Memorial day heart-rush  

IMG_2356I have the best job in the world. Not only is it the top of the most desirable healthcare jobs, but it is the most rewarding, challenging job I can imagine. My job, is to re-unite people with their bodies. Through touch, movement, challenge, failure and success, my clients (not patients, too passive, too hierarchical) my team-mates, bare their pain to me, expose their weaknesses, and then together, we work to rebuild. A Physical Therapist by profession, I am an athlete at heart. I grew up in a houseful of competitive swimmers, challenging each other to duels in the pool, around the dinner table, in the garden, the ocean, the sitting-room. As kids, we raced to eat more toast at breakfast, and faster, than the next sibling, to be the first to the new pots of yoghurt in the fridge after “the shopping” on Fridays, to see the lighthouse at Hook Head before anyone else did as we drove to our family retreat. I can recognize the need for success and achievement in the highest level athlete, but also in the oldest and most frail of my clients, who in their day, have pounded out the miles, climbed the highest hills and carried extra-ordinary loads.

Every Memorial Day weekend, I struggle with the occasion in my adopted country. Apart from training with and working with some great soldier athletes in my adopted country, I have not had the military close to my family experience. While I was born into a tradition of a thousand years of historic battle with British oppression, I did not grow up in a country with a warring culture. While the label “fighting Irish” is often applied to me and mine, it is a label of personal experience, not group warfare. I grew up fighting my own personal battles in the neighborhood, in the swimming pool, then in the “North”, in Belfast as a minority small c- catholic in university. In my youthful experience, the “army” was the F.C.A., a volunteer force who trained in the muddy fields with ancient weapons, and colloquially labeled the “Free Clothes Association” as they got a uniform and boots upon signing. I have been slowly exposed to American soldiers over the years, through my practice as a physical Therapist. Their injuries have needed attention, and I see them as athletes coping with return to mainstream life, and as challenged athletes returning to sporting battles and assisting others to do so. I can count on one hand though, the WWII vets who are still around to tell their tales. My exposure to these amazing people has not softened my feelings on war, but rather, has exposed me to the human element of war. I identify with these soldiers through my experience with rehabilitation and sport, and their experience with pursuit of goals, as a part of a team.

This weekend, right in the middle of my crazy holiday weekend schedule, I had a bike-fit / PT session with my friend and LLV athlete’s parents. 87-year-old Clare had injured her pelvis in a dreadful bike crash in Tuscany 3 summers prior. Her 90-year-old husband Dick had been rushing around the area, having all kinds of difficulty locating the hospital, then realizing that it was the same town that he had bombed 70 years prior. A young bomber pilot, he had been around this world a while, coming full circle from his days as a ferocious pilot, to deliver his injured wife to the care of the local Italian doctors, having difficulty locating it in the Italian mountains, north of Milan. Then as now. He laughed, I think, at the irony, pushed the Oakley glasses back on his forehead, and sat back on the plyobox. “Make sure she has homework to do” he said. “We have a century ride to train for and we are only doing 100 miles a week right now with that hip of hers.” Image 6

These too, are my athletes. As much as my track group, my marathoners, my triathletes, my crossfitters, my tough-mudder competitors, these older warriors have been there, done that. I have only an inkling into their memories and lives as members of the military, but I can absolutely identify with them as members of my athlete tribe. I know that they have been disciplined in their training and worked as a team. They have been focused on goals and overcome obstacles. I am graced to be a part of their continued progress forward, and look forward to assisting them with the next challenge ahead. A century bike ride, picking up a grandchild off the floor, or simply being able to get out of bed independently, I have the privilege of being a part of this journey with these great warriors, fighting to make every day good, strong, healthy and meaningful.

Did I mention that I love my job?

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  The new normal…  

crossfit southampton

crossfit southampton

The new normal has no norms; it involves change, flux, and constant motion.

Since my departure from my business of 13 years, I have been shuffling my thoughts, my patterns and my ideas. The one constant is that I am working, lots. Weekends have become my new weekdays, with shuffles from one VIP home to another, from a bikefit, to a running gait-analysis. A quick stop for coffee and an egg/avocado wrap, squeeze a trail run in, a quick shower, and on to the next client. Early to bed on Tuesdays for Wednesdays trek into NYC at zero-dark-thirty. The 5am Jitney has a quiet gang moving into the city for work, for continuity with clients who do the summer-winter transfer to the Hamptons. I have joined a sub-culture of professional trainers, massage therapists, yoga teachers, educators, and other personal service specialists, who have a double life on the move, in the dark. A quiet nod to a colleague and friend across the aisle, an hour with emails, then a nap as the dawn sneaks up the window of the bus.

