Tri Like a Girl

This week NPR covered Katherine Switzer, the first woman to compete in a marathon. In 1967– the same year I was born–Switzer entered the Boston Marathon and completed it in 4 hours 20 mins. A race organizer tried to run her off the road, claiming that she was not welcome, yelling at her to “get the hell out of his race.” Her boyfriend blocked him and she was able to finish without interruption. “I’m going to finish this race on my hands and knees if I have to, because nobody believes that I can do this,” she reportedly commented as she ran in a light snow.

Four decades later, it is hardly conceivable that a woman wouldn’t be given equal chances to compete.  Although women compete in different categories then men, most men I know have told me that they’ve been passed many times by women in races on foot or bike. Fortunately, my male friends admire the women that do this and are not upset by what’s called in racing slang “being chicked.” Women (with more or less help from their partners) endure monthly pain, nine months of pregnancy Hell, diapers, juggling careers and motherhood; why wouldn’t we rock at endurance sports?

One of the nifty things about being in triathlons is that you have your age marked up on your legs and arms. I found myself neck and neck with a 25 yr. old cyclist and we exchanged some pleasantries and jokingly commented while passing each on hills. While running, I heard a little voice behind me saying, “I’m staying right behind you because you are keeping such a good pace and I feel like quitting about now.” After I choked on my spit laughing (I am NOT fast, and at that point pushing a 10 min pace with my bum ankle was a miracle), I turned and engaged her in conversation, noting that she was only 20 years old. That was a great boost to my psyche at that point (I ended up getting my PR for a 5k that day even though it was my first triathlon!), but I realized, “WE ARE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER.” Triathletes are full of respect and solidarity. That’s why I like doing  triathlons.

However, if you leaf through a cycling magazine or a triathlon magazine, information for women is often marginal. I recently purchased a new bike and had a lot of trouble deciding whether to buy a “women” specific road bike or a unisex one. Since I am really not into pink or “girlie” colors, I was more interested in whether my physiology requires something different. It turns out that women’s bike are a little shorter in reach from seat to handlebars, but I opted for a unisex bike since I feel like I am pretty proportional and I could get more bang for my buck. I had a terrible time choosing what to wear my first triathlon as  all my friends who had done them were male and just said, “Just run and bike in your swimsuit!”  My body image wasn’t quite ready for that step, and although I could see that it would be really uncomfortable to ride in soggy bike shorts, I wanted a little padding. I finally opted for tri shorts, which dry really quickly and have very light padding. That was a great option, but I didn’t do so well on my choice of top that stuck to my wet skin when I tried to pull it on over my Tyr bikini top.

At my first tri, I made a chance encounter with an old friend from high school. Alisa was with a bunch of people wearing impressive flames on their uniforms; the HEAT club (Hawkeye Endurance Athletics Team). Her husband did an Ironman last year, and she was doing the run leg on a team as he had injured his IT band. She urged me to join the team. At first I was completely intimidated, but I realized how little information I had about triathlon training, and how well I work when I have friends to exercise with. Although I am still blown away at meetings when I hear how many hours the top people on the team are training (between 500-700 a month), I am inspired and really happy to say that the top three women are rivaling and even surpassing the men. I was even doing okay myself on the leader board before my ankle surgery, and I’m excited for the next challenge as I progress in my recovery. I’ve gotten so much help from Heat; they organize fun clinics on bike repair, swim technique, and other helpful topics. I don’t think I’ll be a major contributor to team medals until I get some more training and experience, but I am really glad to have their support. I recently suggested having a girl’s night to discuss things we might not want to talk about around guys, including chafing in spots you can’t even imagine, women’s gear and safety issues. I got an enthusiastic response and we are going to have our first women’s meeting next month.

