Cycling: Holding My Own

Obligatory cow shot.

Obligatory cow shot. It was still cold in the morning, so I was bundled up. But, we were eventually able to strip down to shorts and short sleeves :)

“It’s been a while since we rode together,” John said. “You’re different.”


“I’m impressed.”

I beamed.

Wow. That is high praise indeed.

To say that cycling has not come naturally to me would be an understatement. It’s like saying that Rinny is an okay runner, or Michael Phleps knows a little bit about swimming, or Lance Armstrong only took a few “natural” enhancements.

For the first 3 years that I raced triathlon, I never quite “got” the bike. I had (foolishly) thought that my running history would allow me to power the bike and that would be that.

Um, no.

What I have learned is that cycling has really really really improved my running. But, only cycling – and lots of it – has improved my cycling. When I decided to get really serious about truly racing triathlon – rather than just participating – I knew the focus would have to be the bike.

So, I’ve spent volumes of time on the bike since then. Long rides. Hard rides. Tempo Rides. Threshold rides. Interval rides. Skill rides. Recovery rides. Big gear rides. Mixed cadence rides. Rides I don’t even know what the _ _ _ _ rides. Rides to warm up for my rides.

I remember the early days of my triathlon experience, when John and I would try to ride “together”. We’d start out and I would quickly fall behind. I just couldn’t seem to keep up no matter what I did, no matter how hard I worked. I bonked many times. I lost all power in my legs many times. I was frustrated many times. I felt like a failure many times.

In the first year of Ironman training, John would dutifully loop around once he got out of eye-shot to make sure I was okay. After that year, we stopped even trying to ride together because there was no way he could get a decent ride in like that. He was looking to qualify for Kona at that time, and I was only holding him back.

I sucked.

But, beyond what John needed, I needed learn how to manage my own effort – and more importantly my own mind. I needed to get inside of my head to deal with the voices that always come when I’m on the bike.

I had to face them directly – and tell them to go to heck.

So, yeah, I’m not a natural by any means when it comes to cycling, but I am stubborn, and I will not quit. Ever.

Last weekend (April 12) was a special moment for me, and it made me feel so good to hear John recognize it. He’s a tough one to impress, and he always gives it to me straight. And, that’s a good thing. When he compliments me, I know he means it.

Last weekend, John, our friend Rob and I took a two hour drive to French Creek State Park, in Elverson, PA, to get on some vertical. And by “some”, I mean 4200 feet of climbing in about 58 miles. So, yeah, hilly. Read the rest of this entry »

Shifting into Beast Mode

beast-mode-offThe Intimidator half iron was a wake up call. While the race turned out fine, I never found “my gear”. You know the one that gets you to the point where you are in BEAST MODE.  During the bike especially, I found that I had limited mental will to push my edge. And my performance shows it.

That is not the way to start the season. But, it did remind me that if I wanted my body to go all-in, then I would need to go head first.

I came home from the race, and I knew it was time: X-day is here.

I’ve written about setting an x-day before and usually, I set this day about 24 weeks out from a key race. X-day is the point on the calendar when everything (or almost everything) I do is about my key A race of the season, which for 2014 is Ironman Couer d’Alene. Normally, this day comes about 24 weeks out from an Ironman. But, at the time of the Intimidator, I only had a little more than 3 months to go, and my brain still hadn’t gotten in the game.

Now, don’t get me wrong – the physical training was there. The issue is mental focus. I have no one to blame but myself. I allowed myself to be distracted too much. But I can’t do that anymore.

Last year, I poured an incredible amount of mental energy into Ironman Lake Placid. I had one track and it went directly to Ironman Lake Placid.  After missing my ultimate goal by less than 5 minutes in an 11 hour day, I wanted to get off the track. My heart hurt, and thinking about it made me too sad.

It’s hard to put everything you have into one thing and come up short. It’s hard to know that on that day, you weren’t good enough.

I had to put some mental distance between me and Ironman. Sorry, Ironman, it’s me. Not you.

And, that was the right move at that time. I hung out with friends. I went back to trail running. I read books I had been meaning to read. I did the laundry (oh, how it piles up!). I made origami bicycles. Okay, not that last one.

