A Chapter from Holistic Respiration (a section in my upcoming book) Posted on December 07, 2014
A Chapter from Holistic Respiration (a section in my upcoming book) Posted on December 07, 2014, 0 Comments
I’m not a biblical scholar. I’ve spent far more Sundays in the saddle than I have in a church pew. In fact, I could probably quote Phil Ligget better than I could ever recite anything from Leviticus. Cycling has been my religion. And though some may know me as a triathlete now, I’d still consider myself a reformed cyclist. So, yes—my time on two wheels may have limited my religious upbringing. But it developed me in other ways, teaching me many critical lessons I use everyday.
One of the most important things I’ve learned is that life is an aerobic sport, too. And from the first day of life, infants join other obligate nasal breathers like horses and rabbits and kangaroos with a preference for breathing through the nose. Indeed, perhaps one of the main reason humans ever begin to use a consistent pattern of mouth breathing at all is, as children, we learn the practice often comes with reward.
As a father who can remember the late night cries of a kid who was hungry or sick or in some other state of stress, I’ll acknowledge that my son learned that lesson well. Scream and mom or dad would magically appear. And this response, a parental instinct which I’m sure somehow helped ensure the survival of our species, only reinforced the mouth breathing he used to get the quantity of air he so desperately needed to discover new decibels. My son’s ability to scream was soon rivaled only by our level of sleep deprivation. We consoled ourselves saying that this was just a phase—and it was. Not sleeping, he eventually outgrew. The mouth breathing, however, was now firmly fixed in his physiology.
But if a dysfunctional breathing pattern can be learned, then it can also be unlearned.
Pranayama is the fourth step in Raja Yoga. A combination of two Sanskrit words (prana—translated as “life force”; and ayama—meaning “to extend”), Pranayama is the practice of breath control. So, it is possible to spend years of study immersed in the practices of the ancient Yogis and become proficient in the art of respiration again. Or, if you’re anything like me and prefer a more efficient road to mastery, you can spend a moment and practice awareness. It’s entirely up to you. But I promise you here that—like breath—less is more.
Pay attention to how you’re breathing, and you may find aspects of each breath which could be improved. Are you breathing too fast? Was that breath through your mouth? Is your chest initiating each inhalation? Regardless of how you answer any one of these questions, you’ve made progress. You’ve either reached the state of Conscious Incompetence or maybe even the state of Conscious Competence. And with a bit of training, your breath will begin to flow until it finally arrives to the level of Unconscious Competence. As Lao Tzu said “the perfect man breathes as if he does not breathe.”
I find the best place to begin training is with a client in a supine (back down) position, one hand resting on the belly while the other rests on the chest. I then ask the client to breathe in through the nose and into the belly which should gently rise up and away from the floor. The hand on the chest, if it moves at all, should only do so during the final third of the inhalation. The process is reversed on the exhalation, except the movement of the abdomen is completely passive as the navel falls gently back toward the spine and floor.
Usually it takes only a breath or two before the client notices a marked decrease in tension. Improved vasodilation and the anti-spastic properties of CO2—especially in the smooth muscles of the body—account for some of this response. But the majority of this increased relaxation is predicated on the autonomic nervous system (ANS) finally being brought into balance. The bottom lobes of the lung, which are best filled with nasal breathing, directly stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The PNS helps keeps the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) in check. This subject is explored in much greater detail in a later section; but for now, just understand that the maintenance in equilibrium of these two ANS branches is essential for health.
Once one has become proficient with proper breathing mechanics in supine, it’s time to up the ante. The progression I like to follow looks like this:
See, just because a person shows proficiency with a particular skill (i.e. breathing) in one position doesn’t mean that person will perform with the same level of mastery in a different or more advanced posture. This is a common mistake I find in clients who have been rehabbed in a strict, clinical setting. Once they are removed from the relative safety of the clinician’s treatment table and into the real world, the skill learned in one environment often fails to adequately transfer to another. Thus, whether the skill learned involves figuring out how to activate the lower abdominals or learning to breathe as Nature intended, a proper progression is essential for true and permanent mastery.
The penultimate step I will typically use when a client is ready for the next challenge is to have the client demonstrate proper breathing mechanics while in a position which ramps up the recruitment of the stabilizer system. For some it could be simply standing on one leg. For others with more refined reflex pathways, the next progression might be kneeling on a physio ball. Anything I can do to increase the neural drive necessary to hold the chosen position such that less attention can be devoted to the task at hand—in this case, breathing. When focused on not falling, the client can’t think about how to breathe properly. And when the client can do both simultaneously, they’ve reached the state of Unconscious Competence.
That’s when the real fun begins.
The body always gravitates toward a position of strength. So if you strengthen yourself in a position of good posture, the likelihood of you maintaining that posture gets greater and greater with each workout. Likewise, proper breathing mechanics can be more deeply ingrained into the neuromuscular system by practicing it during exercise.
Breathing is of critical importance to a successful strength training program. Optimal breathing patterns will minimize the risk of injury while maximizing the benefit of the athlete's time in the weight room. Specifically, inhalations should occur during movements where the body moves out of or away from the fetal position; while exhalations should be reserved for movements that move the body toward or into the fetal position.
This is exactly how the body works. In a properly functioning body, inhaling is coupled with axial extension, abduction, and external rotation. Exhaling is coupled with axial flexion, adduction, and internal rotation. And lifting with proper breathing mechanics will help you be stronger during the lift.
The one exception to this rule is when lifting at intensities that necessitate holding one's breath. The body does this naturally as a way to stabilize the diaphragm so the muscles of the Inner Unit have a solid foundation from which to apply force and support and protect the axial skeleton. Failure to do so would send excessive loads through the spine, possibly resulting in injury. Thus, using a heavy back squat as an example, optimal breathing for a safe and successful lift would proceed in the following order:
You’re probably thinking that cardiovascular training’s somehow different. Aerobic sports, by definition, use a large amount of oxygen. So at the very least, endurance athletes should get a pass on mouth breathing, right? Well, if you’re waiting for me to confirm this common misconception, don’t hold your breath!