Many people in HEAT would qualify as athletes in my book. None are professional or sponsored, but some have Masters records in swimming or were prize-winning high school and college athletes. Although I tend to think of athletes being like the folks on Wheaties boxes or pushing us to buy clothes at Kohl’s, a nurse at one of my pre-op visits described me  as an athlete while conferring with the staff doctor. After I concluded she wasn’t talking about someone else, I almost guffawed. Then  I realized I was wearing a t-shirt that said, “I tri like a girl” that my friend Dean gave me to celebrate my first tri, and that I really didn’t look very out of shape.  There has been a shift in my mentality as I work out. I no longer exercise to lose weight. I train to get stronger, faster and better. Maybe that’s what being an athlete is about; being proud to tri like a girl, not being faster or the best.

Speaking of strong women, just a little shout out here to help out my friend Sue, who lost her mother last fall after a long battle with cancer. Hospice lightened her load, and she is raising money for the UI Hospice by running a half-marathon in May. You can help support this wonderful woman by going to this link and giving as little as $5 or more.


I get by with a little help from my friends…

Don’t worry. I’m not referring to steroids.  I’ve gotten a glimpse of how tempting those might be when your legs give out or you’re coughing up a lung , but I don’t want to end up with a heart attack at age 50 and hair growing out of my chest.

I mean real friends. You know, the kind that make sure that you make it to a workout when you are feeling about as sluggish as I am this morning. When that little voice in the back of your head is saying, “I could just stay home and get some more laundry done, or lie down on the couch and read a little.”

I’ve already mentioned my running buddy, Katie. We really kept each other going and still do. We’ve hit many milestones together, like running an entire 5k and not walking any of it. She was there when I cried after my first 10k because I had tried to do it in new shoes that didn’t really work out. I had stopped in the middle and thought about running barefoot, tried walking part of it, and decided that the faster I got through the pain the better. So I jogged.  I had told Katie to go ahead since I was to pick up my son from church choir. Did I think about quitting? No. Just knowing they were there waiting and that I had made a goal kept me going. The amazing “Running Wild” store took my shoes back and helped me into some better ones.

The next 10k was much better. When I ran my first 10k race in Iowa City,  Katie ran 10k at the same time in Texas where she was doing a residency so that she could feel my pain and call and congratulate me at the end.  She was one of the first I told that I had finally done a little running on Friday after months of rehab from ankle surgery. This was an important milestone for me and one I had to do alone because I am forcing myself to go really slowly (5 mins walking, 1 min jogx5) until I feel no pain. I’m feeling very encouraged, but am going to take it easy this week and stick to that phase of my running recovery plan.

When I started biking I felt lost. Fortunately, I have a few friends that are into biking more than other. Last summer I did some biking with my friend Bill on the Cedar Valley Trail and he busted enough tires on potholes for me to realize that it’s better to be two than one so that one person can bike back to get the car if you don’t have  a patch kit with you. One time we had biked out about 18 miles and were on our way back when that happened. Since I had  to be at work in an hour, I jogged the trail with his bike while he rode mine back to get the car; a wonderful opportunity for me to do a brick workout in 90 degree Iowa heat! I’m not being sarcastic in saying that I appreciated him blowing a tire that day; it created another chance for me to see how far I could push myself and taught me to laugh in the face of trying circumstances.

A few years ago I reconnected with an old friend, Matt, who I knew in grade school. He’s the kind of guy who doesn’t do it for the lycra; he bikes to work in Iowa winters, does his own repairs and has raced with Iowa City’s top team. He’s not pretentious, and gave me lots of advice about getting my own bike. Recently he’s been showing me routes around the Iowa countryside. Many of these are in Amish country, often places I drove to in high school for entertainment with friends and to get away from our parents. Last weekend I did a 35 mile loop with Matt and Tony that headed through Frytown and Hills. Although Hills itself is relatively flat, the loop took us over some lolling hills and quiet Amish farms greeted us with signs like, “God’s grace should be sufficient.” I think I may have muttered that God’s grace didn’t quite get me up that last hill, but Matt did remark that it is nice to have encouraging, inspirational messages along the way, and he is right. I need all the help I can get.

