wetsuit off of myself as I ran. Never mind how quickly they must have got shoes, hat, gloves on.)

I did already feel much better by the time I was on the bike. The course profile was not exactly flat - there were two rated climbs between 10km and 20km - but I also knew that after 20km it was all downhill, so I just had to pace myself and hang on for the first part. I played leapfrog with a few other women as we went up into the hills, and I guess they were using me as target practice as much as I was using them. But I also know that descents are what I'm good at (though I'm rather more wary and cautious when I'm tired and don't really know the road and it isn't closed to traffic and I don't want to be penalized for drafting) and by the time we were at the bottom of the hill I'd left my leapfrog companions well behind. (In fact I think I saw one of them coming in for the bike finish when I was about 1km in to the run, which really startled me.) The best way to illustrate the bike course is to look at my time split into 5km segments. My slowest (15-20km) took 15:30 to cover the distance; my fastest (25-30km), in which I was stuck annoyingly behind a guy without a good window to overtake him given the bends in the road, was more than twice as fast, 7:29. The fast men were blowing past me on their special speedy time trial bikes, but then again I blew past a few men on special speedy time trial bikes myself, which is always great fun. I did my best to keep on pace and make up the time I had lost going up the climbs, but trying not to shred my legs too much of course. Finally I clocked in at 1:25:30 - not the quickest 40km I've ever done, but still faster than the 1:30 I'd budgeted for.

Well now all I had to do was change shoes and run 10km, right? Easy peasy. I *knew* at that point that I would finish, that it wouldn't be under the three hours that I'd hoped for in my wildest optimism, but it should be under 3:15 (a more realistic goal, given the gaps in my training and the fact that I'm new at this) and may even be under 3:10. Still it evidently took me 3 minutes just to rack my bike and change my shoes. I do remember actually having to sit down to get the shoes on, because I just didn't have the balance left to put them on standing up. And I have to say that that 10K is probably the hardest I've ever had to run. I stopped to walk through all the drinks stations, and one of them was offering chunks of banana which was a godsend because I was pretty darn hungry by then. The route was 2 loops of 5K, so I knew when I first spotted the banana that all I had to do was run round again and I'd get some more. :) Even so, I think there was something about starting the second loop of the course that took the fight out of me - my pace slowed by about :15/km for #6, 7, and 8. I told myself I would try to catch a woman who had been just ahead of me for a while, but I simply could not find a way to coax any more stride efficiency out of my legs, never mind speed, and I was fighting a stitch besides. So in the end I did the run in 55 minutes exactly, and crossed under a clock that told me I had made it in 3:08:53, hitting my best realistic target with more than a minute to spare. I got a medal, another banana, a chance to sit down, and a massive feeling of accomplishment and relief.

As it happens, Mike and Sophie pulled up toward the finish just in time to hear my name over the loudspeakers, so they weren't quite at the line to cheer and I didn't know where they were. At any rate I had informed Mike that, this time, I had every intention of taking advantage of the sports massage tent (I skipped it after the Spiez triathlon because Sophie was too anxious about Mummy's whereabouts.) So I just put that plan into action, figuring our respective whereabouts could be sorted out later and the important thing was to get ready to go as soon as possible. After the queue for the shower I got in the queue for the massage, then got a girl to hold my place while I ran back for a change of clothes. That's when I heard a very familiar indignant wail, and so found Sophie and Mike. Sophie was distracted from her fury by the opportunity to sit in my lap and the "race meelul" around my neck, and very intrigued at the sight of Mummy getting a massage!

Pleased as I was with my time when I crossed the line, I have still been a little unreasonably frustrated by the fact that, since this is Switzerland and everyone around me is a sporting freak, I finished in the bottom 10% of the field. If my fear is this undefined "showing I'm not good enough", well, competing around here is constantly showing me that I'm not as good as anyone around me. And that does get demoralizing after a while. So now I'm thinking that the clear solution is to choose my next triathlon to be in a place where real people (as opposed to these Alpine supermen) compete (hello US and UK!) Then again, I didn't exactly rock the training for this one either--the travel in July and new job in August got in the way of that--so there has got to be room for improvement in my time too!

In short, I'm very proud of myself for getting the thing done but I want to do better next time. And for that, I'm going to have to figure out a good way to make the job, the parenting, and the training all coexist.

Trying tri: the Spiezathlon

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Ever since I started this crazy fitness project, I've had the vague intention of trying triathlon at some point. Today, in fact, was that day.

My initial intention to try a sprint triathlon in early spring was shoved aside by the half marathon program I got myself into - there was no way I was going to train up from beginner-runner to HM distance and also work in enough cycling and swimming at the same time, especially in the appalling late winter we ended up having, to even think about any of the early-season tri events. But I was still interested in the whole triathlon idea, so set my sights on the Uster triathlon in late August.

And then at the beginning of June I found out that there was a sprint-distance event happening in Spiez in not very long, and I couldn't resist signing up. 20km is easily doable on the bike, 5km of a run is peanuts after half-marathon training, so all I needed to do was prove to myself that I could swim 500 meters in a pool without stopping (much like the Thames Turbo sprint series, the sprint at Spiez uses the local heated outdoor pool for its swim portion.) That duly done, I made the arrangements and coaxed a somewhat put-upon Mike into coming along with Sophie. She was very excited to hear that we would be taking a TRIP in a CAR and she'd get to see Mummy going swim AND bikey AND runrunrun!! But it was still a disruption to her routine, and she is big into the Terrible Twos at the moment, so there was no guarantee of a smooth family weekend getaway.

Spiez harbor

Spiez: Not flat.

