November 25, 2013

Time for my first post-injury marathon

In six days I will start a marathon, my first marathon in 18 months, my first marathon since an injury stopped my training for more than a year, my first marathon since I ran my fastest in 3:00:29 in May 2012. I am excited. And scared, too.

After 16 marathons, I have great respect for this distance. And a return to training after my first injury-induced layoff in 18 years of running has only served to increase that reverence.

Forty two kilometres is a long way to run and anything can happen. There are no guarantees, except that it will be both exhilarating and hard.

I last wrote on this blog some three months ago when I had just started an 18-week marathon training program I had chosen, very excited and grateful to be able to do so. By then I had been able to build up to a long run of 18K, the longest distance I had run in 15 months, which I clearly noticed mentally and physically.

It was a challenge to start an 18K session, as much as I was grateful for my renewed ability to run that far following that enforced break. A year without run training is a very long time and, as I wrote in my previous blog post, I expected to need at least a year to get back to the level of training I had been able to do consistently before my injury.

In the lead-up to my 3:00:29 marathon, I ran more than 100K a week, as many as 140K, in daily training sessions. My mid-week runs alone were 24K, with my long runs topping out at 36K.

I could not expect to do this again straightaway. I had to return to marathon training carefully—my body would need time to get used to running again. I chose a program that maxed out at a weekly volume of 88K (though, as it turned out, I never did run that). The program had five days of running per week.

In fact, I was not entirely sure whether I would be able to get ready—physically and mentally—to run a marathon before the end of 2013.

Realizing marathon starts never come with guarantees about finish time, I also did not want to start one if I did not feel 3:15 was possible—the slowest of my last 12 marathons over the past seven years. Again, possible does not mean guarantee.

On September 14, I did a 15K race in Bellingham. I was surprised to finish in 61:41, an average pace of 4:07 per kilometre and 6:37 per mile. I remember passing the 10K mark in 40.44 there, 65 seconds faster than the Squamish 10K six weeks earlier.

Increasing my running volume was great but also tough. My weekly long runs, which slowly got longer again, felt challenging mentally and I was glad they would top out at 32K, equally glad I would only have to run three of them.

In that first post-injury 32K run at the end of September, it took me half the out-and-back run to shake the mental weight of having to go that far. I did not wear a Garmin that day, but ran for 2 hours 37 minutes to cover what I believe was 32K, so an average pace of about 5 minutes per K, just under 8-minute miles. A normal average pace for most of my (long) runs.

On October 6, I ran my first half marathon post-injury, my first 21.1K in 15 months. I was not sure what to expect. I used that race to gauge my appetite for a marathon, deciding at 16K into the race that the idea of racing 42K eight weeks later was very unappealing.

I ended up crossing the line in 87:14, my third-fastest time ever and only 20 seconds slower than my best. I ran an average 4:08 per kilometre, or 6:39 per mile, compared with 4:07 per K, or 6:38 per mile, for the PB I ran in April 2012.

Triathlete Tim helped change my mind on the marathon, saying, “I would -- you have just run 87 minutes.” I locked in the Seattle Marathon on December 1.

I had eight weeks of preparation left.

That same week, on October 10 I returned to the track for the first time in 15 months, for a session of five 800s, as per my program. I ran 3:00, 2:59, 2:57, 2:57, and 2:55, and was happy with those. By comparison, in March 2012, I had run six 800s on the same track, doing 3:01, 2:56, 2:59. 2:58, 2:59, and 2:59, while in July 2011 I had done six 800s in 3:06, 3:01, 2:59, 3:01, 3:01, and (wait for it) 3:01.

On October 14, I did a 10K race around flat Stanley Park in Vancouver. Conditions were great, and I felt good, strong. I crossed the line in 39:48, but wondered if the distance was accurate as the start line had been moved. If correct, it would mark my fourth Sub-40 10K finish ever (I ran 2 in early 2009, and No. 3 in April 2012).

On October 16, I did my second 32K run, ending up with an average of 4:56 per kilometre, covering the first half in 4:58 per K and the second in 4:54. I was very happy with that.

On October 19 I flew to the Netherlands to visit my parents and grandmother for two weeks. I had not seen them for two years, and did not want my marathon training to hijack my time there.

Over those two weeks, I (happily) ran less than half of what I was supposed to run and missed two key track sessions. But there was a great surprise too. 

I had axed a plan to do a race in the Netherlands and opted for a 29K training run instead. It was an extremely blustery Sunday morning as a big storm was about to hit the Dutch coast, later causing millions of euros of damage and claiming one life.

My Garmin showed a quick running pace in the first half, as I averaged 4:25 per kilometre over the first 17.7K. Smiling, I knew it had to be the wind that gave me wings and that it would come back to slow me down on the way home, as it did.

Still, I ended up with an average pace of 4:38 per K for those 29K—a marked increase over my usual pace of about 5 minutes per K. I wondered if something was wrong with my Garmin.

On November 4, the day after I returned home. I ran 17.5K at an average 4:28 per K, according to my Garmin. Huh.   
Four days later, on November 8, I did another semi-long run of nearly 19K, averaging 4:34K.

On November 10, it was time for my third and final 32K training run of this marathon preparation, and was pleased with a 4:53 per K average.

On November 12, there was a track workout, with five 600s. I ran them in 2:12 to 2:15, a solid pace but nothing stellar. They were hard work.

On November 16, it was time to race, a 10K in Richmond on a cold but sunny morning, with a flat out-and-back course. I felt good and ran hard, crossing the line in 39:04. If accurate, it is my fastest 10K by 35 seconds.

Four days later I ran three 1,600s on the track. I had been dreading this session because the 600s, which I was doing at the same pace I was meant to hold for the 1,600s, had already felt hard. A 600 is only 1-1/2 laps on the track, while 1,600 takes four of them.

I did not feel like digging super-deep, just 10 days away from a marathon I am still scared of running. I took 6:17, 6:13, and 6:03. Ten days before my 3:00:29 marathon in May 2012, I did the same session in 6:03, 5:54, and 5:53, i.e. a lot faster.

So, overall I take heart from some solid race results, crossing my fingers the courses were accurate, as well as some great training runs in recent weeks where I was able to hold a faster average speed than I am used to. I have three 32K runs under my belt, and I feel good, excited and am looking forward to testing my level of fitness.

On the flipside, this is the first marathon ever for which I have not done a single three-hour training run—I used to do three to five of those before each marathon! I certainly feel underdone when it comes to long runs, as those always give me confidence. This time my longest runs were still 10K short of the distance I want to cover at a fast pace this Sunday.

Also, I missed out on some key track speed sessions, as reflected in those 1,600s I did last week. That’s OK though.

I do not know the Seattle course, other than from what I have seen on online course maps, showing that it saves the hills for the end. 

Nine-time Seattle marathon winner Uli Steidl told The Seattle Times last year that it is unrealistic to expect to keep the same pace in the final third of the course, as in the first two-thirds.  "You just have to know it's coming," Steidl said of the hilly last third. "The Galer and Madison Street [hill], people are pretty afraid of it."

I am just so grateful at having been able to prepare for another marathon again and the thought of starting one, as scary as it is, is also a dream come true. I am going to keep an open mind and, as my wise friend Dessie Suttle says, "Relax and let it happen."

Marathon history (excluding my first 4 marathons of 4:18 in Ottawa 1999, 4:44 in Sydney 2001, 3:24 in Gold Coast 2003 and 3:36 in Honolulu 2003):

                                                     Finish   1st half 2nd half
5. July 2006              Gold Coast    3:13:01  96:25  96:36
6. April 2007            Canberra        3:08:48  93:04  95:44
7. July 2007              Gold Coast     3:15:13  93:14 101:59
8. May 2008             Vancouver       3:12:56  93:17  99:39
9. Sept 2008              Victoria          3:07:10  93:37  93:33
10. May 2009            Vancouver      3:10:19  94:26  95:53
11. June 2009            NODM           3:10:39  92:53  97:44
12. April 2010           Rotterdam      3:11:51  96:06  95:45
13. May 2011            Vancouver      3:07:41  93:5X  93:5X
14. Sept 2011             Bellingham    3:09:40  92:02  97:38
15. October 2011       Victoria          3:06:06  91:23  95:42
16. May 2012             Vancouver     3:00:29  90:09  90:20 * PB

August 15, 2013

A return to marathon training

Last week I started a new training program -- an 18-week marathon preparation.

It feels amazing, exciting -- and natural. After all, I am a marathon runner, I train for marathons.

It has been only 10 weeks since my return to running, following a year of enforced layoff to sort out mysterious heel pain that failed to respond to various types of treatments and stumped a top sports doctor.

In those last 10 weeks I went from running two 5-minute stretches, with a 5-minute walk in between, to running 85 minutes.

I went from wondering if I would run again to, well ... running, and increasingly running freely.

It is an amazing transformation that has taken a lot of hard work at the Bikram yoga studio over the past eight months, especially in the last 3-1/2 months during which I took 80 classes. It is progress that I certainly do not take for granted, and I am carefully starting to rebuild a running base.

