Category Archives: Swimming

Jet Lag and Swimming Anxiety… Saturday 5:30AM

It’s a bit after 5:30 on Saturday morning as I type this by tapping away on my phone’s little keyboard. Jet-lag has been working its power over me for the last hour and a half. Its mojo is strong this morning, and–as an accomplished sleeper–I feel it acutely. Part of me wishes I’d stayed out later last night… Going to bed at 10:30 felt right but was probably a mistake. It also didn’t help, I wager, that my CGM woke me at 1:30, throwing off my internal clock even more.

I’ve been in San Diego since Thursday for a business meeting (along with almost 3,000 other employees) and the time change has caught me with a vengeance. Yesterday, I was tired but mostly awake when I went for a run along the Embarcadero. Today, I’m just awake and waiting out the time before starting my “free day” with a group swim in La Jolla Cove.

I alternate between excitement and anxiety about the swim. I’ve never swam with these coworkers before or in this place. The locals say we’re “in for a real treat,” which fills me with hope. Nevertheless, I’ve been anxious all week. Where will I put my stuff while we’re swimming? What will I sight on? What if I can’t keep up? Will my BGs behave themselves? What if the water is rough? Etc. Etc. Unhelpful etc.

My biggest concern has been my upper body. Two weeks ago I fell a few times on a run and ended up with core muscles that until yesterday were still quite tender when I did a lot of the swimming motion. I swam about 300 yards after the meeting just to see how well my new goggles fit, and it was the first time that my stroke was pain-free since the tumble on the trails. (You can see now why I decided to spend my time working on flip turns rather than actual workouts.) I was actually a bit concerned that I would need to bow out of the swim that I helped organize. Fortunately, it doesn’t look like that will be necessary.

Well, now that I’ve gotten that bit of crazy off my chest, I’m feeling a little better. I still have a couple hours before I need to walk to a neighboring hotel to meet the group, but at least I’ll be more mellow in the meantime.

Posted in General, Life Lessons, Swimming | 1 Comment

World’s Best Swim Technique

What does one of the best distance swimmers look like when setting a world record at the 1500m? I edited down the 20 minutes of television footage (of which 14:31.02 is actually the race) and it looks a little like this:

Update: Well, it seems the IOC doesn’t feel my mixtape version of their original video. There’s an evening wasted. You can still watch the original and the slow-mo . . . for now. Dang.

It’s pretty flawless. Notice how much of a “front quadrant” swimmer Sun is; the lead hand has just barely started to catch and pull when the recovering hand enters. He gets tremendous extension, too, and the catch hand is just below the surface of the water. Body roll . . . it’s a perfect part of the stroke, not something done for it’s own sake. It starts with the recovery, translates into a powerful pull, and is aided by the kick. Speaking of the kick, it’s almost not there (until the final 100 meters). There’s just enough.

Above all, the stroke is fluid and looks effortless. Sun barely seems to disturb the water around him. If you want to see it in slow motion, here’s another video (not by me).

p.s. – I’ll be taking my waterproof camera to the pool on Friday to see what I look like. It’s been a couple of years since I analyzed my stroke. Stay tuned!

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And So It Begins

Today is the first Monday of the new year. What better time to restart triathlon training?

Actually I was going to restart last week, our first week home after vacation, but I had a strange tightness in my hip, probably because of my trail “run” up the side of the Columbia River Gorge the week before. After cutting short an early-in-the-week treadmill session, I decided to give it a few days of extra rest before going for an easy four-mile reentry yesterday. But after a couple months of just messing around and not exercising more than anything else, today is really when the structured training restarts.

Last year was a good year as far as results go. I did four triathlons: two 70.3/half-Ironmans, an Olympic, and a sprint. I set PRs at the 70.3 and Olympic distances, as well as in the half-marathon. I ran my first marathon. I did a bunch of great, long bike rides, including a gran fondo, another JDRF ride, a ride around Mount Washington, and a fun spin around the Quabbin with Scully. After Timberman, I had the opportunity to ride bikes with Mom and Lisa a bit, too. I swam 2.4 miles just before Thanksgiving.

I enjoyed doing all of that stuff, but by the middle of the summer I was a bit burned out on the training. For a while I really wasn’t enjoying running at all, and I didn’t feel like I was getting the opportunity to have fun riding my bike either. I got over it. One afternoon in early August, Lisa caught me on the trail and rode along next to me, reciting “The Jabberwocky” and pacing me through the end of my tempo run. She pretty much single-handedly helped me get my run mojo back. And thanks to some late season bike rides, which extended into late November, I got my money’s worth on the bike, too.

Now I feel like I’m really ready to come back to training. Lisa and I have talked a lot about the coming season and my long-term goals and what it’s going to take for me to get where I want to be. Triathlon training is such a solitary, time-consuming, months-long, energy-draining activity that it can become rather selfish if not handled with openness and everyone’s full buy-in. So my main goal this year is to see if Ironman training is realistic. Even though I’m not doing my first Ironman until 2015, there are questions I want answered: Can I handle the volume of training without getting injured? Can I do it and still have fun racing and training? What do I need to do to balance training and all of my other, very important life commitments? What do I need to do to get my diabetes in the right place for Ironman?

My plan for the year is pretty simple. I’m targeting Rev3 Maine, the same triathlon I did a couple of summers ago. And of course I’ll do the N.E. Season Opener again, since it’s tradition and a lot of chilly, hilly fun. Other than that, my race calendar is pretty open.

For the next seven or eight weeks I’ll be doing some pretty boring base training to build back some endurance and improve my running and cycling economy. And then in March I’ll start a 26-week Ironman plan, which should more than prepare me for the half-triathlon in late August. Some weeks in my training plan have “brick” (bike+run) workouts that seem like perfect opportunities to do a triathlon or two and have a good time. And I’ll get a lot of chances to bike and run long.

The journey to 2015 begins this week!

