Friday, May 31, 2013

Another surprising part of RAGBRAI training

I'm used to training plans, after a couple of years of running and not being effortlessly athletic. So I thought RAGBRAI training wouldn't be much of a switch from half marathon training.

I was wrong.

In addition to the differences in my hunger, soreness and sunburn locations, the training has been a big adjustment after all.

I mean, duh, RAGBRAI is longer than a half marathon, so each biking training session will cover more terrain, and that takes more time (even though biking gets you there faster).

What I hadn't expected was how much more of a role weather would play. And that's coming from someone who checks the hourly forecast at least twice a day.

Part of the problem is that I haven't overcome weather wimpiness for biking.

It took time, but I overcame my reluctance to run in the cold, rain, wind or snow (heat and humidity are still works in progress). Meanwhile, running only piqued my interest in the first place because I didn't want to ride my bike in cooler weather.

This mental block needs to be torn down, because to expect ideal conditions on the four days I'm doing RAGBRAI is completely irrational — better to prepare now.

So when I rule out less-than-ideal conditions, that further reduces the amount of time available to ride, when riding demands more time in the first place, meaning planning is an absolute must for me. (Until I toughen up and the weather backs off.)

I really hope this doesn't come across as a lament over bike training. Self-induced stress aside, I'm enjoying training; with a few test rides that involve stopping for sweets and/or beer under my belt, I'm confident that I'll really enjoy RAGBRAI.

However, along with the initial appetite suppression that running provides, I also miss the (slight) spontaneity it allowed me. A last-minute run, crammed in because of a change of plans or conditions, can be done in half an hour; I'd have to absolutely fly to justify that amount of time on a bike.

Expect further lip-chewing and teeth-gnashing as I enter the travel-heavy month of June. Or assume that the silence on this blog is because of my inability to get rides in.

But the ironic part in all of this? I'm actually not afraid that I won't be in sufficient physical shape anymore. It's just my Type A personality parts, with their obsession for planning and checking items off lists, kicking into overdrive.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

I worried about the wrong crises

I set out on what was supposed to be a 45-mile bike ride Wednesday, with a handful of minor apprehensions.

They were the usual concerns: What if I get a flat tire? What if I missed a new pasty-white patch of skin while applying sunscreen? What if the winds keep whipping across the open fields surrounding the Raccoon River Valley Trail? What if I run out of water on this hot, humid day?

As the trail entered a wooded stretch on my way west, I stopped fretting about most of these factors and began to enjoy myself. The only niggling doubt I had was why no one else was on the trail, but then again, it was early Wednesday afternoon.

Still, as the miles piled up, I decided to quit while I was ahead and turned around somewhere in Adel, after I'd gone 15.5 miles from my apartment, intending to make up the miles elsewhere.

A little before mile 20, I noticed a dark blob to the southwest. Hm. I decided to keep pushing myself instead of letting the wind push me east.

However, a few miles later, my sunglasses became unnecessary. Just make it to Waukee, and you'll have refuge in case of the thunderstorms assured you will not arrive for another few hours, I repeated.

The winds stopped propelling me forward and started pushing me sideways. The air grew drastically cooler. Rain drops fell, then barreled down.

Only five miles lay between me and my apartment, but I chose the cautious route and pulled into the Caribou Coffee. This was the right choice, as I soon found out.

Another biker, named Tim, had sought refuge there, and no sooner had I propped my bike up did the storm hit with a vengeance.

Over the shrieking of the wind and clatter of the rain, as precipitation seeped down the walls and under the doors, we shared amused frustration at the lack of warning about this weather. Another customer — I didn't catch his name, so I'll call him Winterset, because that's where he said he lived — showed me the belatedly updated radar and its promised series of severe storms.

But, oddly enough, this is where the story turns cheerful. I bought a latte to warm up and chatted with Winterset, who expressed regret that he'd brought his car, not his truck, to town and thus couldn't help me get home; meanwhile, Tim, much less optimistic about the weather, called over that his wife and/or daughter would come fetch him, and I was welcome to a ride home, too.