The evenings bring new elements to my life. After a long day of meetings, clients and ongoing PhD school work, last night I raced to Southampton to teach a Learn-2-Row class to the Crossfit instructors. If there is one thing that I have learned in my 21 years in clinical practice as a physical therapist, it is to constantly expand and grow. This year, I became certified in kettlebell and rowing instruction, as well as continuing my physical therapy skills with movement analysis and spinal manipulation courses. The rowing, however, has become a cornerstone for me, wedged between my personal training needs for long distance running /mountain biking, and my professional rehabilitation skills. A low-load full-body exercise regimen, it can be scaled up or down for almost all clients, from rehabilitation to return-to-sports. My 10-week-post-op ACL reconstruction client certainly differs from my Spartan race challenger with rotator cuff tendonitis, but the basics are the same. Get a rower. Get a coach. Learn the basics. Row.

Some basics that I reinforced with the gang at Crossfit SH, under the watchful eyes of owners Jay and John:

  1. Like fishing: two parts: catch, and release.
  2. The Catch: timing the slide so the legs are the primary drivers.
  3. The Release: tipping just under the bra line [the moob (man-boob) or bro-line for you brothas].
  4. The pivot: the CRITICAL hip hinge: swinging the torso from the forward (2 o’clock) position, to the rear (10 o’clock) position.

So many similarities with my other buddy, the Kettlebell, so wonderfully elucidated in Pavel’s book, the drive and the controlled release. Energy in motion. Want a lesson? Shoot me an e-mail. Don’t believe how it can transform your body? Come and suffer through Fridays “just row” class every Friday at East Hampton Exceed. BYOB. (bring yer own bucket).

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Winter running 101 … Aka: Keeping your hard-core on… with EH track bad-asses

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  1. Have a goal: write it down, tell your friends. Boston 2014. Central park March ½ marathon, Katie’s 5k in Spring. Whatever. Pen it. Post it. Plan it. The vision and goal will get your warm cuddly ass out of bed at zero-dark-thirty when it is howling, cold and dark outside.
  2. Make a date: Keep a fixed schedule and meet with friends to run, 12degF this morning, -2F with windchill. Nothing competes with the challenge of letting your running buddies down by a no-show. Tuesdays, Thursdays 6am track, Sat 7am trail.
  3. Get your kit together the night before: Lay out your running gear, fill the coffee maker, put the mug on the counter. Every micro-step that you can do automatically when you are in the wee-hours, makes it more likely that you will get out there when you are still half asleep.
  4. Check the weather forecast: Pack extra clothes. Another hoodie, an extra puff jacket. A dry hat, warm gloves. As soon as you are done running, you will cool down and will look forward to piling on the layers. It is OK to look like the Michelin (wo)man after you run!
  5. Don’t dress to impress… no fashion shows this time of year: Feet: trail running shoes, yak trax as need (not on the track though!) gaiters if in deep snow. Legs: sometimes 2 layers, a slim fit tights layer, with a windbreaker shell. Long snowboard/ ski socks. Wool only. PhD smart wool, the best. Same on top: Wool baselayer, wool or fleece hoodie, vest, then a wind breaker outer layer. Heads: Hat for sure, then also an ear-warmer/headband. Double it up for the warm up, use the headband as a nose-cover on the windy sections, then drop it down to act as a neck gaiter as needed. Gloves: mitts outer, gloves inner. Hand warmers are generally unnecessary, but good for an emergency, or a buddy with Raynauds who is suffering. Wool undies. Honest. Ibex. Nothing more to say.
  6. Headlamp: Rechargeable ideally, will last the whole season.
  7. Give yourself a longer warm up: 2 miles /20minutes, some pickups, skipping, log-jumping, backward jogging, karaokes to mix it up.
  8. Give yourself some latitude to modify the workout: 12 x400’s  today turned to 8 x400s, since only one lane on the track was clear and many sections still had drifting snow! Speed work combined with agility as we post-holed through sections, and hop-skip-jumped through the icy bits. It is better to cut is short as needed, than to suffer frostbite, or exposure. Be a hard-ass but not a dumb-ass!
  9. Have a laugh! Comparing tales of frozen snot rockets, useless frozen waterbottles, butts sticking to the icy portapotty lid, all help to weather the winter.
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Kettlebell benefits from a PT perspective…

We have devolved relatively recently, from a hunter-gatherer-moving culture, into a sitting-slouching-computer-culture: Even the active amongst ourselves need to examine how many hours in the day are we consistently moving? How long do we sit for extended periods of time without breaks? How long and active are those breaks?

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Humans had functioned as 2-legged upright arthropods until pretty much the 20th century. Beginning with industrialization, and developing with computerization, we have become more and more sedentary, with the well-known side-effects: obesity, cardio-vascular disease, and musculoskeletal dysfunction.

What characteristics do we have as humans to differentiate us from apes? Ignoring the propensity to exist on a banana based diet, which some of us can (!) the ability to stand and walk with bipedal, reciprocal gait, for long periods and distances is truly what separates us. What allows that? The Ass, the big engine of walking, squatting and standing, the powerhouse of loading and lifting. The gorgeous Gluteals. Check out the flat asses on Gorillas and monkeys, and their close cousins, the weakling modern flat-assed humanoid. The increasing incidence of low-back pain, the hip arthritis so prevalent in western cultures, the persistent connection of knee, ankle, foot dysfunction all point to a common origin. You betcha, the flat, atrophied ass. 

