Mental toughness

10K Swim. (too brain-dead to think of a more creative title)

I am proof that the holidays can make a person a 'lil crazy.  (No, I'm not referring to my recent trips to Target).  I've been pondering what my next  big thing will be on the race calendar for 2014.  So far, nothing stood out.  Then, after listening to Hillary Biscay's race report of Ultraman and how she swam a 10K once a week to prepare for that, I was inspired.  This past year, I raced the Del Valle Open Water 5K swim, and visions of racing the 10K next year suddenly made me excited.  So excited, that I wanted to revisit once again how that distance felt.  The last time I did my 100x100s was in February of 2012.

This time around, I enlisted the support of Coach, who was kind enough to join me for part of it.  He even let me borrow his Phoenix triathlon cap so hopefully some of that Aussie speed in the pool would rub off on me.

Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi!
We swam at Heather Farms in Walnut Creek since I knew this would take awhile, and the 8-11am timeframe at Dolores Bengston Pool wouldn't cut it.  

Steamy swims under the full moon in the mornings have been the usual at Dolores Bengston.
Heather Farm's pool was too warm and so gross.  I knew it was going to be a long day.  Luckily, longcourse was on the menu for today, which was a pleasant surprise- cutting the number of flip turns in half made the sets easier to digest mentally.

Funny how Instagram filters can make the water actually look clear! #totalfacade
Here's the set, in case anyone is interested.  I found part of Rappster's workout for his 10K swim sets, and I liked the variety that the 400s added.  Honestly, the last set of 3x400 IMs were done with one-arm butterfly drill.  After 7000 meters in, I could barely manage to swim let alone pull out some butterfly.  (maybe next year??)

10x100 (50 drill, 50 swim)
10x100 swim on 1:45 
3 x {400 IM/ 400 pull paddles/ 100 kick/ 100 back}

10x100 (50 drill, 50 swim)
10x100 swim on 1:45 
3 x {400 IM/ 400 pull paddles/ 100 kick/ 100 back}

Have fun, kiddos.

Here's some things I learned in the 3+ hours I spent in the pool today:

1) Company makes things better.  Coach joined me for a bit, and it helped to have someone next to me, count with me, and commiserate with.  When he left, it took more to stay focused and motivated.
2) Be focused on the lap at hand.  I would find myself thinking about the next set and how much more I had to do, and I would want to quit.  Then, I'd bring myself back to the lap and tell myself, "At this moment, I am focused on quality freestyle pull with these paddles..." which brings me to my next point...
3) Quality trumps speed.  I didn't concern myself with pace too much.  I wanted my stroke form to be my first priority- doing an incorrect or sloppy stroke for that far of a distance could cause some serious damage and potential injury.
4) I should have eaten more.  For most of my normal swims (3500-4000 yards), I just drink water or an electrolyte drink.  I started eating my ClifShot blocks around 5000 meters in and felt like I had fallen behind.  When you can feel yourself actively bonking, it's a bad sign. 
5) I felt weird eating.  At the end of each 1000m, I would reward myself with some chews and the girl sharing my lane would just stare.  I felt like the chick at the gym who was drinking a 400 kcal protein shake after doing 30 minutes on the elliptical.  A part of me wanted to say, "Sistalove, pleeease. Put your snorkel back on and mind your own beeeezness- I've been swimming long enough to have shared my lane with 2 different people before you who all did their workout already."  And another part of me just said to myself, "Eat, put your goggles back on, and swim."
6) I feel invincible now.  Why?  Because I swam a 10K?  No, because I swam through a bloody bandaid and a yellowjacket without barfing or screaming.

During the swim and after I had finished, Coach gave me some really good things to think about for the future- about racing vs participating, about how I am still learning what 'my fast' is, and how it's not about the races that you do, but rather how you race them.

So, am I going to race the 10K swim?  I don't know.  It's like asking someone after they complete Ironman if they're going to do another one.  For now, it's back to the drawing board again for me, hopefully with something exciting in the making.

Ask me in a week.


This morning I believed with all my heart that today would be a really fast swim day, and hopefully fast enough to secure a 1st place AG win.  It may seem trite to some, but I really wanted this.  Sure, I've never raced an open water 5K, but I did the math, checked results from last year against my old 2.5K results, and trusted the amazing coaching and swim sessions that I've had since February.  As I was eating my pre-race breakfast, I happened to stumble upon this video.

It left me tearful over my bowl of oatmeal, and there were some valuable lessons I gained- Fall into your own tempo.  Don't allow the pace of others to dictate your race.  Find your own 'fast' and have faith in it.  Trust it, even if others may judge you, and comment- like the track announcer did- that you're "way out of the race right now."

Lake Del Valle. 5K = 2 loops around.  Feeding boat on bottom left! 
The swim start was competitive and fast, and unlike triathlon where strong swimmers can 'out-bully' weaker swimmers, everyone here was stubbornly battling for position and no one was letting up.  Someone behind me kept grabbing and pulling my feet down so I couldn't breathe (I know this was likely unintentional as they were probably trying to stroke their arms forward).  But still.  At one point, another swimmer and I got entangled in each other's arms so we looked like BFFs.  That actually made me laugh.

