Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Crash Course Dummies Part 4: Falling in love with a gazelle

How many of us can honestly say we can fall in love with a gazelle, just like that?

not many i hope or you'd bring new meaning to 'animal lover'.

trick question aside, i for one am not a gazelle in love. those of you who have been following my blog would know i metaphorically mean i can't run.

i can't.


i was never a runner at school, i was never the girl jogging around the neighbourhood, and i sure as hell wasn't the one nike marketeers were hoping to reach by featuring graceful runners in funky gym clothes and long strides on their giant posters.

nope. not me.

i remember my expedition to climb mt kinabalu some 6 years ago. in my ambition to climb the highest peak in south east asia, i started going to the gym. i spent 20-30mins everyday on the treadmill, and about the same amount on the stair-master. among the group that i was travelling with, i was the most hardworking. i was also the youngest.

i still remember how i would boast to them my treadmill speed and incline setting. i would also show off my ability to climb batu cave stairs effortlessly, doing 10 repeats each time. they too were full of awe as they saw me prove my point about how strong i've become when our group tracked around gasing heights.

and then it happened.

someone said, "you're really fast at climbing, i'm curious to see how fast you run"

after telling them my routine of starting at 7 speed on the treadmill graduating to 10, sometimes 12 by the end of the 30min session, someone else said "wow... we must go to lake gardens as additional training for mt kinabalu. Senn can teach us how to run!"

....senn can teach us how to run....

i confidently, and in my most humble manner possible albeit a very very swollen ego said, "sure, next weekend perhaps?"

come the following weekend i was ready. we met at lake gardens and decided to just run around the lake seeing that it's every body's first time running together. my 'students' and i started the first loop in a happy mood. brisk walking to warm up... arm stretches to get the blood flowing, light skipping to get the heart rate up...

then we started a slow jog...

...then i started running a little faster
... a little faster
... a little faster

and just as i thought i was at a comfortable speed, similar effort to treadmill, my friends passed me. one by one.

one, by painful, one.

i'm like "wtf?? they must be running too fast, they'll tire out soon and then i'll pass them and this steady pace.."

...i never did.

we covered 3 loops that day and they waited about 15mins for me to finish my last loop. i felt so sheepish, humbled by the fact that my friends could have set me up. served me right for being so boastful.

but they were honestly impressed and thought i could share my secrets of running before actually seeing me run!

when i finally joined the group, one of them said "um... are you unwell today?" i said "no, why? was i really that bad?"

friend: well, there were loads of action, high bounce but not much stride. you kinda looked like you were running on a treadmill at high speed!

hmmm... anyway, we finally made it to the top about a month later. came back feeling all proud of ourselves only to read that 12 handicapped children under 18 made it up there during a sponsored event two weeks later in the papers.

oh well.

6 years and a few runs later, am still running the same way. except in longer distance.

so, while i ain't no run guru, i have learnt a few things that could probably help some of you wanting to start running.
1. treadmill queen does not translate road queen
if you're a gym junkie and a treadmill hogger, be aware that your performance on the treadmill has very little reflection on your performance on actual road. don't get me wrong, treadmills are great (a little boring once you've tasted outdoor running but great nonetheless). how else better to time your run? how else to better control your surrounding, terrain and watch tv at the same time?
on the road, how far and how frequent your strides are determine how fast you run. resistance is higher and terrain is not determined by buttons. weather also plays a part. running outside is definitely harder than running on the treadmill. it also gives you an opportunity to check how the race distance actually feels like to your body.

so, if you're thinking of joining an actual race, take your running outside because what you're really doing on the treadmill is jumping and spreading your legs midair for 30mins or more. the auto-rolling platform below actually helps lower resistance. it's a good form of cardiovascular development and probably even increase stamina but not good enough for actual racing.

2. road safety
if this is your first time running outdoors pay close attention to road safety. when cycling, you should ride in the direction of traffic but when you run, do it against traffic. this way you are able to see cars coming and it is also harder to be abducted when you run facing traffic.

make sure your senses are on full alert when running. i personally would love to run with music in my ears but have disciplined myself to not do so because i will not be able to hear my surroundings with the music pumping into my eardrums. if you must run with music, make sure it's either soft enough to hear other things or use only one side of the earphones.