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In Simple and Sinister, my current favorite incantation on movement using a kettlebell, Pavel laments the loss of All-Terrain capability in humans. That is, the ability to negotiate any landscape, terrain, loads, speeds and directions that we as humans need, in order to optimally function. While our prior lives demanded speed, agility, power, endurance and strength to catch, kill and prepare our dinner, the range of function demanded by todays jobs do little to maintain our bodies in full working order.

Pavel discourages the idea of specialization, for all humans, even those training and performing at a professional level. When I hear clients talk of their mode of exercise in a single capacity, the loss of all-terrain-function comes into play as a contributor to injury. “I spin”, “I do yoga”, “I am a runner” or “I walk” means a limited portion of the movement and metabolic spectrum is being explored. The ability to Squat, Carry, Push, Pull, Twist, Throw, both Slow and Strong (Yang) and Hard and Fast (Yin) need to form the foundation of all sports, indeed all human physical endeavors. Gone, from my professional life, are the days of training and rehabilitating 3 x 10 reps with blue rubber band or 2 x 15 with #6 on cable column.

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And enter the magical lump of metal, the cannonball with a handle, the Russian Kettlebell. Only the Kettlebell challenges all of these aspects of All-Terrain-Strength.

In the 3 plus years that I have been training with Ed, a student of Pavel’s, I have been able to see my own physique change from frequent, challenging kettlebell workouts. I have been able to bring it into my physical therapy domain, working with everyone from octagenarians, to young kids.  Some of the specific benefits that I have seen for kettlebell practice, from PT perspective, are as follows:

  • Restoration of hip mobility, hip hinge function: without a correct hinge, the pelvis cannot dissociate from the spine. The kettlebell demands hip hinge development, and gives quick feedback to the lazy practitioner. The mass of the kettlebell allows greater mobility under load, reducing the co-contraction around tight hip joints and facilitating relaxation into deeper mobility. 
  • Restoration of posterior chain function: the eccentric loading of the entire kinetic chain from the scapula to the heels, the development of elastic energy and recoil through the Hamstrings, the power resultant from complete core activation, and the muscular endurance unique to the kettlebell workouts resolve the majority of issues with LBP and musculoskeletal injuries.
  • Flexibility: with eccentric loading and core activation comes restoration of stability. There is no need for muscles like the Hamstrings and Trapezius to *hold on* when the co-ordination and core strength, motor control is there. Flexibility comes with inherent stability. Controlled movement, loaded with kettlebell mass, brings more mobility.
  • NM responsiveness: Response to perturbation, ability of body to perform in response to a sudden environmental change. This is the most important *Injury protective* aspect of KB training. Frequent practice with the kettlebell improves the ability to respond to changes in weight load, acceleration, deceleration, direction, torque
  • Physics education: most injury in workplaces involving lifting comes from poor alignment and use of levers. The body is not aligned correctly to manage the load. Lifting, swinging and moving the kettlebell teaches good alignment through correct loading process. Segmental stacking. Efficient movement through alignment of loads.
  • Co-contraction: Improving timing of contractions around the hips, spine and shoulders will reduce loads on articular surfaces. Common issues like Psoas dominance with inhibited Glutes cause inc hip loading. Pectoral dominance with Lat. and rotator cuff inhibition contribute to shoulder girdle overload and impingement. Correct kettlebell technique corrects all of that.
  • Scale-able. Used for kids with sensori-motor challenges, to competitive multisport athletes to re-educate loading and movement function, to geriatrics working on fall prevention, spinal instability, osteoporosis. Used from week one following rotator-cuff repair, to week 30 in return to punching hard in Mauy-Thai. Used from week one of a total hip replacement to restore loading responses, to week 16 to challenge squat strength and independent walking. Used from day one with postural dysfunction to teach the physics of vertical column organization. Used with Parkinsons tremor to calm the nervous system and facilitate neuromotor re-organization.
  • Efficient! One session of kettlebell training can incorporate pure strength work, anaerobic threshold work, cardio-vascular endurance work, and plyometrics! The most common excuse people use for not exercising (and it is an excuse…) is that they don’t have time, well the kettlebell solves that too. If you are unsure, ask anyone who took the workshop last weekend at Exceed (shed) where following a demonstration and instruction session, Ed led the group in a 10’ workout that left every single person in a sweaty, wobbly mess! 

In parting, take the challenge. Take a led, taught session or workshop with a trainer or therapist certified in Kettlebell use. Practice frequently. Ask. Watch. Challenge yourself. Learn to unlock the nuances that lie within this solid lump of metal. Your practice will change, and you will move closer to becoming an all-terrain animal again!

 

 

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Inhale, pause, exhale. Then move.