Posted in Cycling, Reluctant Triathlete, Running, Swimming | 1 Comment

Polar Plunge

On the 20th, Alex and I decided that we would go for a quick dip in the Ashland Reservoir, where we swim in the summer, on the first morning of the new year. Sure it was going to be cold, but it would be “fun.” It wasn’t until the 30th as I drove to work and saw a bunch of frozen lakes that I wondered whether it would even be possible.

Survey says: “No.”

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Flip Flip Flip Flip… Wednesday, 6:00AM

Before I left the house I decided that today was going to be a “screw around” day at the pool. My plan is to start some structured base training in January, and until then I’m going to enjoy myself (the same as I have been with running and cycling). Plus, I’d left my workout card upstairs in the house, and I was already outside cleaning last night’s snow off the car when I realized it. “Maybe I’ll swim 3,000 yards straight through,” I thought.

When I got to the pool, I was the only one there, and I hopped in the deep end just to let the water temperature surprise me. I did the same thing last Friday, since Pat told me the water was freezing. A quick dip of my big toe told the shivery truth, and I knew that I needed to just dive right in or I would take a lot of time dangling my feet into the shallow end before hopping in. Today, however, the water was very warm, definitely in the non-wetsuit-legal-if-it-were-a-triathlon upper-70s. “With this heat? Maybe I’ll just swim 2,500 yards.”

About 500 yards into my swim, a few more people had arrived at the pool, although it still wasn’t too crowded. Stephanie was one lane over, and every 25 yards I would see her doing a flip turn to switch directions. “I know I really should be doing tumble turns,” I told myself, remembering that most of the really good swimmers at the pool do them. I’m pretty good at “open” turns, getting a really strong push and efficient streamline, but I’ve always wanted to learn the flip. Yet, it’s always so hard to convince myself to try it when I’m following a structured workout or when the pool is really crowded and I’m fighting for space. Moreover, I needed to swallow my pride and not worry about looking like a total newbie. “Maybe I’ll just swim 2,000 yards this morning, man up and force myself to learn flip turns.”

A couple laps went by, and I was still doing open turns. And then a few more. I was never quite ready. Eventually I sternly told myself, “Okay, next lap, when I get to the deep end, I’m going to do it!”

And so I did. I swam toward the wall, and—instead of gliding in, grabbing the wall, and pushing off—I tucked my head and threw my body forward. I reached for the wall with my feet, but it was just barely out of reach. I continued my lap knowing that I needed to be closer to the wall. On my next trip to the deep end, I accelerated in my last stroke, threw my body forward, hit the wall with my feet, turned my body and shot down toward the bottom. I came back to the surface gasping for air. I caught my breath, swam out about five yards and swam at the wall again. That time and the next couple afterward, some variation of the same thing happened.

“You aren’t rotating far enough,” Pool Guy said. “That’s why you’re going down.” Evidently he had been watching me from his lifeguard’s chair and was ready to give me some pointers. Suddenly he was using his high school swim coach voice. “I want you to do four somersaults here in the middle of the lane . . . one right after the other without stopping. You’re going to have to use your hands to keep yourself spinning.”

Deep breath. One. Two. Three. Four times the cyan of the bottom of the pool and the white of the ceiling switched places. By the last one I was spinning pretty fast, and when I surfaced the world kept spinning on its own for a couple seconds.

“That’s good. Now do that same thing when you get to the wall for your turn.”

The next lap I got to the wall, spun, planted, and pushed off without going “downhill.” Same with the next lap. When I returned to the shallow end, Alex gave me a bit of applause. A few laps later, I looked over to see Stephanie crouched down between workout segments, her head under the water so I could see her smiling her approval. I did tumble turns in the deep end for the remainder of the 2,000 yards. They weren’t all pretty, and they weren’t all horizontal, but I did them. And by the 15th or so, it felt like a pretty natural thing to do.

Friday, I’ll try working on my streamline as I push off the wall. I need to get that piece back in the mix. One step flip at a time.

Posted in 101 in 1001, Life Lessons, Reluctant Triathlete, Swimming | 2 Comments

The Workout Card… Friday 5:45AM

“That doesn’t look like sprinting.” Jennifer, the fastest masters swimmer at the pool, had just hopped in to share a swim lane with me this morning. (As long as we don’t try to circle swim, there’s never a problem with our speed differences.) She was reading over my workout card as I did a 25 yard kicking “sprint” back from the far end of the pool.

“Hey shut up!  . . . Yeah, I know. My kick is not so good,” I said as I covered the last couple of yards to the wall. She laughed, and we chitchatted for about 20 seconds until it was time for my next 25 yard kicking sprint.

“Mine isn’t particularly fast either. But kicking is always slow.”

And then a funny thing happened during the rest of the workout: My efforts with the kickboard were actually pretty good. It’s not going to win prizes anytime soon, but they felt strong and were propelling me right along. During one of them I even caught up with my lane mate while she was doing the breaststroke.

About two-thirds of the way through my workout, Pat—who had just finished swimming a mile one lane over—was sitting on the edge of the pool reading my workout. “What are you training for?” she asked.

“Oh nothing much right now. Next year, I guess.” Thursday evening I had started to figure out a plan for 2014, identifying some possible races. I have a lot of training plans from a bunch of different sources to choose from, but without a Big Plan I’ve been reluctant to commit to anything and have felt a bit aimless. Swimming is definitely the most structured part of my unstructured training right now, and I’m mostly just working on my swimming economy and strength without trying to peak for any particular event in the near feature. (I have a couple of ideas, which I will write about soon.)

For posterity, here was today’s main set (after a 300 yard warm up). It wasn’t the biggest workout ever, which is probably good. I’ve been going to the gym on Tuesday and Thursday mornings to get some extra strength and recovery work, and my arms were already tired during the warm-up.

