swimming frustrations

 

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I’d swim more if I lived close to a lake like this (Ming Tombs reservoir, Beijing)

When I signed up for my first triathlon in Feb 2016, I set myself two goals:

#1 – Learn how to run properly, for long distances and injury-free.

#2 – Swim free style 1500m in 30 minutes.

A year and a half later, I can safely say I’ve (mostly achieved) the first goal, but I’m still nowhere near achieving my second goal. My monthly Strava reports provide the reason for this: I spent way too little time working on my swimming compared to cycling and running. Stats don’t lie.

During my physio-imposed days of normality, I had ample time to consider why I’d invested so little into my swimming. From a racing viewpoint, swimming is the shortest leg in a tri. I’ve seen the least improvement in my swimming even though I’ve swam almost all my life. Besides, none of the cycling or running training vaguely simulates or transfers to swimming, so the only way to train is to physically get to a pool which takes time and requires forward planning. Sigh…

I don’t hate swimming but I do hate training in the pool, especially when it’s super crowded which is often the case in Beijing. Having done a few sessions with a swim coach, I realised I hadn’t the faintest clue about free style. I’ve had to learn everything from scratch from breathing, kicking to strokes. Then there’s the anti-social aspect of swimming. Even when I used to do swim training with my old triathlon club, it was pretty difficult getting to know the other swimmers when we all had our heads underwater most of the time.

 

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swim training with my old tri club in early 2016

 

I realised that if I was serious about improving my swimming time, I had to rely on pure self-discipline to get myself to the pool two to three times a week just to do drills and swim laps. The other thing is finding a new swim coach as my previous coach has left Beijing, which is turning out to be much tougher than I originally anticipated.

As an answer to my prayers, Specialized has started providing triathlon training, including swimming. I’ve signed up for a session on Sunday. I’m looking forward to the training but am not keen to watch a video of myself swimming. It’s one thing to know that I have poor technique, quite another to be confronted with visual proof of it. But if I don’t do all I can to achieve my swimming goal, I’ll be plagued by the belief that I’m not cut out for swimming and never bother to improve. And that can’t be good for my long-term psyche.

I read a saying somewhere that goes something like this, it’s always easy to do a lot of the things we’re naturally good at, but it’s how we approach those things we find difficult that will build our character. How do you deal with something you’re not naturally good at?

normality

 

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taking a little time out to enjoy the beauty of Lingshan

Injuries have a way of taking me by surprise. I lost some skin on my knees when I fell off my bike after skidding on large gravel about six weeks ago. As I didn’t suffer any muscle aches from the fall, I continued doing bike rides in the mountains, and training for a half-marathon. Because of the large and painful scab that formed on my right knee, I couldn’t do much stretching during this time. That’s when my left knee pain began.

Initially I was in denial, thinking the pain would go away eventually. I’d generally feel fine at the start of a run and bike ride, then I’d hit a threshold when my left knee would start ‘complaining’. This wasn’t such a big problem on a run as I could just stop and walk home. But it’s a real pain (literally and figuratively) when I’d cycled 40-50km away from home and needed to ride the same distance back.

After suffering for the return leg of a 100-km bike ride, I went to see my physio at Oasis Hospital.

Before I entered his consultation room, Dr Tam noticed the scar on my right knee. I told him I’d skidded off my bike and that wasn’t the knee that I was seeing him about, and pointed to my left knee. I proceeded to tell him about the pain and the sports I’d been doing. He shook his head and said I’d been doing too much, and proceeded to examine my left knee. After prodding and poking all over my left knee, he declared I had an irritated medial collateral ligament (an overuse injury), and I was to rest and do things normal people do for the next ten days.

I then asked him, “What do normal people do?” He gave me a look best described as a mixture of amusement and disapproval and replied, “Shopping, eating and moderate exercise”. He advised me to rest, and prescribed foam rolling, stretching and strengthening exercises. Running a half-marathon and long-distance cycling were both out of the question for the next ten days.

I left Dr Tam’s office feeling relieved that my diagnosis wasn’t as serious as I imagined, but frustrated that I’d have to shelve my weekend plans and find other activities to occupy my time for the next ten days. I’d work on my swimming, meet my ‘normal’ friends I haven’t seen in a while, go shopping and catch up on all the DVDs gathering dust at home. Ten days would pass like a breeze. Or so I thought.

