Friday, November 21, 2014

My new home

You may be wondering why I haven't posted in a while. Well, I'm happy to announce I have a new website, which will be my home for blogging from now on - www.craigmoscetti.com

Thank you to everyone who has found my writing interesting, inspiring, and helpful. I'm very grateful. Don't worry, I will continue to write about all things health, wellness, fitness, running and triathlon on the new blog. It's just an update of functionality.

Click over to my new home and check out what I've been writing about lately. Feel free to leave me a comment or send a message with interesting topics or issues you'd like to read more about.


Thursday, November 6, 2014

Sorry kids, your wellness is an inconvenience

This morning I read an interesting article in the local paper about a recent school board decision about school start times. As more research on the connections between sleep, health, learning, and development surface, many school boards across the country are reassessing the feasibility of later school start times. 



The question came up at a school board meeting in a Saint Paul, Minnesota suburb called Mounds View. Last month the board even commissioned a study looking at the effect of pushing back start times. Evidence from the American Academy of Pediatrics was considered, which recommends "middle and high schools delay the start of class to 8:30am or later," to address chronic sleep deprivation among adolescents and better support healthy development. They also consulted researchers from the University of Minnesota's Center for Applied Research and Educational Improvement.

Armed with the latest scientific evidence demonstrating the potential health and development improvements of later start times, the board decided to....do nothing.

One board member said, "I think there was consensus across the board that the science is there: teens would benefit from a later start time."

But in the end, the status quo prevailed because putting the wellness of children first would create too much of an inconvenience. "We're back to keeping things as it is," one board member was quoted as saying.

Yes, school start times effect other school functions. There is a "ripple effect," as many board members said. But, putting health first has never been an easy choice. If it were, we wouldn't be facing such monumental health challenges in this country. 

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A New Tool to Better Understand Your Food

The food on your plate is the product of a unique supply chain. Sometimes it's complex, other times more intimate between farmer and consumer. Either way, food production is not just a question of ingredients, but also how such ingredients are processed together, and ultimately the composite nutritional value of the food. 

Nothing epitomizes this more then the current debate about GMO (genetically modified organism) labeling on food products. Advocates want to know - and claim it's their right to know - what is precisely in the food they are eating. A number of state legislatures have also considered legislation on the issue. The debate rages regarding the health implications of GMOs, but either way, from a transparency perspective, I'm always in favor of having as much information as is needed to make an informed decision about the things I value.

This is why I was so excited to see a new resource available to help consumers make more informed decisions about food. The Environmental Working Group released a new comprehensive database of 80,000 foods last week, called Food Scores. It scores each food in three primary areas: ingredients, processing, and nutrition. Each individual food receives an overall score, and includes an a very useful summary page with other information about the nutrition facts, ingredients, and how that particular product compares with similar products. 

Here are a few screen shots of the interface.





But of course I'm always skeptical of these types of scoring tools. An index score is only as useful as the underlying assumptions are sound. In the case of Food Scores, I went straight to the nutrition scoring methodology to better understand those nutrients deemed "good" and which fell into the "bad" category.


A few thoughts:

1. Fewer calories prevail. I've written a bit on this, so I won't spend too much time on it. But, calories aren't necessarily something we need to be afraid of, or always cut. More importantly, it's quite easy to reduce calories while at the same time add in more unnatural ingredients and processing. A classic example I like to refer to from Rich Food, Poor Food is in comparing regular Lays potato chips and "Baked Lays," the so-called healthier alternative. Baked Lays has fewer calories, but it also has a bunch more unnatural ingredients. 

2. Saturated fat is still demonized. Though more and more research is supporting the contrary, prevailing opinions continue to claim high saturated fat intake as one of the primary causes of cardiovascular disease. Similar to calories, the Food Scores methodology takes the "less is better" approach.    

3. The methodology seems contradictory when it comes to naturally occurring sugars, such as those in fruit. On the one hand it puts natural sugar in the "negative factors" category, while also having fruit content as a positive factor. All fruit has sugar, some more so then others. By processing fruit, such as with juicing, it's quite easy to create a fairly concentrated source sugar, which if consumed consistently over time, has implications for insulin, cognition, energy levels, and long-term health.

4. Lastly, though some aspects of the underlying methodology can be debated, the database is extremely powerful in supplying different types of information related to a huge number of foods. However, for a usability perspective, going to a website can be a cumbersome process for many consumers. Who has time to search for everything that's going to be included on their grocery list that week? It will be interesting to see if the EWG takes additional steps, such as creating a smartphone app, to try and make the database more accessible and usable.

Take a look at the tool and let me know what you think in the comments.  

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Change the Stimulus

Do you do the same workouts all the time? Do you have a favorite running route you just can't break away from? Do you wear the same running shoes every day?

The beauty of the human body is its ability to adapt. In a training context, the body adapts over time to the stimuli (i.e. training) we throw at it. It's the basic "overload principle" of exercise physiology. A muscle must train at a level it isn't accustomed to in order to adapt. Over time, with the same stimuli, that's exactly what it does: adapt.
 
Once sufficient adaptation occurs, gains begin to slow and then plateau. So, we need to change the stimulus. 

Earlier this week I went for about a 45 minute base run. Nothing crazy, just a moderate effort with no watch running by feel. The change up came when I ditched running on the asphalt- or concrete-paved road, to running on the grass alongside it.

I spend about 95% of my time running on paved surfaces. This after about 15 years of playing soccer where I ran almost entirely on grass. Since taking up running, my leg muscles have slowly adapted to the needs of running on pavement. But, when it comes to running on a trail, grass, or some other uneven surface, the muscle demands are different (think stabilizing muscles around your ankle). By running on grass, I reintroduced a different stimulus my legs haven't felt in a while.

So, when you decide to go for your next run, bike ride, swim, or any other workout, ask yourself if you need to throw something new at your body, or if it's just the same thing over and over again with the hope of improve results. And we all know what that means. 

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Health Implications of Chronic Sugar Consumption Among Endurance Athletes

In endurance sports, sugar-based nutrition products reign supreme. Take a look at the ingredients of any sports drink, gel, or energy bar on the market. The chance it contains sugar as a primary ingredient is pretty high. 

It's because of demand, right?

Possibly. 

Conventional approaches to sports nutrition do revolve around high consumption of carbohydrate, and simple sugars, especially immediately before, during and after hard training sessions and racing. Just the other day, for example, I had breakfast with a fellow triathlete and coach, whose plate was filled with pancakes slathered in maple syrup. He took down the entire thing.

From a purely performance standpoint, there is some evidence supporting a predominantly carbohydrate diet/fueling strategy, particularly at higher intensities. But, more and more research on lipolysis and "fat adaptation" among endurance athletes is showing simple sugars and carbohydrates shouldn't be the primary fuel source, it should be fat. 

Research continues to also pour in showing the long term health implications of chronic sugar consumption. The basic point is this: consuming lots of sugar accelerates the aging process, possibly just as much as smoking. (For example, read this article.)

But, back to endurance athletes. There isn't a ton of research available specifically on this population, but a few studies have emerged. One from earlier this year, I think, is indicative of the caution we, in the endurance sports community, should be taking with an over reliance on sugar-based nutrition.  

The study compared 35 triathletes with 35 non-exercising control individuals. It found an increased risk of dental erosion among triathletes, and a significant correlation between dental caries and cumulative weekly training volume. Basically, a higher prevalence of dental caries was seen among triathletes with higher training loads, presumably due to the larger amounts of mostly sugar-based exogenous fuel sources.

In trying to limit simple sugar consumption during training and racing I take three basic approaches:

1. Don't carry fuel for 90-95% of my workouts. Because I've adapted my metabolism over time to better tap into fat stores, I can easily go for a 2 hour run or a 3 hour bike ride with just water and be perfectly fine. Daily nutrition influences performance.

2.  If I'm in need of a clean fuel source, like during a marathon, I use UCAN Superstarch. It's been my go-to for almost two years, and I don't plan on changing that any time soon.