Spiez is close to the middle of Switzerland, a little west of Interlaken, with all the northern-Alpine bumpiness that implies. I was clever enough to check the cycling course profile before signing up, and although it did have a decent amount of climbing it wasn't some sort of neverending uppy-downy horror story like it could have been. Once there I had a walk down to the harbor area that was triathlon HQ, and so by this morning I had a pretty good idea what I was in for.

Registration began this morning at 7:00, and the sprint triathlon began at 8 so there was no time to waste. Up at the crack of dawn, into my ridiculous triathlon garment, all gear I might need in a carrier bag, and off I went with my bike. There is really no other word to describe the weather than "shitty". Steady rain, 10C, transition area all outdoors with no cover, wet wet wet grey wet. Then again, if that's what I faced for my first triathlon, then proving I can cope with such gross weather was a good mental boost!

The first bit of head-scratching weirdness for this triathlon newbie came when I went to rack my bike in the transition area: the marshal there required all competitors to wear their helmets while depositing the bike, before the race! I have no idea if that's normal, but if so I have to say it's pretty absurd.

Swim: 14:34 (+1:24 from pool to T1)
After some more flailing and faffing I found the list with start times for the swim. As far as I can tell they seeded us in reverse order of our projected swim finish times, so I went off relatively early with my 15-minute estimate. The water was much warmer than the air, so I got on in and tried to calm my nerves by doing a bit of gliding drill. It didn't work very much. From the stats (and, a little, from memory) it seems that I held it together for the first length but then started letting my nerves get the better of me, pushing too hard and as a result both slowing down and making it harder to keep my breathing rhythm and oxygen capacity under control. After 250m I switched to breaststroke, not only to catch up on my breathing but also because it was easier to keep my place in the lane that way! (Yes, my breaststroke is as fast, or faster, than my freestyle.) I alternated freestyle and breaststroke for the rest of the swim: the one taxed my breathing and made me feel fatigue that way, the other taxed my upper body muscles that I needed for the bike leg. To be honest I was glad when the swim was done, and even gladder when I saw I'd made it in under 15 minutes. But I should be able to do better than that, and I'm sort of lost for how to get there.

Transition 1: 3:20
Bike: 42:35 (18.5km)
I had brought a towel to use in the transition area, but all the rain made the towel laughably pointless. I had at least had the foresight to drape the carrier bag over my shoes to keep them as dry as possible out on the grass, so even though my feet were wet I had some dry socks to put them into, which felt great for about a minute. I worked my gloves onto my hands, put a couple of fruit bars into my back pocket, got my number on and went. As I jogged out of transition I heard a familiar "Mummy!!" and saw that Mike and Sophie had arrived to cheer me on my way, which gave me a nice boost. Only a minute or so later did I remember to inform my Garmin that I was through transition and on the bike.

The bike course was fairly seriously uphill for the first kilometer or two, though I was extremely relieved to see that they were starting us up a 5% grade rather than the 15% grade that would have been the more direct route to the road. After climbing to highway level it was a lovely downhill mostly-straight for 6km. I passed several people, and got passed by several others on shiny time-trial aero bikes. To be honest I have a hard time understanding how it is that I pass people on such a nice straight gradual downhill at all, especially when they are heavier than me, and when it feels so effortless. Surely they should be going that quickly too since they have the same advantage?

The second hill was just as steep as the first, but shorter; the return trip was a long and slightly wearing gradual up where we'd had the nice gradual down, and then a technical (so not too speedy) descent back into transition where Mike and Sophie had returned to be my personal Anglophone cheering squad. Overall I managed a reasonably decent speed but was probably a little too conservative, and definitely let my pace slacken a few times when I didn't need to just because I was letting my mind wander. I never touched the fruit bars and I sat up to take only a single swig of water, around the halfway point.

Transition 2: 1:44
Run: 28:07 (5.44km)

I don't know if I can really quite describe the sensation of starting a run after you've been riding a bike for a while. It is WEIRD. The first time I tried it was only last weekend, a 30km bike ride followed by a 6km run with only a shoe change and a good swig of water in between. Your legs feel wobbly, sort of a cross between 'like jelly' and 'like you've been on a boat for a month', and your rhythm is all out of whack for how you're moving your feet compared to how you were moving them on the pedals five minutes before. So imagine my surprise when my first kilometer was about 10s slower than half-marathon race pace, and I was able to maintain that for the rest of the run and run the second-to-last kilometer well above that pace?

Well, if the legs felt like jelly last weekend after a bike ride, it was even more the case today after a swim and a hilly bike ride. Just to add to the 'fun', the first kilometer and a half was a 4% average uphill grade, and there were numb spots on the soles of my feet from the cycling shoes, so it really felt like I had someone else's legs somehow! And yet, just like in last weekend's run, I was able to run much faster than I would have guessed was possible so late in a race. In this case I ran my fastest-ever time over 2 miles (and each of the shorter distances measured by Strava).

Annoyingly, I didn't realize it was a 'long' 5K route until about 400 meters after the "3km" sign, when I saw a sign saying "Noch 2km [2km left]". "What?!!" I thought, "we passed the 3 sign ages ago, there should be well less than 2 left!" And that's when I realized that I was not going to make my target of sub-1:30 for the whole triathlon, but I came as close as I could! The final 3km or so was flat, along the shore of the lake, and I had a merry old time picking people off to pass them. Sophie was very excited to see Mummy come running, and then Mike shouted "Go go go!" so fiercely that I thought he was telling me off for waving to Sophie!  My final time was 1:31:38, and given the hills and the horrible weather and the fact that it was my first triathlon ever, I'm pretty pleased with that.

