It’s been a long time since I last updated this blog. It wasn’t that I haven’t been doing any races.
Since my last post, I’ve done a number of trail challenges in Beijing, Datong (3 hours drive from Beijing) and Shengzhou (in Jiangsu province) and completed my first Ironman 70.3 race in Xiamen. In between races, I travelled to Malaysia to see family, moved apartments and started a new job.
While I familiarised myself with my new work environment, I took the chance to do a stocktake of 2017 and give my body a much-needed time of R&R. I called it my off-season. I still swam, ran and biked during this time but I wasn’t in training mode. I attended a few yoga and functional training classes by way of Guava Pass. I went on hikes and did some strength work. For about 6 weeks, I focused on having fun and enjoying myself instead of hitting targets.
Some of my friends would call what I’ve described above as ‘doing junk miles’ or ‘a waste of time’. In the past, I would’ve agreed with them. I was convinced I had to give every workout, every race 110%, otherwise it was just a waste of time. I was always stressed that if I didn’t keep up my training, I’d lose my hard-won fitness and my VO2-max will fall. But after accumulating a bunch of injuries at the end of two race seasons in a row, I’ve begun to see the ‘light’ (read: my physio’s advice) and the importance of R&R.
It seems that my little off-season has paid off. My left knee and shin haven’t given me much trouble when I biked and ran. And if I’m to believe my stats on Strava, I’ve actually gotten a little faster in my swim, bike and run times. Now I just need to keep up with my (boring) strength work for the rest of 2018 and not get carried away only doing cardio.
With the start of 2018 came the start of race season prep. I’ve signed up to do Japan 70.3 in mid June, my first overseas triathlon. My goal is to finish in 6:30. This is a challenging goal for me since I finished my first 70.3 in November in a little over 7 hours, and my new job requires me to work long hours most days. I’ll need to be more disciplined and focussed in my training in the lead-up to the race.
A recent bout of illness forced me to take a critical look at my dietary habits in the last couple of months.
For the last two weeks, I had swollen tonsils and runny nose. I took a myriad of Chinese herbal medicine to treat colds for a week, but the symptoms didn’t subside. I cut out red meat, caffeine, dairy and gluten for a couple of days, just to see if the symptoms were caused by inflammation. My sore throat and runny nose subsided but was replaced by swollen gums and an outbreak of acne on my forehead. After spending most of the day slumped over my desk drifting in and out of sleep and suffering a headache, I went to my trusted Chinese massage therapist and asked for ‘guasha’, a Chinese treatment that involves scraping the back of my neck, shoulder blades, spine and other parts of my back with something resembling the edge of a spoon to release the ‘fire’ (i.e. the cause of my discomfort) in my body. The treatment usually left dark scrape marks on my back that would dissipate after three or four days. My mother used to administer this treatment to me when I experienced similar symptoms as a child, and I’d feel immediate relief afterwards. This was how I came to know about ‘guasha’ in the first place.
This time, I felt relief about three to four hours later. My swollen gums subsided enough so it didn’t hurt when I chewed. After a good night’s sleep, I felt brand new.
After suffering from this ailment on and off almost all my life, I’ve narrowed the causes down to these usual suspects:
air-conditioning (but it’s impossible to function in Beijing summer without it)
If there’s anything I’ve not been pleased about this year, it’s how I’ve let my diet slide. I can’t remember when exactly I began drinking more coffee and alcohol, and eating more sweets and junk food. It started after I stopped recording what I ate in MyFitnessPal because the app stopped working for some reason in Feb. After not recording what I ate for a couple of weeks, I stopped doing it altogether. I figured I exercise regularly enough to burn whatever food I ate and the calorie calculations were not accurate anyway. In the process, I also stopped paying attention to the quality of food I was putting into my body, ordering more and more take-out (the cheaper the better!) instead of cooking.
It took a couple of weeks of feeling very unwell to make me realise my error. I eliminated caffeine, dairy, gluten and meat from my diet for two days in a desperate bid to detox. After just one day, my body felt lighter and my head was clearer. I kept this up for the next two to three days, not so much to detox but more because I physically felt better.
I’ve since re-introduced caffeine and white meat into my diet, but at a lesser amount than before. It helps that the Starbucks in my office building closed earlier this month, making it harder for me to get my afternoon shot of caffeine. I consciously drink more water and green tea when I’m at work, and have cut down on soda and take-out. I haven’t resumed my food journaling probably due to lack of motivation. I can feel my body responding positively to these changes, especially when I’m exercising. I no longer feel sluggish or easily tired when I run. Now I just need the discipline to keep this up for the next couple of months as I train for my first half Ironman race.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
A couple of Sundays back, I did the Sanfo Jinhai Lake triathlon for the second time. Having done a sprint and two Olympic distance races last year, I was feeling good about this year’s race. I’d trained with a swim coach for a few months, and I was going to do the race in my brand new dhb one-piece tri suit and my new Shimano cleat shoes, hoping all these would help with improving my race time.
As you can see from the title of this post, things didn’t go as planned on race day, despite my familiarity with the race course, prior experience and advanced prepping (training, nutrition, sleep, tapering). Bear with me as I reflect on what and how things didn’t quite go as planned on race day.
A bad night’ssleep
After sleeping like a champ for months, I took for granted that Saturday night would be no different, apart from sleeping in a hotel bed and having to wake up at 4 am on Sunday morning. I got into bed a little after 10 pm and pretty much tossed and turned until the alarm went off at 4 am. As I laid awake struggling to fall asleep, I regretted the late afternoon coffee and the beer I had at dinner, realising these were probably the reasons why I was having trouble falling into deep sleep.