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The New Year, the depth of winter with short days, long nights, sometimes harsh weather limiting outdoor activity, brings time to reflect back, and to plan forward. With awareness of my Celtic ancestry, it falls squarely between Samhain, the final harvest festival, and Imbolc, the celebration of the passing of winter. It often brings desire for change, shedding the old skins that have grown tight and restrictive, building a new routine with more light, more space, less weight.

This year will bring significant change for me personally as I part ways with my physical therapy business on the east end, and begin a new journey. And this New Year, brings a new focus and a clarity that I have been seeking for some time.

Looking back at other times of major transition in my life, I now know that I had felt similarly squashed, tight, compressed prior to making a move, prior to taking the leap into the unknown. Whether I had been working in a secure out-patient job in the west of Ireland, having a tremendous amount of fun, but feeling professionally stunted, or working in NY for a hospital with a successful position, with a long administrative and clinical career ahead, I couldn’t breathe. The need to expand my horizons was more of a push than the fear of change, so I took a deep breath, and left. Left the country, left my family and left the safe path for the road less travelled. So too, most recently in my successful, busy practice, I had been getting tight in the chest, and heavy in the heart, as I faced the constraints of the insurance industry, the heavily structured schedule, the professional divergence from my business partners philosophies.

Head down, hard at work, sometimes I couldn’t see ahead beyond the next pile of papers, the next patient list, the next business meeting. Taking the leap into a PhD program forced me to deflect my gaze sideways, to see a path that diverged from my current path. This program, forced me to think deeper, to think wider, to take breaks from the grind and rise to different challenges.  It is understood that the skeleton remakes itself every seven years,  a whole new interior bone structure, a new support system. At 21 I left Ireland, at 28 entered a long-term relationship with my now husband, at 35 began to explore further education again and now I am finalizing the changes that my 42 year-old self initiated. A new interior skeleton for a new exterior path. 

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There is a light point, a moment of weightlessness at the top of the kettlebell swing, the moment at the end of when the weight is powered forward, and just before it begins to accelerate in its next direction. In yoga, it is that still point between the end of the inhale and the beginning of the exhale. It is like this at this deep point of winter, the pause at the transition of the year, the transition of the weight, the breath, my career.

It is here I find myself, at the pause, before the exhale, weightless.

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Ironman Lake Placid camp 2013

ImageAct 1: Scene 1

The team: Jen + Dave Gatz, Sam Cila, and me!

The Location: Larry Parker’s Fireman Ironman training camp, Lake Placid, NY

The Extras: oh, just some world class athletes, world champions, you know..

ImageOne hundred hot sweaty athletes on supercharged TT bikes filled the parking lot at the historic Oval in Lake Placid, strapping on identification bracelets, signing waivers, and after the annual group photo, were OFF to a roaring start. All present to practice the course, learn about hydration and nutrition strategies and connect with other athletes, I could feel the abundant energy in the group. We kept a tight paceline on the road, I drafted happily behind one guy’s broad shoulders, and then took a side trip to conquer Whiteface mountain. Not racing at IMLP, I was delighted to get the chance to climb this great road, to make it the fort at over 4300 feet. Dave, Jen and I took on the challenge with gusto!ImageImageComing from the flatlands of Long Island, our local peak is the dump in Montauk, a heady 200 feet above sea level! Dodging the clouds of blackflies, and stopping only seconds to regroup, we kept a slow but solid pace. As my quads and lungs burned, I revisited my competitive cycling memory banks and I tried to imagine racing up this monster. While the official stats read a 5.6% grade over the climb (max 10%), the 11 miles, the 90 degree heat and the biting critters made the challenge even harder. Photo ops with team mates complete, we burned the rubber en route back to the base, thrashing a pair of brake pads but also happily letting it rip on the straights. Woohooooo. Choking down a post-ride pizza, we manned (and wo-manned) the aid stations for the IM athletes on loop #2, filling bottles, advising electrolyes, spraying crotch lube as needed. The things we do for IM campers! We stopped to purchase a carved bear from a lady with no teeth, musing that she might have burned them out in the carving.. then hit the hotel for a feast and the famous Fireman talks.

ImageImageJen presented a superb talk on hydration and food for optimal performance, and Sam spoke about motivation, inner dialogue and conquering goals. They were joined by one of my all time heroes in sport, multi-time world champion ironman triathlete Karen Smyers. Karen, self-depricating, hilarious, informative spoke about dealing with adversity, adjusting goals to meet conditions and shared some intimate tips about racing strategies. (Peeing while coasting on the bike, the infamous 3-2-1 beer taper, and more..) We laughed our way to bed, and prepped for day 2 of camp.