As mentioned in previous posts, I used Pete Pfitzinger's Return to Running program; however, earlier in the year I had done another program, which began with four stretches of only 30 seconds of running in a 20-minute power-walk (after I had worked up to an hour of pain-free power-walking following a four-month complete break from running and, prior to that, three months of short and irregular runs because of the recurring heel pain), and gradually increased to four 4-minute stretches of running with 1-minute walks between each over a period of seven weeks.

Then I had started the Return to Running program (on March 26) and followed it for 3-1/2 weeks, getting up to 3 stretches of 10 minutes of running, with 2-minute walk breaks, before finding that a single 15-minute run brought back the heel symptoms. I did not run for the next 5-1/2 weeks, while doing 32 Bikram yoga classes over 32 days.

The Return to Running program, which I started for the second time on June 4, went very well and got me to running 40-45K per week, with my longest run at the end of the 7-week schedule at 55 minutes on July 22.

Five days later I ended up doing an 85-minute run, 10-15 minutes more than I had originally intended, joining Triathlete Tim for an awesome lap of the Ironman Whistler run course; my body felt OK during, and after, that session, helped by a deep tissue massage the next day 

With that, I decided I would try the lowest-volume 18-week program from Pete Pfitzinger's Advanced Marathoning, which begins with a 53-kilometre week and tops out at an 88-kilometre one, reducing some of the longer runs in the first few weeks by a couple of kilometres.

I began the program after, or in a way with, the Squamish 10K on August 4 as the fist session called for a lactate threshold workout.

The Sub-3 marathon is still on my mind. Of course it it. Indeed, it was a key motivation over the past year as I did the work required to restore my body -- but I expect it will take at least a year of training before I will be back to the level, both in training and in racing, I was before my injury.

And that's OK.

With this marathon program, I am aiming at getting back into regular training first and foremost, rebuilding my endurance, and in the process slowly start regaining some of the speed I have lost. I have mapped out the schedule to target a US marathon in December but since getting to the race involves booking flights and accommodation I first want to see how some longer runs and tempo runs feel before I commit any funds.  

I am in new territory, physically and mentally, and I am monitoring my body carefully to gauge how it responds to training consistently again after such a long break.

Bikram yoga is certainly part of my new marathon training regime. I believe that my body is in better shape than ever in terms of strength and flexibility and at the same time I know -- I see it in the mirror during every practice -- that there are many more gains to be made. That's encouraging.

I firmly believe that I have come out ahead, and I am truly grateful my body protested so that it forced me to listen to it better, help it perform better. I am excited about slowly rebuilding my running fitness over the coming year, with two 18-week marathon preparations -- the next one hopefully upping the weekly volume to between 88K and 113K -- followed by a six-week recovery in between each.

By this time next year, I hope to be ready for another increase in training volume, returning me to the schedule that helped me speed up my marathon time by more than five minutes last year, the schedule that also allowed me to set my current PBs at the 10K and half marathon.

But my mind is right here, right now, loving the fact that I can go for a mid-week 75-minute run and do a 90-minute Bikram practice later in the day. I love to run -- I have always loved to run, and now I love it even more. I am so grateful that I can.

August 05, 2013

First comeback race - a 10K baseline

Yesterday I did my first race in almost 14 months.

I dropped off my registration only six days earlier, when the previous day's 17K run bolstered my confidence about the wisdom of running the Squamish Days 10K to mark -- celebrate -- my return to running.

It is amazing how fast my body has progressed in the last two months. After all, it was only on June 4 that I gingerly tried running again with a session consisting of a 15-minute walking warm-up, followed by a 5-minute run, a 5-minute walk, a 5-minute run, and a 15-minute walking cool-down.

I knew I could run a 10K distance by July 15, or three weeks ago, when I did a 50-minute run. But running an easy 10K in training and doing it in a race are two very different things.

In the last year I have done no training to speak of, as all "runs" were curtailed by and ended in heel pain. I have certainly not done any speed work, or even fast workouts, since my last race in June 2012.

There were two "tempo runs" in the last month. I wrote about the first in this post, a 15-minute effort during which I was very happy to run 3.6K at an average 4:12 per kilometre. (By comparison, in the half marathon I raced in June 2012, the last race before my injury, I covered the 21.1K at an average pace of 4:07.5 per kilometre).

Ten days later I did another tempo run, as per my return-to-running program, this time a 20-minute effort; like the previous time, I opted to wear a Garmin but avoided looking at my pace until after the workout was done so I could listen to my body, rather than the watch.

I felt fantastic and had more confidence to put in more effort this time. Convinced I had run faster than in the previous one, I was stunned that the Garmin had clocked a 4:27 average pace over a 4.6K distance. I checked and rechecked the numbers, trying to see if somehow the Garmin had missed part of my effort. But it hadn't.

It was a reality check. I still was not sure if I should sign up for the 10K by then, and this made me wary. I had just run at a pace that would work out to a 44:30 10K if I was able to hold it for double the distance.

The last time I had taken more than 43 minutes in a 10K race was 10 years ago, in a hilly event in Malabar, one of the eastern suburbs of Sydney. Wow.

And yet it might not be so strange -- I had not been able to do any run training for so long, something I have no experience with. I have never had to take any significant break from training. It is easy to lose speed, and endurance. I have never been a naturally fast runner, endurance comes easier to me than speed.

"After two weeks of not running, studies show that VO2 max [one of the best measurements of a runner's physical fitness] decreases by 6%. After 9 weeks VO2 max drops by 19%. After 11 weeks of no running, studies demonstrate that VO2 max falls by 25.7% from peak physical fitness," according to this article, as a quick Google for this blog post showed.

And while I began working on overall fitness through cycling, swimming, and Bikram yoga about three months into my injury, running fitness and speed require run training. 

The speed I have (or had, before this enforced break) is  the result of years of consistent run training, continually building the gains.

You can even see it in my personal best times: a 3:00:29 marathoner should, theoretically, be able to run a 38:40 10K -- my best 10K is 39:39, a full minute slower -- and an 85:58 half marathon -- my best is 86:54, also nearly a minute slower.

And while endurance comes easier to me than speed, I am currently finding that runs I would not have even thought twice about a little over a year ago, are now a challenge. On Thursday I had planned to do a 45-minute easy run but lacked the mental energy. After postponing the session until 5:30pm, I finally decided to just head out for a 20-minute run if that was all I could mentally handle.

As I warmed up after about 5 minutes, I felt better, found fresh energy, and decided to do 30 minutes, and eventually ended up running the 45 minutes as planned, grateful for a nice run. My point is that, as I slowly settle back into a running routine, it is taking both a physical and a mental adjustment that is significant.

So, was registering for the 10K a good idea? I could not expect to race it -- sure, I could try to run as fast as I could, but with the awareness that I had only been able to run for two months. I would have to set aside my ego, and run for the thrill of being able to compete again, not for the potential of a personal best, or a "good" time.

Partly based on that second tempo run, when I had felt fantastic but had not run anywhere near as fast as I felt I did, I also had to accept that I might not be able to finish in 45 minutes, or less. 

But the excitement to toe the start-line of a race again, and a local race I love on top of that, easily won out. I decided that I would -- for the first time ever -- race without a watch. That way I would be forced to go with what I felt, not with any numbers I saw.

On Sunday morning, there was the familiar but almost forgotten sense of excitement -- butterflies in my tummy, sweaty and shaky hands as I wrote in my journal about heading off to the race start soon.

While I did not know what pace to expect, at least I knew I would look sharp in a gorgeous pair of running shorts my sister had just given me. They are almost too pretty to run in and super comfy.

I drove the short distance to the race start, familiar after having done this great event in 2009, 2010  and 2011 in 41:39, 41:00 and 40:14 respectively -- I have raced well here, though have not matched my best on what is a fast, flat and certified 10K course.

Pickup of my pre-registered race package went superfast and I got ready to do a warm-up. For this I had brought my watch, and I started with 5 minutes of walking along the course, before running for almost 10 minutes with three accelerations.

Then I spotted a friend, Amy, who now lives in Whistler, and we had a brief chat, wishing each other well.

I went back to the car to take off my warm-up shirt -- and my watch. I have thought about racing without a watch before but had never done it. I was excited about trying it today. Without any idea what pace to expect, there was no point to keep track of it. I like to know my pace but it felt good to take off the watch.

I chatted with another friend as we walked towards the starting area, and then saw more familiar faces, friends I have trained and raced with before, and it was so great to be there.

It was time to line up for the start. We cheered on the wheelchair athletes who headed off first. Then we got our countdown.

I did not allow myself to think too much about the significance because I knew it would be too easy to get all emotional about it, and I needed to be able to breathe, not cry. My starting pace was faster than I thought it would be, easy to gauge as my friends did not run ahead as far and fast as I had expected. Still, we had not even run 1 kilometre.

It was challenging to decide on my pace, so I just followed my legs and lungs and made sure that I was breathing at a rate that felt sustainable. Since I did not know what to expect, it felt natural to avoid thinking about it. The kilometres would come as they did.

The course was marked with new signs (though they might have been there last year too when I could not race), bright yellow with black numbers indicating each kilometre and the first mile. At that first mile marker I had settled into a pace that felt comfortable, and I resisted the brief temptation to ask a friend, Gord, for his split as I could see him checking it on his watch.