Was this the safest thing to do? Realistically, no. But I accepted. I'd trusted the hairs on the back of my neck in Adel, despite the sunshine; I'd stick with the hot hand. (Also, as Winterset and I each concluded, "wife and daughter" made the situation seem safer ... though once I got back, I realized how nonsensical that was.)

Tim's family arrived, in a blissfully warm Jeep (wet clothes in an air-conditioned building, brr!). It turned out that they lived mere blocks from me — though it wouldn't have mattered where I lived, they said; I still would've been able to ride with them — and Tim even insisted that I stay in the car until he'd taken my bike totally off the rack.

I thanked Tim again, tried to offer to do a good deed to thank him, and he shook me off. Instead, he urged me to stop by the family's house sometime and say hello. He even told me the street address.

"Iowa Nice" isn't just a joke or an excellent Scott Siepker video. It's a real thing.

Also, in addition to the kindness of Winterset and incredible generosity of Tim, there was the sympathy from the Caribou Coffee employees. I think one even asked Tim whether he needed a ride home. No judgment, no eye-rolling at the mess we likely caused.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Like a parent, I can't pick a favorite

When I was a youngster, I used to ask my dad who his best friend was. He would always answer that it depended on the situation, and I never understood that.

Twenty years later (yikes!), I get it. It's how I'd answer the question of which athletic activity I prefer.

For the past few years, this wasn't the case; I had a cut-and-dried response — biking.

Biking was easier (much less wheezing, sweating and aching), and I'd always found that what came easiest to me was the most fun for me. Getting myself out the door and onto my bike didn't require as many pep talks or long-term goals as running did.

Running was useful when I had less time to exercise, I'd concede, and it was a more intense workout. It was also more convenient in terms of the amount of equipment and road/trails needed.

Even after a year of almost exclusively running, even after two blogs about running, even after all the races I'd register for, I stuck with these conclusions.

"I'm not a natural runner. I'm built better for biking," I thought. "If my podiatrist had told me not to run because of my bunions, I would have listened. If some weird supernatural being appeared and demanded that I give up one or the other, I totally would stop running." (The mind goes strange places on a long run.)

But recently, I read Gretchen Rubin's "The Happiness Project," which planted a little seed in my subconscious. The first of her Eight Splendid Truths of Happiness states:
To be happier, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.
I'd always believe that the discipline and end goals of running appealed to me — still true — but even when I'm not training for a race, I feel like I've accomplished something after a run. And I think that this "something" is Rubin's idea of the atmosphere of growth.

So now, to answer the question no one but myself has ever asked me, I would say that the activity I prefer depends on the need I want met.

Do I want a challenge and a solid endorphin buzz at the end when it's below 70 degrees and/or I have 30 minutes to play? Running it is.

Do I want more time outside, more ability to relax and enjoy the experience and even keep a conversation going, and/or to get somewhere without driving, when it's warmer? Time to ride.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Good news: I still like running

Last week, I actually ran more than I rode, which likely contributed to the escalation of my RAGBRAI fears.

However, though it might not have been helpful for my training, it was a great boon to my attitude.

On Mother's Day, I did a slow, untimed, leisurely 3.35-miler around my parents' neighborhood (my mom was playing outside too, OK?); the next day, I did 3.75 slow, untimed, leisurely miles around our neighbors' prairie path; and a few days after my return to Des Moines, I did three humid evening miles.

At the end of that first run, I was just glad to be moving, not sitting in a car, and to be seeing the sights of home. (As much as I love Des Moines, northern Illinois is home.)

At the end of the second, I was glad to spend time out in the country — spotting outdoor cats, smelling pine trees, listening to the wind and birds in the trees and dodging piles of unknown animal poop.