All early risers in our house, the coffee was on the hob at 5am and the almond butter/banana sandwiches were being gobbled down. We hit the Oval again, and I had the privilege of leading a run clinic with Karen herself. ImageImageWe had prepped together over breakfast, and took turns in guiding the athletes through a series of dynamic warm ups, run drills to emphasize optimal running form, and insights into improved techniques for distance running. We had a brief Q+A with athletes who are struggling with running issues, and shared contact information for further problem solving. And off we went in the sticky morning, the clouds burned off, and the 12 mile course was hot and humid. Karen, Becky Paige (another Ironman superwoman..Kona bound in November to race with the big girls!) and I ran together. Chatting. So hilarious, one of my favourite ways to control run pace is to run with others, either stepping it up or down for the demand of the workout. No race this year for me, I sat in and let these champions set the pace, glad they were in chatting mode. I often wonder what superstars talk about when they train, and I found out. Pee stops, toilet paper vs leaves, race plans, work, blah blah blah. Basically, the same as the rest of us! We included some of the run drills in our workout to break the pace, to focus on technique, and practice the skills that we had shared with each other. Pounding the hill back to the village, I was glad to not be facing a second loop of the course, content that my cranky Hamstring had allowed me to get in 12 miles at a champion chat pace..

One monster omelet, 2 slices of 1” thick home made bread, and a huge coffee later, we donned swim suits and hit the shores of Mirror Lake. ImageKaren guided the swim clinic, under the rumbling thunderheads pouring over the mountains. The swim was beautiful, even though I had a serious reality check while trying to hang in Karen and Becky’s bubbles. I promised myself to get back in swim form this winter, but in the interim, enjoyed being in the draft of great athletes, in such a serene setting. Snarfing down some BBQ courtesy of Larry at base camp, a final review of some running related and bike fit questions, a long goodbye to all there, and I was back in the car, en route home. What a great weekend. Jayasports, Multisport Soldier and I will be combining forces again over the coming seasons for workshops and camps, and continuing the fun together. Play hard, train hard. Great balance.

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Wanna run faster? Longer? Injury free? Master efficient running first!

female runnerHave you ever wondered why you feel more like a lumbering rhinoceros when you run, rather than a gazelle? Have you ever watched the pro’s at the end of a race, finishing with a still smooth gait, while the mid- and end-of-pack often bumble and stumble over the finish line? If you have put time and effort into coaching, special lightweight sneakers, training on track, hills or treadmills, you will benefit from what I have to share with you. Efficient running will get you more speed, and result in fewer injuries when you run.

There are four fundamentals of efficient running:
• Reduced vertical displacement (less “bobbing” up and down)
• Reduced contact time with the ground
• Reduced impact force on landing
• 180-200 steps per minute (cadence)

What? What about the sneakers? What about forefoot/midfoot landing? What about barefoot running? You read that correctly. No mention of sneaker type or landing/take off patterns. Many of the top runners run with heel strike patterns, and still blow the pack away. The further back in the pack, the more heel striking there is, indicating some (small) relationship between speed and landing patterns, but a stronger relationship is between how efficient the faster runners are, and how common the above elements are present in the podium makers.

These 4 elements are inter-related. Lots of vertical height means bouncing as you run, and this increased “float” time means you are moving up and down rather than forward. Increased vertical displacement means you land harder and heavier, increasing demands on your musculoskeletal tissues to shock absorb. Less “bob” means less impact, more forward projection. A higher cadence makes you land with your foot less out in front of you, and more underneath your body, reducing the heel strike impact on landing, and reducing the contact time with the ground. This forces the body to increase shock absorption mechanisms using hip and knee movements, rather than absorbing through the soft tissues of the plantar fascia, hamstring, patellar tendon, Iliopsoas etc. Ever had an injury of these tissues? You might benefit from a review of your running!
Simply increasing the cadence from a plodding 150 per minute to in and around 180-190-200 strides per minute will increase efficiency. Building up over time to a higher turnover will reduce float time, reduce ground contact time and thus reduce impact forces. Better shock attenuation means more efficiency. Some apps (Metronome, Tap Tempo) can help you use your iPhone to get used to a higher cadence. A gait analysis review can help you learn skills to improve your form, and iron out inefficiencies in your stride. Keep these tips in mind for a minute or 2 each mile as you run, or on alternating laps on the track.
Drop me a MSG to schedule a run review! sineadfitz@me.com Run smarter, run faster!

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Pushing the edge: Thoughts from Hyner view…

IMG_7901Almost a week has passed since the Hyner 50k challenge, and my legs are beginning to feel close to normal. The muscular havoc that results from running 6:29 in the hills of PA, cannot be underestimated, but as the creatine kinase levels fall, and the exploded myofibrils repair, the pain too subsides and I find myself searching for new athletic challenges later in the year…

Macrophages in gobbling up torn muscles

Macrophages gobbling up torn muscles

As a novice to the ultra-run, I had done the requisite homework. I studied nutrition and hydration strategies, weighed the options of various footwear and backpacks, followed the forums for tips on terrain management. With two 25k experiences at Hyner in the bag, I knew that strength training balanced with adequate high quality mileage was the key to pulling off a fun, injury-free successful race.

pre-race

pre-race set up

Infected by the Hyner bug, our fellow athletes trained together with Ed at *the shed*, rowing, jumping, lunging, pulling and pushing our way through sweaty puddles, and passed many dreary cold winter days hammering through the local trails in Montauk, East Hampton, Sag Harbor. We hauled weighted sleds and jumped rope, carried kettlebells across the baseball field, and bonded in the deep friendship that comes with spending quality sweat time together.  nosara run camp!A mid-winter trip to Costa Rica brought respite from the snow, and we woke at dawn to the howling monkeys, prepping us for our jungle adventures.

training, jungle style, with ED!

training, jungle style, with ED!