3. When possible, though, I'm a fan of using whole food sources of nutrition. This is what I did earlier this year during a 16-hour, 300k bike ride through northern New Jersey. I carried plastic bags filled with coconut flakes, coconut oil, almonds, cashews and flax seed crackers. More resources, like the Feed Zone Portables Cookbook, are available to make this approach easier too. I'm looking forward to experimenting more with this in the coming year.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Women Make Tough Choices When it Comes to Family and Wellness


Working mothers make difficult trade offs when it comes to career and family. While trying to pursue career aspirations, mothers often try to balance the responsibilities of being a parent.  

Workplace policies aren't always supportive of a healthy balance between the two. Inflexible work arrangements mean mothers make hard choices when it comes to taking care of a sick child or earning a paycheck. 

A recent poll by the Kaiser Family Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank, sheds light on some of these trade offs that working women (now comprising about half of the US workforce) must make.

In the majority of households across the country, women manage health care decisions for the family. Roughly three out of every four women decide on a doctor, take children to appointments, and then execute a health provider's recommendations on care.  

When doing these things though, many women take time off from work. And 60 percent of women who take time off are not compensated.


   
Such inflexibility has a number of ripple effects:

1. Women lose out on valuable pay, which is already not on par with their male counterparts.

2. Seeking health care turns into a last resort. Out of fear of losing pay, women may opt to forgo seeking heath services for a child.

3. Decisions related to health and illness are major sources of stress by themselves. Work challenges and trade offs only add to this stress.

The good news is that more employers are thinking about employee wellness. Organization policies and culture, however, don't always find their way into these conversations. If wellness is indeed a priority, we need to think about the ecosystem of factors that influence our entire physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being.     

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Tempo Progression Run on the Treadmill

I traveled to Tulsa, Oklahoma earlier this week for work and that meant only one thing: treadmill workout at the hotel gym. 

Whenever I'm able to, I like to run the same day I fly into a new city. Ideally I run outside, which is my way of seeing the sites and getting the blood in my legs recirculating. But, since daylight was running out after I arrived, I hit the hotel gym for a treadmill session. Just a few minutes after warming up my legs felt surprising fresh. I'm still in the early phases of getting back into training, so most of my workouts have just been whatever I feel like doing on that particular day.

I felt great on this particular day. On the fly, I came up with this progression tempo run. It will definitely find its way back into my training down the road.



---

(Everything at 1% incline)

20 minute warm up (build to about 30 seconds above lactate threshold, LT)

Alternate 5 minute work intervals and 5 minute recovery intervals as:
  • (4) Work Intervals: #1 @ marathon pace --> #4 @ 5k pace (decrease by ~10-15 seconds every other 5 minutes)
  • (4) Rest Intervals: #1- 45 seconds slower then work interval --> increase pace by same amount work intervals are decreased  

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

3 Focus Areas to Improve Biomechanics, Generate More Power, and Help You Run Faster

Biomechanics are a bit of a Pandora's box in the running community. Some say they're the ticket to getting faster and building endurance. Others think runners should just stick with what's comfortable and natural.

Regardless of which camp you fall into, there are a few fundamental aspects of running biomechanics that could influence running economy and performance, and certainly relate to injury prevention. Here are three areas to focus on if you're looking to improve your biomechanics, generate more power, and get faster.

1. Back Kick 

During the swing phase of the gait (when the foot is off the ground and moves from behind to in front of you), the foot acts like a pendulum. Your hip is the pivot point, and your leg and foot are "suspended" from the pivot point. When it comes to pendulums, there's one really important variable: the length between the pivot and whatever object is at the end of the pendulum. In this case, it's your foot. A shorter pendulum is faster (or in physics speak, oscillates with a smaller period). Applying this to running, from a biomechanical perspective, having a shorter leg pendulum would be most economical. How do you "shorten" the leg while running/walking? The back kick. In the picture below, you'll see how pronounced the back kick is in many elite runners (this one from the front group at this year's Twin Cities Marathon). The runner then actively brings the foot and leg forward through the gait by driving his knee. (One other thing to note: this is at mile 25!)


2. Knee Drive


As the right foot comes forward, the runner aggressively drives the knee upward and forward. This is where a lot of the runner's power comes from. But, he's only able to do this because of strong hip extensor muscles (muscles that are somewhat notorious for being weak in many runners). He engages his hip extensor muscles, and with a strong knee drive, also drives backwards with his left leg (the toe off part of the gait cycle). A pronounced knee drive also sets up the runner for an effective foot strike. See the next picture, particularly looking at the right leg/foot. The knee drive helps avoid excessive dorsiflexion of his foot. Dorsiflexion is when you point your toes upwards. Too much dorsiflexion usually sets a runner up for heal striking, while a more neutral position, such as in this picture, usually means a more mid-foot strike.




3. Foot Strike


Two big points on the foot strike. The first is that the runner strikes mostly at his mid-foot, which tends to generate less impact forces on the lower limb joints compared to heal striking. The second point is where the foot lands relative to the rest of the runner's body. It's almost directly under the runner's head and hips. In fact, you can basically draw a straight line from the top of the head, through the torso and hips, and finishing at the heal of the foot. Having this type of alignment, with the foot striking under the hips, enables the greatest amount of power to be generated.


By focusing on these three main factors over the past few years, I've seen some huge improvements in my own racing. For example, here's a side-by-side of what my "knee drive" looked like five years ago and what it is this year.

Take time to revisit the basics. Set a good foundation and the rest will follow.

Friday, October 10, 2014

The Secret to Making a Kick-Ass Salad You'll Actually Crave

I'm known as the salad guy. Every day, without fail, lunch is always a salad. Sometimes I'll go a few months eating more or less the same one. Other times, I'll vary things up. Either way, my salads are one of the most nutrient-dense meals I prepare. Especially during periods of heavy training, this is critical for getting a lot of the vitamins, minerals and nutrients I need to recovery properly. The high nutrient density is also why I'll actually start craving dark leafy greens and vegetables if I'm forced to go more than 36 hours without a salad (like if I'm traveling). Ask my wife, I can get pretty cranky.

So, what's the secret recipe?

Well, recipe might be too much of an exact word for my salads. I don't really measure things out, unless a handful of this, a shake of this, and a pinch of that is considered "measuring." Mostly, I just like to take a bunch of different vegetables, throw them in a big bowl, add some seasoning and fat, and dig in.

Here's how it goes:

Step 1: Start with a nice, large bowl, something that can fit at least six cups. But, don't be shy, I've used some of our largest mixing bowls for salads.


Step 2: Add in your favorite dark leafy green. This can be spinach, kale, romaine lettuce, arugula, chard, mustard greens, or some combination. Stick with organic when you can to reduce the chances of being exposed to pesticide residue.

Step 3: Chop 3-4 vegetables of your choosing: cucumber, bell peppers, tomatoes, radishes, really whatever looks good at the grocery store and you're in the mood for. The "organic rule" applies here too. Instead of chopping them, I use a peeler and shave pieces of carrot on top.


Step 4: Add an herb: parsley, cilantro, oregano. They add a nice flavor and many herbs, particularly parsley and cilantro, are great at helping to detoxify.

Step 5: Add some fat and protein. My one-two combo for this are avocado and sardines. I love sardines because they are low on the food chain, so you don't have the same heavy metal risk as larger fish, and they pack an amazing nutrient profile, particularly omega-3s. So, if you're a hard charging athlete, or just want to support a healthy nervous or immune system, these should be a go-to. One word of caution with sardines: be mindful of the brand you buy, particularly where the sardines are from and if the can is BPA-free (BPA is a known endocrine-disruptor, aka messes with your hormonal system, and has been linked to a number of health problems). A favorite brand of mine is Wild Planet.



Step 6: Add sea salt and pepper to taste. Because I follow a fairly low-carbohydrate diet, I find I need to add salt to a lot of my food to ensure my blood pressure doesn't get too low. I stick with himalayan sea salt when I can.