There’s one last leg of the triathlon, although it’s always the first in a race: swimming. It would seem logical that it would be better to wet at the end, when you are all sweaty from running and biking, but race organizers are smarter than that. They don’t want tired triathletes sinking to the bottom of a lake or ocean. I always thought I was an okay swimmer, but when I got back in the pool and really tried swimming laps two years ago, it was not pretty. I suffer from asthma and although I sound like Darth Vader running and biking at times, swimming is a real trial when you can’t breathe. I literally had to stop every lap. I coaxed myself into doing more, remembering my Oberlin days when swimming relaxed me and helped soothe strained shoulder and back muscles sore from hours of cello-playing.

The pool is my “think-tank,” and ultimately, my friend. You are alone in the water; isolated from others and in a deep silence that I find calming in my busy, music-filled life. I worked on my dissertation in the water, mulling over ways to reword or reorganize thoughts. I’ve thought about current people I am dating and how to communicate my needs better. Unlike the moments when I wake up in the middle of the night with insomnia, often anxious about how to solve problems, the pool is always productive. Even if I haven’t solved an issue when I climb out, I feel more ready to face it. Sometimes, I just focus on my stroke or my breathing. I’ve tried swimming with my eyes closed to emulate triathlon conditions in murky water where you really can’t see a thing except the foot in front of you. I haven’t hit the side of the pool yet, and swimming blindly is a great way to see if you are swimming straight. I got to the point last year where I could swim for an hour and even longer without stopping, slowly but surely. I took some lessons to refresh my memory about flip-turns, but also to learn to propel myself more effectively (and eventually faster) in the water. This has been very helpful because I can’t see myself swim; I can only trust when it feels right. Dara Torres, a 45 year-old Olympic swimmer, is a huge inspiration. I don’t aspire to be her, or even to compete. I just would like to be the best I can in my own context; a 44 yr. old mother with many part-time jobs.

Today I am meeting my future-Ironman friend Tony for a long swim and then wings at the Vine. It’s important to reward milestones! I try to get a new piece of exercise equipment I’ve been craving (an idea from my brother-in-law/Ironman Jairo!) every time I set a personal record. Recently I got a new suit and realized that my old was was sagging because it is not only a year-old, but a size too big, too. That’s always encouraging!

For the curious in you, here was my workout last week:

Sunday–35 mile bike ride

Monday–Lifted weights and abs, 40 mins, swam with Tony, 45 mins

Tuesday–swim, 30 mins

Wednesday–10 mins elliptical (therapist’s order for pre-run), 30 mins weights


Friday–30 mins bike, 30 mins weights, 30 mins running!

Saturday off

I’m also doing daily stretching and strengthening exercises for my ankle/calf. This schedule will get more strenuous as I begin to run and hopefully do some brick workouts. It becomes naturally easier to do this in the summer when I have less work and the Iowa weather isn’t as manic as it is right now (yesterday 77, today 5os). I can’t wait!

Thank you for reading! And thanks to all my friends!! You know who you are.

Why do it?

Somehow, last year I found myself in a triathlon shortly after my forty-fourth birthday. All my life I have not considered myself athletic, but I had bouts of activity like horse-back riding (dressage) in 6th-8th grade, some running and cycling at Oberlin College, and biking around hilly Marseille when I didn’t have a driving permit. In high school I considered myself kind of marginal. I practiced cello a lot (up to four hours a day), got straight A’s, danced punk in the basement of the Unitarian church, but I never did competitive sports. In college I took bowling for Phys. Ed. credit, and one roommate got me to sign up for swimming at 7 a.m. She dropped, I kept at it. Little did I know my name would become so famous in the swimming world.

So how did I find myself spewing out reservoir water, biking in the rain and running a 5k through the woods at middle age? Good question. I am going to attempt to answer that, or take a stab at it, in this blog.