We trained hard, enjoyed hot, hilly, sandy, dusty runs around Nosara, and cold beers around a laughter-filled dinners at night.

recovery, CR

recovery, CR

 

startline

startline

As we edged closer to race-day, there were some casualties with Lyme disease (not-so-affectionately known as Montauk-knee), illness and old injuries rearing their ugly heads. Unbowed, though missing our full contingent of crazies, we piled into cars and headed west, through NYC, the bland roads of New Jersey, and into the rolling hills of Amish country. Over twenty flatlanders had managed to make it to the start line of the 25k and 50k event, not even officially called a race, but rather a “challenge”, though the race-faces were in abundance. The start-line scene was more akin to a mountain bike race, with campers filling the field behind the registration lodge, local families milling about with the athletes, schoolkids assisting with race-day duties, dogs wandering in the road. Race friends finding each other and hugging, high-fiving with seconds to go, and then OFF, over the bridge and along the cliff-trail.

humble hill top

humble hill top

Humble Hill is as it suggests, a force to beat down the ego, and for the third time in as many years, I took it on.  My world began to shrink, moving from the expansive environment of science, training, human movement study, PhD, family, wedding plans, patients, work etc. to the 18” wide, 3 feet long section of trail in front of my face. I felt my ankles dorsiflex to their end point, then spring load uphill. Thighs pushing hard to pivot up and over the rocks, Glutes finish the hip extension, arms powering in reciprocal motion, breath heavy but steady. Hands scramble for a tree limb, some grass, as the mud challenges the traction at what seems like a 45degree angle. And so on for another 40 minutes, as the castle and ant-sized cheering supporters came into view.

the view from my brain

the view from my brain

Burning. I began to get out of my body and into my head. I was settling in. The descents in PA are insane. At least for Long Island flatlanders. No soft sandy stretches with occasional roots. No fescue grassy, mossy loamy soils underfoot. Sharp rocks, shale, slippery wet mud. All at ferocious angles and winding down the mountain towards the Susquehanna river, glimpsed through the trees when I had the confidence to look up and away from the trail.

yikes!

yikes!

I descended at a steady pace, pausing a few times to enjoy the view, and let some billy-goat bomb past me, half-thinking that we would cross paths later (we usually did). The valley trail seemed shorter this year, and turned sooner into the second climb, Johnsons run. Here the trail wove through the riverbed, climbing as it turned. The trail crossed from one bank to the other, and then rose right through the stream center in parts before making a hard left. Initial passes had me bounding between the dry spots, but soon gave way to leaps into the stream, taking the shortest route and saving the legs from inelegant pauses. The 50k course parted ways from the 25k course, and I headed into terra incognito…up Sledgehammer.

little sister to johnsons run

little sister to johnsons run

After another steep climb, the course opened out onto amazing vistas of the river meandering through the mountainsides, and I swear, it is worth the training and effort just to make it to this point. Knackered, I couldn’t even get my iPhone out for a photo, and didn’t dare stop, for fear of getting chilled on the exposed mountainside.

ahh, worth the journey..

ahh, worth the journey..

I settled back into a rhythm, and caught a few of the guys who had passed me at the last aid station. The weather had been alternating between cool sun and snow flurries, with a biting wind.

the back side of the 50k

the back side of the 50k

With limited fat stores, I am generally pretty cold sensitive. However, as I have been doing more long runs in training, and experimenting with both my outfits and my brain thoughts, I have been succumbing less to my normal issues with cold. I had decided to travel light as possible, so with wool baselayer, long socks and shorts, my only options for heat generation were to put on my thin gloves and pull up my hairband over my ears. Oh, and run harder. Amazingly, I was able to sashay between headband and no headband, gloves and no gloves, sleeves pushed up and sleeves down, thumbs through the thumb holes in the sleeves and not. A wide variety of “outfits” emerged and I was able to thermoregulate in style! Right at 3:58, approximately mile 16, my GPS died, succumbing no doubt to the cold air drawing heavily on the battery. I felt glad on some level, not really needing to know that I was only half-ways, and with less pressure on me to count the miles, I picked up my pace.  Mile 19 had a “heat” stop, designed no doubt, to deal with the cumulative stress of long running, inclement weather, and the need for a brain break. It was a simple log cabin in the middle of nowhere, with no apparent road in or out. But warm soup, friendly faces and refills for fluids were in plentiful supply. Once chug of veggie tomato barley soup later, I was on my way.