I bumbled through the finish, collected my things, had some water and some watermelon, and if there was a place I was meant to pick up a finisher's shirt I never found it. I was particularly pleased to be done with enough time to get back to the hotel and have a shower before facing the rest of the day. All in all I have to admit I enjoyed it, especially the whole passing-people-on-the-run part! The only downside, as ever, is the swim. If I'm ever to do more than a sprint triathlon then my swimming needs to stop sucking, but I just don't know how to get from point A to point B.

Wylandlauf (ZKB ZüriLaufCup)

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On Saturday I ran my third race in the ZKB ZüriLaufCup series, which is a local and not particularly easy set of races that gets held every year. Apparently you get some sort of prize if you do six of them, and evidently I can't resist a prize, so off I went.

I can't say that I have greatly enjoyed my previous two races in this series--they are Swiss-level hilly and go over woodland trails where I have to pay much more attention to my footing and not stepping on loose stones or in little holes, etc. It is really surprising (to me) how much my physical running energy can be sapped by the mental effort of having to pay constant attention to where I step. Nevertheless, dammit, I set a six-run prize as my goal and I want my prize, so I persevere. In fact I think these races can make very good race-plan exercises: you have to conserve your energy for the inevitable hills and adjust your pace expectations for when you're running up them.

The Wylandlauf claims to have 90m of climbing over its 14.8km, which is nothing compared to some of the others; when I uploaded my Garmin data, both Garmin Connect and Strava claimed that it was actually twice that. This is not the first time that the official estimate has been unduly low for these races, either. That said, in this case the elevation consisted of a single longish main climb (roughly 6.5% with a break in the middle) in kilometers 4-5 and then some bumpiness around kilometer 10, followed by a symmetrically steep downhill and off across the mostly-flat. As such it was much easier to plan for than some of the other races that are more aggressively undulating, so I was looking forward to giving it a shot.

The big scary climb started in kilometer 4, and so I was determined not to push myself, to really rein myself in, for the first 3K. My real #1 goal was to not need to stop and walk for any of the hills. I didn't really have any time goal in mind, though at the start I was confronted with the signs "bis 60 min", "60-70 min", "über 85 min" and in the end I decided that I would put myself just in front of the 85-minute sign and be happy if I was right.

Off we went and I was ordering myself to take it nice and gentle and easy, so one can imagine my mix of "wow really?" and "argh" when my watch buzzed the first km in 5:10, somewhat faster than my average pace for last month's half marathon. And then the second in 5:11. I have a hard time understanding how I could go that fast while feeling that slow (and indeed letting various people pass me, knowing that everyone around me had lined themselves up at roughly 85-minute finishing times)--it was net downhill, but less than 1%. I slowed to 5:34, which was a more reasonable starting pace, for km 3, although I'm not sure how much of that was intent and how much was me having to cope with the woodland path. Then I took it very carefully for the climb, and was sort of surprised to see people walking even before they'd got halfway up the first hill, but okay those were some nice boosts for the ego. I was delighted to see that kilometer 4 went by in 6:15 when its first half or so was this reasonably steep but steady uphill, so then I started feeling pretty good about myself.

There was more uphill (similar grade, but shorter) in kilometer 5, which I knew to expect, and I managed the K in 5:55 which I was also fairly pleased with. By the middle of the race I was feeling pretty darn good, and knowing that the second half (with the exception of the bumpiness in 10) should have no further nastiness made me fairly confident. So kilometers 7-9 passed in 5:16, 5:23, 5:23 and I felt great. I did my best to cope with the bumpiness in 10, and I tried to be careful not to fling myself down the reasonably steep hill in 11 as I was still tired from 10 and didn't think I could cope with an all-out session of downhill speed racing. (I do tend to pass people on downhills, not because I'm pushing but because I try to concentrate on not wasting any energy putting the brakes on. Then again I also tend to bomb down hills on my bike after I've crawled panting to the top, so maybe I just live for danger? Certainly it was "exciting" in the March race when there was SNOW on the 5-10% downhills that had been trampled smooth by the 300 runners in front of me and I decided the best way not to slip was to make sure I stayed on top of my momentum...)

Had the race ended at 12km, I'd have felt great. Unfortunately I had 2.8 more to go and I have to say that they pretty much sucked. I'm not sure what happened there. It wasn't hitting a wall, not by a long shot, but I was just tired and wanted to be done and couldn't make myself push any harder than "yes I know I will finish." I'd picked out a couple of race targets whom I wanted to overtake, but by 13.5km I just couldn't force myself to make the effort and stopped for one last water swig, letting them disappear, before making my final push. Once I actually saw the finish line I was able to accelerate a bit, but that was only about 500 meters. Still, I had a nice surprise to see the clock reading 1:21 when my stated goal had been 1:25, so evidently I hadn't completely fallen apart by the end. To be honest, if I'd realized at kilometer 13 that I had a chance of sub-80 minutes, I probably could have found it within myself not to stop for that last water break after all.

When I rounded the final corner I could hear the not-so-dulcet tones of my daughter screaming for Mummy, about 25m from the finish. I guess Daddy was trying to take pictures and she was furious that Daddy wouldn't let *her* play with his big expensive camera and Daddy was furious that he was missing the photo op of me heading for the finish...have I mentioned that she is two? So I crossed the line and then turned around to beckon her to me (the finishing straight was not too crowded so it was reasonably safe) and cheered her across the finish line and everyone thought it was adorable and then she got much happier. Well, except for the bit where she was insisting I go run run run some more so that she could run alongside me--she is not yet old enough to understand that Mummy has limits.