Step 7: Dress with extra-virgin olive oil (again preferably organic, cold-pressed, and packaged in a dark bottle to avoid too much sun/heat exposure, which can damage the delicate fats). I stay away from any commercial dressings since many are made with soybean or other vegetable oils. One brand I've found to be the exception is Tessemae's, which has olive oil-based dressings. I'm fairly liberal when it comes to the olive oil, since that, the avocado, and sardines are the largest sources of calories in the meal.

Step 8: Grab a fork and dig into your kick-ass salad!

Try one this weekend and let me know how it turns out! If you have a favorite version of your own kick-ass salad, share in the comments.

Monday, October 6, 2014

21 Inspiring Quotes from "The Obstacle is the Way" by Ryan Holiday to Turn Trials into Triumphs

If you haven't read this book yet, you should. Ryan Holiday deconstructs the basic, timeless principles behind stoic philosophy, first pioneered by thinkers like Seneca and Marcus Aurelius, into a practical guidebook for how to live life. Totally accessible and grounding, it's a book you'll likely go back to over and over again for inspiration. I have already.

Here are 21 of my favorite, inspiring quotes:

1. "You will come across obstacles in life - fair and unfair. And you will discover, time and time again, that what matters most is not what these obstacles are but how we see them, how we react to them, and whether we keep our composure. You will learn that this reaction determines how successful we will be in overcoming - or possibly thriving because of - them."

2. "Too often we react emotionally, get despondent, and lose our perspective. All that does is turn bad things into really bad things."

3. "...if we have our wits fully about us, we can step back and remember that situations, by themselves, cannot be good or bad. This is something - a judgement - that we, as human beings, bring to them with our perceptions."

4. "There is always a countermove..."

5. "We can't change the obstacles themselves - that part of the equation is set - but the power of perspective can change how the obstacles appear. How we approach, view, and contextualize an obstacle, and what we tell ourselves it means, determines how daunting and trying it will be to overcome."

6. "Where the head goes, the body follows."

7. "But every ounce of energy directed at things we can't actually influence is wasted - self-indulgent and self-destructive. So much power - ours, and other people's - is fritted away in this manner."

8. "Focus on the moment, not the monsters that may or may not be up ahead."

9. "When given an unfair task, some rightly see it as a chance to test what they're made of - to give it all they've got, knowing full well how difficult it will be to win. They see it as an opportunity because it is often in that desperate nothing-to-lose state that we are our most creative."

10. "No way around it: It's on you."

11. "...genius often really is just persistence in disguise."

12. "Stop looking for angels, and start looking for angles."

13. "Respect the craft and make something beautiful."

14. "How you do anything is how you can do everything."

15. "Just our best, that's it. Not the impossible. We must be willing to roll the dice and lose."

16. "True will is quiet humility, resilience, and flexibility; the other kind of will is weakness disguised by bluster and ambition."

17. "We protect our inner fortress so it may protect us."

18. "But there is always some good - even if only barely perceptible at first - contained within the bad. And we can find it and be cheerful because of it."

19. "Perseverance is something larger. It's the long game. It's about what happens not just in round one but in round two and every round after - and then the fight after that and the fight after that, until the end."

20. "Lend a hand to others. Be strong for them, and it will make you stronger."

21. "Behind mountains are more mountains...One does not overcome an obstacle to enter the land of no obstacles."

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Wheels Fall Off (Part 3 - Princeton 70.3 Race Report)

This is part 3 of 3 of a series on my race at IRONMAN 70.3 Princeton. Disclosure: I did not receive any form of compensation for mentioning certain products in this posting. 

Part 1: Getting to the Start Line
Part 2: On Pace

****

I dismount. My first steps off the bike are reassuring. The slight cramp sensations in my hamstrings from removing my feet from my cycling shoes are temporary. They faded for the time being just moments after they began 100 meters from the dismount line of the bike course. My calf, hugged by a black compression sleeve, feels normal as I dash to the opposite side of transition to rack my bike. Caution, however, still shields it from the violent force of a normal stride. When I reach my spot in transition, I quickly rack my bike, place my black, Specialized helmet on the handlebars, and insert my feet, one after the other, into a pair of socks, then into my running shoes. The elastic Xtenex laces in my running shoes make shoelace tying obsolete. I simply yank on the ends, and the series of small knots in the laces catch on the shoe eyelets at the exact right tightness.

I pass under the "Run Out" arch. The force incurred during each foot strike comes with a special delivery of confidence, sent directly to my brain. Each step provides a bit more then the previous. Only a few hundred meters into the run, I feel strong and energized. My pace gradually dips close to 6:15 per mile. 

I hit the first aid station. Prior to the race, I completely abandoned the thought of trying UCAN Superstarch in a running flask again. Did I not want to carry the flask? Was UCAN not effective? No and no. I knew I entered the race in a sub-optimal state of fitness. The previous six weeks, as I mentioned in Part 2, were a complete logistical nightmare. There was zero stability. Combine that with Princeton being my last race, wanting to have a good performance in front of my family, and the goal of qualifying for the 70.3 World Championships (which I significantly tempered once our moving calendar became clearer). I'm usually one who tries to strike the balance between health and performance. That got thrown out the window today. 

"Water and two cokes," I call out at the first aid station. I dump the first cup of water over my head and proceed through the buffet line of fuel source options to grab two cups of Coke. Water and Coke worked for me in my last half-Ironman in North Carolina where I placed 2nd in my age group. I stick to that same strategy, at first by choice, later by absolute necessity. 

I feel some tightness in my quads. I definitely pushed the pace on the bike, but never felt I was overly smashing the pedals. It's a similar sensation to the one I felt coming off the bike in North Carolina. With some quickly absorbed fuel early in the run, I figure the tightness will work itself out, just like it has in the past. 

Around the mile 2 mark I find out that's not going to be the case today. I ease up slightly, contemplating a quick stop to stretch, hoping it would help relieve the tightness. Wrong decision. Horrible decision. Both sets of quads seized up simultaneously. Cramps grab hold of each with a vise-like grip. I can't relax them. A loud howl exits my cringing face. Both are stuck in a contracted state. The pain is excruciating, like two knives that have stabbed each. Bent over, I use my thumb to apply as much pressure as possible to each thigh, slowly digging into the muscle to trigger its release. 

It's the most unpleasant and painful deep tissue massage I've ever had. Unfortunately, it wouldn't be the last one that day.

As I'm slowly loosening my thigh muscles, I hear fellow athletes offer words of encouragement as they run by. It's helpful, but I'm still annoyed with the ground I'm losing, and to one athlete in particular. All of a sudden I hear an audible jumble of words that I can't quite make out, but includes the word "bike." I look up, it's the fellow 25-29 age grouper I sparred with on the bike course. I insert my own version of the rest of his statement: "Shouldn't have gone so hard on the bike." 

It lights a match under me. After a minute or two, I finally work out the cramps to a point where I can resume running. My focus narrows to one goal: pass that one athlete. Seeing his stride as he passed me, I know I'm a much better runner. I just need to hold off these cramps for a little while longer. 

Not long after relief arrives in my quads, I feel a lingering, inevitable pain in my right calf. Instead of walking, which I told myself before the race that I would only do as a very last resort, I modified my stride to a less impactful gliding-like gait instead of my typical stride with more pronounced knee-drive and back-kick. Even so, I still manage to work my way further into the field of athletes ahead of me. 

A mile before the end of the first loop, marking the midway point, I'm within striking distance of my goal. He's been in my sights the previous three miles. I've slowly chipped away at his time advantage. We exit one of the park's trails and onto the main access road. I come up on his left, pausing for a few steps to run alongside him. I glance over, look directly at him, then accelerate slightly to pass him. I don't look back.

Barricades lining the road slowly come into few, draped with repeated logos of Training Peak, Tacx, TIMEX and other IRONMAN partners. My eyes dart back and forth to try and spot my family. They are standing along the right side of the road, somewhat spread out, to offer more smaller doses of encouragement rather than all at once. As I round the left turn to enter the second loop, I shoot a thumbs up sign to my wife and dad. I'm feeling okay.


Long before I made it to this point, I transformed the run course in my mind from a daunting 13.1 mile slog, to a series of one mile repeats. I focus only on running to the next aid station, located about one mile beyond the previous. When I think about the half-marathon in smaller segments, it seems much more manageable. "Just get to the next aid station," becomes my mantra. For a while, it works.