A study in the Australian Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport comparing maximal oxygen consumption with oral and nasal breathing is one which supports my view. The study’s authors concluded:
John Douillard, author of Body, Mind, and Sport, references experiments performed on both elite runners and cyclists. Athletes who practiced nasal breathing reported less physical strain than mouth breathers. Quantifiable differences measured in breaths per minute decreased in one subject from 47 in the mouth breathing test down to 14 using nasal breathing. “If with training and patience, you can perform the same exercise workload with only 14 breaths per minute instead of 47 using conventional techniques,” writes Douillard, “what reason could there be not to do it?”
Ponder that question for a minute. And while you’re looking for an answer, I’ll also mention Peter Nabokov’s book, Indian Running. In it he describes how Native American runners put a mouthful of water in their mouths and then sprinted a certain distance without swallowing. A similar approach of breath control is practiced by African runners covering great distances in training with the same mouthful of water. Well, not the same mouthful—that’d be gross! But, I think you get my point.
There are numerous other works and studies to back up the all the breathing techniques I’ve referenced above. Yet it really doesn’t matter what any of the research shows. You spend more time in your body than you’ll ever spend in any classroom. You are your own hypothesis, and any lab derived conclusion is only a theory until you validate it with your own experience.
N = 1
That’s what I did…eventually. I typically have to learn my lessons the hard way, and nasal breathing was no different. Using my mouth as my primary source for respiration was all I knew when I was racing bicycles in Europe. And one day, it almost killed me.
I had just returned to Spain after my first visit back to the States in over a year. My batteries finally felt recharged—the familiarity of American food, friends, and family had done wonders for my head. Even way back then, I knew that’s where racing was really won or lost. Thus, I was anxious to test my legs during the second half of the European season.
The first race back only had one significant climb, and my director sportif was confident it would end in a sprint. We had one guy on our team who made me and most everyone else in the field look like we were standing still when he unleashed his final kick. So my job was simple: cover any early moves and make sure our team was represented if anything got away. I guarded the front of the peloton like a sentinel and shut down breaks before they formed. The few attempts which threatened our strategy were quickly nullified by my presence—I wasn’t going to work; and enough of the other riders were unwilling to give me a free ride to the finish that every breakaway I infiltrated was doomed to failure.
At 30mph, a six inch buffer disappears in an instant.
A wall of riders formed on the tarmac behind me as the haunting sound of metal against road reached my ears. I looked back to survey the damage. Other racers jumped up the road, and my instincts screamed at me to chase. But I couldn’t go until—there—I saw him. At the bottom of the pile was our sprinter. He was half sitting with a mass of bodies supporting him and a tangle of bikes caging him in at the same time. The way he held his arm told me his race was over.
I exploded into pursuit. My handlebars almost caving in with the effort, I launched myself forward. A line of riders disappeared around the curve ahead, and I turned myself inside out to catch them. There was still 20K to go, but the final sprint had already begun.
My legs tore into the pedals like they were mad. The bike responded by flying up the road as I ripped the oxygen out of the air. The snarl on my face was a mix of pain and intimidation—I was trying to scare fatigue away. The watts I was putting out were simply not sustainable. I had been racing my last 200 meters for over a kilometer, and the fingers of lactic acid were wrapping around my thighs in a grip of steel. But just as my legs were about to seize, I got close enough to the riders in front to feel a small give in the wind. I gasped for air and felt a thud. Swallowing on instinct, a buzz drifted down my esophagus before I realized what had happened.
I had swallowed an insect. And though it was hard to tell with my lungs on fire, I was pretty sure it was a stinging one. A sharp burn shadowed a swelling at the back of my throat, and my desperation to catch the break instantly became desperation to breathe. I pulled up and then through the line of riders, trying to disguise my effort. It felt like I needed to cough up a big wad of phlegm. Cocking my head to the side seemed to open up my airway, so I kept going. The athlete in me told me that this was the winning break. And I’m not sure if it was the same voice or the one keen on survival, but part of me knew the medical care I needed would best be found at the finish line.
My struggle for breath mirrored my thoughts as I leaned my head first one way and then the other to try to find some air. “Do you know how to tell someone in Spanish that a bee has stung your uvula and that you can’t breathe,” I asked myself. When the answer came back, “No”, my response was “Well, shut the fuck up and race then!” So I did—to 5th place and a story to tell after a concerned shot of epinephrine in the medical tent. Good thing I wasn’t picked for drug control after that….
Each nostril is innervated by five cranial nerves from the opposite side of the brain. When I first began trying to breathe with my mouth closed (and not just out of fear of insects flying into it), the only things working worse than my nose were those neural connections. Apparently, my hemispheres weren’t cooperating and neither were my nostrils. One side was clogged like a dirty drain, while the other seemed quite content doing most of my oxygenation. So I applied a technique I cane across in my studies on respiration:
The more I practiced the above steps, the easier it became. That’s not surprising as you get good at what you do—including nasal breathing. Eventually, the contribution from both sides balanced out, and I tried nasal breathing with activity. It didn’t take much practice before I noticed my respiration rate decreased, remaining calm and relaxed at higher and higher exercise intensities.
Try it for yourself. Next workout you do, try to just breathe through your nose. It may be a bit uncomfortable. You might even find you have to slow down a bit. And that’s o.k. Holes in your development are usually what trip you up on your way toward a goal. Besides, why are you in such a hurry? You gotta crawl before you can walk; and you gotta walk before you can run. Once you can do your chosen sport while breathing though your nose, you’ll finally be able to reach your athletic potential. And the cool thing is—when you get good at keeping your mouth shut, you can talk even more smack.
The performance of your legs or lungs leaves nothing lost in translation.
RAAM 2014 Posted on June 26, 2014, 6 Comments
You never know what’s around the corner. Sometimes it’s a violent gust you sense a second before it hits your skin. Other times it’s a sudden drop off into a landscape being painted by the sun as it crests the horizon. And then there are those turns which invite you to carve the road with two 23mm slabs of rubber, a carbon frame, and nerves of steel. Whatever hides behind the next bend, leaning harder into the moment forces every nerve fiber to grip the present like gravity holding you to the ground.
Exiting the apex of a turn on the last day of the Race Across America, I saw a motorcycle coming toward me in the opposite lane. He slowed as if startled, and my hands shifted subtly on the bars of my bike. When you’re descending at 50+mph, anything on the road is a potential threat—small cracks; debris; oncoming traffic. I gently angled to the outside of my lane and placed my index fingers along the brake calipers. Trying to make eye contact with the motorcyclist, I stared at his helmet visor until I saw it.
