Friday, May 31, 2013

Running Like a Swimmer

For the last couple of months, I've been struggling with swimming. The problem is simple: breath. I swim too fast, get to the wall, and need to stop to breath and recover. It's like I'm running 400s. With swimming, there is no "take it easy, slow down, chill out pace". No equivalent of jogging between the 400s. I can't continue in freestyle and gasp for air on an as-needed basis.

A few weeks before the triathlon, it occurred to me to try to control my breathing while running. I imagined that if I inhaled over 1-2 strides and exhaled over 3-4, it might mimic exhaling in the water while taking three strokes, inhaling over one.

Oddly enough, Running on Air appeared in Runner's World at about the same time. The idea proposed in the article is that runners will be more efficient, less injury-prone, and maybe even more mindful, if they control their breathing following very specific rules.

I played with rhythmic breathing, but it felt awkward. Forced. Downright hard.

Then I read another article which said to "Run like a swimmer." I immediately thought, "I can't even swim like a swimmer. How can I run like one?" And that's when it hit me. That's the problem. Photo: Barefoot running!

For the past year, I have been building my fitness around running. But running forgives a lazy  breathing that swimming will not allow. If you get winded while running, you can simply fall into a pattern of pant, pant, pant, and push on.

Interestingly, yoga will also not tolerate this lazy breath. I will never forget when my dear friend and yogi, Senta, said "Yoga is not about stretching. It is about breath."

Breathing is the challenge and the brilliance and the heart of yoga. And swimming. And I'm coming to believe it should be at the heart of running as well.

If I train with more controlled, mindful breath will I fuel my run, my heart and skeletal muscles, more efficiently? Will I build speed? Or better yet, endurance?
On my last run - a hilly, humid 3 miles - I practiced rhythmic breathing for the final 1/2 mile.  Okay. I'll admit it was a gradual downhill. Nonetheless, this portion of the run was wonderful. I didn't achieve a true runner's high, but my focus was so narrow - inhale, e-x-h-a-l-e, inhale, e-x-h-a-l-e - that everything else was secondary. I moved almost instantly into my right brain, leaving logic and analysis behind. My feet were extensions of my diaphragm and lungs, blurring against the hot pavement.

I don't know if this was a one-time thing, but I plan to continue this method as I train for my second triathlon. My hope is that rhythmic breathing will build my fitness for the swim in a way that running alone has not.

What do you think? Do you run like a swimmer? Or swim like a runner?

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Pre-race Rituals

I don't know which I like more: racing or the feeling of race morning. 

My alarm is set for 5:30. The coffee maker for 5.

Dinner is plain chicken, spaghetti sauce, and whole wheat angel hair noodles. Pasta might be a cliche, but it works for me and you don't change what works.

As soon as the kids are in bed, I set out all of my gear, and check and double check it.

Two swim caps, goggles, two small towels, helmet with race numbers, jacket (just in case), Tri shorts and shirt, socks (rolled to go on fast), sports bra, shoes, race belt with number attached, knee strap, and compression socks for post-race.

What am I forgetting? Ah, GU and some shot bloks. Toss those in the bag. 

Then I set up the coffee maker and put my two water bottles in front of the coffee pot. This keeps me from forgetting cold water and gatorade in the morning.

I even put two pony tail holders on the bathroom counter. Then, most important of all, I paint my nails purple.

Purple nails started with Team in Training. Go Team! Our male coaches and several of the men on our team painted their nails purple for the Disney marathon. Since then, I think I've had purple nails every race day. 

It's getting late and I'm getting tired, but I'm packed and ready to go. Even though it's raining, the weather is looking fine. No thunderstorms! I'll bike through a monsoon, as long as the race doesn't get called.

Last but not least, it's time for a snack and some stupid TV. I sip gatorade and eat a little buttered wheat toast - simple but tasty.

Now I'm crashing. Don't know if I'll be able to sleep tonight, but I'm feeling pretty stoked.

Yeh. I said stoked.

Thursday, May 16, 2013


Tonight, struggling with insomnia, I stumbled upon an article that really hit home. 

There was a time when my husband was the world's most amazing stay-at-home dad and I was mediocre, full-time working mom. He was so good as a stay-at-home. Other moms always told me how lucky I was. There are even pictures to prove how happy everyone was:

Then things changed. My husband went back to work, and I was home Monday through Friday. For the first six months, he worked 2 and 1/4 hours away and commuted home on the weekend.

"Honey!" I whispered nervously. It was a Friday night, and he had just arrived from his rush-hour commute. The kids were scurrying about, and I was following him around with a glass of wine. "Honey! I have to tell you something. Sometimes I yell at the kids!"

I stepped back, waiting for his shock. Maybe he would quit his job, right there on the spot, and insist I return to work. It wasn't what I wanted, but surely the right thing for the kids. After all he was clearly the superior parent. More patient. More hands-on.

He continued setting the table. 

"Honey! Did you hear me?"

He turned, raised his eyebrows, "Yeh? And?"