All I knew that at this stage it was faster than 45-minute pace, and that it felt OK for now. I was running stride for stride with a friend, Jason, and I really enjoyed that.

At the 2K mark we ran past the Bikram Sea to Sky Yoga studio, a fitting tribute during my first race to a place that has helped so much in my recovery. I knew they were just starting their 8:30am class.

At the first aid station, I grabbed a water from one of the volunteers, had a quick sip and dunked the rest over my head as did Gord ahead of Jason and I. The weather was perfect for a warm August morning. The sky was overcast, and it was not as muggy as I remember it being in previous years.

At the next corner, a friend was cheering us on -- a talented runner, rider and triathlete, Andrew had just broken his wrist after falling off a skateboard, only a few weeks after having recovered from a running injury -- and I appreciated the lift from his energy and smiling face.

As we hit 3K, I wondered if this was a pace I could sustain and yet at the same time I felt confident I could. Jason and I were still running together, silently, peacefully.

We approached the bridge, a slight incline, followed by a slight downhill on the other side, as we headed towards 4K. Still fine and with the halfway marker in sight I became more relaxed, enjoying the sensation of racing at a pace I had not anticipated, and feeling a sense of ease in it. I knew it was a delicate balance, however, and I made sure to stay as relaxed as possible.

The race leader was already heading fast and light in the other direction on the out-and-back course, well clear from the rest of the pack. I counted four women ahead of me, none within reach though. Another friend, Marko, was comfortably heading home, and we waved at each other. I missed Sean but returned a silent cheer of Gord.

As Jason and I rounded the halfway point, I grabbed a water at that aid station from the great volunteers and had a quick sip. I cannot remember if I poured the rest over my head, though I probably did. I was on the home-5K-stretch. I love out-and-back courses and use them all the time in training.

Even as I was fatiguing, I also felt that it was a normal level of tiredness. You run 10K, you get tired in the second half. At the final water station I took a sip of water but did not feel like swallowing any so spat it out -- the remainder of the cup went over my head as I got ready to pass the Bikram studio for the second time. Two K to go, which mentally means that really there is only 1K left and then there is the final K which somehow is always more manageable.

Without being able to verify my pace, I felt like I had run a steady pace throughout and knew I could hold it until the finish. I pushed away emotions that if I had allowed them to surface would have stopped me dead in my tracks. Instead I focused on the incredible sensation of having a solid 10K, feeling better than I had dared to hope.

About to finish (Ben Lypka/Squamish Chief)
I rounded the final corner and headed for the finish -- now I wanted to see the clock.

My official time was 41:49, which far exceeded any expectations; it was only 10 seconds slower than my slowest effort on this course, and just a little over 2 minutes slower than my best 10K time (39:39).

After the race, I did an easy 3K cool-down with Amy who also had a solid performance. Next I drove out to the northern part of Squamish to catch Tim who was out on a 3-hour run to hand him a bottle of water, and then went back to the race start where I received a trophy (a beautiful Bald Eagle wood carving) for being the fastest local woman today. Icing on an already delicious cake.

For Squamish Days 10K results, click here

It is a little hard to wrap my head around the fact that I can run, train and race again. I am slowly beginning to believe it, so grateful that all the hard work and patience are paying off.  

July 31, 2013

Survived 30-Day Meditation Challenge

Yesterday I completed a 30-day meditation challenge. Inspired by Sakyong Mipham's book Running with the Mind of Meditation, in which he likens learning to meditate to learning to run in that the mind is like a muscle that can be strengthened through practice.

The key, as Mipham suggested, was to start small and build a base, just as one does in running. So my goal was to spend 10 minutes each day focusing on my breath, clearing my mind from the constant whirlwind of thoughts.

Simple but not easy. Just like running. A few times I felt like quitting. But then I wondered why I had such mental resistance to doing something as simple and peaceful as sitting or lying still for just 10 minutes, focusing on my breath, which -- as my teachers remind me in each Bikram yoga class -- is the most powerful tool you have.

I also know the important role of breathing from running. Calming, slowing and/or deepening my breath in challenging workouts, or when it gets hard in a race, is crucial and always beneficial. 

It will take more than 30 days to learn to meditate, to get more comfortable, to find a sense of ease in  it. The more I struggled nearly each day over the past 30 days with quieting my mind, being mindful, just here and now, the more I wondered why that was and how I could change it. I am curious, intrigued.

So next week I will start the 21-day Oprah and Deepak meditation challenge -- registration is free and you receive daily guided meditations for 21 days starting August 5.

July 24, 2013

Withdrawn from Ironman Whistler

Earlier this month I made the decision to withdraw my entry from Ironman Whistler. The July 11 deadline, if I wanted a $150 refund, helped me make up my mind.

It was both a hard and an easy decision to make. Hard as I registered for the race in October last year with the intent of competing. As a former triathlete and five-time Ironman finisher, I could simply not resist an Ironman that landed in my backyard, one offering 100 qualifying slots for the 2013 Ironman World Championships in Kailua-Kona, Hawaii.

This year, only one other race (IM Frankfurt held earlier this month) offered that many slots, according to Every triathlete competing in an Ironman wants to go to Kona, even retired triathletes like me. I am a far better athlete now than when I did my last Ironman in March 2005.

Yet by late April, the reality was that my injury (mysterious heel pain that had curtailed my running for nearly a year by then) had not disappeared. A 15-minute run was all it took for the pain to return. So I stopped running again.

Cycling, especially riding on the Computrainer in the aero position, was not helping, I realized. It only served to increase the tightness and imbalance that I now suspected was the cause of my problem. I stopped cycling too. The last ride I did was on April 21, the day before I discovered that my body still could not cope with a 15-minute jog.

Unfortunately, the bike ride is a little crucial in Ironman -- it takes up more than half the time any athlete needs to finish (unless you ride so hard that your run will take you longer than your bike did, not uncommon). Not having cycled from March 2005 until October 2012 meant I could not rely on a fitness base there either.  

While still hopeful in late April, I was already well aware that my chances of getting ready for an Ironman in August were very slim. I did not run again until June 4, starting with two 5-minute stretches. By July 11 -- the deadline to receive a partial refund -- my longest run had been 40 minutes.

I have consistently spent at least 10 hours a week on yoga, stretching, massage and rolling for the past three months.

When I realized that I was not even sure if I would be ready to run (not race, just run) the local annual 10km on August 4, I also realized that doing an Ironman three weeks later was just not a good idea. Indeed it was unrealistic. That made the decision easy.

There will always be another Ironman, should I want to do one. And after the past year, a healthy body is worth more to me than any race, even one with a hundred Kona slots.

Returning from injury: marathon thoughts

On Monday I had a 55-minute run to do. It was the final session of the seven-week Returning to Running program I have been following, and I looked upon this run as a graduation of sorts.

In the past seven weeks I have found the confidence that I have finally overcome the injury that has plagued me for the past year, stopping my training and racing dead in their tracks (for the first time in 17 years) just as I was at the peak of my fitness -- a 3:00:29 marathoner ready to go faster. 

Seven weeks ago, I tentatively did the first session on the program -- two 5-minute runs with a 5-minute walk in between. The roller coaster of hope and disappointment from the past year kept a lid on my optimism. Yet I knew that my body felt different too.

Yesterday I ran 55 minutes without stopping, bringing my weekly running total to 2 hours 20 minutes. Guesstimating a 5-minute per kilometre on average, I ran 40km for the week. While that's not even half of the 100km weeks I had grown used to doing, it now feels like a lot of running.

Throughout these seven weeks I have remained both careful and vigilant. I have done nearly all my runs on a flat course, first walking about 15 minutes and cooling down with the same (that's also the time it takes to walk from my house to the start of a flat running route.)

I have maintained my yoga routine, taking 30 Bikram classes over the past seven weeks, or an average of four per week, to keep increasing my flexibility and strength, particularly in the right hip / glute area. That's six hours of yoga a week.

And those 90-minute Bikram classes are challenging workouts in themselves each time. There is a reason teachers tell beginners that their main goal is to try to stay in the room. At the Sea to Sky Bikram studio, owner and teacher Jena often reminds us to "stop wrestling with the door, you have already decided to stay."

"Until you do it you can't comment on how difficult it is. It's tough. It's ugly," Wimbledon champion Andy Murray has said of Bikram, which has reportedly been a key part of his training for the past five years. 

Aside from Bikram, I also stretch after each run, using a sequence of at least eight stretches suggested in Pete Pfitzinger's Advanced Marathoning. As recommended I hold each stretch for about 30 seconds on both sides, doing each one twice.

And I roll. Daily. I use the TP Therapy ball and roller but especially the ball and particularly for the right side of my hip and glutes.

During the past seven weeks, I also had another five massages to help preserve and advance all the flexibility I have gained in Bikram. And I will keep working at that diligently. Especially as I increase my running.

It is exhilarating to be running again. I am so grateful.

I know that there is a long road ahead before I will be back at my fitness level from May 2012. But I am patient. And determined.