I pass through another aid station, taking water and Coke, which has become standard protocol. It's been five miles since the cramps struck like two lightning bolts. I'm still gliding along, and actually feel optimistic about holding off any more cramps. Just a few minutes after the thought, though, the cramps strike again. The agonizing pain once again shoots through my quads. They seize up. I yell. Once again, it's time to apply as much pressure as possible with my fingers to relax the contracted muscles. Under my grip, beneath the skin, I feel the lively flurry of out of control muscle spasms.

Frustration returns to my thoughts. Cardiovascularly I feel 100 percent fine. It's like my legs won't work how I want them too. They feel totally disconnected from how I'm mentally and aerobically feeling. "And all the people I just worked so hard to pass are now all passing me," I think to myself. It takes a few moments longer this time then the previous to work things out. But, I do. I'm moving again.

A mile and a half up the road, more cramps. Same story. I give up my goal of beating that one fellow age grouper, who since passed me for the second time. It's all about finishing now, however I can. The cramps would come with greater frequency during the second half of the run. I stop five times in all, including one right next to an aid station, and another less than a mile from the finish line. I don't care how often they come, though, I'm determined to run when I can, and finish the race on my terms, giving it ever ounce of mental and physical effort I have left in my body.


I pass the 12 mile sign. The finish feels within reach. I stop once more because of a cramp, just steps from my family. I'm sure they see the pure agony on my face. I grit my teeth, and with a grimace on my face, a limp in my gait, and my cousin running alongside me for the final half mile, I complete the most brutal and painful triathlon I've ever done. 


I cross the finish line with a brief moment of disappointment on my mind. I had ambitious expectations coming into this race, and my five hour and nine minute finish time didn't even come close to them. Instead of proceeding directly through the finish corral after the finish line, I take a few moments to myself, to reflect on the previous five hours, mostly the past hour of torture. The disappointment quickly fades, though, when I see my cousin's two young boys, one three and the other seven. I know perseverance in the face of adversity is a valuable lesson. I hope I played at least some role in helping them understand that lesson. And that's the "win" I choose to leave the race with. 

Run Split: 1:52:48

Finish Time: 5:09:01 (19th in 25-29 age group / 147 overall)  


****

Stuff happens. Life intervenes. Every race is not always going to be a personal best. Things will go wrong. Stress influences performance much more than we think. Did I have ambitious goals for the race? Absolutely. Do I wish I raced better? No question. Do I know I can race better? Heck yea. But, will there be another race? Yes. Did I learn something from the race? Hand down, without a doubt. Did I experience something during the race I've never experience before? Will these experiences make me a better athlete? A better coach? A better husband? A better person? Emphatically, yes. 

It makes me think of a quote from the movie Life as a House, "Sometimes things happen for a reason. Something bad to force something good." It's all about perspective and finding the good in everything we do and experience. I just finished reading an amazing book, The Obstacle is the Way (stay tuned for a new blog on it), and if anything captures how I feel looking back on the race it's this:

“There is no good or bad without us, there is only perception. There is the event itself and the story we tell ourselves about what it means.” 

My story of IRONMAN 70.3 Princeton is one of grit, persistence, and knowing I gave the race what I honestly and truthfully had on that day. I fought through pain. I raced with the unknown of how an injury would hold up, and it turned out okay. I toed the start line even when I could have easily backed out of the race, whether because of moving or injury. I learned something about myself that day. I explored an unknown part of me. I experienced something new and unforgettable in this magical, unpredictable, and sometimes unrelenting world of ours. 

And that's a win. And I'm grateful for it.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Should children be using standing desks in schools?

"Sitting is killing you." It might even be worst for your long-term health then smoking, suggests some research. The headline is a bit sensational (in this case by TIME magazine), but the underlying message isn't. In many respects, movement has been engineered out of our daily lives. Now, I'm not talking about the 30 minute jog in the morning or weight session after work. These are laudable activities. I'm talking about the regular movement involved in our everyday activities - essentially, being on your feet for more then a few minutes. 

One technical fix to move (pun intended) people in the direction of increased activity is a standing workstation. They've been around for quite some time, but have become quite the craze recently. 

What's the point? 

Why should we be standing morel? The answer in many public health circles is less about standing for a long duration of time, but rather getting people out of a seated position because of sitting's link to a variety of long-term health consequences. For example, a number of studies, such as this one, have shown a dose response association between sitting time and death from all-causes and heart disease. The more sitting, the higher the risk. Even more important, these results were found to be independent of leisure time physical activity. In other words, your morning/evening run, cycle, swim, row (insert your activity or workout of choice here) does not make up for the eight hours spent sitting at your desk everyday. A similar study, called the Sax Institute 45 and Up Study, which is the largest ongoing study of healthy aging in the Southern Hemisphere, has found a 40% increased risk of death for adults who sit 11 or more hours per day compared to those who sit fewer than four

Armed with the data, many individuals and employers are making changes. Enter: the standing workstation. More offices have them, and more options are available now than ever before. Some, like this one, can easily shift from a standing desk to a regular seated desk. For employers, it's about trying to minimize ill health-related costs and increase productivity.

Schools, on the other hand, are more of an unknown. Standing desks are still not very common, but new research suggests maybe they ought to be. It's a similar rationale with workplaces. Standing desks would help keep kids healthier and boost learning and academic performance. 

Standing Desks for Kids?
 
A new, first-of-its-kind study that tested the use of standing desks in 24 classrooms in three north-Texas elementary schools showed some interesting results, at least from an energy expenditure perspective. Researchers compared energy expenditure (EE) data and daily step counts for 337 students from two different grades within the three schools. Four different classrooms were measured per grade. Below is a picture of the standing desk used by students in the intervention groups (right) alongside the desk used for the control group (left), which were just the normal desks used at the schools before the study. Two control classrooms had to be excluded from the study because they opted to use exercise balls in place of chairs during the school year. As a result, the number of students in the treatment and control groups were not balanced.




The results?  

It's a mixture of good and bad. 

Good news: 
All students, regardless of gender or ethnicity, took more steps and expended more energy if they used a standing desk compared to those using seated desks. The following two graphs illustrate this point. In addition, students who were overweight or obese had a greater EE of 0.24 kcal/min and 0.40 kcal/min respectively compared to students of normal weight range. (One point of clarification: 1 kcal roughly equals 1 calorie). One could then conclude that from a purely EE standpoint (i.e. not considering the limitations of an energy-based way of thinking - in other words, only calories - about weight gain/loss and metabolic dysfunction), a standing desk is more effective then a sitting one, particularly for those children who are already overweight or obese.  

Students who had standing desks also took more steps per minute on average throughout the day. In the fall semester it was 1.61 steps/minute more among standing versus sitting students. This difference essentially disappeared in the spring semester, though, calling into question whether it was the desk per se that caused the increase number of steps, or simply the fact that it was something new. Similar to EE, greater benefits were observed among overweight and obese students.

Graph of average energy expenditure (measured in kilocalories) per minute by each student.


Graph of average steps taken per minute by students.



Bad news: 
A few points of bad news:

1. The overall effect of the intervention was relatively small. If you take the combined average increase in EE for all students using a standing desk compared to sitting, it amounted to a 0.08-0.16 kcal/min increase. Over a four hour period, this only amounts to an increase of 19.2 - 38.4 kcals. For some perspective, a single cup of fresh-pressed orange juice is 112 calories; a single hard-boiled egg is about 70 calories; and a single slice of Nature's Own whole wheat bread has 60 calories. The basic point is that we're not talking about much here. 

2. A 50% smaller increase in EE was observed among students using the standing desk in the spring semester compared to the fall. Basically, the longer students used the desk, the more they adapted to them, expending less energy.

A few Unanswered Questions

Two significant areas went untouched in this study.