Bad swim strategy
Swimming has never been my strong suit in a tri, and I haven’t trained swimming freestyle as much as I’d like to, so my freestyle swimming speed is often slower than my breaststroke. I was determined to swim freestyle as much as possible for this tri, and I did end up doing so. But for one reason or another, I ended swimming too close to the buoys and was often squashed between two or more other swimmers. This year’s swim took me two minutes longer than last year, which I wasn’t too happy about. I took comfort in the fact that my friends who did the race also found the swim tough going, though they’re all faster in the water than me.
I’d originally planned to wear my Nikes to run, as I’ve already put elastic lock laces on them. I decided on Friday night to wear my Mizunos instead, as they matched my new tri suit (oh vanity). I went out, bought a new pair of laces and put them on my Mizunos. They worked fine all of Saturday and looked ok on Sunday morning when I was setting up my transition area.
So imagine my horror when I found out during T2 that the ‘lock laces’ on my left shoe had come undone. The only option left for me was to tie it up the best I could and pray they don’t come off. The point of lock laces is that they don’t need to be tied up, which meant they didn’t remain tied for too long. I stopped four times just to tie my laces over the course of the 10k run, which was super frustrating.
Despite this, I still finished the run 13 mins faster than last year. I’d been most worried about running when I first started doing triathlons a year ago and have invested considerable time and effort getting coaching, training and doing marathons and trail runs. To see that my hard work paid off gives me great joy and satisfaction.
With that, I hope that my swimming speed will eventually improve. I’ve been taking swimming lessons to correct and improve my technique for a few months. Progress is slower than I like as the pool I train at has been getting more crowded and I’ve been cutting down my swimming volume.
What is your most memorable race day mishap? How did you deal with it?
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I toed the start line for the 50-km race at The North Face Ultra Trail Challenge on Easter Sunday. For a month before the race, I stressed out about running in the dark, staying awake during the race, whether doing the race will actually aggravate my shin splints and whether or not I should run with sticks. It didn’t help that I’d been suffering from allergies brought on by torrents of Beijing’s willow catnips and dust and I was on a daily diet of antihistamines, which kept me in a groggy state most of the time, despite sleeping 8-9 hours every night. My long outdoor training runs were cut short by fits of coughing and sniffles.
The evening of the race, I met up S for a pizza dinner, our final carb loading before the race. We then met up with three other acquaintances who were also doing the race at the metro station and took the organiser’s shuttle to the race venue. After an hour or so of prepping, checking and taking a couple of selfies, we took our spot at the start line and began doing warm-up exercises to the loud, pumping pop music and the shouts of the Chinese hosts. The music and warm-up exercises did little to stifle my yawning, and I wondered how I was going to stay awake for the next ten hours of so.
As it turned out, my worries were unfounded. Once Cinderella hour struck and I began shuffling forwards with 1700 other runners, I stopped yawning and was wide awake. It was probably the excitement of doing my first night trail run mixed with the fear of losing my way that fueled my sudden burst of energy.
I faced my first unexpected challenge after running for more than 10 km. I was caught in the middle pack at a narrow uphill climb, and couldn’t continue climbing at my own pace. It was stop-start for at least 30 minutes and I caught a chill when I reached the top of the hill. I suddenly felt a desperate need to use a toilet but was told there wasn’t one for at least another 8 km. I was on a narrow part of the route and it was impossible to relieve myself in the bushes without being seen by other runners. After taking a painkiller to relieve the cramps, I pushed on for another 3-4 km until I was too much in pain to continue. At this point, the volunteers directed me to the nearby bushes off the designated race route to do whatever I had to do. I’d never felt so relieved (pun intended) as I did at that time.
After this slightly embarrassing and traumatic episode, I wasn’t sure if I felt up to running the remaining 35 km, yet it was too cold to stay still. So I decided to continue running until the next checkpoint where there’d be sweeper vans then make an assessment if I was physically able to keep going.
I kept plugging on until I got to the 30-km mark, where I bumped into T. I was surprised to see him there as I was convinced he’d be at the front of the pack with the rest of my friends, as he’s a sub-4:00 marathoner. He told me his tank completely ran out when he got to this checkpoint and he’d been resting for the last hour or so. He admitted he hadn’t trained on trails at all and road running fitness was no guarantee of doing well on a trail run with significant elevation (we’d done 1500m out of 2300m). We discussed if we should both call it a day and just get on the next sweeper van, then decided to give it a go until the next checkpoint at the 42-km mark. After we started running, it was obvious T had gotten his steam back, and I told him to go ahead and I’ll try to catch up.
I never managed to catch up with T as my own steam ran out at around 40 km. I’d scrambled and clawed up Haohanpo for about half an hour, then concentrated hard navigating a long and tricky descent. I basically walked the remaining 7 km to the finish line. The finish line never felt so far away in my life. I was famished but couldn’t stomach any food. My hands were swollen from water retention and yet I was still thirsty but there was nothing left in my bladder.
I’m happy to say I completed my first 50-km ultra in 11:32:16. It took me quite a bit longer than I’d anticipated and nothing I was worried about actually happened. But considering the circumstances, I was surprised I even managed to finish the race. An experienced ultra runner (who finished in 7:48) advised me to take the race in chunks of 10 km and not stress about pace. It was her advice that kept playing in my mind when I felt like I couldn’t go on. It reminded me to never underestimate the power our words have on others.
For the first time after I started doing races, I actually swore I’m not doing another ultra for the rest of the year, and have not registered for another ultra to date. Memories of the pain and discomfort of the North Face trail challenge remained with me for two weeks until I fell off my bike on a descent and acquired fresh scrapes, bumps and bruises. That’s fodder for my next post.
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