3 sets of ...
  4x25 kick (sprint) @ 0:20 rest
  3x100 pull with buoy (negative splitting the 100s) @ 0:20 rest
  50 swim (easy) @ 0:20 rest

6x50 descending (1 & 4 moderate, 2 & 5 strong, 3 & 6 fast)

When I finished my 100-yard warm-down after the last, fast 50, Jennifer had moved a lane over and was giving some stroke tips to Alex. They were pointing out things that the boys from the high school team were doing right and wrong. I eavesdropped a little before hopping out and getting ready for the rest of my day.

The high school pool has become a lot more crowded than it was a couple of years ago, when there were just four or five us regulars all winter. But it’s also a much more social place, too. It’s nice talking to people, even if it’s only for twenty seconds at a time.

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2.4 Miles

“No school, no pool.” That’s been the rule for whether the high school pool will be open for morning lap swim. So we were all a little surprised—and quite pleased—when Pool Guy said he was going to open up the pool this morning, even though the kids around town had the day off. And he was going to bring coffee and pastries for afterward? Huzzah!

I knew today, the day before Thanksgiving, was going to be a light one at work, and I hoped that traffic would be good, too, so I decided Tuesday night that I would try to do something I’ve never done before: swim the full Ironman distance. I swam 4,000 yards last year without realizing how close I was. Today seemed like the day to give it another go, and this time I decided to figure out in advance how many yards I needed to swim. The Ironman swim is 2.4 miles long in open water; that’s 4,224 yards (3,862 meters).

Often when I do long distances in the pool, I start out strong (if not a touch fast) and then fade a bit near the end. I was determined to have a strong swim this time. My first couple laps were fast but relaxed. I looked at my watch after 500 yards and didn’t look at it again until after the first mile when Pat hopped out. About an hour in, I had covered 3,000 yards at an incredibly even (almost metronome-like) pace. And then it happened: The little bit of cramping in my feet that I had been able to swim through became a very painful cramp in my right calf. I had to stop halfway across the pool to put tension on the muscle and knead out the charley horse. Twenty minutes later I had to repeat this process for my other leg. And I still had 20 laps left to go.

What did I think about during those 85 laps? Swimming mostly. “Focus on a good reach and pushing all the way through the finish. Keep my hand flat, spread my fingers slightly, and maximize my feel on the water. Keep my legs up and my head down. Only turn my head a little while I’m breathing. Make a tight streamline off the wall.” Of course, I also took in the pool scene a bit, and there were a lot people to look at. After my first bout of cramping I started to think about how to prevent this the next time I swam long, especially during a race. I remembered a story about legendary coach Brett Sutton angrily tossing his athletes’ waterbottles off the pool deck, since there are no aid stations in the swim portion of a race. Clearly, being hydrated before the event is the way to go. As I was counting down the last 500 yards, I also thought about Céline, who had wished me luck the night before. And then I was done and feeling pretty proud of what I had just accomplished.

The post-swim donut tasted pretty good, too.

Posted in 101 in 1001, NaBloPoMo, NaBloPoMo 2013, Reluctant Triathlete, Swimming | Leave a comment

Punching the Pool

In a kind of multitasking, I’ve been watching YouTube videos about triathlon while riding my bike on the trainer. Sometimes it’s a bootleg recording of the Hawaii Ironman World Championships from a couple decades ago. Other times it’s advice from seasoned pros about dealing with difficult times in races or how to have faster transitions, etc. Not only do these videos break up the monotony of going nowhere in my basement, they’re helping to make me a better triathlete.

There are a ton of swimming videos out there, which is great. I have a hard time translating what I read about swimming technique into practice without pictures. And even though there are static pictures in books, I find that I get so much more from actually seeing a video of a swimmer doing the drill I’m supposed to do or demonstrating proper technique. Of course, watching something isn’t the same as doing it, and it’s a difficult endeavor to retrain your brain and imprint new ways of doing something. But that’s why we go to the pool and practice, right?

On my Thursday bike interval session, I watched a video from GoSwim showing some drills to help me use more of my arm than just the hand to pull myself through the water. A good swimmer grabs the water with the hand, but a great swimmer does that and then uses their whole arm as both a lever and a contact surface for the pull. I can really feel it when I’m mostly using my hand for the pull. The drills in this video show how to focus on using more of the arm:

Yesterday (Friday) I gave it a whirl at the pool, using this as my workout:

300 swim (warmup)
150 kick with board
3 sets of 4x50 with 0:10-0:15 rest
  - first 4 with paddles
  - middle 4 regular swim
  - last 4 with fists
2x50 kick with board
2x200 pull with buoy
100 swim (cool-down)

Although I bought paddles about a year ago, I had never used them before. It took a few lengths of the pool to get used to them, but I could definitely tell when I was doing things inefficiently. After using paddles, the first few strokes of regular swimming felt like I had such bad purchase on the water with my forearms, and I guess that’s the point of the drill. A few minor changes, and I was feeling the water again. Just as I felt I was inefficient when I switched from paddles to regular swimming, the same thing happened when I balled up my hands into fists and swam the last set. Wow! That was an eye-opening experience. It took a bit longer to get used to this new way of swimming, but I finally started to feel my forearms doing their thing. Of course, it felt really awkward, and I’m sure compensating changed other parts of my stroke. Nevertheless, the lesson was pretty obvious, and I used the 400 yards of swimming with the pull buoy to focus on doing everything the right way.

I think I’m starting to see in my mind what I should look like when I swim. I see myself on an axis that extends from my hand and arm through my head and spine to my legs and foot. I see a hand and foot anchoring my body in the water while I put power efficiently into my stroke. I’m starting to see how my arm should move as I pull and what I need to do to keep my legs from dropping. Seeing it in my mind should make it a little easier to do correctly. Now I just have to keep practicing to make this happen outside of my mind.

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My swim-peep/friend/sometimes-lane-mate Alex is learning backstroke. The results are amusing.

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Dreaming and Swimming

I had an interesting dream this morning. I think I’m too tired these days to dream very much, so I was surprised by how vivid and cinematic this particular first-person dream was. The subject was also unusual: swimming.