3. glow in the dark
morning runs are the best. air is cool and it isn't sunny. but with our busy lifestyles, evening runs seem to be more feasible sometimes.

if you only run evenings, make sure you can be seen by night drivers. wear light clothing, preferably with reflective strips.

when we ran up genting at night last year, we didn't have the choice of running against traffic. so what we did was we actually wore mining headlights turned to the back so that we were more visible to oncoming cars. i attached a few tiny lights on my run cap, blinking white and red. ms christmas tree i was - very festive but very safe.

4. run buddy
it is actually highly dangerous to run alone regardless of time (more so after dark, of course). make sure you run with a buddy or two. if they're stronger runners, request shorter regrouping points or ask that they look back once awhile to make sure you're ok especially before turning a blind corner.

if you are the faster runner, make sure you do not sprint too far ahead that they can't see you if there is trouble. turn back at blind corners if you are uncertain. take the distance running back to your friend as extra mileage rather than a 'hindrance' of not completing the distance in your usual time. staying safe is far more important. besides, who has ever said "i won in my last training session with my friends"? if you are truly faster than your friends, it will be revealed at actual race day where it matters more.

if you have no choice but to run alone, do not choose a secluded route. keep to one that you know will be full of people or at least civilisation that you can run to in case of danger.

5. be unpredictable
we are, to a certain extent, creatures of habit. but try not to do this when running, especially if you fly solo. crime is hardly random and usually planned. so if you have a predictable run schedule, the baddies are able to plan their attack very easily.

when possible carry a handphone in case of emergency and always ensure at least somebody knows where you are going.

6. fall in love
i've saved this point last as it would appear hypocritical for me to advice how to fall in love with a gazelle when i myself am having problems opening my heart.

but since racing for two seasons, i have collected a few standard things that can help you find the gazelle a bit more attractive:
a: lean like you're falling
- when you run, maintain a straight spine and relax your shoulders. lean forward as if you are going to topple over. your natural instinct would be to put one foot forward to stop your fall. by maintaining this posture, your feet will naturally fall in front of each other with very little effort.
b: touch you knee and kick your butt
- as you run, occasionally reach forward to tap your knees. and when you feel like it, kick up your leg far enough to touch your butt. tapping your knees makes you remember to lean forward enough for your feet to move. the butt kicking is to stretch your legs and getting them use to longer strides.
c: hold your 'spander' straps
- many people (i'm definitely still guilty of this) move their arms too much when running. a good gauge is to imagine a line in the middle of your chest. swing your arms forward and not across this line to conserve energy. a good practise is to imagine you wear trouser 'spanders' and hold them at chest level while you run.

there are many other tips on how to fall in love. but one thing that sticks with me most is determination.

never stop running. no matter how slow. i read somewhere that one should not worry about speed. just concentrate on technique and speed will eventually come. no matter how slow my run still is, i found this point very true.

my race at desaru last weekend is a case in point.

i was running my last 8k. i was tired but have made sure i ran the entire 21k regardless of how mini my strides were. i had fellow triathlete willie with me and darling arif on the bike as escort.

when arif said i only had less than 5k to go, i found my second wind. i picked up my speed a bit more. he said "good, at this speed you'll finish in under 40-45mins". that felt good. willie kept cheering beside me. my legs were heavy but i felt sudden adrenaline coming back.

then i spotted our shadow on the road...

...gawd! i looked like one of those chubby short aunties wearing a tight corset wobbling her way to the market. only thing missing was my basket of vegetables!

it was a hard sight to look at, especially since i thought i was running full on. then i realise that willie who has been brisk walking all this while beside me....was still brisk walking!

alas, false love again.

nevertheless, i finished in good spirit and later checked that i had wobbled faster than arif did last year where he walked most of the way because of massive back pains.

so no matter how horrid you think your run is and no matter how horrid it really is... it is always faster than walking.

i may not be a gazelle in love but i suspect i'm falling... ever so slowly..but ever so surely...