A left turn…his left turn.
A road I was fast approaching disappeared off to my right, and I instinctively knew he wanted to go that way. Still, his hesitation and my adjustment gave me the gap I needed. I was passing him before—
—he gunned the engine and dove into my path. I pressed firm left on the bar to steer the bars right. The action leaned the bike sharply left. Now it was a race of my front wheel against the rear wheel of the motorcyclist. I tapped my rear break to cause a short skid which stood my bike up and brought my wheels back underneath me. Screaming past the rear of his bike, I dropped one F-Bomb and went back into my tuck.
The 2014 RAAM clock was ticking.
There’s a fine line between disaster and opportunity. Perhaps it’s a matter of timing. I like to think it’s more a matter of perspective. Either way, I was finding it difficult to see the bright side of the rash I had developed. And maybe that’s because it was growing where the sun doesn’t shine. It was the Monday before RAAM, and I was riding my mountain bike home from work when I noticed irritation in my nether regions. I didn’t need a dermatologist to tell me that 3000 miles was going to be a challenge. I needed him to tell me how to clear the rash up before the start of the race on Saturday. His look was less comforting than the ointment he prescribed. So as I left for Oceanside on Thursday morning, I wasn’t itching to go so much as itching.
I met Lisa and Jeannie at the Atlanta airport. Once on the plane, we all three got a shout out from the pilot as he made his pre-flight announcements over the intercom. The applause we received from the passengers was yet another sign that we weren’t alone in this fight against cancer.
Arriving at John Wayne in sunny California, Jerome and Ron picked us up in one of the follow vans to take us to our hotel. There we reunited with the rest of the Georgia Chain Gang—18 strong and responsible for almost a quarter million dollars in fundraising this year for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. Under the direction of David Payne (a.k.a. McGyver), we toiled through the final preparations of crossing T’s and dotting I’s as the logistical puzzle of RAAM was about to begin.
The start of RAAM is a potpourri of cyclists, television cameras, bikinis, and curious onlookers all merging with cheers and announcements as each team is sent off at one minute intervals. The parade like atmosphere is enhanced by the ringing of cattle bells being raucously swung by most everyone in the audience. Our eight member team lined up as we were called to the line. And after the voice over the loudspeaker announced that one of the Chain Gang was battling leukemia, I raised my hand in acknowledgement. Little did he realize that every person on our team was intimately involved in the fight against blood cancers. We each pedaled for a purpose.
A few hundred meters past the start, six of the eight turned off as Ben and Dave P. started the first leg of our 3000 mile journey. As members of the night shift, they were on deck first. I followed them with envy in my eyes as they pedaled into the distance. I was raring to go. After all the ceremony and build up, my start seemed anit-climatic. Hop in the Sprinter Van and drive 300 miles along the race route to try and sleep at the hotel in Blythe, California. It was 104 degrees there. The race had just started, but it was already heating up.
Sometime between 2:20 a.m. and 2:45 a.m. when my alarm was set, I finally dozed off. A combination of excitement and hot temps kept sleep from coming until it was too late. I walked out of my room into the furnace which would be our arena for the next 12 hours or more. And dry heat or not, my singlet was sticking to me before I made it into the van.
Breakfast on the road was different for all the members of the day team. For driver, Ron, and navigator, Charlie, it was coffee. Out shift leader, Frank, was in contact with the head of the night team and doing his best to calculate the best place to meet. Texts and phone calls seemed to sustain him. Either that or he was just too busy to bother with food. I chewed a small bit of buffalo jerky, grinding away at it slowly, methodically--starkly contrasted against the frantic pace of events around me.
The dynamics of RAAM for a team meant you never knew exactly when or where you'd begin racing. Indeed, you really never knew who would be racing the first leg as that was predicated on who was finishing their shift on the night team. The only constant was the why of our racing. And even that motivation would be sorely tested by the end of the week.
"Andrew's on deck."
The call from Frank was like a shot of coffee, and a rush of adrenaline shook off the last vestiges of sleep as my heart rate edged up a notch. I've raced hundreds of times in my career. And the moments before the start of any event are always the same. My concentration narrows to my inner environment. Even during the pre-ride check--air in tires, water in bottles, bike in gear--as I zip up my skin suit, I insulate myself against the chaos around me. Now it's only me and the road. Tonight, the darkness was helping. It seemed to cloak my excitement, and I tried to save my energy for the pedals.
Beams of flashing lights heralded another rider. The blackness of 1 a.m. local time made it impossible to tell if the racer was one of mine or another team's. Yet as the distant figure came closer, the Chain Gang uniform became clear. I straddled my bike in the headlights of the follow van and waited for my team mate to put his foot down. Full stop exchanges between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m. But as soon as his cleat touched the ground, I was off.
No warm up. Instantly anaerobic. Legs and lungs doing exactly what they'd been prepared to do for the past twelve months. Like every competition I'd ever raced, I trained for this exact moment my entire life. And other than the dryness in my mouth, I felt like I was exactly where I should be. Home on two wheels at 30mph.
The second shift felt better than the first. Back when I used to race bicycles, my second ride of the day was always better than my first. And today I would get to see what number three and four felt like, too. By the end of each, my confidence had grown. I was back doing what I do best. Testing myself. And there would be five more days of tests to come.
Day two of RAAM began after two hours of sleep, and I noticed my right knee was aggravated. I had opted for sleep instead of stretching the night before. So my recovery may have been sub-optimal. But I was pretty sure the rash on my taint and ass was causing a small change in position that was magnified by approximately 20,000 pedal strokes. By the end of my second leg that day, the back of my knee had a knife stabbing into it with each pedal stroke. I was all too familiar with fatigue--maybe even inviting it. Broken bones and road rash I could handle, too. But I couldn't believe that cycling, my one constant even in the deepest despair of leukemia, was betraying me.
2500 miles to go, and my body was failing me. Worse still, I felt like I was failing the team. We'd been racing for less than 48hrs, but we'd become a team long ago. The fund raising; the meetings; the group rides--all became opportunities to learn each other's stories and our reasons for being here. We all had a story to tell. And I didn't want mine to end this way.