"I mean, I get really angry. And yell sometimes. Loud."

He grins, "Yeh. Me too. You just never saw it."

Surely he was saying this to make me feel better. I would arrive home from work, and everyone always seemed so happy. The kids might be having a dance party, my husband's nails painted green, clips adorning his short auburn hair. 

Maybe they'd be in the back yard, playing chase, dad right there in the middle of the fun. Enjoying the moment.

Even in the hospital, he had been extraordinary.

We were one year post-cancer, clinging to the joy that my daughter was alive. We were also carrying the knowledge that she could relapse at any moment. That we still might lose her. So why couldn't I enjoy what we had? Why were there so many times when I was unable to stop myself from feeling anger. frustration. annoyance.

Why are you whining? 

Do I really have to pretend to be Princess Aurora, again?

Just follow directions!

It must be me. I'm a horrible mother. I'm not cut out for this!

Then, in the last two years, things changed again. It wasn't overnight, but it was noticeable. I found myself feeling less angry. Less exhausted. I felt more balanced.

I no longer felt both guilty for doing dishes instead of playing with the kids and guilty for the fact that the kitchen was full of dirty dishes. I could say "No, I don't want to pretend to be Ron Weasley right now." without fearing my kids were going to end up in therapy with rejection issues. And I could at least forgive myself for ordering pizza instead of serving salmon with an avocado-lime drizzle over a bed of quinoa and spring greens.

I've also gotten to a point where it is okay for me to run. Or to make a long day at work even longer by grabbing a quick swim before coming home. And I don't berate myself for it.

For the past year or so I've been celebrating the fact that I no longer feel exhausted all of the time. I still get angry, lose my temper, fear that I'm falling very, very short as a parent. But all in all, things are better than they were.

And let me be clear when I say things aren't better because suddenly I'm an amazing mom. Or because I'm running. Or because I'm working part-time and get a break. Life is easier because something magical happened. The kids got older. It's that simple.

They are still loud, red-headed, and full of energy. They are still emotional and prone to drama. But six and eight beats two and four any day.

Parents of young children: It does get easier. I promise! Until then, remember you are doing a great job and your kids are going to be fine:

Taken with permission from

Just Tri (Three Days to Go!)

A year ago I was just beginning to run. I couldn't make it a mile without stopping to walk. Prior to this I had been sedentary. That's a word I hate. Sedentary. It's the kind of word your doctor writes in your medical record and it sounds technical, but really just translates to Lazy. Couch Potato. Slacker.


So I got off the couch and started running. In fact, I started running hills. Not because I was tough as nails and up for a challenge. Simply because they were there. Our neighborhood is hilly. Very hilly. And it was easier to roll off the couch (that sounds pretty, doesn't it?), lace up the shoes, and push up the hills.

Wow. So much can change in a year.

In three short days, I will attempt my first triathlon. People keep telling me the bike course is hilly. And it is. But it isn't bad compared to where I've been training. For me, the swim will be the hill. The mountain to conquer. I am not a swimmer. And in stark contrast to the races I've run, I have not trained long enough to be confident in the swim.

Wish I were as confident in the water as my kiddo!

The thing is, this is a pool swim, and only 225 meters, at that. This is a mini-sprint. A women's only mini-sprint triathlon designed for first-timers like myself. And folks keep saying, "It's only 225!" Which, in my opinion, is like saying, "It's only a 5K." You may know that I hate a 5K but love a half marathon. There is no such thing as "only 3 miles" in my book. With swimming, I feel this even more strongly.

So those mere 225 meters will be my Mountbatten - a massive hill where I run. And when I finish my 7 +/- minutes in the water, it will be all downhill.

I keep telling myself, "7 minutes. Just get through those 7 minutes."

I've also learned in this past year that when nerves set in, it is best to have a goal and a plan. The goal should be attainable and the plan should be reasonable. So here goes:

My goal is to finish in under 1:20. There. You know it. Now I'm accountable.

My plan is a little more involved:
  • First, I'll break the swim into three parts. Three 75s. Once I'm past the first two, it will feel doable. Just like getting past mile 10 in a half. 
  • T1 (Transition one) is all about organization. Dry feet, roll on socks, yanks for shoes, (yep, I'm biking in running shoes 'cause I'm a Runner!), helmet, GO! 
  • Then the ride. GO GO GO. The first part of the course is downhill. Build speed. Then PUSH PUSH PUSH. There isn't a hill on this course that is longer than a 100-count. Oh, yeah. I count when I ride, just like I do when I run. Weird, I know, but it helps with pace and the voices in your head telling you this is too hard, you can't do it. There is nothing you can't do for a 100-count. 
  • T2 is all about simplicity. I'm already in the running shoes. Get the helmet off, the Tri belt / race bib on, grab some water, and go. 
  • Then, the run. A mere 2 miles. I've trained to run on tired, hurting legs. Here is where the counting becomes really important. The first 500-count post-bike feels really awkward. After that, I should have my running legs back and be able to push the last 1.5 miles as fast as possible. 