Sunday, August 12, 2007

Crash Course Dummies Part 3: Ride safe!

Riding with confidence can mean racing safe.

when i first started cycling, i was 5. i had a cute little tricycle, complete with ribbons, a basket and a bell. Every evening dad would take me to the park and set me free. there, i will ride alongside him and occasionally, my menacing elder brothers. as i grew older, i graduated to cycling around the neighbourhood, this time dad would either cycle or jog with me.

very standard image, right?

that's what i thought until i spoke to him in later years.

see, being so young, i have blurred and selective memories about my early riding days. but i always remembered one feeling: safe.

i always felt safe. never felt that i needed to worry. never even knew i should worry.

while all these years i thought i was just born daring, i recently realised i wasn't. i was brought up that way.. thanks to my parents (and it's actually a humbling experience when you realise your parents actually know more tricks than you do!)

when my parents decided that i should learn how to cycle, their objective was:
1. get her interested
2. make her brave

so this was exactly what my dad did:
1. catching senn's eye
my dad bought me a pretty tricycle. it wasn't a standard three wheeler, more like a mini bike, with two wheels and hooked on training wheels. honestly, i can't remember the full details but i remembered wanting to ride it because it was pretty. the basket in the front was a huge blast with me. i would carry all sorts of nonsense in it and pretend that i was delivering stuff. and it had a bell!! i was sold!

while i don't remember my very first ride, i do remember park rides and what a racket my training wheels made on the uneven pedestrian path.

mission accomplished: senn is interested.

2. introducing senn to evil knievel
i can't remember how long i had training wheels on, but i know it felt forever. and it was great. i hardly fell, i could ride faster, and i had no worries about heavy traffic (read: naughty brothers weaving around me) because when i feel like i was going to bump into something, i just stop. when the coast was clear, i just continued.

it wasn't until i was 7 and have long outgrown my 'tricycle' that my dad said time to switch bikes. i thought "what a cool idea... i want a prettier one!"

no such luck...

being tight for money, i got my brother's old bike :(

it was an ugly, rusting dark red bike. heavy and not attractive at all! and did i say, it had no training wheels??

i was sad. but had already enjoyed cycling so much i figured "rough it out till your birthday comes".

and this conversation i remember:
dad: ok senn! this is your bike now. come try it
senn: but it's ugly
dad: never mind... still got two wheels..try first... come!
senn: but it's too big!
dad: good for you. then you'll grow faster.. come!
(right about now i was feeling like a puppy being called by the master!)
senn: but i'll fall! no wheel-wheel (read: training wheels. had no idea at that time there was actually a name for it)
dad: but you haven't been using them for more than 1 year! faster la... come!

hang on....

i have never been able to describe how i felt at that point in time until m. night shyamalan directed sixth sense..

know the last twist towards the end when bruce willis found out he was actually dead?

yea...same feeling

memories of my trusty wheel-wheels.. they were there! they stopped my from falling! i would stop and they were there to help balance! they were! i swear!

think dad saw the confusion in my face.

he took out my tricycle and said "see?"

true enough. my wheel-wheels were at least 2 inches above ground. over the span of a year and a half my dad had slowly adjusted it higher from ground level to above ground without me knowing. when i dismount, the bike stood, leaning until the training wheels touched the ground. but when i rode, it was just the two wheels.

i later found out that he did the same thing with my swimming floats. i started out at 5 with fully inflated arm floats. every 2 to 3 weeks, he will inflate it a little less. by about 7 months, i really didn't need them anymore but wore them till my parents enrolled me with a swim coach at the age of 6.

how i have been conned!

it wasn't until i was 15 did the whole episode of giving your kid a false sense a security came out. i had met a classmate that enjoyed riding and decided to try it with her with my brother's 5-speed, heavy as hell road bike.

feeling cheated all this while, i asked my dad point blank: why did you trick me about the training wheels and the arm floats?

his answer was simple and one that i admit has done wonders for me.