Frank, the Day Shift’s captain, convinced me to try and ride easy. I was desperate to contribute and would give anything a shot. Hell, I'd ride with one leg if I could. As long as I wasn't a burden to the team, I would do whatever it took to get to Annapolis. I did two more rides at a much reduced pace. Both shifts felt almost therapeutic. I needed movement to heal, and there was little to be had in the tight confines of the back seat I shared with my vanmate, Libby. But the bike offered a sort of pedaling massage which lifted my spirits along with the average speed of our team. And as long as I didn’t pull up on the pedals too hard or too fast—a skill I had trained over half my life to do—I could ride without too much pain.
The clock never stops during RAAM. The relentless pressure of time was one I felt more keenly now that I was injured. I knew my knee had an expiration date—one which I tried to prolong via myofascial stretching pre and post ride. Yet even that practice ended up being rushed: our van had to speed up the road to make a clean exchange with the other van’s racer; or, if we were in direct follow, we had to make sure Libby was adequately supported and staying on course. Time was still the issue once the night shift took over for us, too. We’d quickly unload our two vans. Pack all the bikes, luggage, and food back into the Sprinter. Drive 2-4hrs up the road—sometimes stopping for dinner or groceries; sometimes not. With the minutes constantly in motion, you often had to choose between sleep and food. Throw in laundry, a quick shower, and organizing the 2-3 a.m. wake up/departure, and nutrition often lost out.
That’s one area where the crew shined. The navigator’s job was to navigate. The driver’s job was to drive. But both would end up in the role of Sherpa as they cared for their cyclists. Neil and Kelli did laundry, went grocery shopping, prepared bikes. Kelli even played the role of therapist when my knee had me in a funk. Their sacrifice of self—in both sleep and sustenance, not to mention time—was all for the success of the team. Personally, I’d give them MVP awards just for putting up with the stench coming from my cycling shoes (Libby should get an honorable mention for that, as well).
With nothing more to worry about other than riding, that’s exactly what us riders did: ride. Day three took our team deep into the windswept plains of Kansas. At a buck thirty five, climbing is more my forte. But my years racing in Belgium had taught me how to handle my bike in the wind. Watch the trees and grass. Look for hills or buildings along the side of the road which may funnel the wind more strongly. Anticipate the sudden gust from an oncoming semi or prepare for the immediate shift in wind direction when an 18 wheeler passes from behind. Of course the disc wheel and front tri spoke made things a bit more interesting. But I stubbornly refused the safety of the bullhorns and stayed in my aero tuck, determined to make Kansas my bitch.
The first signs of discord appeared in the early a.m. of day four. Some riders overslept. Rushing to meet the night team, we missed a turn and went off course. One team member even forgot his wallet at the hotel we left some 45 miles down the road. My lack of sleep had me hoping that Jerome would be riding first. But I put my gloves on like gauntlets and tightened my shoes in case I got the call. “Being sleepy is a good thing,” I told myself. “It’ll keep you from going too hard so your knee can rest.”
The knee was still an issue—bigger than I was letting on. But other than that, my body felt great. I had prepared myself well for RAAM. I had done no running in the previous few months. Even strength training had been removed from my program two weeks out from the start. And because I’d been more riding than racing since day two of RAAM, my legs felt surprisingly fresh. I also realized that each mile brought us closer to Annapolis, the finish line, and rest. In fact, the only thing I really feared at this point were the climbs of West Virginia.
That test came on the final day. By then we were firmly in third place. And barring disaster for us or another team, the standings weren’t likely to change. Sub six days had somehow slipped away during the past 2500+ miles, too. Wrong turns, traffic, stops at train crossings—all those factors combined with fatigue to push our average speed too low. Still, we’d set a new team record: both in crossing of the country and in money raised. And I had scratched another feat off my bucket list. Getting eight cyclists and ten crew members across the country without anybody being killed (or killing anybody) is no small feat—one that I was proud of. Yet Frank wasn’t quite satisfied yet….
The Four Sisters were the toughest climbs in the race with grades upwards of 20%. Frank’s plan was to stage his four Day Shift riders along the ascent, effectively breaking up the climb into four shorter ones. Instead of grinding to the top, we could sprint to the next rider and hand off to a cyclist who was rested (or as rested as could be expected after five days of racing). The planning involved took the pressure of RAAM to a new level, and I’m not sure how he did it. But we closed on second place and increased time on the team behind us, all while maintaining an average speed just short of 20mph during this section. That included the descents, of course.
I was the lucky rider picked to go down. I may be gravitationally challenged, but I don’t have much fear (or common sense, depending on your perspective). And I had already proved my descending capabilities on a descent during day two when I closed eleven minutes on the team in front of us in 12 miles. So while I had to work going up, I also got the reward of going down. It was on the last of the Four Sisters that I’d come a little too close to the motorcycle rider not used to cyclists breaking the speed limit.
No other topography could’ve gelled us together so well except the actual finish line which we crossed on Friday night. Our official time was 6 days, 6 hours, and 13 minutes. And as we waited for the official RAAM vehicle which would escort us to the celebratory finish line at the pier in Annapolis, we hugged and laughed and cried with an intensity which only 3000 miles of racing can produce. It was dark and beginning to cool. I tried to drink in the faces of these seventeen amazing people. Folks I felt closer to than some of my own family. The road can do that. It takes you wherever you want to go, but it’s almost always somewhere you never expected. Our journey across the country had compressed time. It had condensed experiences and emotions to a needle point, and I felt the end of our adventure stab into me all at once.
We lined up in a double paceline behind the lead car, and I took a spot on the back row next to Dave Payne. I wanted to engrave this image into my memory. We rolled to the finish with cars passing our parade on the busy roads of the city. The streetlights would illuminate our group at regular intervals as we alternated between light and darkness. My teammates kept disappearing and reappearing—like so many who pass through our lives. And each time the night took them out of my sight, I wanted to pedal faster to catch them. “Get up here, Andrew,” they shouted, calling me to the front. I was honored they wanted me to lead the team in, but now I couldn’t see any of them. Yet just like rounding the corner of a mountain descent, I went on instinct. I would trust my line. Relax my grip. I knew they were there behind me.