And at the end of the third, I was just glad to be running. Even the soupiness of the warm, humid air, and the intense sweat it inspired, felt glorious. Before the side cramp hit me around mile 2.5, I even caught myself feeling a little bummed that I "had" to bike for a few months.

So I guess it's official: The aimless runs, the bike rides and the "Just Dance!" have wiped out the angry memories of struggling and feeling let down from the Hy-Vee Half Marathon. I can say again, to everyone's confusion (including my younger self's), that I enjoy running.

Yep, it's still a challenge, but right now, with the finite period of being goal-free, it's a no-stakes challenge that ends with a good endorphin buzz.

Once Iowa heats up with a vengeance and I have the inevitable miserable run, and/or once I return to training for a half marathon, I'll look back at this post and laugh bitterly.

But for now, I'll activate MapMyRun once or twice a week — out of curiosity only, not for pride — and feel free to stop and walk it off, shame-free.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Sunburn update

A nerve-racking week-plus without riding made me determined to build two solid rides into my "weekend" (Sunday and Monday, my two days off from work).

I did 30 out-and-back miles Sunday morning, starting on the Clive Greenbelt trail and turning around at the SW Fifth Street pedestrian bridge. All conditions — temperature, wind, elevation, restedness — were optimal; until one final uphill struggle, I was averaging 15 mph.

A chunk of this ride followed the Hy-Vee Half Marathon route, but I am happy to report that I was actually in a state of mind to appreciate the trails rather than wonder angrily why I was even doing this.

Sunburn acquired: a set of parentheses on my shoulder blades, facing like this ) ( . It's the spot where a racerback tank top exposes skin, but where straining sunscreen-covered hands can only swipe awkwardly.

On Monday afternoon, I squeezed in 40 miles, taking the Greenbelt trail to the Raccoon River Valley one. I absolutely loved how quiet, new and rural the stretch from the Waukee parking lot to Minburn was; I was less enchanted with the wind that day.

Still, because it was an out-and-back, what the wind took from me at points, it also gave back. Legs that were tired from the previous day's effort and the current day's 20 mph winds managed to average a 14 mph pace.

Sunburn acquired: several irregular splotches on my legs. This one is deeper than the parentheses, probably because it was on skin that rarely receives direct sunlight ... let alone for three hours. I'll just share photos, for your amusement/commiseration.

I have shorts on, though you can't see them. What you CAN see, however, is the outline of a Band-Aid around a cut I received Sunday night. Evidently I protected not just the wound itself but also the inch or so of skin surrounding it. 
Evidence of the shorts ... and the sunshine hitting my parallel-to-the-ground thighs directly. 
How did this happen? I wore running shorts instead of the knee-length shorts that keep my skin from rubbing awkwardly against the seat and, apparently, from being roasted in the sun.

I never want to be sunburned, let me make this clear, but I'm taking a very optimistic outlook on these burns. Better to find all the weirdly sensitive spots now so I can slather them in sunblock during RAGBRAI.

Friday, May 17, 2013

The evolution of my RAGBRAI fears

When I made my RAGBRAI announcement, I mentioned how many fears were swirling around my head.

Now that I've been biking for a couple of weeks, I wish I could say I'd put them to rest. However, it turns out that training simply changes the topic of my worries.

First, before I even signed up, there were the logistics questions, namely where I'd be staying and how I'd get back.

The former was put at ease by the friends who have a guaranteed hotel room — and therefore room on the floor — for me; the latter, somewhat eased (though not settled) by the same friends' breezy assurances that whoever's taking them home can take me, too.

Then came the fitness fears. I read the training suggestions on the RAGBRAI website and did the math on how far short I would fall. Hastily, I canceled one of my running days each week — I was still preparing for the half marathon then — and in response, Iowa canceled its springlike weather.

So once the race and my rest week were both over, I hit the bike with a vengeance. One Sunday, I did 52 miles with only water to sustain me; the following day, I logged 30 miles and did more than "just survive"; and a few days later, I went for what I found myself calling "only a 20-miler."