This is cool on the beach.
During a competitive open water swim?  Not so cool.
I settled into my rhythm and kept asking myself and self-assessing- "Am I giving everything that I can?  Am I squeezing out every last drop?"  I just imagined myself in the pool next to Hulk, and all of those times when we'd have butterfly interspersed into a long swim set to build endurance- just enough to raise the heart rate, but short enough to still recover from that effort and settle back into your rhythm.  Like the butterfly, I'd sprint to chase the bubbles in front of me, roll through it, and recover.  And repeat.  On the second lap around, there was no 'pack,' but merely random individual swimmers sprinkled throughout the water.  To choose a target was meaningless.  I just put my head down and kept swimming "my fast."

As I passed the final turn buoy, I turned on the motor as high as it would go.  At this point, we were all so spread out, each of us choosing a different line to the finishing chute.  I channeled Calidoscopio, coming along that last turn- strong, in rhythm and in flow.

I ran up the ramp and almost lost my balance as the volunteer removed my timing chip.  "Good job, Bob!" I looked up in surprise at who knew my secret nickname, and it was Talia- we had swam together through high school and at UCSD. It was great to see her there. Another friendly face had also perfectly timed his bike ride to hear the announcer say my name- it really made my day.

I was really happy with my swim- 1:25:35.  Was the course longer than 3.1 miles?  Some said yes.  Regardless, I was proud of my effort and was pretty sure that I had placed.  All that changed when I checked the results.  My heart sank.  Above my name was another 32 year-old girl's name, with a time faster than mine by 15 seconds.  All of a sudden, in a flurry of disappointment, a really perfect swim became the object of detailed analysis.  

"Should I have gone out faster?"  I answered myself right away- "No.  I went out as fast as I could."  I took a leap of faith and wasn't afraid to swim alone, even if it meant ditching the feet in front of me and the effortless draft they offered.  I knew deep down in my heart that I swam the best race that I could.  I told myself, "C'mon!  You should be so happy with 2nd place!"   But still, I couldn't shake the disappointment. 

And that's when I met Susan.

As the last swimmer finishing the 5K, her 5K swim time rivaled that of some people who did the 10K swim... 3+ hours.  In fact, as she was toweling off, some people asked her if she had just finished the 10K swim.  You couldn't tell since she had a huge smile spread across her face.  Her 63 year-old body was beaming.  "That was the hardest thing that I've ever done.  I wanted to quit so badly.  But I didn't.  I'm so incredibly proud of myself that I could cry!"

Wow.  Attitude check.

Susan continued, "I know I'm a slow swimmer.  I know that."  In our conversation, I learned that she had just started swimming when she was 54 years old.  

I was intrigued.  "What did you tell yourself when you wanted to quit?"
"I dedicated this race to my friend who has cancer.  And even though this is hard, it's nothing in comparison to fighting cancer.  I do these open water swims and everyone asks me, 'What was your time?  What was your time??'"

She paused.  It was at that moment when our eyes met and I spoke.  "But really, time doesn't matter.  At the end of the day, you and I both swam a 5K.  And that's a lot more swimming than most people would ever attempt.  Your courage, irrespective of your finishing time, will serve to inspire the people you know to attempt something that is outside of their comfort zone."

She began to cry.  "Thank you."  I looked at her as well with tear-filled eyes.  Really, I was thankful to her.  Her attitude gave me a renewed and different perspective.  Sure, it would have been nice to win 1st place.  But at the the end of the day, it's more about giving all you have, at that moment, and surrendering the outcome.  And that's what we both did today.

When I look at my medal, I'll be reminded of Susan- and even if she never wins a tangible medal for her swim efforts, I know that her heart and her story is adorned with those medals of courage, honor, and faith- things of lasting value.

Hardware to remind me of this day and the lessons I learned.
Perhaps just like Susan and Calidoscopio- even if others label you as 'older' and 'slower,' you must learn to be comfortable going at your own pace in your own race.  In your jobs, relationships, or marriages, outsiders may judge and say that you are "way out of the race right now."  The trick is to drown out the voices of those critics and trust what you know is true.  It's at this moment when the race- and the victory- are yours for the taking.

Small Wins.

It was around mile 70 when I could start to feel the tears welling up in my eyes.  My legs felt like lead.  I was dropped and watched the rest of the group ride away.  Last week at this same hill, I felt so good.  This week I could barely pedal my bike.

Keith dropped back and as I slowly rolled up to him he asked, "How are you feeling?"
It was hard to breathe because I was crying.  "I'm having a hard time.  Today is a bad bike day."

Yes, this did happen.
With the physically and mentally challenging day I had experienced, I was perfectly fine riding back at my own pace since we were only 10 miles away.  His answer surprised me.  "You didn't work your a$$ off for 70 miles to ride home alone.  We're all gonna ride back together."