Contributors to my Race Across America (RAAM) effort to raise funds for LLS Posted on March 10, 2014, 0 Comments
It takes a team....
Gratitude for all my supporters and friends below:
Hanns and Angie Billmayer
Scott and Teresa Bonder
Evan and Erin Bower
Wes and Amy Bryant
Mike and Gallie Coles
Chad and Pam Dittmer
Stephen and Katrina Dooda
Dragon Fly Reiki
Woody and Leslie Galloway
Allen and Jacque Hill
Holistic Strength Training for Triathlon
Woody and Carol Hughes
Mike and Kathy Jennings
Bill and Jennifer Jestel
Stewart and Sharon Johnston
Doug and Rhoda Joyner
Eric and Maureen Joyner
Jill Joyner Bush
Mike and Nanci King
Brian and Carrie Montgomery
Mary Charlie Murphree
Donald and Kim Nelson
Bobby and Amy Pearce
Brent and Ellianne Rivers
Gordon and Susan Rose
Ross and Kira Sloop
Arthur and Barbara Sohn
Allen and Jill Travis
Mike and Heather Weisenborn
Matt and Kelly Wheeler
Jonathan and Bethany Yearty
IF YOU'D LIKE TO JOIN OUR PACELINE AS I RACE ACROSS AMERICA TO GIVE HOPE TO THOUSANDS OF LEUKEMIA AND LYMPHOMA SURVIVORS EVERYWHERE, PLEASE CONSIDER MAKING A DONATION HERE: http://pages.teamintraining.org/ga/raceacro14/ajohnstbla
Diana Nyad: It's Not About the Swim Posted on September 02, 2013, 0 Comments
Ironman Lake Placid 2007 Posted on March 11, 2011, 2 Comments
Ironman Lake Placid 2007
Triathlon is a contact sport.
That fact got punched or kicked or elbowed into my head 100m into the first lap of the Ironman swim. My stroke sputtered and my lungs filled with water as I tried to realize what had just happened. In the frothing mass of lake and limbs, I expected my vision to be hampered, but something was wrong. My right eye wouldn’t open. The roaring white seemed to collapse on one side, weighing me down. I drifted out of my body as the melee continued and looked down. The calm of the depths below me began to look inviting.
The black eye I still wear probably saved my race. Treading water in the moments before the cannon fired to signal the start of the 2007 Lake Placid Ironman, I still had tears in my goggles. The truth of how life had so utterly changed since 2004 when I was last in Lake Placid hung heavily on Diana’s face. It contrasted sharply with the innocence of my son as he lay in his stroller. The bicycle embroidered sweater protected him from the cold; the energy unique to the start of an Ironman he sucked in with wide open eyes. I held her like I’d just been diagnosed, and we cried as if no one were watching. The film crew gave us our space, albeit with cameras rolling, and for a brief period I was alone with my wife and son on the beach. I’d take them with me through the bike and the run as well.
The blow to my head cleared me of these thoughts. In an instant I went from sappy and sentimental to self preservation. Fear of drowning brought me back to competition mode, and I started racing again. I could only see out of one eye, so my swim wasn’t straight. But every time I bumped into someone, I figured I was going in the right direction. Out on the beach for the beginning of the second lap, I took off my goggles and used my hands to peel open my right eye. It ached and felt swollen, but being able to see for the next 1.2 miles increased my confidence. I high stepped into the shallows, did a few dolphin dives, and then settled back into my swim stroke. The laws of physics were strained around the return buoy as triathletes tested whether two objects really could occupy the same space at the same time. My space I protected with vicious kicks any time I felt hands trying to grab too much of my legs. But a twinge in my left hamstring told me I needed to worry more about finding the shore than fighting for my five foot four section of water.
I exited the water in 58:44, slower than I hoped but alive. I asked a volunteer how my shiner looked after the long transition to the changing tent, and he told me it wasn’t pretty. Hidden by sun glasses, it got no further comments as I ran out of T1 for the first of two 56 mile laps.
Out on the bike I blew past my family who were stationed 2 miles onto the bike/run course in, ironically, the exact same spot I had finally quit and turned around in 2004.
They cheered like madness, and I tried to show them with my legs that they’d see me again before too long. I had come out of the water in 90th place, so I didn’t have too many of the 2300 plus ahead of me to pass. Still, I tried to ride easy as I knew it would be a long day.
At mile seventy, a Gleevec-induced spasm in my left gracillis (an adductor) warned me to dial back my effort even more. I moved at what felt like a pedestrian pace the last forty miles, frustrated I couldn’t use my strength and weight to my advantage as the road turned skyward. I imagined Jeremiah, the documentary cameraman on the back of the motorcycle shadowing me, thinking that this wasn’t the cyclist he’d seen in footage from Kona or Orlando, and I bit at the reigns, anxious to go faster. But I convinced myself the patience I showed on the bike would be rewarded on the run.
Into T2, I handed my bike to a volunteer and charged into the changing tent. An abdominal cramp as I bent over to put my shoes on elicited a question from a volunteer if I was o.k. I went into a back extension and had enough time to tell him before the muscle relaxed that I had leukemia and the chemo I was on was causing all this. His jaw was still hanging as I hustled out onto the course.
Mile one hurt—all down hill and I got passed by a couple of my competitors. But I knew I would find my legs soon. Before I ran past my family to mouth a tear-choked “I love you” to Diana, I had overtaken both of them. Looking at my splits I realized I was knocking out 7:15’s almost effortlessly. Somewhere around mile three, a guy yelled my name and told me he was Chris Sinkovich from 2XU. I guess I was running focused and fast enough that by the time his statement had registered, he was too far behind me to acknowledge. After all, he was the first sponsor after Chris Pic at Blue Bicycles who believed I could ever compete at this level again. I was wearing the clothes he had given me as one of his athletes, and 2XU was in just about every frame of film being shot for the documentary. I hope that’s enough for now, but Chris, I want to shake your hand next time we meet….