"to build confidence"

it's strange how a small gesture like tricking your kid into thinking she's safe can build her confidence. but it's very true. when i thought i had my training wheels, my mind was at ease. i didn't worry too much about falling and focused more on things like maintaining momentum and riding straight. i wasn't afraid to look left or right while riding because i didn't have to concentrate too much on what's directly in front of me that i neglect my surroundings (read: up to no good brothers trying to race pass me). i wasn't nervous and learned sub-consciously how to manage distance like how long it will take to stop if i went at what speed.

confidence is one thing you will need to ride.

forget how lousy your bike is.
forget how slow you ride.

be confident.

confidence on the bike is not something we are born with. it is something we train ourselves to do. just like driving. and it's best to build your confidence while you are training on your bike.

as we're all too old to be fooled by "false securities", here are some tips that can help you build confidence while riding.
1. stop strangling your handlebar
a very normal thing to do when you ride on the roads for the very first time. you've never felt traffic zooming pass you before and you're worried about potholes ahead.


clenching your handlebars or getting "white knuckles" automatically tightens your entire body. you become rigid and will not be able to think fast or make sudden movements to avoid a mishap.

instead, start of with a sturdy bike. with sturdy wheels like open pros.

while we haven't addressed your initial fears of road riding, the fact that your first bike is hardly anything to shout about and your wheels are strong gives you peace of mind to 'trash it' a little. think a trusty 4x4 vs a shiny new speedster.

2. be one with the bike
think of your bike as an extension of yourself. as if you were born with wheels and riding really is like walking to you.

how does this help?

simple, think of the things you would do while walking on a busy street and apply that while you are riding.

on a busy street, you would walk as far to the edge as possible but making sure you have room left before going off road. you would also not fix your line of sight to just what's in front of you. you would look left, right, occasionally behind you to ensure your surrounding is safe.

if there's a pothole in front of you, you would either walk around it or jump over it. but either way you will still check what's coming behind you. same goes when you're on a bike. i used to be afraid of doing so because the bike swerves to the direction of my head. arif taught me to straighten my shoulders and touch my chin to my shoulder when wanting to look back. this ensures that your bike remains straight as you check your surroundings.

if traffic doesn't allow you to go around the pothole, just ride through it if it isn't crater sized. you'll hear a loud thud. at this point, if you have been strangling your handlebars, you will most probably lose balance and fall. but if you hold your handlebar correctly, the only damage is a loud thud, a possible flat, and wrist vibration. a good hold is one when it's firm enough to keep the handlebar straight, but light enough for your handlebar to move to the natural groove of the pit. this takes time and a sturdy set of wheels to master. but very useful to ensure you don't ride into traffic just to avoid a pothole.

and never ever squeeze the brakes hard as you enter the pothole (something you're more likely to do if you do not relax that death grip on the handlebar). you will most definitely fly forward.

3. ride decisively
many people think that bikes, being smaller, has less 'voice' on the road. not true.

but if you are timid on the bike, you will appear to have a smaller 'voice' and may be subject to being bullied.

if you want a louder 'voice' on the road, imagine that you are driving BUT with a little more caution because you are less visible on a bike.

we drive with confidence, we signal when we want to change lanes (by default we should!) and we learn that hesitating is far more dangerous than being decisive.

ride with a clear direction. no sudden moves.

we lost a dear rider last year on one of the sunday rides at putrajaya. those who know the route, will tell you that it's actually quite a puzzle how she got hit by a small kancil of a car from behind. for starters, it's a bright sunday morning. the particular stretch of road is relatively low in traffic. and it's a five lane highway.

five lanes.

i wasn't there when it happened but was told that the car hit her when the road started to divide into an intersection with an overhead. she had wanted to go straight, the car had wanted to keep left.

two stories:
a) moron of a driver should have been a little more patient when changing lanes.
b) she was a new rider and possibly panicked with the raging car behind her and made a sudden move thinking that she was getting out of his way.