1. Alignment: Standing in an anatomically aligned position requires significant postural muscle strength in the legs, glutes, abdominals and lower back. When these muscles cannot sufficiently support the body in a functional way, bad habits form, impacting overall body alignment. For a crash course on alignment, read Katy Bowman's blog or book titled, Alignment Matters. One specific area she discusses at length, and warrants highlighting, is the role of footwear. A straight line should be able to be drawn from the top of the head, down to the heals, perpendicular to the floor or ground. When one introduces a healed shoe (in other words, the large majority of commercially available footwear today), this changes the angle by which this imaginary line intersects with the ground. The result? Muscles unnaturally shorten, like those in the calf, hamstring and lower back, changing the entire alignment of the posterior muscle chain as a result. Ever have tightness, soreness or pain in your lower back? Tight calves and/or hamstrings could be the cause.

2. Productivity and/or education outcomes: The link between physical activity and improved brain functioning is well established. For more on this, read the book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Exercise essentially turns on parts of the brain associated with learning, creativity, and other executive functions. This is the basic argument for retaining (and even increasing) the amount of physical activity opportunities offered to students during the school day. Though lower impact and less cardiovascularly taxing then say running, standing still has its benefits. Really, anything other then sitting is preferable. Unfortunately, none of these non-health benefits were examined in the study, though the discussion section of the paper says otherwise. Despite the fact that the study did NOT measure any education-related variables, the authors still concluded, "the results of this study and previous pilot studies have established that activity-permissive classrooms...improve behavioral engagement." Popular media outlets picked up on this assertion and expanded upon it, such as Fast Company who ran a story on September 26th about the study with the headline "Standing Desks Are Coming to Schools, To Cure Obesity and Increase Attention Spans." This despite the fact that the study did NOT actually measure attention span or "behavioral engagement."

****

I've used a standing workstation for several years now, whether commercially bought or one I rigged up using various office supplies. But, is this something that should be standard practice in schools in the US? Should children be forced to use standing workstations? Should they be given the option? Are standing workstations simply overrated? I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

On Pace (Part 2 - Princeton 70.3 Race Report)

This is part 2 of 3 of a series on my race at IRONMAN 70.3 Princeton.


****
  
I glance at my watch, it reads 7:00am. Transition has been closed for 15 minutes. I see a few other athletes rushing to exit transition. A group of volunteers guards the entrance. "Can I quickly grab something from my transition bag," I ask one of them. I'm half expecting the response to be a sympathetic yet stern, "No, I'm sorry, transition is closed." The response I receive catches me by surprise. "Sure, I don't call the shots here," a late 20-something male volunteer said. 

I reach deep into the side pocket of my black TYR transition bag. The small, smooth, cylindrical object comes into contact with my hand. Tight in my grip, I scamper out of transition as quickly as I can, still feeling devilish for breaking the "out of transition by 6:45am" rule.

Body glide! It's every triathletes' saving grace. Now, you are probably thinking this to be a trivial item, something one could do without. But the bright red rashes caused by the neoprene wetsuit might make you think otherwise. In triathlon circles they're commonly called "hickies," for their unfortunate location and reticent of similar red spots from a different cause. I apply the deodorant-looking substance to my ankles and feet, then slide each leg into its respective place in the wetsuit. I then smear my neck and shoulders. Putting on a wetsuit is a process, always taking a few minutes to shimmy the thick neoprene shell into exactly the right position. To expedite, cover each foot with a plastic shopping bags before inserting them into the legs of the wetsuit. I, unfortunately, forgot to bring those. 

I find a patch of grass next to transition and sit. With about an hour until my swim wave goes off, I have some time to kill. Stephanie and I decided the night before this patch of grass would be our meeting place that morning. We usually fail to remember identifying such a place, which makes seeing each other before the swim start like searching for a thimble in a leaf pile. 


My excitement wins out. I stand up and like some strong magnetic force, I'm pulled in the direction of the swim start, which is a few hundred meters down a wooded path along the lake. "Maybe they saw the masses of spectators and athletes and decided to follow," I rationalize with myself as I abandon the meeting spot. My head swivels back and forth, trying to spot Stephanie, one of my parents, or my cousin and his son. After about 10 minutes of wondering, I decide to sit, partly because I'm tired of looking and partly because I want to take a few moments to collect my thoughts. The playing of the national anthem is that one quiet opportunity I take advantage of to reflect on the gift I have before me. Because of my dash-and-grab incident in transition earlier, I missed that opportunity. 

I stand up and attempt one final pass along the wooded path to find one of my family members. Success. Ten yards ahead of me are my dad, cousin and his son. They call Stephanie and my mom, who are both back close to transition, at our meeting spot. "We said we would meet next to transition," Stephanie teased, knowing she had the upper hand. "I know, I know," I responded sheepishly. We smile together.


A continuous stream of athletes enters the water, in regular three minute intervals. Each wave congregates on the beach around a shoddy sign held by a volunteer with that wave's corresponding age group written in black Sharpie ink. When instructed by the announcer, the group crosses under the white IRONMAN arch to wade at the water's edge. The next command is to enter the water, and swim the 100m to assume their place at the start line behind the first orange buoy. 

Wave 19, my swim wave, is finally announced. It's now my turn to pass through the assembly-line like progression from beachhead to start line. I give one final thumbs up to my support crew along the barricades, and wade into the refreshing 70-degree water. The mass of 109, 25 to 29 year old's took to the water, some aggressively diving in, some more cautiously wading in, one step at a time. I use the brief swim to the start line as a warm up. The warm up area closed some 40 minutes ago, and with such a late wave, I didn't want to be standing on the beach for a half-hour all wet. 

Thumbs up!

Perpendicular to the orange start buoy, I gently tread water, mostly relying on my wetsuit to keep me afloat. Just a few moments later the loud air horn cuts through the morning's cloudy air. The sun is nowhere to be found, and its uncharacteristically humid, not a forecast I wanted. Heads go down, arms begin to swing, water is churned up, each athlete trying feverishly to break away from the rest of the pack. I remain calm, regularly sighting up ahead to find a pocket between the kicking feet.

The congestion finally begins to dissipate. Breathing to my left I spot and pass the second orange buoy with a large, black "2" displayed on the side. I rhythmically cruise forward, my right hand exiting the water, elbow high forming an acute arm angle, my arm gradually straightening as my fingertips enter the water. Sinking just a few inches, and now pointing towards the bottom of the lake, I pull my hand towards my feet, like a paddle, pressing against the water, and propelling me forward.  My right foot simultaneously kicks a single beat as my torso ever so slightly rolls toward the left, the water's surface bisecting my face into two symmetrical parts, allowing a quick inhale of air. Rinse, wash, repeat.

The first few hundred meters are smooth. I stream into a pocket of water and begin to focus on my breathing. It's calm, maybe too calm. Am I not going hard enough? I'm amongst a number of fellow age groupers, but I can't help but wonder. My stroke feels acceptable, though slightly uncoordinated. Something seems out of sync. Something is off. Could it be from the disjointed and unpredictable schedule of the last six weeks? The stress, the uncertainty, the living out of a suitcase, it all is combining together into some twisted villain trying to sabotage my race. If I'm not careful, he might. 
****

One early afternoon on June 24 Stephanie and I received a disheartening email from our property manager. We had been renting a townhouse in Reston, Virginia from a gentlemen who was suppose to be on an overseas assignment for the federal government for two years. His assignment was cut short, and he wanted his house back. I was at work, about to go on my regular 25 minute lunchtime walk. Then it appeared at the top of my email inbox, the bold subject line staring at me, hurling my fate out of the screen. "1626 Valencia lease termination," the subject line read. September would mark the one year anniversary of our moving into the house. We felt settled. Our townhouse in Reston was beginning to feel like home. And now it won't be. We had to vacate the property by August 22, exactly one month before IRONMAN 70.3 Princeton. 

The solution seemed clear at that point, we needed a new apartment or townhouse. This is where the story complicated more. At the same time, Stephanie was approached by a former colleague at a company she interned with a number of years ago regarding a potential job opportunity. It was a dream job, exciting, challenging, and filled with opportunity. The only catch, the job was in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Her family lives in the Twin Cities, and Stephanie grew up there. We had talked about moving there at some point, but thought it would be down the road a bit further. "Maybe this lease termination is a sign we should make the jump," we hypothesized together on more then one occasion. 