An electric cart drove up beside me, and I looked over to see my friend Skeet driving three guys with cameras. Chris, Jason, and Nick looked like they might be having more fun than Jeff who was trying his best not to run me over or distract me from the task at hand: putting 26.2 miles of asphalt behind me. They pulled over as I ran onto a long stretch of road where a field of signs lined the shoulder of the course like trees. The very first one had been made for me by my family in the days before. “Go Drewdini, #665!” it cheered.
A sharp pain and the forest of signs faded as all my attention went to my left leg threatening to cramp. That damn gracillis again—the only way to stretch it was to go into a side lunge to the right. As soon as I did that, my right psoas and quad turned into concrete and then the chain reaction began. I stood back up, but the gracillis locked down again as random contractions forced me to stop in an awkward position. A couple of volunteers saw me struggling in the middle of the road and came over to help me with words of motivation. A muscle relaxer is what I needed more as I eased into a side lunge once again. I wondered if the camera crew was getting this. Linda, one of the producers, has always wanted to capture this moment. Drama she calls it. Immobilization is what it felt like. I stood there petrified as the two men I ran down a couple of miles back passed me. I tried to move forward when my muscles finally relaxed, but they seized up again. “God,” I prayed, “please just let me finish.” The volunteer told me there was an aid station just up the road. As I looked ahead, all I could see was my competition fading further and further into the distance. I looked behind me and saw Jeff and the camera crew a couple of hundred yards away. They obviously didn’t see me or they would have been circling like vultures. It’s not that they wanted “drama.” But if it happened while they were near, they had strict instructions from Linda to capture it on film.
Parts of my brain’s neurons are filled with the origins, insertions, and actions of certain muscles. I used a few of those to convince me to try walking backwards. I felt stupid doing it, but I was making forward progress for the first time in several minutes. “I’ll do this the whole way if necessary,” I thought. “Hell, I can turn around at the last moment for the finish line camera if I have to.” So I moved forward…while backwards…and talked to the two volunteers as I walked at a 20 minute/mile pace. When I tried to turn around, I was rewarded by no cramps. Eventually, I thanked the volunteers for their company and broke into a slow jog. Twinges brushed across my body like cobwebs, but left me alone if I ran more with my arms and let my legs just be along for the ride. Only when I changed my arm swing to grab nutrition at an aid station did my legs protest enough to alter my stride.
The last half of the marathon I focused on relaxation. My pace fell, but I just wanted to finish what I’d started back in 2004. Push too hard and the finish line might escape me again. But three years, ten hours, twelve minutes, and twenty five seconds after I stepped into the cold waters of Mirror Lake for the first time, I ran onto the Olympic Speed Skating Oval to the sound of my name over the loud speakers. Something about leukemia was said, but I missed it, too intent on scanning the crowds lining the arena for my wife. She handed me my son, and I jogged with him toward the finish as he screamed with displeasure. Over his cries I heard the announcer say his name, too, and I raised one arm in the air as the other cradled Declan protectively to my body. He crossed first, so technically I was the 43rd across the line, but it didn’t matter. I’d made it. And my son had made it, too. Not long ago, neither of these miracles seemed possible. But Ironman has proven to me that anything is possible.
With a volunteer on each side supporting me, I hobbled over to a railing where Diana was waiting. We made a Declan sandwich as we cried in each other’s arms and our son screamed loud enough to show he inherited my lungs. My family was there—mom, sis and brother-in-law, their children, as well as all seven of the film crew, capturing the moment for the documentary. The crowd surrounding us probably thought I was famous with all the attention. But I’m just a guy—a triathlete, a son, a brother, an uncle, a husband, a dad, a survivor. I was asked why I put myself through everything it takes to reach the finish. The answer is more complex than I can articulate. But one truth is simple: I cherish all of these roles even more each time I become an Ironman.
Hawaii Ironman 2006 Posted on March 09, 2011, 0 Comments
2006 HAWAII IRONMAN RACE REPORT
(This is going to be a long one, so I won’t be offended if you skim it)
The earthquake is probably a good place to start. We were in Honolulu and the hotel began shivering like it was cold. Then the power went out as the room started to rock violently until, suddenly, it stopped. At the time we didn’t realize how serious it was. But 10hrs of sitting with no food/water/electricity in the Honolulu Airport took our enthusiasm away from us like a TSA screener confiscating a container of liquid from a carry on. Luckily, we got occasional updates from worried folks from the mainland wondering if we were alive. Word was there was lots of damage but only minor injuries. The 6.7 quake may have shut the big island down, but no one was killed. The worst news was that landslides had covered parts of the Ironman course, and I was beginning to wonder if the race would go on.
We got to Kona 20mins after my family (mom, sis, her husband Mike, and their two children, David and Jack) who had left Atlanta a half a day after us. My friend Jeff, the film maker, was also there. The rest of his crew was stuck in L.A.—kinda sad as the earthquake would’ve made for some serious drama—but all I could think about at the time was some food. So we drove into town, found some grub, and ate dinner before crashing in the condo. It was 3:30 a.m. Atlanta time.
Six hours later I crept out of bed and jumped in the shower. I needed to get the congestion out of my head and lungs. I’d been sick for three weeks now—my first cold in two years—great timing, huh?—but kept telling myself I was going to wake up race morning and be perfectly healthy. So I stood in the steam for probably half an hour and hacked up a lung and blew my nose, not too worried about waking Di. We had a water heater in our room that made a loud gurgling/peeing sound every 15mins, so if she could sleep thru that….
At 7 a.m. I went for my first run of the week. Stepping outside, I thought to myself, it’s not that hot. 5miles later I would’ve still said the same, but the sweat on my shirt spoke differently. I’ll take heat over cold any day, but I was beginning to respect what it might feel like after 9hrs of racing.
Mike drove me over to Bike Works later that morning. The crew at the shop took me in as one of their own, building up my bike for free and bending over backwards during an extremely chaotic week to make sure my race went smoothly. Even with all the racers flooding the shop, you never would have imagined that less than 24hrs earlier the entire contents of the store were all over the floor. When I walked in, they knew exactly who I was—the documentary crew had sent 2 gigantic movie posters with pics of me on them so big it was embarrassing—and treated me like royalty. Linda, manager extraordinaire and the person who set up my relationship with Bike Works, said she recognized me cuz of my legs. I just hope she wasn’t referring to how short they are.