It was then that I realized my legs and seat region will be just fine for four consecutive days of riding. But you know what might not be? My skin.

I attributed my first sunburn to the foolishness of allowing a winter-pale Midwesterner to sit on El Bait Shop's patio for half an hour midride.

The next sunburn I got from biking — not my next sunburn, period, but the next bike-related one — was a bit of a puzzle. Sure, I'd been outside for hours with no sunscreen, but I was tilted forward on an overcast day ... must've been windburn, right?

Then came the "tramp stamp" sunburn, at which point I began panicking about how to ward off blistering during four whole days in the late July sun.

Sure, my skin will have had time to adjust by then, but I'll still need sunscreen ... and I'll still need to reapply throughout the day ... and I'll still need to figure out where to store it in a place where it won't melt.

I might just have to be the equivalent of the kid whose mom makes him/her wear a T-shirt to the pool over his/her swimsuits (yes, that was me) — maybe I'll just wear a burqa.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

The Woofin' It 5K told through pictures

Last weekend, I did the Woofin' It 5K charity race to benefit the Clive Jaycees and, much more importantly, Furry Friends Refuge.

A friend/fellow athlete, upon hearing of my race plans amid post-half marathon laziness, said jokingly: "Better get out there and run, otherwise you're gonna be out-of-shape for this race!"

I laughed dismissively. "I'll be fine. It's a race with dogs. It's not serious."

A few days later, on a beautiful Saturday morning, I may have ate those words.

The ultimate costume contest winners: Thing 1 and Thing 2. I've never had such a pleasant prerace wait — so many dogs of so many breeds/mutt mixes, and in so many pieces of clothing!
Most dogs, like this tropically dressed one, were eager to meet and greet their competitors. Many butts were sniffed; many howls and barks were emitted; many humans were jerked in random directions and tangled up by leashes.
When my friend/fellow racer Cory and I approached the shelter director to ask for our dogs, she told us only one was left. This is Sam, a 3-year-old coonhound mix. "Are you real runners?" the director asked us. "Because Sam really likes to run." I was too full of pride at being able to answer yes that I didn't think too hard about what her question meant.
It took all of a mile for me to be grateful that I was sharing Sam with Cory. The first mile was uphill, and Sam's legs were apparently far fresher than mine. Also not helping my performance: how much I kept laughing in between shouts of "Sam, heel!" while keeping a two-handed death grip on his leash.
Sam did a great job. He made the classic rookie mistake of going out too fast, but he took advantage of the water stops and ignored my suggestion that we take a few walk breaks — for his sake, of course, not mine.
This was the toughest 5K I've done in Des Moines — my shoulders and back ached for 24-plus hours afterward — but it was hands-down the most fun 5K I've done, too. Consider me registered (mentally) for the 2014 edition!

Friday, May 10, 2013

Friday facetiousness: Is it all in the name?

Stretching before working out, apparently, is the worst thing in the world, according to every fitness blog I follow.

Stretching afterward is acceptable but supposedly doesn't help all that much (I disagree, and I don't care whether that's a placebo effect).

Yet it occurred to me as I did my post-work yoga routine the night before my race that none of these no-cold-stretching articles mention yoga.

I know they're called "postures" and not "stretches," yet in descriptions, it's acknowledged that the moves will stretch out certain muscles.

I like yoga, so I'm not trying to get it on the fitness experts' naughty lists ... but I don't understand the science behind stretching = bad and yoga = good. What's the difference? Is this a pink slime versus lean finely textured beef situation?

Thursday, May 9, 2013

I returned to running and survived

I finally went on my first post-race run, and it exceeded my expectations.

Yes, those expectations were set awfully low: I steeled myself to expect buckets of sweat; burning muscles and possibly skin; wheezing; and anger at how fast my fitness had faded.

Upper 60s and sunshine still felt warm to hot, depending on whether I was near trees or in a breeze, but it sure wasn't the misery of our random 80-degree April day — the sweat situation was still closer to a glowing mist than a raging river.