 

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counting down the days of normality was the only way for me to stay sane

By day 5, I was already suffering from a combination of cabin fever and boredom. While my friends were out cycling in the countryside, I went swimming (which made me happy), shopping (for essentials) then got a pedicure (to cover up my black toenails). The manicurist took one look at my toenails and worked out that I won’t be coming back for another three months. I spent the rest of the day feeling a little anxious as I wondered how I was going to get through the remaining five days.

On day 6, I gave myself a flimsy excuse (S’s birthday) to ignore my physio’s advice and cycled 40km. The ride was nothing special, but I felt like I was set free from prison. I got my shot of endorphins and my left leg felt fine. I was careful not to take this as a sign that I was completely well, and took it easy for the next four days.

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The prize I’d set for being good for ten days was a 21-km trail run in beautiful Lingshan. Dr Tam said I’d be allowed to do this as long as I didn’t push myself too hard. I took it very easy, not looking much at my watch and savouring and appreciating the beauty of my surroundings. Thankfully my left MCL didn’t give me any trouble during the run.

During the ten days of normality, I had plenty of spare time to reflect on all the possible ways I could’ve irritated my MCL. Running 15 km the day before a 90-km bike ride was definitely a bad idea. I haven’t been stretching and foam rolling as diligently as I should. I was also stressed about my work situation, which didn’t help. Then there’s the fact that I’m physically aging and need more time to recover between workouts. I read an article about overtraining and realised I had half of the symptoms. In other words, I’ve been a bad, bad girl.

Even though I was bored and incredibly frustrated with myself over the ten days, in hindsight it was good that I discovered the problem before it got worse, especially as I plan to start training in earnest for my first Ironman 70.3 in Xiamen next month. There’s always a silver lining in every cloud.

musings about cycling

After two years of riding an entry-level Giant TCR 6500 aluminium bike, I decided I was finally ready to upgrade to a carbon bike. After two weeks’ of research (i.e. talking to fellow cyclists, reading bike reviews online, perusing bikes on websites and in stores), I settled on getting a Canyon Ultimate with Shimano Ultegra Di2, but Canyon’s website rejected my credit card payment. I suspect paying for a bike with an Australian credit card while requesting delivery to China had something to do with it.

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Introducing Goldilocks to the Beijing countryside

Feeling dejected, I decided to go check out physical bike stores in my neighbourhood to see if there were any good deals around. The Cannondale store was closed so I wandered into Giant. I’ve been to this store many times in the past to get bike supplies so I’m quite familiar with the sales staff, who were happy to let me try several of their bikes that were on sale. That’s when I spotted the sizably discounted TCR Advanced 0 in my size. I took it for a spin in the store (perfect fit), took pictures of both the black and the silver versions and sent them to my cycling buddies for their (to-buy-or-not-to-buy) opinions. Two days later, I went back, bought the silver version and nicknamed it ‘Goldilocks’ after reading an online review of the bike.

So far, I’ve done almost 400 km on Goldilocks both on flats and hills, during which I picked up a bunch of new PRs on a raft of segments, dragged her through some muddy terrain and fallen off her once after skidding on some large gravel. She has been a real joy to ride, and I’m looking forward to riding many miles in the future and becoming the cyclist she deserves.

 

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Memories of good times with my first road bike (from left to right: Powerman duathlon, Sanfo Triathlon 2017, Beijing International Triathlon 2016)

I’ve discovered an interesting phenomenon ever since people’s seen me with Goldilocks, especially guys who know a little about bikes. It’s almost like because I own a fancy bike (as they call it), I must be a serious or half-decent cyclist. Beginners have been quizzing me about all things bike and cycling whenever they see me. The joke is, in the cycling club I ride with in Beijing, I’m considered either an advanced beginner or a sub-intermediate rider, depending on which end of the spectrum you’re looking at. I take so long to warm up at the start of a ride, I usually spend half of the ride trying to catch up or keep up with the group. I’m generally not the fastest and sometimes can be the slowest. I always wish I can go faster, push out more watts, increase my cadence, and not be so afraid of descents. I can change a tube if I have a flat, do some simple maintenance on my bike, and recognise when something is beyond me and requires the expertise of a good bike mechanic (like setting up my speed and cadence sensors on Goldilocks).