When it came time to re-focus and set my sights on Ironman Couer d’Alene, I found it challenging to muster the same mental energy I had going into IMLP. Sure, I trained. Sure, I worked hard, ate right, checked the boxes. But, in my head, I wasn’t in beast mode.

The weekend after the Intimidator, we wound up riding in the garage. Again. This winter clearly doesn’t understand the ways in which it has overstayed its welcome. In fact, I never invited winter in the first place.

We hooked up the computer to the TV, and one of our athletes Karl had brought over some surround sound speakers. Mmmm – loud! We started watching Ironman Kona videos – from various years – old ones, new ones, in-between ones. Natascha Badmann. Mirinida Carfrae. Paula Newby-Fraser. Karen Smyers. Women with a focus. Women with a plan to make it happen.

downloadThe sounds, the sights, the stories. I found myself there. I remembered John’s great day. I felt the tug of desire to make that famous run down Ali’i Drive.As we watched the 1995 Kona, when Karen Smyers went on for the win while Paula Newby-Fraser fought her demons just down the street from the finish line, something clicked.

I want this. 

The physical training will only get us so far. If the brain isn’t on board, we won’t have the will to push through the pain, to slay the demons, and to scream back at the voices.

It’s X-day, and my mind has shifted cleanly into BEAST MODE.

It’s Not Ideal: The Intimidator – Florida Challenge Triathlon Race Report

Huge blister and dirt on my feet - super Klassy.

Huge blister and dirt on my feet – super Klassy.

“The first race of the season is always something of a sh!t show,” I mentioned to a friend, last week, as we talked about my upcoming race at the Intimidator Florida Challenge Triathlon, held in Clermont, FL on March 22, 2014.

In the case of this race, “sh!t show” turned out to be an accurate descriptor, as a series of events joined together to make this day–and the lead up to the day–less than ideal for racing. But, if you wait for the perfect conditions, you’ll never race.

All of my racing experiences – from high school until today – have taught me that racing is a series of choices and adaptations. Some things you can train for, some things you can’t. All things you must learn from.

The first half of this post talks about my prep, and then starting with the header, “Swim Swimminey, Swim Swimminey, Swim-Swim Swim-mooo!”, you get specifics on the race itself. So, if you are just looking for the race details, pop down to that section.

Time Crunch

Like everyone, I’ve been crazy busy, and I had little time to pack, prepare and get my mental focus in order.

We had a jammed schedule: Fly out on Friday at 7:30 a.m., race on Saturday, fly home Sunday, arriving by midnight. Whew! The way my week went, I found myself packing at 5 p.m. Thursday night. And, let’s just say, when you are packing for a triathlon, you aren’t exactly traveling light. So, despite the short weekend, I still found myself with a 30 pound bag to check in, PLUS the bike box. Oh, yeah, I guess John needed to pack some stuff too.

Geez – bag hag!


This is the type of bike box we used. Thanks Eric Shrading for the loan!

To further intensity the packing situation, I had to dig out items I hadn’t used since October. If you’ve been following the weather at all, then you know that winter launched a full frontal assault on the Northeast. Even if I wasn’t a total wimp when it comes to cold-weather riding (which I am), the inches upon inches of snow we’ve been getting have made outdoor rides pretty much impossible. Since I’ve been on the trainer, I hadn’t been worrying about vital outdoor accessories like helmets, CO2 cartridges, bike tools, and water bottle cages.

It took me about 20 minutes to remember where I last left my aero helmet. And, the search for the bike tool? Yeah, that led me on an excursion through no less than 3 large bins of gear. I had thought about purchasing a big magnet, hoping it might just fly up out of its hiding place. 

Needless to say, this was all time I was NOT spending thinking about race strategy and execution. By the time I finished all of this packing, it was 7:30 p.m., and there was a pathetic wilted piece of lettuce in the refrigerator. I ordered a pizza, and legitimized it as carb loading. Seriously though – my go-to pre-race dinner is pizza; however, I normally make it myself.

No, it was not ideal. Read the rest of this entry »

Florida Double Ironman Support Crew: Living Life in Lap Time

Florida Double Iron

Swim 4.8 miles.

Bike 224 miles.

Run 52.4 miles.

Brag for two lifetimes.