SOB too

S.O.B. 🙂

Re-joining the 25k course and continuing up Johnsons run, I was mixing it up with the back-of-the-pack 25k hikers. No runners here, they were hiking with poles, chatting, struggling over streams and fallen trees, having fun. Some were older ex-runners, with their sharply defined calf and quad muscles belying the shuffling gait and bent spines, some were morbidly obese, and huffing through the streams with intent, and a vision of a lighter life. As someone who has been lucky in athletics and genes, I haven’t spent that much time with this group, but when I do, I always feel that medals and awards should be given in reverse. The back-of-pack athletes deserve a ribbon, a medal, a prize for getting off the couch, fighting their genes, their weight, their age, their story.

SOB. No, really, thats the name of this hill..

S.O.B. No, really, thats the name of this hill..

Running long distance races differs from the short stuff in many ways, but I find the internal dialogue is familiar to both. The years of hard bike racing, swimming and running, for me, have given me a space that allows me to spend (much-needed) time inside my own head, with my own thoughts. The day passed with waves of good moments, followed not too long later by bad moments. And if I waited enough, the good moments came again, in this sinusoidal wave of ups and downs, aches and powerful moments, sluggishness and springiness. I sat back inside my head and enjoyed the ride, watching my thoughts emerge as if I was looking at them from a different room, allowing them to ebb and flow like the tide.

And then Monika passed me. The last downhill was a familiar one, Huff run. A 2 mile, rocky, steep descent to the road, then the finial mile to the finish. I had passed her earlier, at 3 hours, and since she was a seasoned 100 mile runner from Virginia, I was happy to have shown her my heels. But here the novice gets a schooling, as she bounded past me at high speed, we high-fived as she passed, solidarity amongst the women, but my legs had nothing left to meet her challenge. I picked my way down, and happy to be on flat ground, gathered some speed for the finish.

ahh, the bridge

ahh, the bridge

Six and a half hours of running was taxing, on both mind and body, and as I wondered how much more I had inside, I was already thinking of digging further in the future, even as my hip muscles screamed on the last little climb…towards the finish line.. IMG_7905And there: all our gang, safe and sound after their 25k race, beers in hand, waiting for me and cheering like lunatics! I squealed with happiness, the support of my *family* washing the aches away, and completing this long journey with joy (and beer).

The GANG!

The GANG! (and even missing a few..)

We had a great night out on the town in Lock Haven, limping around like arthritic old dogs, heavy legs, but light hearts. To carry off this great event as an endurance athlete is one thing, but to do it with such good friends who buoyed each other all the way, is something else. While I coach athletes in order to prepare them for these races, I too got coached, guided, supported by all of these people in return. Ed might have missed the race with his injured knee, but he was buried deep in our legs and our hearts as we tore up and down the mountainsides. As it takes a village to educate a child, it takes a community to build an athlete. What a great community we have. And now, more recovery please..

ahh, the BED!

ahh, the BED!

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cross training, cross country (skiing)

..and with a forecast of a steady ZERO degrees (F), we were packed up and heading out into the wild west woods of Maine. The prior night, while driving the final miles near Kingfield, still in cell-phone contact with the world, I did some google-calulations of what zero Fahrenheit actually was: a steady -18deg C in old money as we say. Little did I know that this would be the warmest it would be for the next few days. Ah well, a good metabolic workout for the brown fat was ahead..

ImageDennis, John and I were headed out on the cross-country, back country trails on a hut-to-hut adventure. An article in the NYtimes had inspired us to pack up our down jackets, backpacks and pointy skinny skis, and head off under our own steam into the quiet woods. Parking our car in the Rangeley airport parking lot, we loaded up the van with our bags, climbed on board and started our mini-trip. 2 hours later, we were dropped off south of Moosehead lake, in the west forks trails, an area famous to rafters, white water kayakers and fishermen. ImageWe strapped on the skis, loaded our backpacks and started on the slippery route south. For some reason, I had assumed that this XC ski session would be similar to what I did at home, the local golf course, the local (flat) wooded trails, the local beaches. Not. Groaning under a 20lb pack, I struggled to say up while going down hills, and even while going up hills. I dug deep in my winter brain, and re-discovered my snowplough and some basic telemark edging techniques. Inventing new ones (like sitting down on my ski tails when the going got too steep), I recovered my comfort zone. And stopping every hour for wardrobe adjustments, we gobbled some food during these micro-breaks before the cold seeped in. We followed the raging river below us, up and down, winding our way in the woods, pausing the let the legs and shoulders recover. Five and a half hours later, we made it to the Grand Falls hut, a beacon in the wilderness. ImageImageThese so-called huts, are more like eco-lodges, 4 stars, and more. Providing wonderful, nutritions dinners and breakfasts, companionship of other skiers, warmth from solar, hydro and wood-power, radiant heat, hot (albeit 6 minute) showers, and gregarious, happy staff, we quickly settled in and called it home. ImageBunks were spartan, but cozy, and tired legs +  full belly = sound sleep. No phone ,no internet, no where to even charge any plug in item, we were truly off the grid along with these huts. Image