Over the next few weeks I plan to increase my long run slowly to 90 minutes by the end of August. With that, I'll be ready to start the training program for my next marathon.

I have already got my eye on one...  

July 08, 2013

A tempo run -- my first in a year

Today I was allowed to do a 15-minute tempo run.

I was excited, very excited. It would be my first run at effort -- any type of effort -- in a year.

I am still revelling in the fact that I can run again, and the thrill of the 40-minute run I completed last Friday.

Since I ran the Scotiabank Half Marathon at the end of June in 2012, I have not been able to do much running at all, let alone a session at any type of effort.

And today I got to go fast for 15 minutes. The program suggested 15K race pace. But it's a little hard to pinpoint race pace when you've not been able to train.

I figured my body would know best, so I opted to wear my Garmin to record the pace but to avoid looking at the numbers during the session.

As I have done so far in my return to running, I decided to stick to a flat course so my warmup began with a 15-minute walk from my house through the Smoke Bluffs to the trail along Loggers Lane. Then I began running and followed this asphalt bike path to the Brennan Park Recreation Centre, turning around after 7-1/2 minutes of relaxed running and running back the same way for a running warm-up of 15 minutes, as the training session suggested.

Now it was time to start my tempo run. I walked for a minute and started a new lap on the Garmin. It was nice to run "fast" -- it felt natural too, even though it has been a year since I did. I could feel the extra space that has slowly yet surely been opening up in my hip flexors with the regular Bikram yoga sessions and massage. I loved the tempo run as much as I thought I would.

Of course it was effort, so my breathing was laboured. I focused on relaxing into it and keeping what felt like a steady pace. I briefly checked my watch at what I thought would be my 7-1/2 minute turnaround point and managed to keep my attention away from the numbers revealing my pace.

A couple of weeks ago I took the Garmin on a couple of 30-minute runs and found that I was running about 4:45 per K, faster than I had expected -- and naturally then started to aim to stick close to that. After those two runs, I decided to leave the Garmin at home and wear a regular watch instead so my body would choose its own pace, rather trying to keep up to the one reflected on my wrist.

It was easy today to keep my attention away from the Garmin -- the exhilaration of returning to one of the things I love so much about running, moving your body at a pace that is challenging and comfortable at the same time while focusing on keeping your breath and body relaxed, was all I needed.

"Running is like flying -- there is freedom and levity. We are moving through space above the ground. It is a great way to connect with nature and to breathe fresh air," writes Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche, author of (the superb) Running with the Mind of Meditation. He is also a 3:09 marathoner.

Freedom and levity were what I felt today. And gratitude, lots of gratitude.

A part of me still carries fear that the injury has not yet gone or that it might return. I try to let go of those thoughts as much as I can. Still, it has only been five weeks since I began running again and so I remain cautious.

After I walked home, back up through the Smoke Bluffs, I checked my pace -- in the 15-minute warmup I had covered 3.2K at an average pace of 4:45 per kilometre. 

As for the 15-minute tempo run, I had run at an average of 4:12 per kilometre for a distance of 3.6K.

July 02, 2013

Returning from injury: running update

Ten weeks ago, on April 30, I began a 32-day Bikram yoga challenge, with the goal to do one Bikram class a day at the studio here in Squamish. I wrote down my intention, "Set my body free so I can run." 

Only a week earlier, I had discovered that my body still could not deal with a 15-minute run. It was a devastating realization that the pain in my heel, which I first noticed in late May 2012 and essentially halted my running for the past year, was still there.

After various treatments which failed to eliminate the pain, I took a 4-1/2 month complete break from running (from October 1, 2012, until February 12 this year), and then eased back into it from scratch—after first building up to a pain-free hour of powerwalking. 

I took 2-1/2 months to build up from four 30-second stretches of running with 4-1/2-minute walk breaks, to three 10-minute stretches of running with 2-minute walk breaks. I had been able to do this twice in the week before I ran 15 minutes on April 22, only to discover the next day that my heel—unmistakably—was sore again.

At first I was angry, upset, and—most of all—desperate: what was it going to take?!

I have always felt, and still do, that there is no reason for me not to be able to run again. After all, there has never been a diagnosis of the injury. The obvious ones for the location of my pain such as Achilles tendinitis, a stress fracture, and plantar fasciitis were all ruled out.

As I calmed down a little, I returned to research and decided that my heel was merely the symptom, not the problem.

I stopped running again and also gave up cycling so I could concentrate on upping the frequency of my Bikram yoga practice to improve my flexibility and strength, particularly by opening up the hip flexors and strengthening the gluteal muscles. I kept my swimming routine.

A week into the Bikram challenge, I had a funny neck twist during swim squad. I stopped immediately. What the heck now?! Swim coach Roseline assured me that it was not a typical swimming shoulder injury, based on where I felt the strain/pain. Initially I thought a few hot baths and heating cream would get rid of the increasing stiffness in my neck that followed but it did not.

While I had trouble turning my head to the left, it did not noticeably affect my Bikram practice (only the triangle pose was somewhat affected) so I was able to continue my 32-day challenge.

After five days, however, I realized my neck was not going to release the tension on its own. I was not sure if the neck issue resulted from swimming (I had done the BC provincial champs swim meet on April 26), or just a 'funny' move, or whether my body was beginning to shift with the daily Bikram classes.

I did know it was time for a deep tissue massage. My swim coach recommended RMT Natalia Finlayson and I went to see her on May 10.

That first treatment made me feel a lot better, though I also knew my neck was not out of the woods and so I stayed out of the pool, as I did not feel like risking a shoulder injury.

Meanwhile, I kept up the daily Bikram routine. And I noticed more flexibility in my right glute and piriformis, both from the daily yoga but also from Natalia's massage on my back, shoulder and neck.

I went back to Natalia on May 13 and she again treated the left side of my neck and back as well as the right hip, glutes and piriformis. She said swimming could work diagonally. She also recommended that I stretch on top of the Bikram routine, as yoga is not a replacement for stretching.

By the third treatment, my shoulder and neck were much better and she spent a lot of time on my right piriformis, which held release a ton of tightness. I had by now told her about my heel injury, or rather symptom.

By May 22, I was back in the pool and felt good enough to swim with the squad for an hour. I decided to stick with the massages, now focused on the tightness on the right side of my hip, quads, and glutes. I could tell that all the hip opening work in Bikram was helped along by Natalia's massages, and vice versa.

After the fourth treatment on May 23, and 23 straight days of Bikram, Natalia encouraged me to try a run again. I felt comfortable with the idea, indeed had felt for a few days that I would be OK to run, and ran two 5-minute stretches, with a 5-minute walk in between on May 24. And I continued from there as per this return-to-running program by Pete Pfitzinger.

In the 10 weeks since my body rebelled after that 15-minute run, I have done 53 Bikram classes—or a little more than five classes each week on average. (That compares with the 50 classes I did in the prior five months, or an average of about 2.5 per week.) I also have had 10 deep tissue massages from Natalia, with the first on May 10 and the most recent one on June 24, a period of six weeks.

Yesterday I ran 35 minutes--in one go--a day after running 25 minutes. Amazing. If I had not experienced it, I would not believe it.

I know that there is more work ahead. More Bikram, more massage, more stretching and more strengthening. After each Bikram class, I do a TFL stretch as well as a piriformis stretch. After each run, I do the stretch routine as recommended in Pete Pfitzinger's Advanced Marathoning. I use the TP Therapy products daily, especially the ball and the Grid foam roller. I also have regular Epsom salt baths.

I am optimistic that this time, after a year of struggle, I am on the road to recovery. Namaste!

June 28, 2013

A 30-day meditation challenge

Find it on Facebook here
On July 1, I will start a 30-day meditation challenge. The concept is simple: every day for 30 consecutive days I will set aside 10 minutes to meditate by focusing on my breath.

Why? Because I have found after 100 Bikram yoga classes in the past six months that this is the hardest part of the practice. Clearing my mind of thoughts, the constant chatter, has proven challenging even for the 20 seconds in the savasanas between the poses, let alone the minimum recommended three minutes immediately at the end of the class.

My mind is often racing ahead to the next pose, the next drink of water, leaving the room to have a shower, making dinner. I want to learn to stay in the present, being right here, right now.  

As a distance runner, I learned over the years that concentration and focus are key parts of my training and racing. When faced with a training run of 3 hours or racing 42 kilometres, and beyond, you need to learn to focus on what you are doing right now, right here instead of worrying about what's to come because it would be too overwhelming.

A book that really helped was Running Within: A Guide to Mastering the Body-Mind-Spirit: A Guide to Mastering the Body-Mind-Spirit Connection for Ultimate Training and Racing by Jerry Lynch and Warren Scott. I first read it in 2003 before my third marathon, when I bettered my time from 4:18 from 3:24, and it remains one of my favourite books.

I have been working on the mental aspect of running -- both training and racing -- ever since. The better I can concentrate, the better my result. If my mind wanders, or is filled with negative thoughts, my running invariably suffers.

Now I want to learn to bring more focus, stillness into the rest of life. 