Next on the agenda was a recon of the swim course. I planned to do the entire 2.4 to get an idea of what time I should shoot for—my P.R. is a 56, but that was without surf-able sized waves making it difficult just to get off the beach. The water conditions in Kona can be rough, but the lingering effects of the earthquake had the ocean in a particularly foul mood. Nobody else was swimming—a stark contrast to the hundreds of athletes that would invade the water each morning in the days to follow. Though the tides were so chaotic I never found a swim-able rhythm, I actually enjoyed the ride as I was tossed up and down and back again. I swallowed a ton of water but figured I’d need to sodium load anyway. And it’d definitely help clear up the congestion in my head and lungs. After 35mins I called it a day. I’d swim the whole course on race day—I hoped.
Got a call from Bike Works that my bike was ready and one of the owners, Janet, wanted to meet me. Mike drove me over there, and I met Janet (who drives a Mini like me) and Matt, the mechanic who had my bike primed for 112. I asked him what kind of beer he liked, knowing it’s good karma to take care of the guy who takes care of your steed. He told me Corona (which I later brought by and was subsequently enjoyed by 6 of his co-workers who told me they’d take care of it…).
The next day I had an interview at 9:15 with NBC (which was also filmed by the documentary crew who flew in mid-afternoon on Monday) and then went to registration. Some things which struck me first were:
--everybody is F-I-T!!!
--English is rarely spoken as most of the competitors are from outside the U.S.
--this ain’t no joke—the doc crew wanted to film the sign-in process, but nobody other than athletes were allowed in the registration area. Eventually their contact with Blair (the head person in charge of Media at Ironman whose husband happens to know and has raced with me) got them anywhere, so they were able to get the shots they needed. And if the camera crew following me around didn’t make me feel like a rock star (or uncomfortable about the attention for those of you who might believe that), then the registration process did.
When they pulled my file, instead of M30-34, my paperwork was marked “Purple.” This distinction sent me over to the table where the 200 or so pros in the race picked up their race credentials along with the other athletes with stories NBC was highlighting. I lined up between a pro from Austria (a woman shorter than me!) and the 66year Dick Hoyt whose son has serious brain damage leaving him unable to use his arms and legs. Now this guy is amazing. He’s done I don’t know how many Ironmans, all pulling or pushing his son thru the swim, bike, and run. He ended up not finishing the swim leg by the cut off time this year because the conditions were so bad, but he is truly an inspiration. I was more humbled to stand by him than any of the other 1852 athletes in the race.
After lunch with the family, I took my bike for a spin down the main drag. As I checked out the competition running or cycling up and down Alii Drive, memories of the road I took to get here kept threatening to choke me up. It was a feeling I’d have over and over, especially during race day. Not so sure tears are conducive to speed, I put my game face back on and rolled 30mins out/30mins back. Felt like I had a tail wind in both directions and was encouraged—maybe I’d have a good blood day on Saturday.
The next few days were much the same. Swim in the a.m. (with Megan Malgaard, 2008 Olympic swimmer shoe-in, documentary assistant, and an actress in The Guardian) followed by a bike (Wed’s was a bad blood day), interviews with my family and the documentary crew, touching base with friends who were racing or just there in support, some A.R.T. with my good friend, Dr. Steven LaScala to keep me healthy, a few fun things like a luau where Di and I shared the ultrasound pics of our impending child (who’s obviously a BOY!!!), and as much down time as I could muster—which wasn’t a lot. While it may sound cool to have a camera filming your every move, and I know it’s for a greater cause than my own, it was time consuming. Things which should normally take 1hr took 2 or 3. Logistics were often a nightmare. Speaking of which, thoughts of the filming process and the interviews and what was said (are they gonna show that?) would keep me up at night. Or maybe that was just the damn water heater.
Thursday, Jeff drove me and Di along the bike course with Dave (one of the cameramen) and a couple of cameras to film me as well as the view out the windshield. Desolate and windy would be a good description. Another planet would be a better one. The black lava fields sprinkled with hints of greenery were like nothing I’d ever seen before. The bareness of the course could easily lull you into losing focus which, as a cyclist we saw nearly get blown off the road proved, would not be a good idea. There weren’t many turns. Just long straight-aways with mile long descents and ascents like you’d see on any other highway—this one just happened to be the Queen K—infamous in the tri world for its wind and heat and a characterizing feature of the Hawaii Ironman. Bring it on.
Friday was one last swim, spin, and short run to loosen me up and get some of the crap out of my lungs. I must have spit out more loogies across the Hawaiian landscape than all the other mucous discharges I’ve had in my life (now that’s a sentence I never thought I’d write). Found out today (3 days post race) that the attractive attribute to which I refer above was courtesy of bronchitis coupled with a secondary bacterial infection. Whatever it was, the symptoms, which took a turn for the worse on Thursday afternoon, left me with fading confidence. But I was still determined to be well on race day.
Which started dark and early at 4:00 a.m. The film crew arrived at 4:30 or so to film the chaos of race morning. By then I’d already eaten, stretched, and put on my sweet, new 2XU tri suit generously donated to my Ironman effort by Chris at Sports Multiplied . With Eminem playing in the background to ward off any slow, depressing music from infecting my head, I was ready to rock. With their credentials, the doc crew was able to drive me right up to where it’d all begin—bodymarking.
Because of my “purple” status, I went into a different line and didn’t have to wait among 1500+ nervous athletes to get my arms and legs numbered. I barely had enough arm length for my number, 1351, but got complimented by the woman writing my age on my left calf. Walked into transition with a camera dude chasing me, put some Hammer Gel in my run bag, and then got my bike prepped. Then I stood in the port-a-let line for my second #2 of the a.m. The final few minutes before the water were spent with my family who had made it to the race start by then. I slipped into my new 2XU Super Elite tri suit which I’d wear over my other 2XU race apparel during the swim. I kept repeating the company’s logo to myself: “you’re faster than you think.”