Makes you want to say, “Aw, you did a single Ironman? That’s so cute!”

I had the opportunity to indirectly experience a double iron-distance triathlon, when my husband John competed in the Florida Double Ironman (Anvil) on February 27, 2014. It took him a little over 24 hours to earn his 5th place finish, and in that time frame, I learned much about what it takes to toe the line, to make it through the day (or days) and to get to the finish line.

It looks like just my kind of sufferfest.

Serving as John’s support crew for this race was an exercise in polar opposites; It was exciting and boring, invigorating and exhausting, inspirational and monotonous. It was an experience I will never forget, and one I would happily undertake again…and again.

John has described his day in his race report (click here), so this post describes the day from a different perspective: that of the Team U-Crazy double ironman support crew.

Florida double iron

Team U-Crazy Camp along the bike course loop with my co-crew Jeanne & John (John’s parents).

While crewing for any extreme endurance event includes quite a bit of sitting around and waiting, offering support at a double ironman is significantly different from a single Ironman – and it is not an easy task. Unlike a “regular” ironman, there are no aid stations. The support crew and camp set-up IS the primary source of aid for the racer. We were responsible to keep track of his supplies: nutrition, hydration, clothing, additional bike accessories, and more. We were responsible to monitor the race stats, his condition, and his equipment.

Most importantly: We were responsible to make sure he was safe. 

For most of those 24 hours that John was racing, I was stressed to my mental limit, worrying about his energy levels, his nutrition, his sanity. Somehwere in that process, I almost lost mine when I started hallucinating from lack of sleep around 3 or 4 a.m. I thought I was in the middle of an airplane tarmac. When I snapped to, I thought, Huh. I better go talk to some humans… and make some more coffee. Read the rest of this entry »

The 9% Solution: Take the Tough Option

I sent Vince this selfie after the second time I did this 9% workout. Notice the extreme color difference between my face and my neck. Can you say: REDLINE?!

I sent Vince this selfie after the second time I did this 9% workout. Notice the extreme color difference between my face and my neck. Can you say: REDLINE?!

Last year, my coach Vince scheduled a treadmill-specific hill workout that had a series of different inclines, from 3% to 9%. As if the changing incline wasn’t enough, I did each interval at the same pace (approximately tempo effort) – without any recovery interval throughout the duration of the workout, which was typically 45 minutes.

Despite the lack of a recovery interval, it’s amazing how a 3% incline at tempo effort can feel like a recovery after a 9% interval.

The first time I did this workout, the 9% interval crushed me. And, when I say crushed, I mean smoke blowing out of my ears, eyeballs popping out of their sockets, tongue hanging at my knees, and slobber and sweat flying on innocent bystanders–or would that be by-treadmillers?

Given that cardiac arrest seemed imminent, I backed off the target pace. Yet, even as I slowed, I felt certain that 9% incline would fling me off the treadmill, and someone would happen to catch a video of it, and that would be my YouTube claim to fame.

I barely held on, not sure what I feared more: the viral YouTube fling video, or the sting of being defeated by a machine.

Even though I continued to run, I felt defeated because I couldn’t hold the pace–or was it that I thought I couldn’t?

That 9% incline became my nemesis last year as it showed up several times in the rotation.

While I definitely got better, I never quite felt that I truly defeated that 9% “hill”. Each time, I had to slow down the treadmill at some point during that interval, lest my lungs come busting out of my mouth and my eyeballs spring into the air–and, yes, lest I wind up in a huddled heap, having been heaved from the belt. Read the rest of this entry »

Cadence – It’s Not Just for Cycling

The very first time I got on a road bike, I put it into one of the heaviest gears, and mashed those pedals around the Pine Barrens of South Jersey for two hours. I’m guessing my cadence couldn’t have been much more than 60-65 rpm.

This story is a common one – especially for runners who start cycling. Runners just love to mash and grind, don’t we? If it doesn’t hurt, we can’t possibly be doing it correctly, right?

Thankfully, those more experienced at the time than I taught me to stop being such a schmuck. So, I lightened up the gear, and increased my cadence. At first, I found this shift to a higher cadence rather challenging for my cardiovascular system.