I’m not sure I’ve ever dreamt about swimming before. In fact, for all of the swimming, cycling, and running that I do when awake—not to mention all of the thinking I do about triathlon—I don’t usually dream about any of it. When I do dream about them, usually it’s about how slow I feel, how I can’t move, how I’m faster at running if I push myself along the ground with my arms. It’s been a while since one of those dream, and I must be feeling more confident, because this dream started with me getting ready to race in a swim meet.

The anxiousness I felt in my dream was real. As I did on the morning of every race I’ve done this year, I was trying to maintain a fine balance between amped readiness, knowing I was eager to race, and not expending too much energy and excitement before the race actually started.

“I hate waiting,” I told Heidi Klum, who was lounging on a deck chair in resort swimwear. (And yes, of course she looked great.) For whatever reason, she was sponsoring the meet and seemed concerned that I might not be having a good time. When I started to tell her that, no, it’s just a personal trait I have to want to be competing already, she became instantly bored with me. (Sorry, Heidi, it would have never worked out between us.)

I’m not sure what distance I was swimming or what heat I was in. The guy coordinating the event (Andrew Lincoln, who plays the main guy on “The Walking Dead”) said some crazy stuff I didn’t fully understand about swimming different distances and eliminating people along the way and how there weren’t separate heats for different groups, so we would all be swimming together: old and young; boys, girls, women, and men; team swimmers, club swimmers, random fitness swimmers, and triathletes like me.

The pool was a cross between the high school pool where I train three times per week and the beautiful, new Grinnell pool plus a half-dozen other buildings. Certain aspects of it reminded me of what I imagine the new construction at the office will look like when it’s done. (Anxious waiting seemed to be the theme of the dream.) Alex and Jen from the pool were there, as were most of the high school boys and girls swim team, including the apologetic guy who swam into me yesterday when he deviated from his part of the lane. It was going to be interesting to see whether the former collegiate swimmers or the current high schoolers would be faster. I was keen to see how I stacked up.

I wish I could tell you how I did, but I never got past the warm up. The first heat of 100 freestyle was finishing. After waiting a bit for a teenager doing the backstroke to finish, I hopped in to warm up. The water was perfect, and I was swimming well. As I was doing a streamline kick on my back to return from the far end of the pool—hoping that I would be racing soon—there was a lot of whistling and shouting for everyone to get out. Somehow all of the lane dividers had come undone and were all around me like logs floating downriver to a sawmill.

I clambered over the dividers, hopped out of the pool, and watched as it drained of water. My impatience turned into boredom, and I checked out of my dream. A few moments later I was awake, ready to get on with my Saturday.

Posted in NaBloPoMo, NaBloPoMo 2013, Swimming | 1 Comment

In Praise of the Wetsuit

My good friend and fellow type-1 triathlete Céline recently wrote about how she is too stubborn to wear a wetsuit during triathlon. I started to write a response on her site, but it quickly became a post all of its own, so here it is.

I think about wetsuits this way:

  • Am I faster with a wetsuit? Yes. I’m more buoyant, streamlined, slippery, and compressed. My core muscles are getting stronger, but I still tend to drop my legs at the pool; it’s a lot harder to do that with a wetsuit. Considering all of the different factors, I estimate that I’m about 0:15/100 faster with one.
  • Does it hurt my feel for the water? No. Not at all.
  • Does it make it hard to breathe? Nope.
  • Am I comfortable in a wetsuit? Yes… comfortable enough. A well-fitting, sleeveless wetsuit is pretty much something I forget that I’m wearing when I’m in the water.
  • Does it make it possible for me to race in the early and late months? Yes, and in the ocean, too. The water temps this season at my races varied between 55° and 82°F (12-28°C), and I wore a wetsuit for all of them.
  • Does it take longer to remove than the time I save swimming? No. Not by a long shot. With enough practice, I can remove it in less than 15 seconds. It’s definitely not the slowest part of my swim-to-bike transition. Plus, my last event had “strippers,” and that was the best thing ever!
  • Do I look super-attractive while I’m wearing it? Um… probably not. But as Lisa says, triathlon takes all shapes. I’ve learned to be okay with having not much to hide behind and with seeing interesting bulges (my own and others) while I’m standing around waiting to race. It’s a lot like bike riding; at some point you get beyond the fact that everyone you’re with is pretty revealed.
  • Does it give me a very convenient place to stash gels when I swim? Yes. I just put ‘em down by my ankle.
  • Does it help keep my diabetes paraphernalia attached? Yes. My CGM or infusion set has never come loose while wearing one. This is very different from the pool, where about once per month, my CGM or set comes unstuck.
  • Is it a question of safety? Initially, yes, but not now. Putting aside the fact that even a dead body floats, a wetsuit makes a swimmer extra buoyant. If you’re at all uncomfortable, a wetsuit can be a bit like a safety blankie. While I initially freaked the hell out the one time that I went swimming in open water without one, those days have passed, and I wear one all the time now for the other reasons listed above.
Posted in Life Lessons, Reluctant Triathlete, Swimming | 7 Comments

This Is Triathlon. It’s What You Do.

I was walking my bike to the shuttle after the the Timberman Ironman 70.3 race yesterday when I had a “moment.”

I had just talked briefly with Patricia Brownell‘s husband at her team’s tent. Once again—as seems usual for us—we missed seeing each other in real-life, despite having been internet acquaintances for a couple of years. She was the first triathlete with diabetes I had heard of, and her success was very encouraging as I was just getting into the sport. The first race I did I saw someone in a Team Type 1 tri-top, but I never got the chance to see if my diabetes radar was working correctly.