At 6:30 I got antsy about start position and pushed my way through the mass of athletes swarming down the stairs to the race start. The water was cold for me, and I’m sure I suffered from some immediate shrinkage, but it helped me wake up. I gently swam the 100m to where the pros were starting to ensure my place at the front. Maybe it’s the Southern gentleman in me, but I hate swimming over slower people—even if it means getting half drowned by folks more hydrodynamic and barbarian than myself. There were some tires lining the side of the dock from which the announcer would try in vain to keep the rabid age groupers remotely organized. Being small, I fit perfectly in the center of one with most of my body out of the water. Either the water or my cold was beginning to give me chills. Most of the other athletes treaded water after the pros were sent off with a 15min head start. But several made their way to the tires to hang on and conserve their energy. When a woman asked if she could hold on to my leg cuz she couldn’t reach a tire, I welcomed the heat of her hand. By the time the cannon fired (without warning) I was ready to swim.
The first 500m was a melee of thrashing arms and legs in a sea of white foam, so it really wasn’t swimming. When I got pushed down by a guy trying to swim not over or around but through me, I nearly went postal on the dude and started stroking with closed fists. That eased things up a bit, and I found some open water. 500m later the chaos returned with a vengeance and escorted me all the way back to the swim exit. Checking my watch, I saw 1’04”. Checking my body, I saw no blood. I’d take it.
Rinse off, strip off the Super Elite, pick up the Bike Bag, run to where my Blue T12 was racked, throw on my helmet and shoes, and stuff some extra nutrition into a pocket. A part of my consciousness picked up on the battle between an NBC guy and J.D., one of the cameramen shooting the documentary. They were fighting over the rights to the best shot of me. I think J.D. won, but didn’t stick around to see as I ran my bike out, crossed the mounting line, and jumped on my bike without stopping. Time to roll!
Passing more people than were passing me, I knew these first few miles would tell me if I was having a good or a bad blood day. I normally get stronger the longer I ride, but if my hematocrit is particularly low, I feel it almost from the first pedal stroke. 5miles into it and I didn’t feel bad, so I settled into a comfortable pace. 112miles can be a long way, especially if you have a cold and need to run a decent marathon after it. So my strategy was to stay on top of my nutrition/hydration and to never hurt.
Going through the first 22+miles in the first hr, I felt like I was following my plan. I hated being passed by folks but knew I needed to race within myself. When I push it now, I cramp. And while that would have made some good drama for Dave on the motorcycle filming me, I thought I’d save that performance for another day.
As the winds picked up, so did the drafting. I kept looking around for race officials to bust some of the obvious packs up, but they seemed as rare on the bike course as shade. The motorcycle I saw the most of was Dave’s. Race official’s orders allowed him to follow me only for 3mins at a time (never in front of me) so I wouldn’t get a penalty for pacing. He also couldn’t speak to me as that’d be considered encouragement, though one time I did see him give me the thumbs up. He told me later that he got a kick out of me violently coughing like a smoker and chucking loogies as I passed whole packs of riders drafting each other.
At mile 70, I started to feel a bit sleepy and realized that I was behind on my nutrition. I quickly took in some Hammer Nutrition based calories and then a brief rain storm chilled me enough to keep me out of R.E.M. I was also beginning to feel some irritation on my taint from the combination of salt water and aero position and began to dread the pain of a post race shower. But instead of slowing down, I sped up, smelling the finish line and anxious to relieve my crotch and ever filling bladder.
I rolled into T2 in 5’05” feeling relatively fresh and handed my bike to a “catcher.” Then I ran toward my run gear as Linda, another camera person, trailed me. I lost her when I dove into the port-a-let for a long, welcome pee break (a sign of good hydration), but she caught me again as I exited T2 to start the run. Forcing back sudden tears again, I found my wife in the crowd and gave her a high five, getting a few steps past her when I realized I hadn’t voiced the words in my head: “I love you.”
From mile 1, I was afraid that I might cramp. Not my legs or anything. I thought my face might cramp. I just couldn’t stop smiling. I was running in the Hawaii Ironman World Championships, competing against the best in the world, despite a 4 week long cold, a 6.7 strength earthquake, and freakin’ leukemia. These folks had no idea how hard the past two years had been. The physical and emotional turmoil I’d endured just to get here made 26.2 seem, like life, simply too short. I wanted to enjoy it. And I did. Every step I took I savored, almost laughing at my own inside joke—my little secret which made the brutality of Ironman a whole lot easier to endure. When I caught the eyes of some of the spectators, they’d all say the same thing: “nice smile!” And I’d grin bigger, thinking “I’m just happy to be here.”
After a final trip to the port-a-john at mile 5 so that the remainder of the marathon would not have bodily musical accompaniment, I kept knocking off effortless sub 8’s until mile 13. I was pretty much alone on the Queen K when my left extensor hallucis tendon started aching a bit. Put it out of your mind and keep going. Entering the dreaded Energy Lab on what should’ve been a welcome downhill, I felt my left hamstring twinge. F_ _ _! Slow it down a bit. Just a warning sign from your Gleevec. Keep your gait under control and force the hammie to relax. Knock down an extra Endurolyte. There…now put the smile back on your face.
With 7 miles to go, I knew I had sub-10, even at my much reduced pace. I was a little frustrated I couldn’t just let it all hang out and go 9:40 or better. But the growing number of athletes I passed who were being forced to walk or who were spreading the contents of their stomachs along the road made me realize that some forward motion was better than none. I gave words of encouragement to a few of them, their answering silence lifting in waves of heat from the hot, black asphalt I quickly put between us.
At mile 25 I saw Linda from Bike Works and thanked her for everything. I took it gingerly down Palani Road, not wanting to replicate my cramping performance of Coeur d’Alene and trying to keep the threatening tears from making an appearance too soon. I heard my name more and more often as I closed in on the finish and wondered how these people knew me. As I made the final turn onto Alii, I saw J.D. with a camera running alongside me. “How do you feel?” he yelled to be heard above the noise of the cheering crowd and the announcer in the closing distance. “Happy to be alive, man!”
I entered the finishing chute and grabbed a bag from Mike. Reaching inside I grabbed some yellow Livestrong bracelets and tossed them to the crowd on the right. I gave a few high fives and tossed some more to the crowd on the left. I vaguely remember seeing my sister, mother, and Di and then the finish line came. “Too soon,” I thought as I walked into the arms of my friends Nina and Gillian. I hugged them and tried not to cry, reserving the tears for the two who would best understand: my wife and my mom.
My watch read 9:50:10. But only I knew the true time it took me to get here.