One of the things I actually do like about this race series is that their finisher's prizes are interesting, and edible. For my first race in March the prize was a fairly large slab of what tasted vaguely like Lebkuchen, chocolate-covered and extremely tasty. When I ran the Flughafenlauf in early May, the prize was a jar of local honey. Today's sponsorship theme seemed to involve some local butcher's shop, so the prize was a small slab of cured pig that I enjoyed as part of a breakfast fry-up this morning.

Those who are that curious may examine the wiggly lines of the race stats. What with the screaming kid I forgot to stop my watch for a minute or so, but my official gun-to-line time was 1:21:12 and I reckon (assuming that they fired the gun precisely at 15:00:00, which being Swiss they almost certainly did) my line-to-line time was 1:20:49, making me #76/129 women--inching ever closer to that coveted top 50% in these idiotically fast Swiss races. I'm fairly pleased with the time, despite not breaking 80 minutes, and I'm very pleased at how strong I felt in the middle after the big hills. I only wish I knew why I started to lose it there at the end when I should have felt free and clear.

Leiden half marathon

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I need not have worried from my last post--this morning I was perfectly aware that I was running a half-marathon today, pre-race jitters and all. I did get to sleep at a more or less sensible hour (though I could have used more) but I woke up this morning from a dream where I was in fact doing a triathlon rather than a running race, and it was 10:00 already and I needed to be in Bürkliplatz (central Zürich) for the start at 10:30 and I'd have to ride my bike from my house but of course that meant I hadn't racked it, and oh wait I'd need to be wearing swimming gear for the start...

So the actual race morning was a lot less, well, nightmarish. I would have liked another hour of sleep but Sophie doesn't allow that sort of behavior from Mummy at this age. We had a nice breakfast at the B&B and then I got dressed for the race. We went back to the race expo so that I could exchange my race shirt for a smaller size (it's always hard for me to guess whether I belong in M or S), and then I found the entrance to the start. Lined up behind the 1:55 pacers as according to plan and then was surprised when we all started running at 10:28...

[Race log]

Leiden is a pretty big race - my number has five digits, and they started the half together with the full marathon. So that was another reason I was glad to have the pacers as we fought through the crowds. I only had to keep track of them and didn't have to think of much else. They ran the first kilometer about exactly on spec (5:28) but most of the rest of the time they were going too fast. I did notice this but decided that, since I secretly hoped to beat 1:55 and they were well on their way to doing just that, I would stick with the pacers most of the way around at whatever speed they were going and then try to put on my acceleration in the last 3-5km or so.

To be honest I didn't notice a lot about the race and the course except that it was indeed flat, and windy. There were people cheering and clapping along most of it along with several brass bands. The sponge posts had sponges shaped like a runner - I really should have got one just for that. The pace was about right for making me feel mildly uncomfortable but not straining to keep up, and I just sort of noticed km after km tick by, almost all of which were faster than target pace. I did notice that there was a weird part of the course description where it seemed to be sending us over a spot on the Rijn where there is no bridge according to Google Maps, and I couldn't figure out how that was supposed to work. It turns out that they did indeed set up a temporary pontoon bridge at that spot, looked like maybe some military vehicle for the purpose. That got a laugh out of me. I also tried to make a point of high-fiving any kids I saw holding their hands out, and I was a little surprised how few other runners were doing the same. I like acknowledging the spectators and sort of wonder why other people don't.

Around 16km there was a funny little loop on the course that was clearly there to make up the distance, and when we got there it was a little congested so I decided it was safe to get in front of the pacers and run my own race for the rest. I'd been afraid I would fall apart if I didn't have my 'safety' runners to track anymore but I felt surprisingly okay (though obviously really tired!) At 19km I got a nice little surprise, where Mike & Sophie had found a spot to cheer for me! I made sure Sophie saw me but I think I passed by too quickly for her to register immediately, but I'm told she was very very excited to see Mummy run! They saw me again just before the finish but I didn't see them that time.

The finish was a bit uppy-downy (by Dutch standards) due to all the canal bridges in central Leiden, but lots of people, lots of crowd energy, lots of cheering, and I was able to find a little acceleration for the finish (although I wouldn't call it a sprint.) The clock read 1:56:23 when I crossed the line but my chip time was 1:53:43, decently under the 1:55 that was my official goal. Apparently this puts me in the top 20% of women finishers, which is a better result even than the Zürich 10K in April.

So all in all I am pretty pleased! I wish I had felt less tired throughout, but that is typical I suppose, wanting to feel effortlessly speedy instead of having to work for the speed you've got. I told myself some time ago that I wouldn't think about doing a marathon unless I had reason to believe I could finish in a time that qualifies for London or Boston, and this half time is still a few minutes outside that so I'm off the hook for the time being. ;)

I made a reservation yesterday at the best Dutch-pancake house in Leiden for dinner, so we duly went along this evening and I had two very fine pannenkoeken as a reward for my efforts. Even so I think it will be some time before I run for longer than an hour - the 10K was more fun all round and I bet I could beat my PB if I tried...
No shit, there I was, pinned down by a hail of enemy firedirty nappies...

Here I am in Leiden, about to run my half marathon in the morning. I'm still not quite sure how this came to pass (apart from the madness of signing up to do a half in the first place) because evidently I have a talent for attracting some sort of perfect storm for logistical chaos.

Plan 1: I'd go to Leiden and stay with friends, maybe Mike and Sophie would join me.
Circumstance 1: Friends' kid turning 3 on Saturday.

Plan 2: We'd all go to Leiden for the weekend in time for the birthday party, maybe have an extra day in total.
Circumstance 2: I need to schedule one last work trip to Leuven.