 

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This is what happened when I installed the speed and cadence sensors on Goldilocks *blush*

 

So I don’t always feel comfortable about dishing out advice to budding cyclists when they ask about which bike to buy, how much to spend, how to ride/climb faster, dealing with lactic acid, so on and so forth. I generally reassure newbies they will go faster, feel more confident and grow stronger, and their butts and thighs will hurt less the more miles they ride, and encourage them to go on long rides with other cyclists for safety reasons. They generally don’t like it when I say this, because it’s not a quick fix. But anything that’s worthwhile in life takes time and effort to master.

 

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How my cycling obsession began

What cycling means to me has evolved over the last four years. It started as a cheap mode of transportation and exercise, and later taught me about exceeding my limits, building confidence and overcoming obstacles. I’ve learnt much about cycling, bikes and the ancillaries (Strava and Zwift, among others) from experienced cyclists, and built close friendships with people I’ve met in the cycling community. Last but not least, cycling has taught me many lessons about life itself — the ups and the downs, the good and the bad, the fast and the slow.

 

Fellow cyclists, what does cycling mean to you?

 

 

 

 

 

 

My first duathlon – Powerman Beijing

 

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I was right behind the blond wearing the Ironman tri suit 🙂

I’ve always wondered why it’s taken so long for duathlons to come to a land-locked city such as Beijing. I’ve met so many exceptional local runners and cyclists who’d do a tri if only they knew how to swim or had the confidence to swim in open water. Ironically, I found out about Powerman China‘s Beijing race from a local cyclist who DNF’d on the swim leg of the Sanfo tri. He persuaded the organisers to let him do the bike and run legs of the race but didn’t get a ranking. He hasn’t done another tri since then.

I forwarded the Powerman China registration link to my local cycling group in early March. The organisers were doing a Women’s Day promotion, giving women who registered on 8 March a steep discount on the registration fee and a necklace with a ‘PowerQueen’ pendant. One of the girls in the cycling group wanted to do it, and a group of us followed her lead. Most of the ladies registered for the short race (5km run-30km cycling-5km run), while three of us signed up for the classic distance (10km run-60km cycling-10km run). More members of our cycling club signed up when official registration opened for everyone later.

Organising a race or any event in Beijing is usually fraught with uncertainties and difficulties. This race had the misfortune of picking the same weekend as the Belt and Road Forum, when Beijing and its surrounding areas were on high security. The organisers informed us in late April that the race was postponed to the weekend after, which meant quite a few people had to pull out due to scheduling conflicts.

 

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Duathlon transition set-up was such a breeze compared to a tri.

After falling off my bike on a descent in late April, the left side of my body had been so sore and bruised that I couldn’t do any training for about ten days. By the time the pain and aches completely subsided, it was already a week to race day. I decided I will just be content with finishing this race and not concern myself with my time.

Race weekend finally arrived. The Saturday when we had to pick up our race packs, attend the race briefing and rack our bikes was also the hottest day Beijing’s experienced in years. After a week of receiving confusing instructions about race pack pick-up and bike racking from the organiser, we were not pleased to find out that the race briefing and transition area (i.e. actual race venue) was situated 8 km away from where we picked up our race packs. Due to construction in the park, the most direct route was obstructed and we had to do a detour to get there. We missed the race briefing by the time we arrived, so we just racked our bikes and got on the shuttle to head back to town. We ended up meeting the two Aussie elites who were doing the race and had a good chinwag about Powerman Zofingen, the different between elite and pro athletes and their full-time jobs back in Brisbane (yes, I was over the moon when I found out they were from the same city as me).

 

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We shared the run course with bikes, casual park visitors with their children and dogs.

 

Race day arrived. Classic distance athletes started at 9:30 am and the short distance athletes started at the ungodly hour of 12:30 pm. Thank God the weather had cooled down overnight, but the maximum temperature was still 31 degrees. I started too fast on the run, and heated up very quickly. I slowed right down to keep pace with B, but my heart rate remained in Zone 4 throughout.

I was looking forward to cycling as the weather warmed up. The cycling course was basically a flat 10-km loop that we had to do six times. In preparation for the heat, I’d filled up my bladder with water and froze it overnight, hoping that by the time I started cycling, the ice would’ve melted and I’d get to sip on cold water while having a cool ice pack on my back. As I’ve never been skilled at drinking out of the water bottle while riding, this turned out to be one of the best decisions I made. I was relaxed and well hydrated throughout the race and never had to slow down to pick up one of the water bottles from the supply station.