It took me 1.68 miles to cave to the temptation of walking it off, and I did work in a few more walk breaks during the rest of the 3.5-miler. That was OK, though; these breaks were far different than the frustrated stops I made during the half marathon.

The weirdest part was how slow I felt, not just because I was deliberately not pushing myself, but more so because of all the biking I did Sunday and Monday. I've gotten used to covering more ground in less time, apparently.

Don't get me wrong, I was happy to finish. My phone-carrying shoulder, after its week-and-a-half reprieve, became a little crabby with me, and I was more than ready to gulp down some water and take a shower.

I think running once in a while during RAGBRAI training can and will happen, however. Maybe just once a week, and almost definitely in the cooler evening hours (before any half marathon training begins again and forces me to demand more of myself, i.e., not to dodge all sunshine and all warmth).

Running just for fun, not for a purpose — now that will feel strange.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

When a runner becomes a rider

Once upon a time — 2007 and 2008 — the only exercise I got was through biking. (Before that ... well, let's not go there.)

Obviously, that changed. Here I am in May 2013, having spent basically all of my workout energy from fall 2011 through last month running — then suddenly flipping the switch to biking.

Two consecutive days of longer rides does not constitute a complete lifestyle change, but there are definitely some differences in post-ride life from post-run life.

* First of all, I'm hungry right away and not nearly as thirsty. It makes more sense intuitively, though it is less convenient — instead of happily taking time to stretch, change clothes, use the bathroom, pester the cat, etc., I just want to bury my head in the fridge.

* Much more helpful is how not sore and achy I've felt. My legs and back did complain a little bit during rides, yet when the foam roller came out, almost nothing felt knotty.

Let me repeat that: Almost nothing felt knotty. It's the only time so far I've rolled my IT band without grimacing, or wondered how to pile more weight onto the backs of my thighs to really work my quads.

OK, my glutes were still tender, and my calves did have a tight spot or two ... and the inner thigh exercise was finally worth the incredibly awkward and unnatural positioning. Otherwise, I would probably be able to put the foam roller on the high shelf of the closet and forget it was there until fall.

* Sometimes it can be hard to find a comfortable position besides reclining after a run. After a ride, everything except sitting on the bike seat seems perfectly cushy and cozy. Climbing back on the day after a 50-miler, on the other hand ...

* And finally, there are the odd sunburn spots. That's not to say I don't burn, or burn in weird places, while running — I do. (Except when real winter arrives in Iowa.) They're just different than the weird places I've already burnt myself while riding.

Before Monday, back when it was cooler and required more clothing, I'd only burned my face/neck around my helmet and sunglasses. It looked super-hip.

Far more awesome, though, is the "tramp stamp" sunburn I got from a shirt that slid up as I leaned over for, oh, two-plus hours. It goes about two-thirds of the way across my waist and is just about a centimeter high, but wow is that skin pink against the ghostly white of the rest of me.

Distant runners-up to the tramp stamp are the two splotches on the insides of my wrists, right where I rotate my arms about 45 degrees to hold on to the handlebars. Like a watch tan line, except only an inch wide.

So, if the first two real days of RAGBRAI training are any indication, I shouldn't worry about the eating/drinking while riding, or the demands it'll make on my muscles — only whether I can dip myself in a vat of sunscreen at each and every stop.

Monday, May 6, 2013

The flesh is weak(er) this time

I've mentioned before, here or at Get Running or both, how I get anxious about taking a break from running: Will the sweetness of laziness lure me away from the delayed rewards of running?

And if you haven't already read between the lines of most of my posts, I (like many runners) have more physical strength than mental strength.

Those trends came together last Tuesday night.

If it was mildly unfair of Mother Nature to throw a warm, sunny day at me on race day, it was equally, if not more, inconsiderate to have the two nicest days of the year immediately follow a half marathon.