The knowledge that there are other people out there with diabetes who do athletic things was extra meaningful to me yesterday afternoon as I walked along with my medal around my neck. I’d just finished the hardest single thing I had ever done. The distances—a 1.2 mile swim in beautiful Lake Winnipesaukee, 56 mile bike ride, and 13.1 mile run—weren’t new to me. Nor were the occasional chop and currents in the crystalline lake enough to keep me from having my best pace over that distance during a race. And even though it was quite hilly, the steep rollers and the long climbs didn’t do me in on the bike or run. I kept my pace and effort in check, and all things considered, I even nailed my hydration and nutrition strategy. I was even feeling good on the run, which was quite relieving after a couple months of runner’s block.

You see, despite all of those things, yesterday’s race was all diabetes.

As each starting wave got into the water, the announcer read off interesting things about some of the participants. This guy lost 150 pounds and is doing his first Ironman. That woman was diagnosed a few months ago with breast cancer. He almost died during a training accident. She trained for Timberman in Kandahar while on active duty with the Army. They were all very inspiring stories that in many ways described the best parts of the “Ironman lifestyle.” I vaguely remember filling out this part of the online questionnaire when I registered months ago. My head was underwater as I swam out to the starting line, but Lisa said lots of people clapped when the announcer said this:

“Jeff Mather was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes in 1998, and in 2009 he taught himself how to swim. Now he’s doing his first Ironman 70.3.”

I’m kind of glad that I didn’t hear that. When I race, I like to think that I’m doing what everyone else is doing, and I often feel the most diabetes-free during an event. Obviously, I have to think about it, but none of my fellow competitors have to know that I’m in some way “challenged” as an athlete. I was deeply moved after the race to hear how people responded to knowing that people with diabetes can be real athletes, but before the race I think it might have gotten into my head a little if I’d heard it. Plus, as I was bargaining with myself on the bike about whether to finish or not, it might have enticed me to make a different decision so that I wouldn’t (in some unknowable way) let those people down, even if it might have been a very dangerous thing to do.

I swam well, but my BGs had risen steadily throughout the swim. Although they started in a really good place (135 mg/dL, or 7.5 mmol/L), I suspect I bolused too little insulin for my ClifBar breakfast. About 5 minutes into the ride, I tested and saw a “286″ (15.9) staring back at me. I bolused a tiny amount of insulin, ate a gel (20g of carbs), and decided to wait an hour until my next one. I almost always try to eat 20g every half-hour—and I can’t skip too many without the risk of hitting the wall, like any other athlete—but if I was that high, I could hold off. A little less than an hour later I was at 367 (20.5).

Exercising while having high blood sugar (hyperglycemia) is painful. Imagine having your whole body full of lactic acid and not being able to clear it out by slowing down. I can almost feel my muscle fibers rubbing against each other as they try to contract. Muscles I don’t think about while on the bike got in on the painful action yesterday: My back, shoulders, hips, arms . . . they all hurt, and I found it difficult to stay in my aerodynamic tuck. Not only was I having a painful time getting from here to there over the long, shallow grades and the short, steep rollers, I was doing it more slowly than I knew I could, thus prolonging the agony.

“Do you have a pump?” asked the guy who rolled up next to me and then proceeded to stay in the drafting zone. It was technically against the rules, but he wasn’t getting any advantage from me, and if he had a mechanical problem, I wasn’t going to begrudge helping him. Alas, I did not have a hand-activated air-pump. No. Sorry. “Really? I saw the tubing and I just thought, well, maybe. . . .” Oh, you mean an insulin pump! Yeah, I do. Sorry, I wasn’t expecting that. We chatted for a minute, the Omnipod user and I, before he took off to rock the bike while I plodded along at my more leisurely 19 mph.

The other thing about high blood sugar that you should know is that it’s a sneaky, lying bastard. When the human endocrine system is out of whack, it messes with other parts of your body, including your mind. For me, it amplifies feelings of frustration, helplessness, and despair. Fortunately, I’ve come to see these lies for what they are, and I was able to hold off the voices that told me it was okay to roll into an aid station and call it a day. While that was true—it would be okay—it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to do what I knew I could do. I wanted that finisher’s medal.

Around the 30th mile I made myself a bargain. I was going to try to make it back to transition, eating and dosing small amounts of insulin (like 0.2-0.3 units) the whole way. If I was over 400 mg/dL (22 mmol/L) when I got there, I was going to say that discretion is the better part of valor and not risk going into DKA on the run or hypoglycemia by trying to treat a super high BG with too much insulin during exercise. It kept me focused on something I could do. That’s about the time, as I was talking to myself out loud, that I invented a new mantra:

This is triathlon. It’s what you do. Sure it’s painful sometimes. You’re almost three hours in to something that’s going to take six or seven hours today, but you knew that. You knew it would be hard. You’ve been here before, and you’ve done this. This is what you do. Everybody knows that. People think you’re touched, and they might be right, but you like knowing that you can do this crazy thing. It’s why you do it. This is triathlon. It’s what you do.

Despite backing off the pace early into the ride, I was still passing people. Don’t get me wrong, I did get passed by a lot of men and women, but I made up a lot of time on the uphills, especially the steep ones. The steeper they were, the better for me, it seemed. And I made up time on the downhills, exceeding 50 mph (80 km/h) in aero at one point. And on the corners, where I knew what my bike could do and where the line was and where others around me were not willing to go. And I made it back to transition in just under three hours.

327. The 327 (18.2) reading was enough to get me back out of transition. I was standing in front of my freshly racked bike after walking from the dismount line to my spot. I wasn’t going for a time goal any more. If it took me three hours to walk the half-marathon, what was another couple of minutes of leisurely bike-to-run? I took a drink, I put on my shoes, visor, and race belt, and I tested. 327.

As I ran onto the course, I saw Lisa and stopped. “This is going to be s-l-o-w,” I shouted to her across the road. “That’s okay. I love you!” she shouted back.