WeChat Image_20170525161501The last run leg was difficult as I had tummy discomfort for the first 2 km and had to take it very easy. When I got to the finish line, I was very pleased to see that I’d finished 4 minutes before my anticipated finish time of 4:30. When the results were eventually posted for both distances, I was happy to see that almost all my friends placed either overall or in their age groups. There was only an award ceremony for the elites, while the rest of us received prizes sponsored by Northwave and Garmin. I came in third in my age group (10th overall female) and received a pair of Northwave ‘Women on Wheels’ cycling gloves. This was the first time I’ve placed in any race, and I was glad I got a practical prize rather than a(nother) medal or plague.

I haven’t decided if I’ll do another duathlon in the future. Apparently all top three age-group placers will get priority entry and a discount on the registration fee for the Powerman Zofingen race. I guess I’ll decide when I receive the email from the organisers.

 

 

 

am I ready for my first ultra?

 

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Winter trail running in Badachu Park

When it comes to peer pressure, I’m a real sucker. Peer pressure is often the reason why I sign up for races I don’t feel ready for, or I’m not sure if I’ll be ready for. The upsides are it motivates me to get out of my comfort zone, learn new things and train harder. The downsides — pre-race prep anxiety and stress, especially when I miss a session on my training plan.

In late January, a week before registration opened for The North Face 100 (TNF) in Beijing, I’d already made up my mind to register for the 25km. One of my trail running mates, let’s call him 612, had his heart set on doing the 50km and was cajoling others (including yours truly) to join him. As with most 50km trail runs in China, the race starts at midnight. The idea of running in the dark has put me off registering for an ultra for the last 6 months. But the race I’m collecting points to register, Ultra-Trail Mt Fuji (UTMF) 72 km, will start at midnight, so I will need to do at least a few ultras to prepare for it.

From what I’ve read online, TNF Beijing has been increasing in popularity over the years, so the organisers have increased registration numbers for the 100-km (to 1000) and 50-km (to 2000) races and added a 25-km race. Once the numbers are filled, the organisers will put other registrants on the waiting list. This year’s 100-km race was sold out in 3 hours, 50-km in 20 mins and 25-km in 10 mins of their respective registration opening times split over 3 days.

On the day when the 50-km race registration opened, I opened the registration page at 10 am, but was still two minds about actually securing my spot by paying the fee. My running friends egged me on, saying I’d run a couple of full marathons, I’ll at least be able to complete 50 km before the (generous) closing time of 16 hours. As luck would have it, my manager called me away to discuss a work issue, and by the time I got back to my desk, it was already 11:20 am. I decided to register first, as I could always pull out before 31 March if I didn’t want to do it. But by then, I was already on the waiting list, with more than 200 ahead of me.

Since then, I’ve been checking the TNF registration website almost on a daily basis. As of today, the queue has shrunk to 155. I view the shrinking waiting list figure with a mixture of excitement and fear, especially since I haven’t been diligently sticking to my marathon training plan as much as I’d like to. Part of me feels it’s not a big deal whether or not I get a spot, since there are many other races I can do in the next year that will give me points towards qualifying for UTMF 2018. The other part of me wants to get the spot so I’d be ‘forced’ to prepare and do my first ultra, instead of putting it off for the unforeseen future. I don’t know if I’d conjure enough courage to register for another ultra, especially since I haven’t been happy with my last 2 full marathon times.

There’s not much I can do in the meantime but to wait until the end of March to find out if I’ll be doing my first ultra in  April, and continue training for the upcoming Nagoya Women’s Marathon. After spending three cold, busy and stressful winter months in Beijing, I am looking forward to spending a week in Japan, eating lots of sushi and sashimi, admiring cherry blossoms and wandering around aimlessly in Nagoya and Ise Shima.

 

exercising in the smog

 

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Beijing took our breath away (taken 1 Jan 2017)

Spending any part of winter in Beijing means dealing with varying degrees of smog and pollution. This year, the Chinese government has decided to issue red alerts when heavy smog (AQI exceeding 200) is expected to last for two or more consecutive days, and advise children and seniors to stay indoors as much as possible, people to reduce outdoor activities. Schools are closed and the number of motor vehicles on the roads are restricted. In December alone, two red alerts were issued, each preceding five to six consecutive smog-filled days.