while it would be unfair of me to say that had she stood her ground, she would not have gotten hit, (hell, simon cross is an excellent rider and he got hit!) i do feel that you need to build confidence on your bike by riding decisively. and when you ride decisively, you become less unpredictable to the zooming cars behind or around you. they can be morons and choose to cut in front or be patient and wait behind you but bottom line, they can at least sense what your next move is.

and that... means you have a voice to be reckoned with on the road.

keep practising these tips. ask your more experience riding buddies how you ride and what they think you should try out to be more confident (because strangely, experienced riders themselves find it scary to ride with riders that have low confidence or are timid and indecisive)

once you've built enough confidence on actual road riding, races would be less intimidating. especially since they would often close the roads to traffic and you would have policemen/marshals to help ensure safety.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Crash Course Dummies Part 2: Swimming lessons

For all you swimmers who have forgotten that you were once champions.

triathlon swimming is not the same as swim races. For starters, there are no race lines. Other differences include:
1. murky water
2. unpredictable currents
3. strange tasting water
4. uncivilised competitors

of all the differences above, the one you should be most wary of, is uncivilised competitors.

triathlon swimmers are like Malaysian drivers. the radio ads we hear are so true. Malaysians in general are friendly, caring and tolerant. But put them in a car and give them the keys and hell breaks loose. tailgating, honking, cutting dangerously in front.

impatient, inconsiderate and down right rude. especially in traffic jams.

a tri swim start is very much like rush hour traffic. loads of people wanting to get to their destination the quickest way possible.

so, if this is your first triathlon, the swim itself will shock you. Here are some tips that will help you prepare for raceday nightmare:
1. start at the back
you may have heard this a lot from your other seasoned triathletes. the reason is normally "because you're not sure of your swim and may be slow". the more important reason i feel is because it makes you less vulnerable to uncivilised swimmers. no matter how fantastic a swimmer you are, if you're used to proper swim lanes, you're not 'streetwise' enough to handle swim traffic on your first tri. it is totally everybody for they own out there and starting at the back, you can have a small taste of it and then brave it to the middle pack as you graduate to the front, when you're gungho enough.

2. swim the outer lane
the rule, stick to the inner lane along lined buoys for the shortest route and most efficient navigation is true, but highly inadvisable on your first tri. safety to swim close so that you can hang on to the buoys in case you're in trouble is also not good enough a reason to risk getting in the way of an uncivilised swimmer on your maiden tri. this is because every swimmer is gonna want to stick to that line and if you're slow, chances of getting hit or swam over is very high. stick to outer premises, that way you are not restricted by the buoys on the left and have the option to move to your right or left in case you're stuck in a 'swim'pede.

3. study the course and flag off system
race briefing is normally done the day before or a couple of hours prior (if you're in a sprint). if you missed both, make sure you pay attention to the briefing again when organisers repeat it just before race starts. this is important as the organiser will announce what the swim course is and how you will be flagged off. in my year of tris, there are a few types of swim courses:
a) the out and back
- very simple straight or curved swim course. stick to the back and slightly on the outer lane and you will minimise getting bumped into

b) the origami (funny shaped, like a T or W)
- normally mapped out in restricted swim area like a marina where you swim along boats. navigation is going to be hard so be extra cautious of lost swimmers crashing into you.

c) the carousel
- when the swim course involves looping it twice. highly chaotic even if you start at the back as faster swimmers will lap you. a good gauge is to be wary as you complete the first loop, that's normally where you will get lapped.

flag off normally comes in to ways: mass start and in waves

mass starts are not as frightening. if you stick to the back, you're relatively safe. but be careful of flag offs in waves. strong swimmers from a later wave will be crashing through even if your wave started 5 mins earlier. this is where swimming in the outer premise is important. you will experience higher levels of body crashes, slaps and kicks if you stick to the inner lane by the buoys and you will have no where to go as it'll be coming from the right and you can't go any further left because of the line. imagine a 'swim'pede and being caged in with no escape route.

Some friends told me that arwah zubir's autopsy included concussions. he had started at the back but my wave which consisted of relay swimmers and all women started 5 mins after. if the story about the autopsy is true, it is possible that he got kicked or slapped on the head by a stronger swim in my wave.