I wanted to be outside playing, like the rest of Des Moines; last Monday, in a concession to the beautiful weather and the importance of recovery, I took a somewhat stiff but pleasant stroll around my neighborhood.

On Tuesday, I plowed through a Dutch letter at work and Orange Leaf after work. Emboldened by the still-warm air (it was 9 p.m.!) and jazzed up by all that sugar, I threw on the running gear.

Two and a half days after running 13.1 miles, I decided to set several limits: I'd go slow. I'd walk whenever. I'd go no farther than three miles.

Well, as it turns out, my quads let me go about three breathing cycles. Running just wasn't going to happen.

But still, I was beyond thrilled that, for once, "rest" didn't mean "alternately worry that you'll forget liking to run and hope that you will forget." And though it was only for about a minute, during my tight-quadded-stalk from the apartment up to the sidewalk, I was ready to stop whining about how harrrrrrdddddd running is and just do it.

These aren't issues I generally have while biking, so I might not have much of a chance to work through them until August — if I'm going to do the IMT Des Moines Half Marathon, training starts pretty quickly after RAGBRAI ... meaning there will be hot-weather running.

What better time to test and/or prove my mettle than the dog days?

Thursday, May 2, 2013

An encore race for the spring season

You might — justifiably — think that my running season was pretty much over until after August.

Particularly if you were at Sunday's post-race brunch, where runners talked about how we were maybe going to run twice a week to keep a base, but mostly focus on RAGBRAI preparation.

So you would be surprised, and rightfully so, if you'd seen me Monday, 24 hours removed from a half marathon, registering for a race in two weeks.

Here's the kicker: It's a 5K fun run, and it benefits my favorite animal shelter, Furry Friends Refuge in West Des Moines, which is where I adopted the cat who's become my beloved sidekick.
Dusty likes to help me with various daily tasks, such as reading the newspaper and eating breakfast.
The Woofin' It 5K on May 11 invites runners to bring their dogs, as you probably guessed from the name, and Furry Friends will bring some of its adoptable dogs to the race to "lend" to runners without dogs ... like me!

I've never run with a dog before, so this could end with a skinned knee or strained shoulder joint, but for sheer entertainment value, I'm not sure I could think of a better fun run to do.

My interest in the race was piqued before my half-marathon dud, and after that slightly sour note, I'm thinking a silly 5K would be a more pleasant way to close out the spring running season.

Plus, did I mention that it helps a fantastic cause? Furry Friends is a no-kill shelter, has some terrifically committed volunteers and employees, and does a great job preparing long-term residents for their forever homes.

Dusty, my rescue cat, had been there for a year and a half, yet he was so unfazed when I brought him home — I truly think it's because Furry Friends keeps the majority of its cats in dorm-sized rooms rather than cages, as well as exposing them to human interaction.

I don't know how many readers I have from the Des Moines area, so my recruitment efforts might be for naught, but anyone from the Des Moines area not allergic to dogs and moderate outdoor exercise: Consider spending a mere $25 to help local animals!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Mostly wordless Wednesday: Always wear sunscreen

I present to you my arm, photographed Monday.

Yes, that is a litterbox in the background.
The various colors you see are not shadows — they are different epochs of sun damage.

At the very top is what's covered by my exercise T-shirts; it spent most of last summer hidden because that meant less skin to slather in sunscreen.

In the middle is last year's farmer's tan, hanging on determinedly despite living in the Midwest.

And at the bottom is what happens when you do a half marathon in sunshine, then refuel at a shade-free picnic table. (That part is slightly exaggerated by shadow, but in real life you can definitely see it without straining your eyes.)

I should have put sunscreen on before the race, or before brunch, but I always forget that my arms can — and will— burn, too.

Now I have Neapolitan ice cream arms. Feel free to laugh when you next see me in a tank top; the "chocolate" portion will go away, but I think the vanilla and strawberry contrast is there to stay for a while.

I hope this cheers people up on what was forecast to be an overcast, rainy and chilly day.