As the summer bounded on, our future in Minnesota became a little clearer, though it was still far from crystal. August 22nd continued to loom. We felt the pressure. Early September was the mostly likely time we'd hear about Stephanie's job. July came and went, and Stephanie and I were faced with a major decision: do we search for a new rental in Washington, DC or northern Virginia, hopefully a month-to-month, though those are rare and expensive? Or do we gamble by moving our belongings into storage and stay with friends until we hear a decision regarding the job in Minnesota, hopefully a positive one? Both came with their downsides. 

Each day ticked by, a steady march towards our fateful deadline. Our "drop-dead" date of August 8th, two weeks before the end of our lease, arrived. We made our decision. The logistics were complicated. Several existing events already occupied a few weekends on the August and September calendar. Thankfully, during the course of all of this, Stephanie was offered her dream job. Determining my own job future also solidified. It went something like this:
  • Weekend of August 2nd: trip to Asheville, North Carolina to visit my brother and his family for his birthday, and race the Lake Logan Half triathlon. 
  • We moved our belongings into a storage unit in Reston on August 17th. 
  • The next two weeks, we house-sat for friends, who live in the Capitol Hill area of Washington, DC, for two weeks while they were away on vacation.  
  • The weekend between those two weeks, Stephanie traveled to Dallas, Texas for a baby shower and I went to New Jersey to race TriRock Asbury Park triathlon.  
  • The weekend after house-sitting, the weekend of Labor Day, we traveled to New Jersey and Delaware for my sister and her fiancee's bridal shower/bachelorette party/bachelor party weekend.  
  • That Sunday, August 31st, we returned to DC and stayed in a hotel for one night. 
  • The next morning, we loaded our belongings from the storage unit into a 17-foot U-Haul truck and drove the next two days to Minneapolis. The day after we arrived, we unloaded our things from the truck into a storage unit in the Twin Cities. 
  • We stayed the rest of the week in Minnesota, so we could attend a wedding that Friday, which we planned to attend long before all of the commotion started. Stephanie received her job offer this week as well. We flew back to Washington, DC on Sunday, September 7th.  
  • The week of September 8-12 we stayed with friends in their two-bedroom apartment, coincidentally back in the Capitol Hill area of DC. I found out on Monday what my forthcoming job arrangement would be, which provided some much needed stability.   
  • We spent the following weekend with my aunt and uncle in Lewes, Delaware, the weekend I injured my calf.  
  • Our friends kindly allowed us to stay with them a second week, which was September 15-19. 
  • Friday, September 19th was the last day of work for both Stephanie and myself. After work, we made the familiar drive back up to my cousin's house in Yardley, Pennsylvania where we stayed the weekend. IRONMAN 70.3 Princeton race day: Sunday, September 21st. We would leave on Monday morning to return to Washington, DC for one night, so I could fulfill a speaking invitation at George Washington University. The next morning we would do the same two-day drive to Minnesota, though this time in the comfort of a Honda Accord rather then a bulky, torturing U-Haul truck.
****

The colored dots that are swim caps gradually transition from exclusively blue to a mixture of colors, purple, orange, red, pink. I'm entering a fresh pack of swimmers from age groups that started before I did, each representing an obstacle I need to steer around. I round the first turn buoy on my left at the 900 meter mark, hugging the inside track. A short hundred meters more, and I make the second of three turns on the elongated rectangle course. I head back in the direction I came, this time with yellow instead of orange buoys on my left. In addition to the buoys, small orange hemispheres lined the lake. These are useful for the rowing teams that practice on the lake. For me, they are simply a nuisance.

The final turn buoy slowly comes into my sight path. Traffic seems to thicken. I'm surrounded, each of us more focused on the white IRONMAN arch in the distance that reads "Swim Out" rather then each other. My vision narrows. It's the only thing in my field of vision as I sight between strokes. I swim up to the concrete launch ramp where a volunteer assists athletes exiting the water. I push myself to a standing position and begin to slowly jog up the ramp, navigating around several other athletes who exit the water at the same time. I hold back slightly, conscious of my calf. Inclines generally exacerbate calf injuries. I didn't want to take any chances.

I bypass the "wetsuit strippers," who yank off your wetsuit for you as you sit on the ground, all free of charge. Instead, I opt to peel off my own wetsuit at my designated spot in transition. Routine. Habit. Whatever you call it, I don't like to deviate from it. I check my watch, the time I see isn't ideal. It's not what I hoped for before the race. It wasn't a personal best by a long shot. But it's sufficient for today. I think about the time for about 10 seconds and almost instantly turn my attention to executing a quick transition and getting out on the bike course.


Swim: 33:57
****

I struggle for a moment to free my right foot from my wetsuit. Once off, I throw the suit over the bike rack, put on my helmet and sunglasses, and dash towards the other side of transition to "Bike Out." I mount my bike amongst five or six other athletes.  Space is a premium after the mount/dismount line, but I manage to find a pocket. Unlike in past races, I forgot a rubber band to fasten my cycling shoes in place so they don't spin around while running with the bike through transition. It makes for an easier first few pedal strokes when the shoes are in a more or less fixed position. I manage. I pedal out of the group and find some open road so I can slip my feet into my cycling shoes. 


Athletes line the right side of the road way. Pockets are almost nonexistent, unless one wants to encroach on the three bike-lengths required between riders. I continuously pass other athletes, and decide to stay towards the left as a result. "What's the point in moving to the right if I just keep passing people?" I think. My predicament is the result of my age group being the 19th of 22 total swim waves. This means all male athletes aside from my age group (25-29) began the swim before I did. This also means that all female competitors aside from four age groups began the swim before I did. I don't know exactly how many of the other roughly 2,000 athletes are ahead of me, but it feels like a lot. 

I exit Mercer County Park and turn right onto one of the surrounding roads. My legs pedal close to 100 revolutions per minute in a slightly lower gear as I try to warm them up. I grab my water bottle from the cage on my bike's down tube and feverishly shake it, trying to dissolve the white UCAN superstarch powder that settled to the bottom of the bottle. Superstarch and almond butter worked for me in my two previous half-Ironman distance races. I stick with it for this race.

The bike course features about 1,300 feet of rolling hills amongst an otherwise relatively flat 57.5 mile, one loop bike course. Race organizers and local police were unable to identify a sufficient 56 mile course, the standard half IRONMAN bike course length. Their best effort yielded 1.5 miles over. 

Potholes are a common sight. In addition to having to navigate an above average number of turns, and other athletes crowding the road, riders are faced with a mine field of potholes. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. But in the case of this bike course, it's not always the safest. 

About 15 miles into the ride, I hear a clicking noise. Tick. Tick. Tick. I look down and what I see is a complete disaster. My spare tire tube, which was secured under my saddle, fell out and is now twisted in my rear wheel hub. Just a few minutes earlier I started to break away from a number of fellow 25-29 age groupers. I'm annoyed I'll need to give that time back. It's a long bike course though. I pull to the side of the road and calmly begin to untie the tube from the hub. It takes a minute or so. I stuff the tube in a jersey pocket, remount my bike, and aggressively pedal out of the saddle to resume the 23 mph speed I was at a few moments before. 

The ensuing 25 miles pass as planned. I hold a steady pace and continue to stay to the left, periodically yelling the standard "on your left." A few athletes pass me, though I'm able to reel them in shortly after. One athlete is particularly stubborn, his black Specialized Shiv coming into my peripheral vision field just a few moments after I pass him. We leapfrog each other for the next 10 miles or so. Leading into one small set of rolling hills, I notice he slows ever so slightly ahead of me. I click into a bigger gear on the downhill and power past him, another athlete shielding his sight of me as I pass. "I wonder if he saw me," I think, hoping to pull away any way I can. I push the pace to try and escape. I don't see him the rest of the bike course, though we'll be reunited not too far into the run, in a much different set of circumstances.