The last 10 miles were a tangible reminder that in life we are never alone- there are people who act as our steady wheels, shielding and blocking the wind from us so we can arrive at our destination in one piece.

Was able to do this with the wisdom of my teammates and coaches.
In his book The Power of Habits, Charles Duhigg presents the concept of "small wins."  A huge body of research has shown that small wins have enormous power.  Once a small win has been accomplished, it fuels transformative changes that favor another small win. This chain reaction and momentum that is created can convince people that bigger achievements are obtainable.  Even in difficult or challenging times, this momentum still continues to propel you forward.  Pyschologists refer to this as the "science of small wins." The concept applies specifically to business and work models, but I found it can equally apply to sport. 

Thinking back on past training workouts, I rarely remember the easy, good days.  It's those hard days; the ones that really made a dent physically and mentally- that I can recall vividly. 

I can remember the first time I climbed through Morgan Territory, feeling the lactic acid in my legs, and with each turn, seeing the pitch in the road curve ever so slightly upward.  Countless times I contemplated getting off my bike to "stretch" (aka. catch my breath).  But I didn't.  I kept chugging onward.  I kept moving forward.  And I remember how that ride taught me that my little legs have more stamina than I give them credit for.

Or that steep little climb right at the top of Mt. Diablo.  You know, the one where you want to zigzag your bike to offset the grade percentage, or walk your bike up, or kill whoever constructed the road at such an angle?  Yes, these are the rides I remember.  These are my "small wins."

Today's ride distance and the yummy Wolf food that helped fuel me.
Physically, there was nothing "winning" about this ride today.  But it taught me that it is important to finish what you set out to do, and there are people who look after you and help you reach your goal.  During Ironman on the lonely parts of the course when it starts to feel hard, these are the moments that you recall.  This recollection of "small wins"- the times when you resisted the temptation to quit, moved past it and finished intact- provides the momentum that fuels you to that finish line.

Today at mile 70 I said that it was a bad bike day.
I was wrong.
Today was a small win.

The Icarus Deception

"Stop swimming from behind.  Swim YOUR fast."  Coach first said this to me from the pool deck on Tuesday morning.  He repeated these words to me this morning before practice.  I first thought he was referring to my swimming tendencies with my lanemate, since I tend to mindlessly gauge my efforts on his pace.  He is a strong, steady fish, and sometimes it's easier to swim in his shadow than listen to my own body and what is my own perceived effort.

But Coach was referring to the fact that I am swimming slower than I am capable of, mostly because I like to be comfortable.  How can I get faster if I refuse to swim and challenge my body to a higher threshold of work? (notice I deliberately didn't use the word pain...)

Remember Icarus, from Greek mythology? He attempted to escape from Crete by wings made of feathers and wax.  He ignored the instructions not to fly too close to the sun, and the melting wax caused him to fall into the sea where he drowned.

I recently heard of Seth Godin's book, The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly? where he challenges the old rules of playing it safe and staying in your comfort zone in your career and life.  He flips the lesson on the classic Icarus myth, and instead praises Icarus for his willingness to take a risk and challenge preconceived notions.  In society, the real innovators and artists are those who defy traditional rules and strive higher.  They are not afraid to risk. Godin writes about how it is better to be sorry than safe.  We need to fly higher than ever.

In sport, our 'dangerous sun' is also know as our "red line"- the point that you reach where you either quit, vomit, or have to slow down.  Ironically, that line is rarely reached since our head prevents our bodies from ever coming close to that breaking point.

Most of us train in the gray zone, that comfortable place where we give some effort but not enough to make us faster in the long run.  I've been guilty of this.  I know my body and when things start to feel uncomfortable, I dial it back a little, recover and conserve.  I'd rather have "something left in the tank" than crash and burn.  I live up to my nickname "Shadow" at times, where I have a tendency to rest in the shadows and put out effort when I feel like I have something in the tank.  The problem is, I always have more than enough left in the tank.  I have yet to fly close to my sun because I have been afraid of the melting wax on my wings.

Exploring those limits with 3 minute TT relay efforts on the bike...

Exploring those limits with 3 minute TT relay efforts on the bike...

Hence, my coach's words of advice.

So today I swam MY fast, in my triathlon kit with more drag than I'd prefer.  I felt the lactic acid build up in my muscles.  I kept swimming.  I dismissed the negative thoughts telling me to slow down.  I concentrated on feeling strong and relaxed, and gliding effortlessly over the water.  I adopted the attitude of staying curious, not afraid.  Exploring my limits, and moving past them.

"Stop swimming from behind.  Swim YOUR fast."  Don't gauge your rhythm, your pace, and your path in life upon someone else's.  Pave and discover your own way.

I am still finding my fast in the pool and on the bike, and in life.  Today I came one step closer.

Stay curious.

Dance upon the edge.

Be like Icarus.