A little less than an hour later I was running past her again, smiling and blowing kisses. I hadn’t expected it, but the first couple miles felt good. I planned to run/walk again, thinking I would run a mile and then walk two minutes. But the first mile was so easy that I decided to go for two. The course was hilly, but I was running strong up and down them. I swear I could feel the insulin moving blood sugar into my sore muscles, giving them a fresh bit of juice. Yes, the first loop of the run was very good, all things considered. The second lap was a carbon copy of the first, albeit slightly more painful.

I even talked to a few people as I passed them. One guy told a teammate he was passing that he thought he could break six hours. A few moments later I told him, “I did that on my first tri, too. It was the best feeling ever.” We shook hands, and he told me to go rip shit up. For the first time in a long time, I enjoyed running. I was doing better than I thought I would, and it felt like the good ole days. My legs knew what to do, and my mind was free to consider other things . . . like whether I wanted to high-five that life-size plastic bear that I saw near the end of the first loop. I did. Oh yes, I did!

I decided to give everything I had once I figured out the run was going to be a good one, and I didn’t have much left by the finish line. My best 70.3 time was 5:38:42 for the mostly flat Patriot Half back in June. When Andy Potts (the men’s overall winner) put the finisher’s medal around my neck I was trying hard not to puke all over him, and I wasn’t even thinking about my time. Only after we got home did I realize that I ran a 1:56 half-marathon to finish the whole triathlon in 5:39:49, good enough for 112th of 231 in my age group and a very lucky 777th overall. Five minutes after I finished, my BG was a perfect 104 (5.8).

I don’t know how to end this except to say that I’m very, very grateful for all of the camaraderie and encouragement that I’ve gotten from everyone along this journey. Some people I train and race with know I have diabetes, and many don’t. Even amongst those who do, they don’t make a big deal over it. They nod and say, “It sucks that diabetes robbed you of some minutes during your race, but I’m impressed with what you did regardless.” To riff off what one person said to a family member before the start, “Don’t look for me at the end of the swim. You’ll never pick me out. We’re all wearing black wetsuits.” Most of the time, the combination of diabetes and triathlon is like that; you’d never know. It’s just what I do.

Posted in Cycling, Diabetes, Reluctant Triathlete, Running, Swimming, This is who we are | 7 Comments

A Beautiful Day – Wednesday 5:30AM

I was (atypically) mostly awake before the 5:00AM alarm this morning, but I still didn’t really want to get up. The force of sleep is strong in this one, but I got up anyway. It’s hard to say exactly why sometimes. Certainly the knowledge that I can only get better at swimming by swimming and the fact that I have a plan helps motivate me, but I think now it’s mostly just the sheer force of habit. I had also told Pat, who was trying out her new wetsuit, that I would be there for moral support.

On the days that I go to the lake, it’s a little easier. There’s community and conversation and the promise of a really easy workout. We’re going to swim 1/2 mile to the dock. We’re going to gab while waiting for the slower folks to arrive. And then we’re going to swim back. Easy peasy. No send-off intervals. No kick sets. No drills. Just continuous endurance swimming in a beautiful setting.

This week is an easy recorvery week on the schedule, and technically I was only supposed to swim about 800 yards, but I often ignore the plan when it comes to swimming. “If I take it easy at the lake,” I tell myself, “there’s no harm.” Plus, the pool has been so crowded lately with swimmers getting ready for their late-season triathlons. “Where were you in February when there was no one here and I had a lane to myself to work on my speed and technique?” I wondered on Monday without feeling at all superior or actually wishing that the pool had been crowded in the dead of winter. I was the second person in the pool that morning, yet I still end up sharing a lane with two other people who didn’t want to (or know how to) circle swim. One of them accidentally stiff-armed me in my busted rib just below my left collarbone. That took my breath away for a moment.

I was definitely happy to be going to the lake this morning. The beauty of the predawn sky sent me running back inside to get my point-and-shoot camera. The cat, confused, seemed nonplussed about the fact that (again!) I wasn’t feeding him.

The sunrise, the slight coolness in the air, the water temperature, the calmness of the air and the water, the camaraderie—it was pretty much perfect. I swam relaxed, enjoying the morning and just being in the moment. At the halfway point we talked about last weekend’s Ironman Lake Placid results before heading back. I started at the tail end of the pack and decided to see if I could catch Pat and her pink swimcap on the return. (After all, I did need to inject a little speed into the workout to try to stay within the spirit of my training plan.) I swam easy for a minute or two and then counted my strokes to do 30-or-so yards of sprinting, followed by more very easy swimming and more sprinting, and so on. My mind was as still as the lake I was gliding through. The early morning sun shone beautifully on the trees and the water and lit the V-shaped cove by the parking lot with a radiant glow. It was a wonderful swim.

Friday, I will be back at the pool, no doubt pushing my way through the masses as I do a short set. I’ll try to stay in the moment again, but I know somewhere in me, I’ll be wishing I were at the lake.

Posted in Reluctant Triathlete, Swimming | 4 Comments

Mass State Tri

How do I write about yesterday’s Mass State Triathlon?

On the one hand, I had my best open-water swim and 40km bike splits ever. It was hot, but I still managed to do better than most of my expectations for the Olympic-distance tri. Diabetes didn’t play as nicely as I’d hoped—I started in a good place but ended up near 300 mg/dL (17 mmol/L) and was feeling the results near the end of the run—but I executed my nutrition and hydration plan very well, and I had my best swim-to-bike and bike-to-run transitions ever, significantly improving my Olympic time. I missed the top 1/3 of my age group by about 10 minutes, so I didn’t qualify for USAT nationals, but I’m happy with my time of 2:32:15. Here’s the breakdown of those times:

  • Swim: 1500m in 29:05 (1:46/100 yards, or 1:56/100 meters)
  • T1: 2:16
  • Bike: 22 miles in 1:05:10 (20.1 mph, 32.6 km/h)
  • T2: 1:53
  • Run: 10K in 53:51 (8:40/mile, 5:23/km)

I must be getting better at the swim, because I’m getting knocked into and grabbed a whole lot more throughout the entire event. I made sure to be one of the first people in my swim wave to get into the water this race, so I set myself up at the front and sprinted when the horn sounded. I concentrated on the catch and pull phases of my stroke and found myself keeping up. Definitely not leading my wave, but not near the back either. I was even drafting off someone for a while, although I found it hard to concentrate on having good form when I was busy trying not to get too close to the person ahead of me. (Clearly other people didn’t have such qualms—or concentration—as my feet and legs were grabbed a few times.) I also confirmed that I sight really well in the water during races and am not a pack-follower. For some reason lots of people were staying well to one side of the course and then turning in toward the shore rather than swimming straight to the swim-out after the last turn buoy. That’s two events in a row. Hmm.