Meet the ‘Zilla twins. They are large and in charge. For a party trick, I can flex my hamstring like Popeye’s bicep. It’s a crowd pleaser. More spinach, please!

You see, I have quadzillas and hamzillas (as John likes to call them), and those puppies can take some big heavy gear torture before my heart even knows the difference — hence my infatuation with hilly races. But, low gear mashing isn’t efficient, and it’s a mistake that will be paid for on the run. The ‘Zilla Twins can take a lot of punishment, but hours upon hours mashing away at 65 rpm will leave my muscles shredded, and with nothing left for the run.

So, I worked on bringing my bike cadence up, and now I rock out pretty happily around 85-90 rpm. That cadence is an important factor for cycling efficiency is well known and accepted within the triathlon community. The common wisdom is to ride between 80-100 rpm, with 85-95 often being the sweet spot for most.

Run Cadence & Efficiency

However, a higher cadence for cycling isn’t just about being more efficient on the bike, it’s also about setting yourself up for a good run. If you lift your cycling cadence, you won’t trash your muscles and you will mimic an ideal cadence for running – which is about 90 steps per foot per minute, or a total of 180 steps per minute.

Run cadence has always been important, but it hasn’t gotten as much attention as cycling cadence.  And, thinking about cadence isn’t just important for triathletes – runners of all types should care about cadence if they want to go faster with less or the same effort.

I’ve always had a pretty high cadence for running, between 180-188 steps per minute. I credit this to having a crew coach, who was also a collegiate runner. He worked with us not just on rowing form, but also running form. Even so, I will regularly check on my cadence to make sure I’m in an efficient zone – especially when I’m fatigued in the final miles of a race. Counting my cadence often brings with it a soothing function – and keeps my mind off the fact that I am suffering.

In this video, well-known Olympic running coach Bobby McGee explains why higher cadence matters: Read the rest of this entry »

2013 Reflections: What matters most

IMG_1845Our calendar is a human-made construction that helps us mark the passing of time. While nature has its cycles, it doesn’t care about new year’s resolutions, or season goals, or any of the other symbolic things we project on to


But, we do care about those things – and we should. The symbolic meanings we give to time, to experience, and to the calendar allow us to reflect upon the significant moments in our life, the moments that make life worth living, and the moments that act as teachers.

2013 was full of those moments, as I had the best athletic year of my life, and shared in many excellent moments with my family and friends. I’ve spent some time reflecting on these moments, and what they mean to me – and more importantly, what I can learn from them.

Favorite Athletic Experiences of 2013

My friends Courtney & Kim decorated our house right before we returned. What a welcome home!

My friends Courtney & Kim decorated our house right before we returned from IMLou. What a welcome home!

#1 - Ironman Louisville. There can be no doubt that this was my top personal athletic experience of 2013. This race restored my confidence, taught me that the human body is adaptive and resilient, and helped me to realize that mental strength is the most important thing to achieving goals. Another cool thing about this race was coming home to find my house decorated by my dear friends, Courtney and Kim.

#2 – Ironman Lake Placid. This race broke my heart, and that is precisely why it’s on this list. But, even though it dealt a strong emotional blow, I learned so much over the course of these 11 hours. I will be a better racer and athlete for it.

More than just the race, however, I loved Ironman Lake Placid because my family–the Team U-Crazy Posse–was with me – John, John’s parents, my sister Catherine and her boyfriend Bill, my sister-in-law Tracy, my Aunt Val and cousin Robin.

Along with my family, my friend Charlotte, who I met at the very beginning of my Ironman experiences several years ago, was there. I will never forget looking into her eyes at the finish line, and her words to me after I realized I didn’t qualify: “Don’t be upset, Maria. I’ve been there since the beginning – you’ve come so far. You have to be proud of that.” She also urged me to eat pizza, which was key. ;)

My family and friends make the experience significantly more special. I realize this isn’t about an “athletic” experience – but they made the day what it was. Without them, there would only be crushing defeat. With them, I found joy.


Team U-Crazy at the swim start of IMLP–locked up, as they should be! (Missing here is Tracy – she was volunteering in transition – and we thank her!!)

#3 – Rosaryville 50k. Okay, first time I ever won a race outright. This has to make the list, right?