In music I’ve never considered myself to be highly competitive. I don’t audition well, I over-analyze and think about what I’m playing, and I’ve always thought of myself as musical, but not a good technician. However, I have drive. A drive that comes from deep down; a drive that held me to the practice room  when my father passed away my first semester of college and kept me going through my doctoral program as a single-mom during a heart-wrenching divorce. (My son’s father lives in France. )

I’ve realized that hard work pays off. Confidence comes through training. Perseverance takes courage and  a lot of time, but I found that strength inside me. I was surprised. Shy, sweet, Amy has a tough inner lining! In music it is important to sit back and enjoy the technique you’ve built, and trust it. I can hide behind the cello and become King Solomon (Schelomo), or a Prussian prince (Haydn), or whatever I want. This can help in so many situations in life if you know how to cultivate that confidence.

This still doesn’t explain how I found myself grueling out a sprint tri last Sept. 18 in really awful weather conditions (50 degrees and rain.)

I started running a few years ago with the support of a friend who also wanted to run again. That friend, Katie,  is now about to run her first marathon and has a great blog of her own. Another friend, mentor, and teacher, Tony, also did triathlons and mostly I thought he was nuts in the beginning. That was his thing, as I was plodding away and trying to  increase my run times. He is now about to do his first Ironman and is a great workout buddy, as well as  Katie. Two years ago, I surprised myself by encouraging my friends to sign up as a group for a race, my first ever! I did races with my son, and increased my distances to 10k. That felt incredible. My running buddy spoke of a half-marathon, but I felt stretched and pushed; happy to plateau with that accomplishment. In the back of my mind, I toyed with just what I could accomplish.

Then it hit. Horrible tendonitis due to an old sledding accident with my son Paul. My right ankle became so painful that daily things like mowing the lawn, walking around, or even cooking became painful. I am a wholistic type, so I first tried PT, rest, ice, ibuprofen, even though the surgeon I saw was skeptical that it could work. But I had come to love running. Only runners can embrace the endorphins you get, the happiness at being outside. Plus, my dog had become addicted, as well!

So I began to cross- train: bike and swim. A man I was seeing at the time was an excellent runner and would do multiple workouts. At first I thought he was slightly insane, but I admired him a lot. He encouraged me in my efforts and pushed me in a very positive way. I loved doing long bike rides, borrowing another Katy’s (just call all my friends Kate, Katy or Katherine and you’ll do fine) road bike and even used my mountain bike to explore the Iowa countryside. I felt empowered and really enjoyed biking to the pool, swimming, and then biking home. My stress levels were high as I had recently earned my doctorate, but still didn’t have a full-time job. Many times I felt like “I didn’t have time to exercise, ” but I noticed when I dropped everything and made time, I became much more productive. For years the lovely ladies at student health had encouraged me (“just try walking 10 minutes a day”) on top of my 10 hour a day playing schedule in grad school. I realized I finally had time–I just needed to scoop out some “me” time every day. I realized I could push hard on my own and that dual workouts (called “bricks” in triathlons) were really satisfying.

There were rewards–losing almost 30 pounds. Feeling 10 years younger. Not wheezing when I went upstairs. The feeling when I crossed the finish of my first triathlon was as if I were in someone else’s body–a triathlete!

Today I had my second swim lesson. Part of this whole process is seeing it as that: a process, not an end. I am not competing with anyone else but myself. I took a lesson not because I can’t swim, but because I want to be more efficient in the water. My butt sags a little, I pull to the side instead of straight down. Only a teacher (not websites!) can show you this. As a teacher myself, I also need the reminder that it is really hard to focus on several things at once.  You need to relax and not think about perfection or performing, but just concentrate on change.

That is why I tri: change. I want to keep transforming, challenging and being more than I ever thought I could. I am happier than in years, and I plan to continue challenging myself and growing as a mom, teacher and cellist, as well as an athlete.

More to come on my new goals as I recover from ankle surgery! Thanks for reading.