I re-enter Mercer County Park and prepare for transition while also keeping an eye out for my support crew. I see them along the barricades, each yelling words of encouragement as I ride by. I slip my right foot out of my cycling shoe. A sharp tightness suddenly permeates from my hamstring, reminiscent of a cramp. The sensation repeats for the left leg. A brief thought of doubt flies into my consciousness. Did I go too hard on the bike? I jumped 13 places in my age group on the bike course, from 25th at the end of the swim to 12th when I hit the dismount line. I hit my bike split time, while also knowing I have no idea how my calf will hold up on the run. I'm on pace and confident as I take my first strides on the run course. 

Bike: 2:37:08

Friday, September 26, 2014

Getting to the Start Line (Part 1 - Princeton 70.3 Race Report)


I awake feeling a mixture of energy and nervousness. The cool morning air seeped through the window screen to fill the room. After putting in my contacts, I step out the front door to feel the chill more completely. The sun already brightly illuminates the morning. Taking a deep gulp of the morning's scent, arms outstretched overhead, I tilt my head back, eyes focusing beyond my hands to the bright blue backdrop. 

It's a perfect fall morning - though fall doesn't officially begin until the next day - and I must temper my excitement another 24 hours. 

My plan for that day, the day before IRONMAN 70.3 Princeton, is different then my normal day-before-a-race days. I usually schedule my last workout two days prior to a race, leaving the next day to completely rest. This generally works out well since 1) Stephanie and I often travel to the race venue that morning (if it's within driving distance), and 2) a portion of the day is always consumed with expo visiting, bike washing, eating, and any other pre-race preparations I need to take care of. Today, deviating from my normal routine, I go for a short bike ride and light jog. I had no opportunity to get a workout in the previous day, which happened for several reasons that I'll explain later. 

On my bike, I exit the neighborhood and head towards my favorite place to ride in the area: River Road. Yardley is a small town butting against the Delaware River, opposite Trenton, New Jersey on the other side. It's where my cousin and her family have lived for years and also a frequent destination of Stephanie and me. River Road, as you can imagine, stretches for miles adjacent to the river. The road slightly rises as you travel north, making it ideal for negative split sessions, taking advantage of the small decline on the way back. This, unless, of course, you are greeted by a headwind that smacks you in the face, which has happened to me on several occasions. 

About twenty or twenty-five minutes into the ride, I turn around. I'm not timing myself, but I do glance at my watch to get a sense. I stop at my second cousin's flag football game for a few minutes on the way back. He's only seven, but I know he'll be standing somewhere along the barricades the next day, cheering as loud as he can. I want to return the favor in advance. (I'm not sure if second cousin is the correct term here. There was a discussion about what exactly this relationship is called between myself and Stephanie, and my cousin's two kids. Whatever it's called, they're family.)

Now, the test. I dismount my bike, lean it up against the wall in the garage, and lace up my running shoes. I have several benchmarks in my head, each taking only a few minutes, but providing a certain threshold of physical and mental reassurance that I'll be able to run like a gazelle rather then shuffling like a cross-country skier. It's the day before a big race, my "A" race of the year, why am I testing anything at all? To answer that, we'll need to go back to the previous weekend, where Stephanie and I visited my aunt and uncle in Lewes, Delaware. 

****

It's exactly one week before the inaugural IRONMAN 70.3 Princeton triathlon, the pinnacle of my 2014 season. Like many weekends one week out from a race, I did an easy brick workout, a short bike ride followed by an easy run, each with short bursts of race-pace intensity sprinkled throughout. The weather was perfect, one of the reasons I love this time of the year. I'm not quite sure the weather could've been any better that morning. Just 24 hours after a gloomy, cloudy day, with a few rain showers, that morning's sky had no traces of imperfection. The bright blue appeared as if painted on. A cool wind would periodically gust through, chilling the air enough to warrant a light jacket for my bike ride.

The plan: ride leisurely for about 45 minutes, followed by a brick run of about the same duration. I knew the route through the streets of Lewes well. It was suppose to be a routine training session, one I could do in my sleep. The goal for any taper, which I was in the middle of, is to rest, recovery, re-energize, and maintain peak performance through shorter efforts that simply stimulate the muscles. It's no time for actual training. That happened weeks ago. But it is a time where injuries can happen, self-destructive injuries. 

Aside from dodging a few potholes, the bike rides through Cape Henlopen State Park was uneventful. I arrived back at my aunt and uncle's house, and popped my head inside the rear sliding glass door. "T2," I said to Stephanie, who was sitting in a chair watching TV. She smiled back at me.

Helmet and cycling shoes off, running shoes on. But, there was one caveat. Instead of taking the few extra minutes to go upstairs and retrieve my new running shoes I purchased a few weeks prior, I dug through the trunk of our car to find my older pair of Brooks PureConnect2's. I didn't think much of the substitution. There were still a few miles left in those ragged red shoes that saw the streets of Boston and the mountains of western North Carolina in the past few months. I knew they were shot, but I wore them anyway. I would come to regret the decision.

The first 15 minutes of the run were around goal pace, just to stimulate. After that, it was easy, comfortable running for the remaining 25 or 30 minutes. After a loop into Lewes, and cutting across the high school campus, I re-entered the neighborhood. I picked up the tempo one final time for a short half mile effort around the circularly arranged neighborhood. 

I felt good. My stride felt quick and powerful. I began to ease my pace, slowing to a comfortable jog, and preparing to cool down. 

Bang!

A sharp pain darted through the center of my right calf muscle. It was the left one that gave me most of the trouble back in January, forcing me to truncate my training for the Boston Marathon. I immediately stopped once I felt the sharp, searing pain. It was like a flash of lightning, quick, deliberate, and forceful. My hands instinctively moved towards my head, and forming a bowl, covered my face. I felt like crying. I wanted the tears to flow. I tried to force them out. Nothing. Nothing, except me and my worst-case, doomsday, negative thoughts. "There goes Princeton," I thought, totally disregarding what could happen in the seven days between then and the race. In that moment, I felt as though an entire year of training was for naught. 

I returned to the house. There wasn't a limp visible, but each step featured a short, deliberate reminder of what just happened. "How was your run," Stephanie asked, sitting in the family room with my aunt. A half-hearted, unconvincing "good" escaped my mouth. I went to shower. Looking back towards her, I gave her a side-to-side shake of the head. My "good" really meant "no," and she could see it. Stephanie knows me too well. 

For the rest of the day, before returning to DC, I tried my best to enjoy our time together, with my aunt and uncle. But, whether during breakfast or out to dinner, my thoughts continued to drift, always landing on one simple, yet pivotal question, "Will I be able to race Princeton?"
****

Back in the quaint neighborhood in Yardley, shoes tied, sunglasses on, expectations high, everything seemingly built to this one moment. It was like flipping the switch for the first time, jumping the car after the battery has been dead, or adding another small weight to the balsa wood bridge we built back in middle school engineering class. Would it work?? Whether "it" was a light bulb, car, small, model bridge, or my calf, the only thing that mattered was if it worked.

I walk out to the road and cautiously brake into a light jog. As if on egg shells, I nervously place one foot in front of the other. Each successful step provides a small shot of confidence, each compounding upon the previous. My pace gradually quickens, slowly ticking up the internal intensity dial. I reach what feels like goal pace and hold it for a few yards. No pain. I ease up, relieved to have cleared the first hurdle. Again, I repeat the gradual acceleration up to goal pace. Again, I hold it for about 50 yards or so. No pain. A few more and my confidence is resurrected. A small, dull pain looms in my right calf, but it's so faint that it's something of my own mind's creating. The placebo effect is a powerful thing. 

"How does it feel," my cousin asks as I return into the driveway after about 15 minutes of running. "I wouldn't say all systems are go, but it's as close as it's going to get," I replied. I'm just happy I'll be able to give it a go the next day. 