#4 – Watching John run his first 100 miler. It was freezing, it was 18 hours, and it was awesome! I was inspired, amazed and thoroughly entertained while watching this event. (Click the link for John’s race report.)

Your Favorite Posts from 2013 

These are the top posts that were written in 2013. “Top” is determined by the number of your visits – thank you, readers! I appreciate you, your support, and your comments!

#1 – Rational Brain/Emotional Brain: 2013 Ironman Lake Placid Race Report. I’m grateful to see the support of this post. It took me FOR-EVAAAAHHH to write, and it went through at least 5 different versions before I decided on the approach.

#2 – Roll with it: 2013 Bone Island Race Report. This was the beginning of the 2013 racing season, January 2013. It was a fun race, and a great way to start the year. 

#3 – The Mission: Ironman Louisville Race Report. Yeah, I loved Louisville, too.

I gather from this list that ya’ll like yourselves some race reports ;).

So, what can I learn from reflecting upon the previous year?

While this list is related to athletic achievements, it seems clear that what matters to me the most is my family and friends. I’ve lost my parents, and both sets of grandparents–people who were very important as the “central hub” of my family. Their loss is one that cannot be replaced, and I mourn it regularly. However, family remains and continues. While we may lose some of the “old” traditions of youth, new traditions are beginning, and new experiences are yet to be had. I <3 you guys :)

Over the holiday season, I did some soul searching about where I am in my life. (This may or may not have had something to do with turning 40 years old in December–the symbolic “middle” of my life.) I asked myself: Am I doing what I want to be doing? Am I living the life I want? 

Make no mistake – this was not a fun or easy process. In fact, it led to a pretty sad and depressing holiday season for me. As it turns out, deeply questioning your life, and the choices you have made, is not a comfortable or easy process.

As it turns out, I don’t really like what is comfortable or easy. As I reflected on 2013, and the years before it, I realized that I thrive on challenge, and questioning the taken-for-granted. A little bit of soul-searching is actually good for the soul. It has reminded me of what matters most to me.

While there are some aspects of my life that I would like to change (don’t we all have those aspects?), the primary course I have charted is the path I want to follow. Family is the compass for my journey, and endurance sport is a key part of the path–both my own exploits, as well as supporting and nurturing others as they push the limits of their bodies to learn about life.

You know what else is important to me? You — the readers and community of Running A Life. Thank you for being a part of my experiences, and for sharing your own. When I receive your comments, emails and tweets, I feel a kinship and a connection to community that makes me happy – and yes, of course, makes me weepy.

What did you learn from 2013? How will you take that forward into 2014? What matters most to you? 

2014: The Year of the Plow Horse

Recently, when reviewing my site analytics, I discovered a blog, from Russia, that was referring visitors to my site.

That’s odd, I thought. Sometimes, international sites link to my blog, which I usually determine to be spammers. But, I was curious. So, I navigated to the site, and looked through the page, to find that I was featured at the bottom.

But, what does it say? Ever the curious sort, I copied the words into Google Translator, and discovered that this post was about women bloggers that this particular blogger reads. Cool. But, what was she saying about ME?!

7. Maria ( her story ) and her blog Running A Life . This woman who is very serious about running and triathlons, not only for fun but also as a plow horse on the result. In her many victories in the piggy bank in poluayronmenah AG, many times finishing the full distance IM, many times qualified for Boston. Now her goal and dream to qualify for this year’s Kona. In that year in Kona was her husband, and this year, she took his voyage wheel, and he switched to the preparations for the ultramarathon 100 miles. 8)) Plus they both coaches. Very interesting and serious blog with a serious approach to training and to achieve their goals. Not as easy hihanki-hee, like a female blogger above. And those girls over Maria 10-15 years. By the way, this family childless, suggesting that either the sport was in their life priority or did not happen or did not happen because of the sport or sport became thereby that fills their lives due to lack of children. There is something to think about.

Oh, Google Translator, I have a feeling this isn’t exactly correct. But regardless of the obvious translation errors, I was curious to see myself in the words of another blogger and reader. Moreover, this simple paragraph launched some soul searching about what I really wanted from triathlon, from life. As I read these words, I had an odd mixture of feeling offended and complimented at the same time. Was the sport “thereby that fills their lives due to lack of children”? Was I really “a plow horse on the result”?