Recently I began reading Sakyong Mipham's Running With the Mind of Meditation: Lessons for Training Body and Mind

"The practice of meditation is the practice of developing interest and appreciation in our breath. When we do this, we are showing interest in ourselves, our well-being, and our life-force energy. We are developing the ability to show interest in our own life and in what we are doing," writes the marathon-running Rinpoche, a religious teacher held in high regard among Tibetan Buddhists.

"That is why we feel the benefits of meditation immediately: we simply notice life more, pay attention to it more, and appreciate it more," he writes.

Mipham writes that learning to meditate -- learning to focus on your breath, "the most effective way of being in the present" -- is like learning to run. You start small and slowly build your skill, your endurance.

In Chapter 4, he recommends "one of the most basic and helpful meditative techniques. The process essentially consists of paying attention to the breathing." He recommends starting with a short period, such as 10 minutes. Set an alarm so you won't be distracted by the need -- desire -- to check your watch or clock.

You sit still, upright, comfortable. Relax. Then place your attention on the breathing. This will be challenging at the beginning as your mind will be racing with thoughts, as it always is.

"Initially it is important not to feel overwhelmed or disheartened by the influx of thoughts, simply  recognizing just how many thoughts are coming into your mind," Mipham writes. "As we continuously and repeatedly place the attention back on the breathing, the mind becomes stronger and stronger... We are strengthening our mind, building the base."

The first time I tried it, I lasted less than five minutes. A few weeks later I tried again, and made it for the full 10 minutes. I wanted to do it again the next day. But did not and that was a couple of weeks ago.

So it is time to throw a 30-day challenge at it, the time it reportedly takes to form, or break, a habit. I have done them before, in writing and yoga. There is a freeing quality to making the commitment to do something every day for 30 consecutive days.  No need to think about it, just do it.

In the month of May I did a 30-Bikram yoga challenge -- one class a day for 30 consecutive days. For the past three years I participated in the international 30-day writing challenge National Novel Writing Month held every November-- the goal is to write 50,000 words in 30 days, an average of 1,667 words a day.

I am curious to explore the effect of meditation, practicing mindfulness, every day for thirty days.

"When we speak of meditation, it is important for you to know that this is not some weird cryptic activity, as our popular culture might have it. It does not involve becoming some kinds of zombie, vegetable, self-absorbed narcissist, navel gazer, "spade cadet", cultist, devotee, mystic, or Eastern philosopher," writes Jon Kabat-Zinn in Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life. 

"Meditation is simply about being yourself and knowing something about who that is."
Want to join me beginning July 1? Check out The 30-Day Meditation Challenge facebook page.

May 09, 2013

Bikram challenge - an update

Today is Day 10 of my 32-day Bikram challenge. I opted for 32 days because I wanted to devote the month of May to this. Of course May has 31 days. And I did not want to miss practice on April 30, as a competitive swim meet had left no room for classes in the previous four days. Hence the 32.

Incidentally, today it is also six months ago that I began practicing Bikram regularly.

Day 1 of the challenge had felt extra difficult. My body was tired from competing in six freestyle events (1500m on Friday evening, 400m and 100m on Saturday, followed by the 800m, 200m and 50m on Sunday) at the MSABC provincial championships.

I had to (chose to) lie down a couple of times to fend off dizziness during triangle and tree, and ran out of water well before the end of practice. So, I was glad I had told Bikram Yoga Sea to Sky owner and teacher Jena about my 32-day plan before class because otherwise it just might have gone out the window.   

I was apprehensive on Day 2, feeling overwhelmed with the month ahead. Teacher Kirsten offered advice that immediately struck a chord.

"Just take it one pose at a time," she recommended.

One step at a time is how I run marathons, ultras and have finished Ironman triathlons. One pose at a time, or one breath at a time as teacher Jena later added, will be the mantra for May.

And Day 2 turned out to be one of the happiest classes I have done. My doubts about the challenge completely washed away during the savasanas. It was not a conscious thought, but a simple observation that arose, a deep sense that the challenge was what I needed to do.

Practice was not easy, easy is not the point after all, but I felt light and focused. Happy and content to be there. And my bottle even had water left at the end of the class. 

"Perfect is the best you can do today," Kirsten quoted Bikram.

On Day 3, I stuck the 30-day-challenge note on the studio's Wall of Fame, and added two stickers across Days 1 & 2. I waited until after practice to mark completion of the third one. I did not yet write my "Intention" on the note. It had to be short, and initially I thought of "release, strengthen, run."

Practice on Day 3 was easier than on Day 1, but harder than Day 2. My training journal says, "Good class. Definitely feel that stuff is happening in my body."

Perhaps "stuff" sounds vague but I do not want to over-analyze or prejudge what is going on, neither physically nor mentally. I trust that whatever needs to happen is happening as long as I show up for practice and give it the best effort I can that day. 

After Day 4 I had formulated my Intention for this challenge and wrote it on the note in the studio: "Set my body free so I can run!"

It was a good class.

Day 5 was an emotional one. I was physically off balance -- despite my best efforts I kept falling out of eagle. I appreciated the teacher's comment that on some days we simply can not seem to balance, a great reminder to let go of my irritation about it.

Emotionally, I was off kilter too. After triangle, I felt weepy and this persisted until camel, when the second set made me cry. I did not notice, nor tried to analyze, a specific reason behind this wave of emotion that finally disappeared and left me with a sense of relief after camel. This is becoming one of my favourite poses exactly for the mysterious sensations that follow -- as the teacher advised, I watch them float by and take another deep breath.

Day 6 was so different. "Felt calm and strong and focused," the notes in my journal say.

Day 7 was called into question when I strained my neck in the morning. It might have happened as I warmed up in swim training, or I might have slept funny, or it might have been the long phone call I made the previous day. Regardless, I cut short swim training because my neck/shoulder was sore with every stroke, and I did not want to risk injury.

Surprisingly, the stiffness that made turning my head to the left very difficult barely affected my practice that evening. Keeping my left arm straight up in the air in triangle was hard, and I avoided leaning on my left arm when turning to get into savasana. But everything else was fine, and practice felt good.

Day 8 was almost as great as Day 2. I felt strong and focused, and I could really notice an increased mobility in the hips in certain poses. A quarter of the challenge done! 

Yesterday, Day 9, was harder. I did not have as much energy, and my body felt tighter to begin with, especially in the right glute/piriformis area in the first sets of some poses such as the standing forward bend, or forward fold, in the half moon pose. However, in the second sets my body released.

Overall, I had a good class and felt much better for it.

There is so much happening in my body from daily Bikram practice, even after only nine days.

I have also noticed recently that practice leaves me less smashed -- I am still tired afterward, but no longer so deeply exhausted as I was in previous months.

I have physically and mentally relaxed into the notion of the 32-day challenge. There is a peacefulness from knowing that I have committed to going daily; I do not need to think about whether I “should” go or perhaps wait a day, I simply go once a day every day this month. 

Take my mat and towels (one for the session, and another for the shower after, since the first gets absolutely soaked), my one Bikram outfit, a bottle of water, and get to the studio on time. 

Like in running, or any type of training, the knowledge that you have a manageable schedule you want to stick to is mentally relaxing. Commitment can set you free from throwing obstacles into your own way. It stops you from thinking, “It is so hard, maybe I should rest” or "I am too tired today", or "Too busy today"—you simply go.  

I have also found that it allows me to relax in the practice itself. Taking class once or twice a week, I felt I had to make them count, whereas now I am conscious of sustaining the effort for 32 days in a row. That does not mean I am taking it easy; it means that I am extra careful with technique and listen better to where my body is that day.

I know that there are still another 23 days to go, so I am reluctant to say that it has been easier than I expected. The challenge is no doubt ahead. 

But I am focused, I know exactly why I am doing this. I need it, my body needs it, not just to run, but to live a good life, to live a full life.

We miss out on so much when we do not use our body, cannot use our body, hate it as so many women do, as I used to do in my early 20s, focusing on the things it is not, can not do -- and assuming that it simply is the way it is. 

We can change so much about our body if we learn to use it by giving it the time it needs, the effort it deserves. It will give us so much in return. I have experienced it as a runner and as a triathlete. Earlier this year I noticed it in the pool -- beliefs we have about our ability change if we challenge them. 

Heel pain has prevented me from running for 10 months now. I have not been diagnosed with a medical reason for this problem. To me, that means there is no reason, none whatsoever, that I should not be able to return to running. I just need to listen carefully to what my body is trying to tell me.

Right now it is clearly saying that daily Bikram -- stretching and strengthening -- is what it needs.

A huge thanks to the enthusiasm from Bikram Yoga Sea to Sky for my challenge, your energy lifts me every practice.

May 01, 2013

Bikram yoga challenge -- 32 days

Last week, with 17 weeks to go until Ironman Whistler, my body made clear that it was not ready to run. In fact it made clear it was not ready for much riding either, especially in the aero position.

While that was far from good news, it also confirmed that the pain in my heel was merely a symptom, not the cause. The real problem lies in my hips, glutes and piriformis. Unless I fix that soon, I will only be able to do the 3.8K swim on August 25.

From the outset, my registration was about helping me cope with the injury. It was about helping me overcome the reluctance to resume swimming and cycling as it became clear run training was off the menu for a while. As an athlete I am new to dealing with a long layoff from running; I have never had to do that before.