4. do the seaweed
notice how agile seaweed is? bending according to currents, weaving around our bodies? this is a good plant to observe for tri swimming. be alert, and move according to the body clashing. avoid being rigid.

when we're swimming, we learn to keep the body straight for maximum efficiency. each stroke mechanically in front delivering power pulls. excellent tip for lane swimming or later into the swim course when traffic begins to lighten due to differing speed. but extremely bad news if you're a newbie and have no idea what a 'swim'pede is.

'swim'pede normally last the first 200m or so. after that, traffic lightens and you can very safely practice what you have learnt about swimming close to the line and lengthening your body straight for maximum energy output. but before this 200m is over, here are some tips on how to do the seaweed:
a) forget proper swim strokes
- whether u plan to front crawl, breast stroke or do a combo, keep in mind that your first 200m ain't going to give you enough room in the sea of bodies to fully extend your strokes. don't force your body to be extended if the traffic doesn't allow. do shorter strokes, bend a little so that your body is limber. it's common physics: a softer surface absorbs impact more gracefully that a hard surface. think "my body has crumple zones..."

b) feel the chi
- water chi is nothing supernatural or spiritual. it's basically light currents you will feel because somebody is swimming too close to you either from the side or in front. enhance your senses, the water is going to be cloudy, sometimes you can't see any further than a few inches from your extended hand.after many swim starts, i notice i will always feel a sudden gush of small currents or see bubbles before something (read: foot, leg, face, body etc) hits me.

bernard's blog says practice swimming laps wearing dark goggles in late evenings. very good tip to help you enhance your senses when sight is a luxury.

c) my head is my temple
our bodies can take a fair bit of torture before caving in, but the slightest blow on the right spot of our heads and we'll be in serious trouble.

the first 200m is more survival than performance. your arms are not your pedals at this stage, propelling you forward. you arms are your shields until the madness is over. extending about half a meter in front of you, use them to gauge if there's something in front of you before you pull forward. if you feel water chi, or touch something, slow down. stop, put your head up and thread water to check your surroundings if you have to. don't worry about somebody bumping behind you because you've stopped in their tracks, at least you head is safely above water and hand slaps tend to give softer blows than full kicks. he'll be annoyed, but will not be able to swim on top of you, he'll have to go around you.

something i do, which you can try mastering is fast navigation. when i feel water chi or touch someones toes, i immediately put my head up. almost always, i will see a swimmer in front of me. i'll do a quick right look to see if there's anyone directly next to me and change my direction north-east. i never check the left. to me, left leads to the dead end buoys, and my objective is to get out of the traffic. after much practice, i have been able to do this without missing a stroke.

5) forgive thy neighbour
'swim'pede is normal and not personal. as much as i have preached about uncivilised swimmers, i have had my share of feeling teeth with my toes and soft bellies as i breast stroked. it's just the nature of a swim start. and seriously, i can't see who's behind me so it was very unintentional.

one swim, the water was clear enough and i saw a swimmer below me! now that is plain rude. but hey! he just wants to go faster.

the point of this, is not so much about how we should accept the chaos that awaits and do the best we can about it, but more about remaining calm. if you got kicked repeatedly, squashed out of your space or swam over, remain calm. getting upset and frustrated ain't going to do you any good. you lose focus, you become uptight and will forget that it's only 200m, not even half the sprint or 1/3 of the olympic distance. relax. shit happens. focus on protecting yourself, try to get out of the traffic for a more peaceful swim. you'll be safe and you will navigate better when you are calm.

my one saving grace from being fully uncivilised is that i am able to change strokes at any point without breaking rhythm. so if i'm breast stroking and touch a soft belly, i will immediate change to front crawl to avoid kicking the guy again. if i feel somebody touching my toes while i'm doing the front crawl, i do a quick right check and swim north-east out of his way.

tips aside, don't worry too much about your first tri swim. you're out there to have fun. if the situation screws up your swim, no worries. relax and know that you'll get them back next time.

besides, weren't we all champs of a mass swim start once in the massive sea called mommy's womb?