That's the plan. It feels good to write it down and share. It helps the nerves a bit. I'll be back Sunday to let you know how it goes!

Right: How I'll feel after the Swim. Left: How I'll feel after the Tri.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

The Meaning of a Birthday

When your child is diagnosed with cancer, the future becomes a scary prospect. Look too far ahead, and you may find yourself wondering if your child will be alive. To survive, to avoid panic, you break time into small increments, day-by-day goals.

If we can just make it to Halloween. to Valentine's. to the next birthday.

I stopped thinking about things like driver's licenses, visiting colleges, marriage, children of her own. I even stopped thinking about those things for my son, because I didn't want to think but will his sister be here to see it?

Celebrating her fourth birthday with Minnie on our Make-a-Wish trip!
But children are eternal optimists. Bald, puking, sitting in the "hofpital" bed, she would say,  "Mommy, when I grow up I going to be a stay-at-home mom." or "Mommy, when I turn 7, Michael going to be 5."
She was three at the time, and seven was just about too much to hope for.  I set 6 as the magic number. If she could just make it to six. 

Fifth Birthday - Sharing Time During Preschool
Six would be not-quite 3 years from diagnosis. Three years from diagnosis is an important benchmark for AML because kids with AML usually relapse in the first or second year. Kids who achieve and maintain remission for three years from diagnosis, though, have a very low chance of relapse.

Getting ready for the Fifth Birthday Party at preschool
So I looked forward to four, hoped for five, and prayed and begged for six. But I didn't let myself look past six.

Tomorrow she turns eight. There are no longer restrictions on how far into the future I go. I imagine her babysitting in the neighborhood. Going on first dates. Visiting colleges.

I can also look back, with joy, on the time before cancer. The time when I was just the regular amount of mommy-neurotic. Eight years ago, at this very moment, I was in the hospital, trying my best to avoid pitocin and achieve a completely drug-free childbirth despite the fact that my water had broken and my "time was up" so to speak.

Sixth Birthday - Drawing a birthday cake!
After the cancer diagnosis, for a long time I could only look back and think, "Where did we go wrong?" I would try to guess the exact moment that the mutation arose in her monocyte-precursor cells. AML is thought to occur as a result of two mutations. The first mutation may even occur in utero. Was it something I ate? An organic solvent I was exposed to in vet school?

Or did that mutation occur in infancy. Something in our neighborhood? After all, our dear friend and two-doors-down neighbor in Madison was diagnosed with breast cancer at a very early age. Maybe something in the water?

And that second mutation. Had to be after we left Madison. In that town where it seemed like too many other kids were being diagnosed with AML. What if we hadn't moved there? What if we had taken my mom's advice and moved to Raleigh? Or Asheville? Or stayed in Madison?

But now, almost five years post-diagnosis, I can look back at those pre-cancer years and see them for what they were. Three beautiful, exhausting, emotional years. Three years where two parents were doing their absolute best to raise two healthy children. Two parents who were a little too obsessed with being perfect parents. Two parents who wanted to do everything right and on our own and turned down help and scolded grandparents for not being quite perfect enough.

Sixth Birthday Party in the Park
I can also look back and say whatever caused those mutations, whenever they happened, they were building blocks for this life we are living. I am not glad my daughter had cancer. I will never say, "It didn't kill her so it has made us stronger." But we have managed to create quite a life for ourselves in this post-cancer reality.

I can look back at May 11, 2005 at 8:04 am. I can picture my 8 pound 4 oz, fuzzy red-headed, chubby cheeked bundle of perfection and smile. And not wonder, "Was cancer in her body? Were we already heading down that path?"
Seventh Birthday - she's wearing the same dress as her sixth birthday!

Tomorrow we will celebrate with pancakes and birthday presents in the morning. We will make tacos and swim in the afternoon. On Sunday, Mother's Day, she and I will run a one-miler fun run, which I'll follow with a moms-only 5K.

We are creating an amazing life, and cancer just happens to be part of the back drop.


Monday, May 6, 2013

Counting Down

My first Triathlon is in 13 days. It seems finishing a marathon gave me a little too much confidence. "I can run a marathon! I can do a Tri!"

Um, really?

Some how I managed to forget that I spent 4 1/2 months training for a marathon, after I'd already been running for 4 months on my own. I also managed to forget that that level of training was considered the bare minimum, and most marathon trainers seem to recommend running for at least a year before starting to train for the marathon.

So why did I then think I could magically conquer swimming in 8 weeks? Yeh. Did I forget to mention that I signed up about 8 weeks before the Tri? And then didn't manage to really get in good swims until 2 weeks after that thanks to training for a Half?

So I'm throwing out a lot of excuses here. And every time I get out of the water and think, "I just can't swim! I'm just not a swimmer." I hear all those voices saying, "I can't run because of my knees." Or "I only run if someone's chasing me." And I realize, "You're that guy! But with swimming."

I do not like swimming. Even the mere 225 yds. Yep. 9 short lengths of the pool. And if only I can make it through that to my bike, it will all be okay. Right?