For me, registering for Ironman was also about not losing hope that one day I will be running again, training and racing freely. And in the last few months my optimism about my future as a runner has strengthened. But I have also realized it is going to take a lot more effort and work. And Ironman might arrive too soon.

Bikram yoga will form a key part of my new plan of action to help restore my body's ability to run, to increase my chances to do Ironman, as planned.

Yesterday I began a 32-day challenge of practicing daily. I feel that my body needs it -- my hips, glutes, piriformis, my spine need more flexibility and strength. I have no doubt that these 32 days will be extremely hard but I believe that the benefits and rewards will far outweigh the effort.

Last night, before practice, I told Bikram Yoga Sea to Sky owner and teacher Jena about my intention because I wanted to commit myself to it. Accountability is also part of the reason I am writing this post. In the past three months I have done 21 Bikram classes, so an average of seven per month, less than two a week, compared with the 31 I did the prior six weeks, as I have easily found reasons to "go tomorrow".

Life is busy, so if I want to add something to the schedule I have to commit wholeheartedly and create the time. Reserve the space in my day and mind to practice those 90 minutes every day for one month.

Yesterday's practice was challenging, as my body was tired from the three-day swim meet over the weekend. I probably had not rehydrated well enough either. It confirmed that it had been a good decision to tell Jena about the plan because otherwise I might have skipped today, and the next day, thinking the challenge could wait until "later".

But I know that my body needs it now. How do I know that? Ten days ago, Jena read a quote during practice, which went something like: When you come to the end of what you know, you arrive at the beginning of what you sense. And I sense that Bikram holds the key to my recovery. I certainly sense it is worth trying and seeing what happens.

So I am planning on today's 5:30pm class for day 2 of my 32-day challenge. Namaste. 

April 29, 2013

I love swimming -- MSABC provincials

My second swim meet ever, the MSABC provincial championship, was a great experience, and not just because I was very happy with most of my races.

Earlier in the week, my body showed that it was not ready for a 15-minute run after 10 months of struggle, treatments, rest, and a very slow easing back into running. The setback was very tough to deal with. Yet it also forced me to consider a new plan of action and by now I feel good about that.

Three days of competition were perfect to take my mind off the things I cannot do at the moment, focus on what I can do -- and be grateful for that.

Swimming has never been my sport of choice. And it takes a good dose of humility to compete at a different level than I have grown used to in the past few years as a runner.

However, at the end of the day I love being active, I love competing, and I love setting benchmarks as targets to improve upon. Those are far more important than finishing at a certain level, and those are what helped me get "good" as a runner in the first place.

It was a love for running that helped me improve from 2-hour 20K in 1997 and a 4:44 marathon in 2001 to the personal bests I set just a year ago. I did not get fast, or faster, overnight; I simply loved running and getting better, slowly but surely, made me love it even more.

In the past four months I have certainly grown to enjoy swimming, mostly because it fills part of the hole that my temporary inability to run has left in my life, my soul. Swim training has allowed me to release all that pent-up mental and physical athletic drive that had nowhere to go for the last six months of 2012 into the pool. I trained three times a week, an hour at a time, over the past four months.

From the start in January, the enthusiasm and approach of Squamish Titans swim coach Roseline Mondor-Grimm has helped me do that to an extent that I now look forward to each session, I am excited and motivated to train in the pool because it makes me happy. And the results showed this weekend.

On Friday, I did a new distance -- in the pool at least, the 1500, and was stoked with my time of 25:56.03. I suffered a brief moment of panic as I started the third lap (counting 50s) when the mental weight of the next 27 laps hit me hard. I quickly refocused on my breathing, and counting sets of 10.

I felt good and swam hard enough that I had trouble lifting my arms after the event -- no doubt in part also because I had not swum farther than a consecutive 800 recently. My splits showed I did the first 800 in 13:51, a 33-second improvement from the 14:24 I needed to do the 800 event in February.

Yeah! I was psyched for the next two days.

On Saturday, I swam the 400 in 6:28.32, compared with 6:59 at the meet (in the same pool) two months ago. I went hard in that race, high on the 1500 result and I must admit that I was a touch disappointed with the 6:28, given that I was timed at 6:33 in training about a week ago.

But a 5-second improvement is a 5-second improvement, and I am closer to the 6:15 qualifying standard for the 2014 FINA World Masters.

Later that day, I swam the 100 in 1:22.52, down from the 1:27 I did two months ago, and compared with the 1:20 worlds standard. Getting closer!

On Sunday, we began with the 800 and I was stoked with 13:31.73. I felt a touch tired which I think helped me pace the effort well. The worlds standard is 13:20.

Next up was the 200, and the 3:01.43 I did here might be the result I was most pleased with. It was 11 seconds faster than two months ago. The worlds standard is 3:00. 

Last was the 50. I was so determined to make the 36 standard but had to settle for 37. Or so I thought. The final official results list my time as 36.52. This was the first time I swam this distance in a meet, so I have no comparison. I am excited that it is so close to the worlds standard.

The past six months have transformed me from someone forced to get back into the pool after a 7-1/2 year break, dreading the prospect, to a swimmer seriously considering taking part in the  world masters championships, believing I have a chance to make the qualifying standards.

That's right, four days ago, I said truthfully that aiming for the standards was a way to add focus and motivation to my swimming in general, and this meet in particular. Since the weekend, I am actually thinking of competing in Montreal next year should I be able to speed up enough.

If I qualify, I would be among the slowest in my age group there but an opportunity to compete in a world championships in Canada might be too good to pass up. Never prejudge your potential.

My transformation, mentally and physically, in the pool has also provided the perfect reminder for my efforts to restore my ability to run. Huge changes can take place in our body, and mind, over a relatively short period of time.

If I can evolve from wondering whether I can cover the 25m length of a pool in October, to almost qualifying for the worlds in April, I believe I can transform my body into a better, stronger and faster version of the 3:00:29 marathon runner I used to be. 

Click to read Triathlete Tim's report on the MSABC provincials.

April 21, 2013

Speeding up in the pool

As the deadline to sign up for the MSABC Provincial Championships in Vancouver got closer, I began doubting my plan to register for the three-day event. I had not missed any training, but felt that I was lacking progress.

A few weeks earlier, when our coach was away for spring break, I was convinced enough that I had sped up in my 400m time to send her a note about it. She was excited too and said she would time me upon her return the following week. I was convinced my 6:54 400 had dropped to 6:40-ish.

But on March 27, the coach's stopwatch showed I swam a 6:49. And no matter that it marked a five-second improvement from my 400 a month earlier, I was not happy. At all. My mind was fixated on that 6:40, and those extra 9 seconds made me grumpy with impatience about getting faster.

It is easy to lose perspective, despite good intentions. I was sure I had swum better the previous week. But the clock did not lie.

I knew a 6:40 400 was not going to make me a "competitive" swimmer at the provincials either, but I wanted the time and money spent on the meet to boost my confidence and enthusiasm with a good chance to better my own times from February's meet.

In February, five of us swam at the one-day meet while Squamish Titans swim coach Roseline was there to guide, time and cheer us. A lot of fun. This time, few people from our squad were interested or able to compete at the three-day provincials.

But, after some encouragement by the coach, Triathlete Tim and I decided to register after all.

For $85, you can race as many as 7 events. Tim and I both ticked all freestyle distances: there is the 1500 on Friday evening, followed by the 400 and 100 on Saturday, and the 800, 200, and the 50 on Sunday.

We are not sure yet that we can both attend Friday's 1500.

I mailed the registration package on Monday, so it could arrive by the deadline.

And then I ended up having a great week of swimming. On Wednesday we did some hard 50s, 100s, and 200s. And on Friday the coach was timing another swimmer in my lane, when she asked if I wanted to be timed as well. I was feeling good that morning, already in the 200m warm-up, as well as the 350m of drills and an easy 600m free that followed, so I said sure.

I also promised that I would not be grumpy, no matter what the stopwatch showed. 

There were just two of us in the lane, with my teammate soon well ahead -- I had left five seconds after him. I felt in tune with the water, moving through it smoothly without much effort. "I feel fantastic," I thought, and kept repeating that phrase so I would hold on to that sensation.

I briefly had to adjust my swim cap after 300m, and increased my effort in the final 100.

"Six thirty-eight!" Coach Roseline said.

Wow, are you sure?! As it turned out, she had not yet deducted those five seconds I had started after my teammate, so I had in fact swum 6:33, a 16-second improvement from the time that had so disappointed me just 2-1/2 weeks earlier. (And compared with 7:32 I did in a time trial in January.)

I am getting excited for provincials now. The 400 qualifying time for the 2014 FINA World Masters Championships is getting closer -- at 6:15 it might not be within reach next weekend but I sure am going to try my best.

The standards for my age group in the other events are 36 for the 50, 1:20 for the 100, 3:00 for the 200, and 13:20 for the 800.

By comparison, in my first swim meet two months ago, I swam 1:27 for the 100, 3:12 for the 200, 6:56 in the 400, and 14:24 in the 800. Securing one, any one, would make me very happy.