Plan 3: We'd all go to Leiden, Mike & Sophie would return Monday and I'd follow Wednesday after a quick detour to Leuven.
Circumstance 3: We have visitors from Tuesday to Friday before the trip.

Plan 4: We will all (visitors included) fly out on the same flight to Amsterdam on Friday, they'd return home and we'd get to Leiden.
Circumstance 4: Mike's grandmother dies, funeral scheduled for Wednesday after the marathon.

Plan 5: We depart as scheduled, throw away the return leg of our tickets, Mike & Sophie fly AMS -> LHR Monday, I take Eurostar from Brussels Tuesday evening after my now-shortened trip to Leuven, we attend funeral and fly back Thursday.
Circumstance 5: Sophie has really nasty nappy rash (bleeding and everything), needed to see a doctor this past Wednesday, we were told to return on Friday if it wasn't better (but wait, flying to Amsterdam Friday!)

Plan 6: Same as above, only we make frantic request of our friends in Leiden to get us an appointment with their kid's doctor to get another opinion on the rash, which was indeed not better by Thursday evening.
Circumstance 6: My boss in Leuven won't be around Monday, or Tuesday morning, so I won't see her. Also in the general heightened chaos I was a dumbass and left my keyring at home, meaning I can't even give back my office keys which was part of the point of the trip.

Plan 7: Forget Leuven, it's not worth the night's hotel cost. But my Eurostar ticket is non-refundable. So I'll stick to my travel plans but spend Monday night also in Leiden going to the library or visiting the spa or something.
Circumstance 7: [ watch this space ]

Intentions: When I went out on Wednesday for my last training run I thought rather optimistically that I might, after arrival in Leiden, go out for an easy little leg-stretcher.

Reality: Yesterday started at 4:45am in order to catch the flight, involved all the walking in the world through Schiphol, wrestling a tired toddler through multiple nappy changes that are painful and scary for her at the moment, walking all over Leiden with kid in tow to get from appointment to appointment, trying to comfort screaming toddler through yet another examination of her ass, getting to the house of friends where we finally decided to force a nap on her and she took a full 40 minutes to finally, blissfully, mercifully, fall asleep. Then when she woke up it was dinnertime so we went to a Greek restaurant where the food was great when it eventually arrived, but the arrival took, oh, 90 minutes? You know, to the table with the TODDLER? It was a major miracle that she did not spend the last two hours screaming and I don't know how she did it because I sure would have liked to. We got her to bed at 10pm instead of her usual time of 7 and it still took me an hour to unwind enough to fall asleep. So yeah, no run.

Today we mostly hung out with friends attending the aforementioned birthday party, then went to get our race numbers, and I had a nice big steak for dinner. At 8pm I felt like it must be time to go to sleep already. At least I didn't walk 20000 steps like the Fitbit says I did yesterday (does that count as a leg stretcher after all?)

Am I really running a half marathon tomorrow? The whole thing seems so far away...

one week out

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Exercise and fitness are so much easier when I'm not up to my ears in work stress. How's that for a really obvious piece of insight?

I've been keeping up with the half marathon training plan, which is just as well since the race is a week from tomorrow. Today was the last longish training run, and despite a marked lack of enthusiasm for a nearly-two-hour run I ended up enjoying it. We had the first day of weekend sunshine for a while, and I had new shorts to try out, and the whole run went by rather more quickly than I thought it would.

It's been really obvious these past few weeks, since the workload started climbing again in early April, that my workaholic brain is not at all happy with the idea of my taking time for such frivolities as running. To be honest, had it not been for the training plan and the half marathon I'd signed up for, it is very unlikely I would have kept running as regularly as I have, and the majority of the last four weeks' training sessions have been completed more or less under protest. They were, nevertheless, completed, and I tell myself that this is what will count next Sunday. The prediction tables suggest that (based on my 10K in April) I should be able to run it in 1:55 or so, and so that is my immediate goal. At the very least I want to come in under 2 hours, and I have about 90% confidence that I can barring any disasters.

Since blogging about all this has fallen by the wayside, I completely failed to mention here the Flughafenlauf, a 17km race I ran on the 9th. Mike's race report sums it up pretty well; as for me I started off way too fast thanks to that downhill but held up more or less okay until 14km, when I just wanted very badly to stop running. I took an extra-long break at the final water station and then resumed running, only to be overtaken by a bunch of people in the last kilometer due to a nasty little steep hill that I just had no energy left for. What surprised me, though, is that I ran the last 3 km almost the same speed as the rest, even though it felt like I had dropped my pace at least a minute per km. At any rate I got to the finish line with the supremely annoying time of 1:35:00.7, unable to summon even a little bit of finishing sprint.

Sophie has become rather the enthusiast for her parents' running; she cheered me on from Mike's shoulders as I set off (his age group started 45 minutes after mine) and, when I finished, she broke free of the friend who was watching her in order to worm her way into the finishing chute and find Mummy and give me a great big hug! This was of course extremely sweet but also a little less than convenient, as I needed rather desperately to sit down and find some water and allow the vaguely sick feeling to pass. In the end I found a nice patch of grass and she entertained herself by holding my race number to her chest and pretending to run in a race of her own. We're thinking maybe we should enter her in a suitably short (250m) kids' race that will take place in August.

As for swimming and cycling, well, not much has happened on that score. I tried to start ramping them both up in April, and went to exactly one swimming session of the triathlon club before the silly season of travel interfered with my attending any more. That particular session has now been cancelled for the summer and I haven't made it to the somewhat less convenient one that started this week. It was pretty shocking when I did go to see that I'd lost pretty much all the meager swimming form I had built up between November and January. I'll have to see what I can build up again starting in June, I suppose.  My cycling form is not in such a dire state, but after that lovely ride that was the subject of my last post, every single weekend has been disgusting, weather-wise, so I haven't had a chance to repeat it.