I was pretty shocked to see a “2″ as the leading number on my watch when I got out of the water, and I was feeling pretty good when I left transition onto the bike. I’ve never really liked my transition times, so on Friday and Saturday before the race I set about to figure out how to do them faster. Basically, I borrowed the lean production idea of value stream mapping, writing down all of the things that I do from when I stop swimming to when I get onto my bike and start pedaling away. I found a few places with wasted time that I was able to improve immediately, a few more I can change but which need practice before trying in a race, and one or two places where diabetes just takes time that I can’t get rid of. (I didn’t have time to do the same thing for my bike-to-run transitions, but it seems very promising.)

The Mass State bike course is a single loop over really nice roads. There’s some up and down but nothing extreme, with only about 750-800 feet of climbing over the 22 miles. (I have my own personal scale for figuring out the hilliness of a ride: divide the number of feet of climbing by the length in miles. If it’s less than 30, it’s flat. If it’s between 30 and 50, it’s slightly hilly. 50 to 70 is probably very rolling. If it’s over 70 feet/mile, it’s quite hilly, and over 90 is really hard. Because of where I live, most of my training rides lately have been in the 50-80 range. This course was merely 35.) I subscribe to the “you always pedal when you’re on the bike unless you have no more gears to use” school of cycling, and I wanted to see how hard I could realistically push on the bike and be okay on the run. I think I found that point today.

Which brings us to the other hand. (You knew it was coming, right?)

The run was just really hard, like most of the running I’ve been doing recently. It’s possible that I might have ridden too hard, but I did try to hold back a bit. When I started out on the run, I was feeling pretty fresh—all things considered—but at 85°F (30°C) it was quite warm. By the time I got to the first aid station a mile and a half in, I was ready for a little walk, but I kept going for a bit longer before I started a run/walk. As with the Patriot Half last month, I didn’t enjoy the run . . . at all. The feelings of just wanting to be done already started within the first ten minutes, which was definitely better than Patriot Half where I felt that way within the first mile, but it was still disappointing. Once I got to the turnaround at 5K, I was feeling a lot more motivated, and I was able to kick in the last 800 meters.

A couple days before the race, I made high and low estimates for each part. I was on the low side or better for all of these estimates except for the run. Being able to do that left me feeling very satisfied. Now all I need to do is to get my run mojo back, and I’ll be really happy.

Posted in Cycling, Diabetes, Life Lessons, Reluctant Triathlete, Running, Swimming | 5 Comments

Catching Up, Part 2: Active Insulin

This is the second half of the “What has Jeff been up to?” post. In the first part I had a couple of difficult bike rides.

III. “You really should stop doing all of that cycling and running.” Jen, one of the fastest swimmers at the pool, had a mischievous look. “All that muscle development is making your legs too heavy.”

I had passed her the previous morning at the end of my miserable three-state tour. She was running up the hill near my house as I was coasting home. The pool was crowded, and all of the lane dividers were still up from a swim meet over the weekend. So we doubled-up, keeping to our respective sides of the black line on the bottom of the pool. A few lanes were packed enough to require circle-swimming.

“I don’t think those muscles are the problem,” I said, patting my core. “But seriously. Am I dropping my legs?”

“Every single stroke.”

I had been doing one-arm drills to work on my catch, a high-elbow pull, and a strong, propulsive finish. The “Month of Drills” had been going pretty well—even if I felt a bit awkward doing drills instead of “real swimming”—and I noticed that when I went to the lake for a swim, my power was moving me through the water more effectively than in the past. It’s not often that I get free advice at the pool, so I decided to make the most of it. “Keep your hips and legs up!” I told myself on my next set of 50s.

“That’s looking better!” Jen said, the next time we were both stopped at the wall resting before the clock sent us off again for another set.

Slow, steady progress.

IV. After a couple weeks of getting passed by a couple guys going up a particularly nasty hill like I was standing still (before jumping on and letting them pace me the rest of the way, I should add), barely making it up that same hill the next week, having some really awful-feeling runs around the neighborhood, and being really tired and sore all the time, I was starting to doubt: Maybe I just suck. Part of the reason that I did the really hard ride and then the long outing was that I was looking to have a little fun after some very structured workouts that felt difficult. I needed to prove that I could go fast, and I wanted to take my mind off training. Instead, my recent difficulties focused my mind on how soon my next triathlon is (Sunday!) and how unsure I was about my abilities to do well there.

I was trying hard last week to snap myself out of the funk and self-doubt, but my diabetes wasn’t cooperating at all. It got very warm here a couple weeks ago and never really cooled down. (Tuesday night, the house finally dropped below 80F for the first time in a week.) For whatever reason, my blood sugars shot up and never really came down for more than an hour or so. Perhaps I was under-hydrated. Maybe my insulin got a little baked and lost its potency. It’s quite possible that the heat itself, which is a form of stress, made my body a bit insulin resistant. I’ll probably never know.

What I did know is that I was starting to feel something like despair. At first I blamed myself, assuming I made mistakes in my self-management. Then, when some rage-bolusing didn’t have much of an effect, I knew that it wasn’t my fault. If I can’t even make myself go low with extra insulin, I can’t really be held responsible for the highs. I did everything I was supposed to do: I changed infusion sets and opened a new bottle of insulin. Of course, knowing it was out of my control didn’t make the highs go away or help me feel better. Even worse, high blood glucose can mess with mood. Prolonged, high BGs makes feel a bit manic and depressed, particularly because it amplifies all of the feelings of self-doubt and grumpiness that I have from time to time. I’m sure I must have been a pain in the ass to Lisa.