I have no intention of going to Montreal if I qualify (though I never say never either) but the times provide great goals to work towards. Goals are what keep me interested and focused on digging a little deeper, which is ultimately what makes me happy -- knowing that I gave it all I had, whatever that might be on that day in whatever aspect of life.

That is what I love most about training as an endurance athlete -- it teaches you to keep challenging your beliefs about your ability and what you have to give, physically and mentally. You always find more than you expected. And on days that you don't, you just try again the next day.

April 16, 2013

Thoughts on the Finish Line: Boston

I sat down at my desk just past 6am to write in my journal, as I do every day. After marking the date and day -- April 16, Tuesday -- my fountain pen moved along the page to form "the day after the Boston Marathon got bombed," and my eyes filled with tears. I feel so, so sad.

The horrendous details known as I write this -- three dead and more than 180 wounded, according to CNN -- are devastating, particularly considering the description of the types of injuries I have read in various reports about the blasts near the finish line of this iconic race, the world's oldest marathon.

Anyone who has ever been at the finish line of any race, whether as a spectator or as a competitor, has experienced its magical qualities. On any other day, this area is just a city street or a town square. But on race day there is nothing like it in the universe—it becomes a place where long-held dreams are fulfilled and new ones are born.

Each one of us who has ever accepted the challenge to try to race a certain distance, particularly the marathon, was forever changed at a finish line.

Who knew that there was this person inside of us with the will, determination, imagination and the simple faith that they could cover 42 kilometres and 195 metres on foot? The time it took did not matter, truly it does not. (If anything, the longer you needed the more courage the effort required.)

Those who prove to themselves that they, too, can run a marathon simply by doing it float across that finish line into a new identity, a marathoner. They are forever altered as the seemingly impossible just became reality because they made it so, one step at a time.

Runners never travel alone, however, even if theirs is a personal quest. Everyone around the runner is touched by their explorations as they prepare for the journey to that finish, that closure of a chapter -- often several chapters – which in turns open up a new and broader horizon. 

Husbands, wives, daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, friends, colleagues, and sometimes even perfect strangers, come to witness the culmination of their efforts, somewhere along the marathon course but most often especially at the finish line. The energy released and exchanged among those waiting and those arriving is palpable and magnetic.

“I am at my best nearing the finish of a race. Until then I am just another mediocre distance runner… But with the finish in sight, all that changes. Now I am the equal of anyone. I am world class. I am unbeatable. Gray-haired and balding and starting to wrinkle, but world class. Gasping and wheezing and groaning, but unbeatable,” wrote Dr George Sheehan in Running & Being: The Total Experience.

Any and every race is a celebration of all the training an athlete has put in over weeks, months, years. The finish line is the zenith of that celebration. It is both the symbolic and the tangible end of a pilgrimage that is nothing short of transformational, the sacred destination after a long journey where every person fights their own battles, struggles with their own demons, and hews their own paths to come out victorious.

Reaching the finish is proof of that, each and every time, and of immeasurable value to the soul. 

Every marathon, every race, is a journey of hope. It is about gathering courage, strength, and discovering another Self within. Running is about the drive to become a better person, about opening up to possibility -- for ourselves and for those around us. It is about believing in that which we cannot see, that which we cannot touch other than with our hearts.

The finish line is a gathering of spirit, and a belief in that human spirit -- the drive to improve ourselves, to challenge our own assumptions about what we think we can do, to defy self-doubt, to grow, to release what is hidden in our everyday persona, a character we have adopted without wondering often enough what else we might have to give.

Running is a quest for awareness, insight and understanding -- of our Selves and, with that, the Universe. It is about finding that we can extend ourselves and liberate another part inside of us we did not expect to see there. 

The finish line is innocence, happiness, gratitude, and potential -- both the one realized and the fresh potential uncovered, all in one step that passes underneath that timing clock, a rite of passage not just registered by the chip on our laces or ankle, or the BIB number pinned to our chest. It is felt deeply and stored in our psyche so we can touch its essence whenever we need it.

The finish line is a gathering of human potential, that of the individual and of the collective. We reach it by transcending the ego, towards and into the Self. Every marathon prompts an honest inner dialogue that soars beyond words in our brain into peace and stillness in our mind; this quiet conversation with the Self occupies our entire body, permeates the Spirit and lifts us to that finish line, the start of a renewed and more inspired life.

My love, my mother, my father, my sister, my dog, my best friends have waited for me at finish lines, craning their necks in anticipation to watch me complete the next leg in my pilgrimage. Willing me closer to my goal, the loved ones patiently standing guard at that otherwise ordinary place in history and geography just to witness what they know to be important to me, and therefore for them. 

I, too, have waited at many finish lines, cheering my loved ones -- Tim, my sister, best friends, team mates, competitors -- in their own pedestrian pilgrimages. Witnessed, and shared in, their personal victories of goals reached, fresh ones conceived in the sheer joy that comes with achievement.

Each of the more than one-hundred finish lines I have crossed held me still in time and simultaneously propelled me forward.

It could have been my love, father, mother, sister, friend, colleague, dog at that finish line yesterday, and it could have been me. Therefore I feel it was me, though I realize I cannot fathom the true extent of what it must be like for those affected.

At that finish line we all become one and that is why I feel so incredibly sad about what happened to all of us yesterday at the Boston Marathon. My thoughts are with you.

April 10, 2013

Easing back into running after injury - update

Yesterday I did my longest stretches of running yet as I hope to have rid myself of the injury that stopped my training dead in its tracks nine months ago just as I was in the best shape of my life.

The plan called for three 10-minute runs, separated by walk breaks of 2 minutes. I warmed up by walking 13-1/2 minutes to a trail that offered a flat experience.

A year ago, I was getting ready for what would turn out be my fastest marathon yet, 3:00:29, with a relatively easy week of 100K of running.

Yesterday it was challenging to run 10 minutes at a time. I realized I had to remind myself to enjoy it because my mind is still busy "running scared"--constantly surveying my right heel for signs of trouble, as only the continued absence of pain will tell me whether the injury is behind me.

It felt like a real run, and I tried to relax into the joy of it as much as I could. But toward the end of the third 10-minute stretch, at about 7-1/2 minutes, I thought I felt something in my heel. And I mean this very literally indeed--I thought I felt something in my heel. I stopped, immediately, and started walking.

Before yesterday, Tuesday, I did three 8-minute stretches, with 3-minute walk breaks on Sunday, and three 7-minute runs also with 3-minute walk breaks on Wednesday, totalling 24 minutes and 21 minutes of running respectively.

Yesterday's run, even with the third stretch cut short by 2-1/2 minutes, added up to 27-1/2 minutes, so I am pretty stoked. Perhaps I was too cautious in stopping early yesterday, and my heel was OK as I walked home. It seems OK this morning too.

As my friend and life-long runner Dessie Suttle reminded me in a note the other day, "Don't be a slave to any program. Be flexible if you can't do the distance, say 3x 10 minutes, drop back to maybe 7 minutes, whatever your body or healing injury dictates, listen to your body. Use that program as a guide but don't be afraid to change times and distances to suit YOU."

Great advice, indeed.

April 09, 2013

Learning a new language: Czech

"To know another language is to live another life." - TG Masaryk, President of the First Czechoslovak Republic

Seven days ago I began a Czech language course. I opted for Pimsleur's digital package with thirty 30-minute audio lessons and have progressed at the recommended 30-minute lesson a day so far. I like the method and think it is good value at $129.

It is not the first time I considered trying to learn this language spoken by about 12 million people. For now I am simply focused on finishing the Pimsleur beginners' course, though I have already discovered other great resources.

It takes time to learn a new language; it is not so hard to pick up a few words here, a few sentences there. Becoming fluent, however, takes years of enthusiastic and committed effort.

Even in our mother tongue--mine is Dutch--we can always discover fresh words to add to our vocabulary.

I grew up with snippets of Czech as my mom was born in Czechoslovakia, the country that existed from 1918 until 1992, when it split into the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic. I never learned more than the odd word, sentence and expression, though the Czech sounds are familiar.

As a native Dutch speaker who became an Anglophone journalist, copy-editor and author, I am well aware of the effort ahead. The key is to take it one step at a time and to enjoy the journey.

Of course my mom was enthusiastic, addressing her emailed response in Czech, "Ahoy Marketa".

I asked my friend Graham Fuller, who has studied more than a dozen languages including Russian, Turkish, Persian and Japanese, for general advice.

“Czech is not all that easy, like other Slavic languages lots of (unnecessary) endings and irregularities. I don’t really know it, but know Russian well. It is mildly harder than Russian I think due to a few added grammatical demands, but there is much encouraging arts and music in it, including great Dvorak and Smetana and Janacek operas,” Graham said.

He also gave me a copy of How to Learn a Foreign Language, the first book he published (1987).

"By learning a foreign language, you are in a way getting into the mind of that Frenchman, that Russian, or that Chinese," he writes in How to Learn a Foreign Language. "You are starting to share with him the way he 'dresses' his own thoughts and expressions--in linguistic clothes very different than your own."

He recommends recording yourself in the language you are trying to learn so you can compare the sound of your pronunciation with that of the native speaker. 

