Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Back Pain

Time to 'fess up: I've been having low-back pain since mid-August.  It is worst when getting up in the morning, and flares whenever I try to lift anything, including myself.  Even picking up a penny on the ground requires that I squat way down.  I can't even put on my pants standing up!

I can walk and sit without pain, but that's about it.  If I'm careful, I can exercise without pain.  But even the slightest mistake guarantees the pain will increase, if not immediately, then soon after the workout ends.

At first, I thought the back pain was due simply to all the additional time I'd been spending cycling in the aero position.  But cutting back on my bike time, then zeroing it, did not affect the pain at all.

I talked to a personal trainer, who recommended things not to do, activities and motions to avoid, to help prevent making it worse.  It hasn't gotten worse overall, but there are certainly good days and bad days.

I got several massages, and while they felt great and gave me temporary pain relief, they had no lasting effect.  But a massage therapist did recommend some changes to my body position when I sleep.  That did help reduce, but did not eliminate, the morning discomfort.

I met with a physical therapist, who recommended some simple stretches, mainly for the hamstring, to try to remove stress from the back.  No immediate change in the first couple weeks, but I'm sticking with them.

I saw my primary physician to get a referral to my sports medicine doctor, but he said that since I was pain-free for my day-to-day activities, my condition did not rise to the level of clinical significance, so there was no need for immediate treatment.  But he did give me a thorough physical to ensure my back pain wasn't a precursor to another condition.

The personal trainer did some research, and uncovered a surprise: Everyone experiences back pain sooner or later in life, and for many people, their back pain lacks a direct cause (such as injury, mis-use or over-use).  There isn't all that much known about back pain that lacks a clear and direct cause.  One fairly common factor is emotional/life stress, and I do have tons of stress in my life right now.

I should mention that when I was in college I had developed severe back spasms that sometimes kept me from walking upright, and that required medication to relieve.  I was scheduled for physical therapy after the spasms subsided, but it turned out not to be necessary.  Evidently, just turning off the spasms for a while was all that was needed for me to heal on my own.  For the next 25 years I had no significant back pain.

So I know what back spasms are, and I'm certain I don't have them now.  The current pain really feels like my back was over-fatigued, but my back hasn't responded to my efforts to eliminate all forms of back fatigue from my daily life.

Could stress be the main issue?  The timing is interesting, since the back pain arrived about 2 months after a major increase in the stress present in my life (about 7 months ago).

During this entire year, I had been carefully and steadily increasing my training load (mainly distance and time, not peak effort) in all 3 triathlon sports.  The only constant has been my strength training, which I have been doing for about 8 years now.

I have lost about 20 pounds during the past year, which I attribute not only to the higher training load, but also to significant improvements to my eating patterns (I'm not on a "diet").  Thanks to the Holidays, and my currently reduced training levels, 8 pounds of that loss has returned.  Not enough to be a strain on my back!

Most importantly, aside from my mystery back pain, I have otherwise been injury-free since starting triathlon: I have tailored my training with the long-view in mind, and have no desire to push myself hard enough to risk injury.  But I do want to see steady improvement in all areas, since I know I have lots of room to improve both my speed and endurance.

Fortunately, short runs and long swims still feel good (well, they don't make my back worse), so I do them both in moderation, being careful not to start a run or swim if I'm too fatigued or in pain, and I stop the moment I feel any new pain in my back.  And I'm still doing my strength training, modified to avoid loading up my back.

Cycling on the road is out, since I can't hold my back up, and my arms don't handle the extra load very well (hands go numb).  Worse is that I can't pedal anywhere near full power, since I need to use my back to get power to the pedals when I'm in the saddle.  I'd be more comfortable on the bike if I could sit vertically, but neither my road bike nor my hybrid bike supports that position.  All that leaves me with is cycling out of the saddle, which I can't do long enough to last a whole ride.  So, I haven't been cycling at all.

That's what I've been telling myself, at least.  But the simple truth is there is a way to get lots of biking in, sitting vertically, with plenty of time out of the seat: Spin classes.  For some unknown reason, I've been resisting going to class: I think I became spoiled by all the road riding I was doing.