Needless to say, it’s pretty difficult to avoid discussions about the smog in Beijing whether in the real or virtual world (inside or outside of the Great Firewall of China). Old-timers and newcomers alike moan about breathing difficulties, feeling poorly/depressed and the need to wear a mask outdoors and turning on air purifiers for days on end.

The athletic community, on the other hand, obsess about the health benefits (or lack thereof) of exercising (indoors or out) when air quality is obnoxiously bad. Many early morning group rides in the warmer months have been preceded by conversations of personal limits when it comes to AQI levels, and aborted when the northern winds don’t arrive as per the weather forecast.

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The must-have Iphone app of every Beijing athlete: Wake Me Run Run

As you can see from the screen shot of the Wake Me Run Run app on my Iphone, my personal AQI upper limit is 150. I figured if I’m going to forsake two hours of sleep to exercise outside, I’d rather do it in decent quality air. I’ve cycled outside when the AQI hovered between 180 and 200 and found it hard to breathe even with a mask on. When the AQI exceeds 300 outside, I find it tough even running 5 km on the treadmill in the gym with the air purifiers turned on.

I’ve met athletes whose performance seem unaffected even when the AQI exceeds 200 and I’m truly envious of them. But we all know that the PM2.5 air particles we suck right into our lungs stick around for a long time, if not forever, with the potential to give us respiratory problems or even cancer in the future.

All hope is not lost (yet). There’s been quite a few studies conducted overseas about the benefits of exercising outside in polluted air. One of my tri mates (he came in second in his very competitive age group at last year’s Beijing International Triathlon) wrote a piece on this topic, listing his personal limits for exercising and citing a number of articles on these studies. The overall consensus seems to be that it’s better to do some exercise than not at all, but keep it to under an hour when the air quality is poor (150-300) and do nothing when the AQI is higher than 300.

On a positive note, we’ve been getting clean air for the most part since the second week of 2017 as temperatures drop to sub-zero. I’ve overcome my fear of the biting cold and run outside three times, relishing every minute. Now if I can get my hands on a balaclava mask, I might just muster up courage to cycle outside this weekend.

 

 

 

looking back & ahead

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2016 has been an incredible year for me. I only realised what I’ve achieved when I emailed my life coach a much delayed update of my life. I’ve decided to post my email here (rather than repurposing it) since it quite perfectly sums up my 2016.

‘…I’m not sure if I told you but I broke my left forearm in Oct 2015. Since it healed up in Jan, I’ve thrown myself into training and did a sprint and two Olympic distance triathlons, two full marathons (in Beijing and Qingdao), two trail half marathons and one 30km trail run. I’ve been regularly coming in 7/8th place in my age group for triathlons and in the top 30 (women’s ranking) for trail runs.  For someone who’s never thought I’d even do any of these sporting feats, I’m incredibly happy with what I achieved last year, and hope to continue and improve on my performance this year, starting with the Nagoya Women’s Marathon on 12 March….’
I’ve gained so much from doing sports last year, its effects have seeped into other aspects of my life. As a result of regularly exercising 3-4 times a week (as religiously recorded on Strava), my overall sense of well-being has improved immensely. My head is clearer, I suffer from less anxiety and depression and feel genuinely optimistic and cheerful most of the time. I’ve learnt to let go of things that tie me down, focus on the important things and make do with less, and in the process, I’ve learnt to be a better manager of my time and finances and become more creative.
But the most important lesson I learnt in 2016 has to be this…
anything can happen.
And I’d be stupid to think otherwise or take things for granted, especially in light of world events as it stands at the end of 2016.
The world at the start of 2017 is a very different place from anything I’ve seen or heard before. I’ve decided not to make any resolutions for 2017. Instead, I’m going to remind myself to be a little wiser, grow a little stronger, push myself a little harder, go a little further, swim/cycle/run a little faster, learn something new and do a little better everyday. If there’s anything the past has taught me, it’s that I work better with small, attainable short-term goals than grandiose, idealistic long-term ones. At the end of the day, the devil is in the details and the details are worked out every second->minute->hour->day-> week-> month of our lives.
2017, here I come!