I still want to target an August triathlon, and I'll be able to scale back the running after I return from Leiden. I just hope the workaholic brain actually allows me to get to the pool and on the bicycle often enough.

Back in the saddle

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As of yesterday I'm halfway through my half-marathon course! The occasion was marked with the longest 'long run' yet: three sets of 30 minutes' running split up by five-minute breaks, so that I ran a total of 15.25km and covered a total of 16.67. This would have become my first acknowledged ten-miler on Strava, had the Garmin not gone haywire and lost my data. Grump.

But really I want to talk about something other than running, for a change. This weekend, finally, FINALLY, we had glorious sunshine and double-digit (Celsius) temperatures! Weekend + sunshine = cycling! I have a decent carbon road bike that has been sadly and sorely neglected almost ever since we moved to Switzerland, and I've kind of missed it, but I hate frozen fingers and toes like I cannot tell you and so we've had to sit out the winter. Today we reached the giddy heights of 22C and I took that baby on the road.

Everyone has his or her preferred time to get out for a run or a ride or what have you; despite being a night owl by nature, I am a morning- or midday-exerciser. It gives me the rest of the day to gently move my muscles and work out as much of the soreness as possible, and it gives me time to recover and still do something useful with the day. Weekends with a toddler who doesn't much like Mummy disappearing out the door mean that my weekend workouts usually have to happen during her naptime, just after lunch. That's why today's ride was only a relatively short spin, an out-and-back route that took me 20km in total, avoiding most of the mobs of rollerbladers and walkers soaking up the sunshine.

Last time I did this route, at the beginning of January, I huffed and puffed a bit but managed to get through it in about 52 minutes, at an average speed of 23.4km/hr (14.5mph). That wasn't spectacular but it was not too bad of a starting point for me, all things considered.

Cut to today - while I've been running regularly, the nasty weather of the last few months has forestalled even doing the nursery run by bicycle, so I have not been using the pedal-turning muscles pretty much at all for nearly three months. The only other difference is that I have dropped a decent chunk of weight between then and now - about 8.5kg (18.7lb). I knew that weight makes a difference for how quickly you can get up hills, but even so...imagine my surprise to see that I'd held a speed of 25.5km/hr (15.8mph) for the distance, for almost exactly the same average and max heart rates!

To put that in perspective: when I was doing long-distance cycling on a regular basis, my default speed was in the 26-27kph range; at the time I was at roughly my January weight (which itself was a vast improvement on my October weight.)  In January my default speed had obviously dropped quite a bit, but now I find I am nearly back in my previous peak cycling form with pretty much no cycling training at all - nothing but a lighter load and some extra aerobic conditioning.  And if this is my new starting point...well, I wonder how fast I can make myself go with a summer's worth of training?

A race that didn't suck

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I ran the Zürich 10km CityRun this morning, which is the second race I have run but the first one I entered, back when I was a mere C25Ker. It didn't have the most auspicious beginning though. Until about eleven minutes prior to the starting gun, I wasn't sure I would even be able to start. Nothing wrong with my condition, nor my race entry, but I was set to start my 10K ten minutes after my husband's marathon start in the same event, and our designated babysitter withdrew on Friday with a nasty set of illnesses. Some scrambling around produced a colleague of Mike's who was running the 10K and whose wife would be able to watch Sophie along with their two kids, so long as it wasn't raining...

Race day morning dawned grey and ugly (but not actually raining!), temperatures hovering near freezing at the lakeside, and the minutes ticked by with no sight of Mike's colleague or his family, although around 8:10 an SMS informed us they were arriving at the race start. At 8:29, with one minute until his own gun, Mike left me with the colleague's phone number and sprinted the 400 meters toward the marathon start. About fifteen seconds after that I finally spotted this colleague whose existence I had almost started losing faith in, and only then was I sure I was going to run this thing. The irritation and nerves that had been eating at me all morning miraculously lifted and the excitement finally had a chance to hit.

This was, shall we say, not the race I envisioned when I signed up on New Year's Eve. First of course was the weather. In deepest midwinter, an April race sounds marvelously sunny and springlike and the sort of thing for which I certainly wouldn't need coat or gloves. Second was my own conditioning - in December I was making my way through Couch to 5K, so essentially declaring via the race entry that I would not only get to the C25K finish line but also keep on going after it was through. Given what I'd seen of myself so far, I thought it would be a magnificent thing if I could get good enough at running to go under an hour. Even that was a stretch goal though, and mostly I had to spend some thought reassuring myself that I would not have a problem with the 75 minute cutoff. I knew I would be somewhere in the back half of the pack, because Swiss sporting events are just not meant for walkers. I blame the military and the mountain air. And of course I would have crazy pre-race nerves and would suffer the whole way but do my best.

Despite the decidedly un-springlike weather, once I was able to enjoy it a little there was a great party atmosphere around the start line today, and it was well-organized as only the Swiss know how. Any fears of missing the cutoff were long gone thanks to having survived the Winterthur fiasco and to the amazing effects of six weeks on my Up & Running half marathon program, and any remaining nervousness had been entirely forgotten in the blind panic about whether I would be running at all. I had about five minutes to hop up and down in place warming up my hands (so much for any warmup jogging) before the starting gun went off, and then my last remaining worry was put to rest - Sophie was looking on with interest and a little confusion from near the start, but was not wailing for Mummy. An excellent start to the morning. I gave her a big grin and wave and "Hopp hopp Sophie!" (I know, backwards, but she liked it) and on that cheerful note I was off.