I noticed a few things that helped me “solve” the problem. (1) My pump was getting hot, probably cooking my insulin. And (2) when I changed my insulin every few days I felt some pretty impressive “pump bumps.” For whatever reason, my body didn’t really like having the infusion set in there for 3-4 days. Both things pointed toward changing my insulin more often. It feels like a lot of waste to change sites every 50-60 hours, but you do what you’ve got to do, right?

My BGs have come down, and my mood has improved greatly.

V. The only thing that would bring my BGs down was cycling or running in the afternoons. I was starting high and dropping 100-150 mg/dL (6-8 mmol/L) over the course of an hour. Sometimes I bolused a small amount of insulin before the ride. Other times I decided to forgo my usual practice of reducing my basal insulin rate. And I rarely needed to do any snacking before or during these afternoon outings. I was happy for the effect of the exercise, but I knew that drops like that are unsustainable if I start to exercise with “normal” BGs.

On Wednesday, the third—the day before the start of a four-day weekend for me—I decided to go for an extra long bike ride. My blood sugar was in a really good place when I left the office, and was still pretty good (for pre-exercise anyway, 187 mg/dL, or 10.4 mmol/L) before I headed out for an enjoyable 25 miles. I ate a banana and loaded my pockets with glucose tablets and a few energy gels. I also mixed a bottle of SkratchLabs drink mix that I planned to drink on the second half of the ride. About 40 minutes in—just after eating a gel—I pulled my meter out my back pocket and placed it between my teeth; fished out a test strip with one hand and put it in the meter; and pricked my index finger, milked some blood out, and transferred the drop onto the waiting test test strip.

“Shit shit shit!” I muttered upon seeing an 85 (4.7) staring back at me. I had dropped over 100 mg/dL in the last 40 minutes. Based on how I was already feeling, I could tell that I was going to go low, so I looked for a shady part of the highway shoulder to wait it out.

You should know that I can be impatient when I’m on a bike. If I have an expectation that I’m going to go a particular intensity or speed, I’m going to do it. Of course, if my expectations are that I’m going to go have a nice leisurely ride with friends, then I can totally chill and have a great time just being on a bike. And if someone I’m with has a hypo, I have no problem waiting until everyone’s BGs are back to a happy place, mostly because I’m a big, worried mother-hen when it comes right down to it. But if I’m by myself, sitting around on the side of the road is torture. Time passes slowly in the BG penalty box.

Six minutes after eating some glucose tablets and another gel I tested again: 71 (3.9). “Looks like it’s a major penalty,” I thought while eating a few more glucose tablets and washing them down with Skratch mix. Nine minutes later: 81 (4.5). I was moving in the right direction but still a little too low to start again. Seventeen minutes after the first test, my BG had recovered to 97 (5.4) and I was ready to head out. Unfortunately, I had eaten all of my food, so I had to make a quick stop at a convenience store a few minutes later to restock on carbs.

My second wind was fantastic, and I went on to put the hammer down on my “nemesis hill” (Milford Road in Grafton). Later that evening, Lisa and I had a great time watching fireworks, and the next day we did a two-ish-hour ride on the Minuteman Bikeway, which was very enjoyable and took my mind off thoughts like “Do I suck?” A couple mornings later—that would be last Sunday, the 7th—I went for a short, leisurely 35-mile ride and felt really great. That ride included a new-to-me hill, which was completely ridiculous. 17% grade?! Are you kidding me?

It’s nice to have my mojo back.

VI. Continuing on with the theme of trying not to take training too seriously during this taper/recovery week, I did something completely new this week: I combined exercise and errands.

On Wednesday I needed to refill a few prescriptions at CVS. I also wanted to run about four easy miles with just a bit of intensity in the middle. I knew I was going to be a little late leaving the office, and I didn’t want to be even later starting out my run by driving to the pharmacy first. That’s about when the idea to hit me to run to CVS, pick up my stuff, and then run a slightly longer route home.

I can hear you out there, because I had these same thoughts myself: “But, Jeff, it’s been hot and humid in Massachusetts. Won’t you be all gross and nasty standing in line?” Somehow I rationalized it this away. “Well, it’s 1.6 miles there, and they’re all downhill, so it will be easy, right? And it’s the first part of the run, so I might not even be warmed up yet. And it’s only 80F (27C) out there, so it’s almost cool.” And that’s what led me to put on my running gear, strap on my hydration pack, pick a perspiration-wicking cap, and run to CVS, where I stood sweating all over the place while I waited for them to fill the test strips part of my prescription.

“I was reading the other day about a woman with Type-1 who runs all summer long. She has some fancy way of keeping her insulin pump cool in the hot summer heat.” The pharmacy clerk has Type-2 diabetes, and somehow knew that I had been running. It was probably the running clothes . . . and the sweat. “Are you going straight home? Because sometimes people don’t know, and they think they can go do more shopping elsewhere, and their insulin goes bad.” I assured her that I was going straight home—I didn’t mention that it would be in a rather roundabout way—and then stuffed two vials of insulin and a bunch of test strips into my pack.

As I ran home, the test strips clicked like little maracas with every stride. Hearing the insulin bopping around inside their boxes brought a bunch of diabetes terms to mind: insulin on board, active insulin, running on insulin, etc. I did the math: “2 vials times 10 mL per vial times 100 units per mL. Let’s see, that’s 2,000 units of insulin. Plus about 0.3 units of active insulin from lunch. 2,000.3 units of insulin. I’ve never run with that much insulin on board before. I hope I don’t go low.”

Posted in Cycling, Diabetes, Life Lessons, Running, Swimming | 2 Comments