I also found some neat Czech online resources like and

And I discovered that the Squamish Public Library offers free access to Mango languages including Czech to all its members.

So for now I have plenty of material to study and I am very excited about it.

March 25, 2013

Return to running, an update

It seems that I have graduated from the initial ease-back-into-running program. On Sunday, I ran four minutes, followed by a 60-second walk break, and repeated this another three times for a total of 20 minutes.

My heel/ankle has not protested so far so I am now progressing to the next stage of my return from injury. Tomorrow I will start this program, by Pete Pfitzinger, which -- if all goes well -- will have me running half an hour in three weeks. That would be amazing!

Despite my body's cooperation and a positive attitude, I am still running scared too, worried that the pain in my heel might return as the distance slowly increases.

I am determined to keep taking it easy; my first run after a complete 4-month layoff from running consisted of just 30 seconds. I have taken seven weeks to build up from 30 seconds to 4 minutes.

Bikram yoga remains a fundamental part of my new training regimen; last week I practiced four times, bring the total number of classes I have taken in the past three months to 43. (I would have gone more often had it not been for a few small mishaps, including a cold, bruised knees from a fall, followed by badly chafed hips from a 3-hour ride on the Computrainer).

I also finally invested in a proper outfit for hot yoga, which makes an amazing difference from running tops and shorts. I opted for a pair of dark blue Tonic shorts and a racer bra top by Onzie (Tie Dye), both offered at the studio so easy shopping.

Each class provides another stretch of hard-won and much-needed flexibility. Many of the teachers' cues remind me, indeed make me more aware, of the frame of mind as a runner.

Most importantly now, I focus on this one: "You are exactly where you need to be."


On Saturday afternoon, the Chief's Third Peak was the perfect place to be.
Luka & I are exactly where we need to be

Drew, Luka & Tim

March 21, 2013

Vanessa Fulfils Sub-3 Marathon Dream

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A little less than a year ago, Vanessa Gosselink was preparing for the Utrecht marathon in the Netherlands where her goal was to finish before the clock reached 3:00:00.

In October 2011, she had targeted Sub-3 at the Amsterdam marathon, but had to settle for 3:02:42, a stellar time that was not only a personal best but also fast enough to earn her the Dutch national masters championship.

Utrecht proved a disaster—rain, wind, and a wrong turn resulted in a 3:07:50 finish instead. It was a sharp time given the circumstances, but not at all what she had in mind.

Vanessa, a former pro cyclist, originally began running to recover from a leg fracture that ended her Olympic dreams. As a road cyclist, she had made the Dutch national team in 1988 and earned two stage wins in the Tour de France Feminin.

After missing out on a spot for the 1992 Olympic team, Gosselink swapped her road bike for a mountain one and excelled once again; she earned three Dutch national titles, two Benelux (Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxemburg) championships, and was ranked in the world's Top-10 for three years, from 1993 until 1996.

She was selected for the Dutch mountain bike team heading for the 1996 Olympic Games but it wasn't meant to be. A broken leg three weeks before the Games shattered that dream (read more here). Once recovered, however, she found solace and joy in running. And a fresh goal.

By 2009 she ran her first marathon in 3:47, finishing a second one six weeks later in 3:31. She knew she could go faster, and proved that by running a 3:08 and then a 3:06 in 2010. The following year, she went faster again, crossing the line in 3:05, before speeding up to 3:02:42.

Utrecht, held in April 2012, was the first marathon where she did not improve her time. She realized weather, organization, and plain bad luck had played a key role in that result. Still, doubt is never far away.

But the confidence she was capable of Sub-3 won out.

Six months later, she proved herself right when she smashed her personal best by a whopping eight minutes, flying across the Amsterdam marathon finish line in 2:54:09.

Another two months later she improved her half marathon time to 82:48, speeding up from her previous PB of 86:41.

To top it off, she ran the Apeldoorn marathon in February 2013, finishing in 2:53:57.

To what do you credit the breakthrough successes you have experienced in the past six months?
First of all, I have not been injured (knock wood), so I have been training consistently, day in and out, just taking a break once a week (mostly Saturday) and an easy run on the Mondays. I think this is the most important factor.

Second, I started to do some short-interval training seriously on the road, where every 100 meter is marked, which makes it easy to do short intervals. For example, 3 sets of 3x300metre and 1x 400metre at 100 percent. Really hard, but very effective.

Third, I lost some weight… I am not big in the first place, but losing some muscles in my upper body and thereby another 2-3 kilograms makes me just that little lighter. So all energy and oxygen can flow into my legs, and no "useless muscles" in my upper body are using any of the precious energy during the race.

Though I must admit that I have gained them again after the last marathon, because my body just needs a break. Getting into my next goal, I will have to cut back again on all the delightful chocolate.

Which result are you most proud of, or have you enjoyed most, and why?
The marathon in Apeldoorn was a big surprise. A hilly course and I never expected to run a personal best and almost winning the race. Finishing second feels great. And in the last 10K I made up almost 2 minutes, racing the last kilometers in 3:44, 3:52 and 3:48. I continuously felt like running in the flow….but maybe the memory is most fresh and therefore mentioned here.

Did you change your training since Utrecht?
Yes, I started doing more short intervals, continued running 6 times per week.

How did and do you silence your doubts, in training and racing?
I do have doubts of course, like everybody else. Not so often in training, because I just love to run. But whenever I am about to start a hard workout and motivation is lacking, I think about the last race where I had that ‘perfect feeling’ and try to get back into that flow. And make myself remember that I will only improve when training is hard and you keep pushing beyond the comfort zone.

And when race day comes, especially when it is my big goal, like a marathon or half marathon, I know that I should feel a little stiff and ‘not so good’. I have learned that feeling that way is a good sign for me—it means that my body is fully loaded with energy, and that it is just a little lack of endorphin that is making me feel that way….

What, in your opinion, were the key sessions that helped you improve over the marathon distance?
Short intervals as earlier mentioned and pyramid training at 95 percent, e.g. 4/5/6/5/4 minutes at (almost) full speed. Recovery is jogging half the time of the interval in between. It makes my technique better and forces me to be very relaxed in the upper body in order to be able to fulfill the training.

In addition, I build up the amount of running at marathon speed, starting with 40 minutes about 2 months before the marathon and finally running 70 minutes at marathon speed once a week. This makes my body get used to that speed, so that when running that pace in the marathon it feels good, familiar.

And are those the same that helped you speed up your half marathon time?
Yes, I do think so!

Did you change anything in your marathon race-day strategy that helped you go faster?
My race day preparation is the same.
In the week before the race, I keep running 6 times a week, but do short sessions, where I used to run only 3 times. I feel that I do need some tension in my body to feel good.

And what about your half marathon race-strategy?
Exactly the same!

Have you noticed a change in your mental approach to training and/or racing? If so, did you consciously seek or work on those changes?
I am just a little more confident right now. And after running a Sub-3, the pressure is off. I have reached my goal, and though I would love to improve even more, I am very, very satisfied with my current PB and just love to run and hope that I can keep doing it for a long, long time!

What are the most important lessons you have learned in the past year:
-    in training
Listening to my body is extremely important. Always feel how your body is recovering, and if I do not have the motivation to do a training session on a certain day, because I feel tired, then I know I have to give myself a break and adjust my training.

-    in tapering
Take a 2-week taper period and taper once in training a few weeks before the race. So build a mini-tapering period into a preparation race. This will tell you how good you feel. Then a 3- week training period, 1 week ‘rest’, 1 week preparation into the race, and….a PB might follow!

-    in racing
Never take off too fast! Let all the others go, take your time to get into your rhythm and speed up in the second half of the race.

-    in recovery
The hardest part for me….after a marathon, I always promise myself to take it easy, but always end up running on a daily basis. No training, just run-by-heart and do whatever I like. Not running feels like not breathing. Though I know it is good to take a break, I never succeed in doing so.

What is your key advice to other runners gunning for the Sub-3 marathon?
See all the above! And start running on a personal schedule, do not follow other runners blindly. A standard schedule is a schedule that will fit nobody; it’s in the name already!

Buy lightweight shoes, lose some more fat (if you have too much), lose some upper-body muscles and go for it. And always remember to just have fun training!

Now that you have more than accomplished your goals, what are the new ones? Are you setting your sights on Sub-2:50, Sub- 2:45 for the marathon and Sub-80 for the half? How fast do you believe you can go?
Tough question….I might crawl a little further to 2:50, but think that will be absolutely the maximum. My stride is pretty short, so I will have to move up the rate. It would be nice to hit a 2:49:59, but I honestly think that this will be a little too ambitious for me.

Which races do you have planned for 2013?
This weekend a 10-mile race [she ran 1:0:39, finishing first female], and I might run a small marathon just for fun in May.

I will seriously build up again into the Eindhoven marathon in October, which is also the Dutch Championships, and hope to improve myself again.

I would also like to run a very low 38 on the 10K, probably in the next few weeks somewhere. In order to become a little faster again.

Anything else I should be asking you?
The most important thing of all: enjoy every mile that you are running!!

(Read the 2012 Q&A about Vanessa's marathon training here)