This is a big race, though not as insanely huge as some of the charity ones can get - for the 10K there were about 2000 starters, we ran off at the same time as the 805 starters for the team relay version of the marathon, and we had overtaken the back of the solo marathon field by the time we were done. So there was always traffic on the course but it was always possible to maneuver through it. We 10K runners, unlike those running the other events, were given our event shirts before the race and were required to wear them on the course. So it was this 2000-strong stream of blue that made its way stretching out along the lake and through the city.

After my (understandably, but still) dismal performance at Winterthur I had begun to worry that the racing effect doesn't work on me - I sure didn't go any faster that day than I normally would have, and I definitely didn't feel pulled along on the wings of the pack. That was one reason I was so reluctant to set goals for this race - I simply didn't know how I would react to a race in non-sucktastic conditions but I was scared that I would crack under the pressure somehow. After about 500 meters of this course I knew that today's race was an entirely different experience, and that this is indeed what they are supposed to feel like. I resolved not to pay attention to any of the stats as I ran, except for checking my KM split times to keep myself from overcooking it too early. Evidently I placed myself well in the pack, because my first three splits were 5:39, 5:32, 5:30 - very reasonable numbers for how I felt and just about what I would have picked for an ambitious but sensible starting pace.  Meanwhile we were passing several brass bands and quite a few cheering spectators, and I was feeling pretty great.

I promised myself that I wouldn't push into the "feels like crap" zone until the last three, maybe four KM, but I did consciously try to pick up the pace a little because I realized that the sub-55 time I now coveted was well within reach.  I missed the 4km split time because we were running along a street where several families were out cheering us on from their balconies, and I was too busy cheerily waving back at them to notice my watch buzz. (I am pleased to say that other runners around me followed my example and gave the spectators a wave as well. It's a great way to make kids happy, and grownups too.) Just as well since the pace for that split had fallen off a little, but the next split I actually saw was speedier and I thought "okay, I think can work my way back toward 55 minutes, woohoo!"  I didn't actually pick up the pace for another kilometer though, because I didn't want to burn myself out too early and it was still a little crowded.

The last four KM were not as comfortable as the first six had been - I was feeling the run but I was also needing to accelerate a wee bit and I was also getting thirsty but the last thing I wanted was to stop at KM 8 to drink. (In fact I'd been running most of the race with a glue-on race number stuck to my foot, because I was unwilling to stop even briefly to remove it. Another runner politely pointed it out to me, but it wasn't hindering me and I just didn't want to break such nice momentum even for a second, so I cheerfully told her so in my best mediocre German.) On the other hand, the nearer I got to the finish, the easier it was to motivate myself with the thought that "hey, in about ten / seven / five minutes I'll get to wave at Sophie again!"

And I did - she was in the arms of the woman looking after her, looking very interested in all the runners and probably even looking for me. So I channeled myself to that side of the road and grinned madly and waved at her again, and she spotted me but barely had time to wave, since I had *also* just made the turn into the finishing straight and seen the clock which read 53:20 or so with about 100 meters to go. I put on as much speed as I could manage without knocking people down and crossed under a clock reading 53:50.

zurich10k_medal_small.jpgEven better for me, since this was a side race to a big professional marathon, the chip time was start-line to finish-line (as opposed to starting-gun to finish-line like Winterthur) so the minute and a bit that it took me to get across the start line didn't count. Official time was 52:42.8, which is a whopping 13 minutes off the best 10K stretch of the Winterthur race, and 7 minutes off my own recorded PB in training. I probably could have gone a little faster had I pushed myself, since my last "kilometer" (840 meters says Garmin, but I trust the course measurements more) was done about ten seconds faster than my fastest previous kilometer. I felt a little wobbly and woozy in the couple of minutes after I stopped, but it soon passed and mostly I was left with the impression of "holy cow I never knew it felt that good to race!"

I'm also pleased to report that Sophie had a great time spectating - she has a very good line in "Go people! Hopp hopp people!" and was enthusiastic and cheerful the whole time. She immediately laid claim to Mummy's medal, which she wore proudly for most of the rest of the afternoon. My only regret was that, given the chaos of the morning, I wasn't able to arrange any photos of Sophie and her triumphant but sweaty mummy.

I wasn't the only one to have a good day either - Sophie and I actually just missed Mike's finish because he was so much faster than expected! 3:21:16 for him, which is 18 minutes faster than the PB he set during his last marathon in 2006. Maybe a little pre-race blind panic is good for performance? Who knew?

the shoe quandary

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A few hours ago I finished Week 3 of the half-marathon course I am working through. I am already pretty amazed by the results. I mean, sure, it's early days running and I'm supposed to be getting better at a reasonably quick pace, but a month ago I had this feeling that I wasn't really getting much better anymore and I didn't know how to fix it. Since then I've knocked about a minute per KM off of each of my slow/medium/fast-ish paces, and next week's program is nonchalantly asking me to run about a minute faster than I ever have for 5K (based of course on times I have managed to run for shorter distances.) That will be "interesting".

So that's all going very well so far, but the thing on my mind this week has been running shoes. Specifically, the competing and conflicting advice for shoes, foot mechanics, what works and what doesn't. It feels strangely akin to the dieting and nutrition scene, divided between mainstream lowfat/calorie-counting dogma on the one hand and the lowcarb/paleo hipster crusade minority on the other hand, except that with dieting I know where I stand and with running shoes I absolutely don't.

In this case the mainstream is more or less the entire running shoe industry with its motion-control and stability and support etc. etc. specialist shoes, and the evangelical hipsters are the barefoot/minimalist runners who claim we don't need any of that. My biggest problem is that I don't seem to be starting from any sort of mainstream demographic.

