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 www.surfacelanguages.com and www.locallingo.com.

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.