****

Earlier in the week I wasn't so sure if five days would be enough to bounce back. The entire week was exclusively non-impact training:

Monday: swim
Tuesday: rest and yoga
Wednesday: swim and bike
Thursday: swim and aqua running
Friday: travel 

I've heard of some runners using aqua running during their taper period, but I've never tried it myself. I used it consistently for about a month in January while rehabilitating my previous calf injury. The non-impact nature of aqua running is both its benefit and limitation. Though it's useful for maintaining some cardiovascular fitness, it lacks specificity. The only thing that can really simulate the muscle adaptation needed to run efficiently is to actually run. During a taper, however, the focus is more on rest and recovery, while stimulating some muscle activation. Aqua running does this to some degree. 
****


Later that day, just after noon, Stephanie and I drive to the expo at Mercer County Park. It's a massive complex, fields outstretched to both sides as you enter on the two-lane road - a popular venue for everything from soccer tournaments to outdoor concerts. Growing up just an hour north (and playing soccer), you'd think I would've been a regular at the complex. Instead, two years ago was my first time visiting the park, as a participant in the New Jersey State Triathlon. I didn't have a great race, struck down by the day's humidity. My swim was average, my bike was strong, and then I fell apart on the run, draining ever last ounce of glycogen from my muscles to cross the finish line. I sat in a cold shower for 30 minutes after the race, drinking a Coke. 

My first order of business is to pick up my race packet, then to get my bike fixed and racked. I had a brake issue, which I'll come back to. We approach the large inflatable IRONMAN arch greeting visitors as they approach the expo. Hundreds of others zip about, like bees hovering around a nest. It's easy to get caught up in what other people are doing rather then focusing on what you need to do. The same holds true for race morning. As I've gained more experience in the sport, though, this tendency has subsided. I have a routine that works for me. I know what I need to do. I stick to it. The bigger issue comes if I'm forced to deviate from my normal. Today, I'm focused. My intense, competitive Craig is switched on. It's what often happens the day before a race. I fall into "race mode," as Stephanie puts it. 

I step up to the registration table, the first check point in a series of stops to validate my registration and collect the necessary race-day items. Pulling my wallet out, I realize my driver's license isn't in its normal place. Personal identification is required to collect your race packet. At the moment I realize my license is missing, I know exactly where it is, sitting in a small, plastic zip-lock bag on the kitchen counter along with one of my credit cards. Both were in my jersey pocket during my bike ride earlier that morning, but never made it back into my wallet after the ride. It was a mistake I've done before, but never at such a inopportune time like this. 

"I left my ID at home. Can I show you a credit card and my USAT card?" I ask one of the volunteers sitting at the table checking in athletes. "We need a picture ID, but let me go see what I can do," she responded. It would be the one bright spot in the event's organizing for the entire weekend. Thankfully, the woman navigated me to a separate table inside the large tent with a sign overhead stating "SOLUTIONS." The young volunteer pulls my registration up on the computer in front of her and asks me to verify certain demographic information. "Date of birth?...Address?...Phone Number?...." I feel like I'm being quizzed. Thankfully I pass and receive my athlete wrist band. I proceed through the rest of pack pickup without any issues.

Next stop, the bike mechanic. You would think this would be pretty easy to spot. It isn't. I ask one of the volunteers, "Do you know where the bike mechanic is?" She responds with a hesitant, uncertain, "I'm not sure they are here today. I think just tomorrow morning before the race." This doesn't sound quite right. I know bike mechanics are almost always available the day before a race, and this is an IRONMAN event nonetheless. I walk to the expo tent for the bike shop that's also providing tech support for the race. I ask one of the employees. More confidently, they say that all the mechanics are down in transition. "How does a volunteer not know that," I disappointingly thought to myself.

The disappointment continues once we get to the mechanics. "What can we help with?" a young tech asks me. "The brakes are sticking and won't release all the way." Over the past few weeks, I noticed my brake calipers wouldn't snap back all the way, providing only a fraction of a millimeter between them and the wheel rim. I don't want to be riding with my brakes on for 56 miles, right? 

I've had the issue before, and it's usually a fairly simple fix. Today, it isn't looking that way. The first tech plays around for a few moments, trying a couple things. Unsuccessful, he tells me to ask one of the other guys. "Well, that's not too helpful," I think. "A bike mechanic at an expo who doesn't know what to do and passes it along to some other guy." I'm sure he thinks it requires a more advanced fix, something he isn't experienced enough to do. But, still, not a huge vote of confidence coming from this bike shop. 

The next bike tech I approach isn't any friendlier. I explain the problem again. He tests the brakes. Unemotionally, he says it could be something inside the brake components, maybe some rust. His attention wonders to other things. I ask about cost and how long it will take. "We're thinking of getting some lunch, should I come back in about an hour?" He coldly responds as if I'm creating some sort of inconvenience for him. About 90 minutes later, after the athlete briefing and lunch, I go back to pick up the bike. He did a good job. Everything worked well. He even said he looked at the gearing. But, it might have been my worst experience with a bike mechanic. Another strike against the race for poor athlete experience.

Another disappointing - yet quite comical - moment happens at the final athlete briefing, where a race official explains the ins and outs of what to expect on race day. These meetings tend to be filled with logistical information, but they also often include small snippets of detail on the swim, bike, and run courses. Something like, "On the swim, there are three red turn buoys, with yellow sighting buoys on the way out, and orange on the way back." Similar information generally follows with the bike course. Not this time. The race official, in a very nonchalant, matter-of-fact way confesses, "I don't really know much about the bike course because I haven't actually been on it."

"Well, sir," I think to myself, "why the heck are you giving a pre-race briefing if you've never seen the course?!" Stephanie and I turn to each other and exchange snickers. Another strike.

I rack my bike and the rest of the evening calmly progress without any issues. Dinner consists of chicken kabobs - as plain as it gets. I prepare my transition bag for the following morning, strategically lay out the clothes I think I'll need for the following morning in the bathroom, and join everyone outside around the fire pit. The amber flame cut through the darkness. Stars dotted the sky like tiny specs of glitter shimmering on a chalkboard. Peacefulness washes over me as I periodically lean my head back to stare at the vast heavens above. I feel relaxed. And sleepy.

I glance at my watch. It reads 9:48pm, and I call it a night, as if it were any other night. Unlike my last half Ironman in North Carolina, I spend just a few moments awake in bed, and quickly drift off to sleep. 
****

Red brake lights greet me just after exiting the highway. I'm still several miles from the park, and cars form a serpentine line along the two-lane road. We inch forward, slowly. The morning thus far has gone terribly smoothly, unlike the day before. I woke up naturally at 4:45am, 15 minutes before my alarm, giving me a few extra minutes to eat and make coffee. Breakfast included the same foods I've eaten for previous races: mashed sweet potato, avocado, almonds, and an extra strong cup of coffee with coconut oil. 

My plan was to arrive at the park at 6am, giving me about 45 minutes to set up transition and re-check my bike for any issues. As I painfully roll forward, several feet at a time before braking, I focus on the music from the Linken Park Pandora station on my phone rather then the clock. I feel surprisingly calm given the time constraints. I exited the highway at 5:45am. It's now 6am and I think I've moved about 100 yards. Forty-five minutes later I finally park, thankfully on the side of the lot closest to transition. I grab my transition bag from the backseat and my bike pump, and rush towards transition. 

Twelve minutes. That's how much time I have to get body marked and set up transition. My swim wave doesn't go off until 8:10am, but transition still closes at 6:45am for all athletes. I rush past body marking hoping I can set up my transition and come back to be marked. Denied. A volunteer monitoring the flow of athletes into transition instructs me to get body marked before entering transition. "Come on," I think. I quickly do as told, and return to the entrance of transition. I dart to the opposite side of the most expensive fenced in pen I've ever seen. 

It's at this moment I'm thankful I've rehearsed my transition so many times. I know exactly what I need and where it goes. Habit takes over. At 6:45am I hear the stern announcement of a volunteer, "Transition is closed!" I grab my wetsuit and head towards the meeting place Stephanie and I decided on the night before. 

I sat on the dew-covered grass, collecting my thoughts, and waiting. Then, I observe a fellow athlete doing something that triggers something in my head. I forgot something in transition, something pretty important. Shoot. It's closed though. Would it be possible to re-enter transition just to grab this one thing? I know exactly where it is. It won't take but a few moments. I walk towards transition.