While I am obviously not Skinny Racing Chick and I have been heavier than I am now, I never made it into the 'obese' category and I have walked with some regularity for my entire adulthood. So while my body composition is more or less mid-range for women who start running as adults, I have been told multiple times that I overpronate. Like, ridiculously, freakishly. Okay, they don't actually use the words 'ridiculous' or 'freakish', but when I went for a gait evaluation a couple of weeks ago it was a case of running (haha) through a series of shoes for increasingly heavy and unstable overpronators until we hit the one shoe in the shop that was the best they had to offer, and reduced the pronation but still didn't get rid of it. So I was sent on my way with a pair of Saucony Stabil CS2s and the absolute self-belief of the Running Shop Guy that these were what I needed.

But wait, does that make me a running freak? I don't feel like a freak! Are we sure about this?

On the other hand I know I'm not entirely innocent of foot and leg issues. I spent a month and a half at the beginning of this year going to physiotherapy sessions to try to get rid of some lingering plantar fasciitis in my left foot, and the PT immediately zeroed in on how much I pronate my foot when I walk. She gave me various exercises, and I did my best with them, but there was this constant feeling that she wanted the heel and ball of my foot to align like THIS with my knee pointing straight like THAT in a way that left me feeling like my bones simply don't bend enough to accommodate it all. The Running Shop Guy also observed that my left foot pronates more than my right, which tallies with the PT observations, so I'm pretty sure he was not just selling me snake oil.

Now I've been out a few times in the new Sauconys, and I'm still not entirely convinced. What really troubles me is that my right leg seems markedly less happy in them than in the previous pair of shoes (New Balance 940WR, which I bought as the successor to the first running shoes I was 'prescribed' many years ago.) On the other hand, my left leg seems reasonably okay in them, possibly even better than in the New Balances.

Hold on, am I so freakish that I need two different sorts of shoe for each of my feet? This is getting absurd.

And that's where my thoughts start turning toward minimalist running, which to be honest has so far struck me as a little cult-like. I am also a little put off by the sentiment I have picked up on that naturalist feet are meant to run on naturalist surfaces, not paved ones--most of my running is on paved surfaces and I don't think that is going to change anytime soon. On the other hand, the predominant sentiment that, by and large, variant feet are not necessarily freakish feet is something that really speaks to me at the moment.

So I'm in something of a quandary now. Do I stick with the Sauconys and see if my right knee adapts? Go back to the more normal New Balances and see if my left foot gets stronger? Throw caution to the wind, move to Portland, and get a pair of Vibrams? Who can tell me and how will I know to trust them?

Joining the club

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This week I took the plunge (as it were) and joined a local triathlon club.

I still feel a little out of place doing this. If a Swiss person engages in sport at all, s/he is likely to be far fitter than I am. I am a total beginner to this whole triathlon scene, and to be honest I'm a little nervous of being both female and near the bottom of the heap in my age group, as far as I can judge. I don't really want to be the one holding up training rides while everyone waits for me, because let's face it, I'm still rubbish at hills.

On the other hand, I did attend a swim training session a couple of weeks ago on a trial basis, and even though I am not a great swimmer the sessions are such that I don't hold anyone up. Also, I had some attention paid to my swimming technique that turned out to be useful, and I'm pretty sure I would not have swum 2000m in a single session if a coach hadn't been pushing me to do it. A year's club membership seems a pretty reasonable deal for being allowed to go along to these sessions every week, and it also means that I'll have a way to dip my toe (ha ha) into open water swimming when the season opens.

In a way it's swimming that got me started on this whole fitness lark last November. I have never swum competitively, so I'm not fast at all, but I enjoy being in the water and I've been comfortable there since I was a kid. So when I went to the local pool for the first time and swam my first couple of lengths of face-in-water freestyle for about fifteen years, it was pretty intimidating and embarrassing but at least I had perfect confidence in my ability to go through the motions without drowning.

When my thoughts began to turn to triathlon I looked for some guidance on how to get better (i.e. faster, less wiped out) at swimming. The first thing I found was the Total Immersion (TI) course, so I bought the book and went patiently through the drills for most of December and January. It certainly helped, and I have a better and smoother stroke than I started with as well as a better appreciation of my balance in the water, but once I had gone through the drill progression there seemed little to do but endless laps that may or may not be helping me get any faster. To make matters worse, when swimmers who write books talk about speedwork and intervals, I run into the same problem as I do with running. They're all just too fast for me, and write as if it's beyond their comprehension that someone might take more than 2 minutes to swim 100 meters.

So there I was at this swim training session of the triathlon club, and the coach immediately pointed out a couple of bad habits I'd picked up while coaching myself through the TI drills (e.g. over-rotating and crossing my arms over in front of my head when I reach forward.) I picked up another swim advice book, Swim Smooth (YES the lack of -ly also sets my teeth on edge), which seems to be a bit of a TI competitor but had a section that described my style(s) pretty darn well, including the bad habits and including the implication that it's bookish nerds like me who go the TI route and pick up bad habits that way. I have tried to do some of its drills but there is more of a learning curve and I need more of a coach, which hopefully the tri club will provide.

I am consciously putting swimming and cycling on a backburner while I go through this half marathon program, but I'll try to get to a swim session every week or two and see if I can get any better at this whole freestyle lark. It's probably good to have some way to build up my measly upper body strength anyway. (Although if that's the goal I should be doing breaststroke and butterfly instead. I guess there is a limit to the extent to which I'm a glutton for punishment, after all.)

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