Day 2 was mellower, skiing along the riverbanks and the edges of Flagstaff lake. We had time to recover, enjoy the scenery, the silence in our own heads, practice our kick and glide techniques. A warmer day, with no significant winds, it was a balmy 2 degrees. We were already stripping down a layer, but holding onto the triple bagged hands (with hand warmers).   Covering the 13 miles in 4-ish hours, we were still pretty tired when getting to Flagstaff hut, meeting skiers from the prior night and a whole bunch of new lodge friends. A father and son-in-law from Wisconsin, a group of women from Boston, a gang of MBA kids from Harvard. Image

All warm, tired, and hungry. Dinner at 6 was demolished, and legs were stretched out on the radiant heated floor for stretching before bed. Some hung to chat over a beer by the wood stove, comparing the day, planning the next. Enjoying the moment.

The river was steaming in the morning, with the temperature creeping up into the 4’s and 5’s, but the air was frigid, with 20-30kn of wind howling. Image

We wrapped up well, and headed out, bracing for the elements. On advice of a local land ranger, we took a side trail through the woods and out onto Flagstaff lake, a frozen wonderland. Luckily, we had a tailwind, as the wind gave a -25deg F windchill. I was wrapped in 6 layers of clothes (base wool, wood ibex top, MTN hard wear windstop top, fleece vest, then piled on the down hoodie and the windproof jacket) and even while skiing hard, was struggling to stay warm. I borrowed Johns wind pants, over my 2 legging layers, and transformed into a human again. We skied several amazing miles on the frozen lake, glacier like, the wind had blown drifts like sand dunes, carved and sculpted, ever changing in the howling gales. ImageImageImageImageImage

We skied past the three tiny ice-fishing huts, pausing for lunch in the lee of a peninsula and then onwards to the next hut at Poplar. The man-hut.

Poplar was the first hut built in the Maine huts and trails system, and is famous within the trail system for having an all male staff. In common with the other huts, they were funny, smart, and great cooks, while all looking like young, slim versions of Grizzly Adams. Our Boston and Wisconsin friends joined us in celebrating Dennis’s birthday, over wine, beer and hot chocolate. What a fun night. IMG_3678 IMG_3679 IMG_3680We slept well, and sad to leave the hut and our trail buddies, we clicked in and headed down the steep slope, back to reality. Three long days on skis had relaxed the legs, and I enjoyed the undulations, the steeps, the turns coming more comfortably, the crashes, all but eliminated. This short 4th day had us skiing across the end of the runway at Rangely Airport and back to the car. ImageImageImageImage

Deep smiles, thoroughly relaxed bodies, and brains totally engaged in the land, the companionship, the inspiration of the eco-lodges, we truly had a vacation, respite from our crazy hectic world. We were within phone contact with the world, but for the next two hours in the car, no-one charged the phone, the iPad stayed buried deep in the bag. We headed to the ferry, bringing the vacation forward with us, each of us already planning next years trip, hoping for another hut to be built by then, to stretch out the adventure another 15 miles, another 24 hours. More dreams to come.

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The “secret day”

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EHHS track 6am: I plod my way around the school perimeter under headlamp beam, picking up pairs of reflective eyes darting from my path. I gather my thoughts, thinking of family at home, winding thoughts and breaths and prayers together in the dark.

A mile later, the group of bobbing white LEDs form, warm up with me, then we hit the track. We high-knee skip and stride, butt-kick and sprint, and drill our way through the 200s, then steady our heady selves for the 400’s. With legs fairly fresh to the glistening, frosty track, we are tentative in the turns, like the young deer peeking through the chainlink fence at these less graceful creatures. “More like canteloupes than antelopes” I think, these limbs feel solid but slow, less agile in the winter, I have yet to regain my marathon legs from the summer. But they are coming..

The 400s pace well, with only 2 seconds fall out between repeats. The sky pinkens over the school property and the salmon-colored track curves into it, tinged with hoar.

We gasp at the beauty, and share feelings of complete joy being together, struggling, pacing, leading, following. We talk about how this is our “secret day” the one that happens in the wee hours, the magical one that starts in the black ether and ends in the blue skies. The one that we create before the other day gets underway, the one with its weary chores, tiring demands, Sisyphean tasks. But no boulders here on the track, just light hearts, quiet feet, strong limbs. Creating strength for the other day that we stride towards.

3 mi w/u

4 x 200s w/ A + D, elbow swing, and push drills for 100/200 of recovery: focus on drill skills in final 100 stretch of 200’s

4 x 400s w/ 400 recovery:  focus on drill skills in final 200 stretch of 400’s

2 x 800 (bailed in lieu of going to dentist..)

1 mi c/d

7 mi total

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