Oh, and wait a minute, I’m serious?

There is something unsettling yet a little flattering about seeing myself through the words of a stranger who only knows me through my words. While taken aback by some of the assumptions made in this short paragraph (re: being childless means my life is not “filled” somehow?), I was ultimately gratified by the thought of being a plow horse.



My dad always warned me against being a horse’s a$$. But, in endurance sport, having the strength of a horse’s a$$ might just be a benefit.

It’s seems a really apt metaphor for endurance athletes generally: a plow horse does hard work and stays strong when it gets tough.

A plow horse is a work horse, which Wikipedia explains as having “broad, short backs with powerful hindquarters.” In short, plow horses have plenty of junk in the trunk. Yup, that’s me, for sure.

A plow horse might not be the prettiest show pony around, but it gets the job done. Clearly, my sis’ from another miss, this creature.

I also learned from the interwebs that plow horses were bred to balance both speed and muscle. Unlike the faster racing horses, plow horses have to work hard at a pace they can sustain – all day long. So, kind of like an endurance athlete.

I realize that the translation from Russian to English is off (and funny…very very funny). But, I like thinking of myself as a plow horse, and we can easily think of endurance athletes as plow horses: we are strong, hard-working, committed to the task, steady, dependable.

So, here’s to all of us, as we embark on the 2014 season, which is obviously the year of the plow horse. Let’s take our voyage wheels, and make this year the best we can.

Plow on, my friends, plow on!

The Pain Cave: Suffering Loves Company

I rowed crew in high school. It was an incredible experience, that taught me the value of discipline and how much fun it could be to suffer with a group of other athletes.

To be on the crew team required an enormous amount of discipline, especially for teenagers. We trained hard for hours after school–and sometimes before school. We gave up every weekend for at least half of the year–if not more. As members of the lightweight 8, my crewmates and I restricted every morsel of food that went in to our bodies.


1991–> Holy Spirit lightweight 8, with our coach Joe Haney. Thanks to our discipline, we went undefeated that year.

 But, it wasn’t all hard work all of the time. We had a comraderie that fueled us, and a type of silliness that only a group of teenaged girls could produce.

My coxswain and I, fooling around after racing at the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta at St. Catharines, 1990.

My coxswain and I, fooling around after racing at the Royal Canadian Henley Regatta at St. Catharines, 1990.

Together, we developed and nurtured a love for the sport that wouldn’t die – no matter how hard the workouts got.

And our coach had some doozies, some of which I like to schedule for my athletes today. Circle of suffering, and all that.

I enjoyed the purpose that those days had, and those early years have had a long lasting effect on me – not just in sport, but in everything I do.

Discipline is a value that has served me well.

Just like crew, triathlon requires a great deal of discipline to train every day, to give up every weekend, to restrict every morsel of food I put in my body (holidays as an exception, unfortunately!). Sometimes, I find myself toying with the idea that I might “quit” triathlon.

But, just as it was with crew, I know I won’t quit. I love it way too much. Read the rest of this entry »

5 Tips to Train the Brain: Mental Training for Endurance Athletes

louisville start

Time trial swim start at Ironman Louisville. Photo from

John and I were just moments from jumping into the river at Ironman Louisville. The line was moving at a fast pace, and I was quiet.

John asked, “Are you okay?”

“Yep,” I replied. “I’m just getting ready to go to work.”

I was calm and prepared.

Flashback to Ironman Mont Tremblant in 2012. John and I are on the beach, in the moments before the start. He asked me how I was doing.

I burst into tears. I was nervous and scared.

What was the difference between these two moments?

Simple: My brain.

Most of us spend 7 days a week training our bodies, but we don’t always give the same attention and care to training the mind. Yet, mental strength is the key to achieving a breakthrough physical performance.

After my complete freakout before the start of Ironman Mont Tremblant, I knew I had to work on the mental aim of the game for 2013. Just as we might do with physical training, I assessed my mental limiters and went to work on them.

I learned much from this training, and here I share my top 5 tips for mental training for endurance athletes. While I’ve written about each of these separately in different posts throughout this year, I believe there is value in offering them in a single summative post. I hope you agree.  Read the rest of this entry »

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