Time for that to change!

Friday, December 4, 2009

Pain-Free Running, Part V

I promise not to mention either Mr. Bean or Pee-wee Herman in this post. Oops. Let's talk about arm swinging.

Is there a useful limit to arm swinging? A useful minimum? Should my arms be more bent, or more straight? It turns out, there is lots of discussion online about arm swinging. While everyone had an opinion, and some differed significantly, unlike the foot strike discussions, there was very little religious warfare. Bottom line, the arms should feel like they are doing work, and not just swinging passively.

I thought about what my arms did when hiking with poles, or alpine (cross-country) skiing. Sometimes I'm using my arms to push along with my legs (uphill and downhill), and other times my arms swing more freely to provide smoothness and stability (fast, flat conditions). Running shared all of those situations. How can/should my arms support my run?

I next did a series of test runs on a fairly flat road, varying only the swing of my arms, holding my elbows at 90 degrees while keeping my stride and cadence constant. It immediately became clear that if I wanted to use a heel-push and a short stride with a high cadence, I would have to swing my arms hard to smooth things out. And I had to swing them fast. The next runs explored how big an arc, and where the arc was centered (elbows more up in front, or more up in back).

I really wish I had started with the arms instead of the feet. Really. I clearly remember the first run I had when all the pieces started coming together. My arms were swinging like I was a Rock'em-Sock'em Robot. I tried swinging my arms as hard as I could, and found I was literally lifting myself off the ground, amplifying my heel-push, which made it much easier to run without a toe-push. A forceful arm swing could nicely balance the removal of the toe-push!

My level stride came together. Soon I had run 1 flat mile several times, with no foot or joint pain! This was really a magical moment, so I didn't look at how long it took to do each of those 1 mile runs. Success mattered far more than speed!

Next, I added very small hills. I'm pumping my arms hard on my flat run, and the first tiny hill approaches. Like hiking, I let my stride get shorter. But now my arms were swinging too much, so I had to shorten the swing as well, while still keeping the cadence the same. But going up hill needed more force, and my arms were doing less! So I dropped my hands slightly to add more inertia to each swing of my arms.

And I felt like I flew up that hill! It was the easiest uphill run I could ever recall. When I got to the top, I brought my elbows back to 90 degrees, increased my arm swing, lengthened my stride, and resumed my flat run. All at the same cadence. I felt like I had gears!

The mild downhill came next. Back in my earlier days, downhill running always gave me shin splints, and I never learned how to avoid them. It seemed clear that if lowering the hands helped uphill, raising them should help downhill. And I flew downhill. The best part? No sign of shin splints! I never tried to slow down (though I may have). I maintained cadence, and used my arms to adjust for the terrain.

I wish I could describe how I felt coming off that run. It was as if I had been touched by the Hand of God, and my crippled run was miraculously healed! Sure, I knew the work it took, but that's how it felt right then.

I did several more 1 mile runs over the coming weeks, and gradually increased my distance. I soon found that it was almost impossible for me to hold a 90 cadence past the first mile, but a slight drop to 85 worked fine. The best part was that I was soon covering 2 miles in under 20 minutes. I had gone from having no running at all, to having a sub-10:00 mile!

Of course, the next thing I did was go looking for another miracle: Sure, I could run on the flats, and uphill and downhill, but how fast could this new pace go?

One problem: When I'm already swinging my arms at an 85 cadence, with no easy way to increase it, what do I do to go faster? Clearly, I'd have to lengthen my stride. But wouldn't that change everything? Would the hard heel strike return? How would my arms compensate? Was I going to have to start all over again?

How to go faster? Well, there was that mysterious saying I had encountered earlier: "To run faster, lean forward!" So I leaned forward. And I went faster!

But what was really going on here? What changed? How did I do that?

Surprisingly, my arms already knew what to do, and they did it. When I leaned forward, my elbows moved back, maintaining my center of balance, but letting it shift forward just enough to match my slightly longer stride.

It turns out, this had happened to me before! When going uphill, I had leaned forward and my elbows had gone back. But I was so focused on the bend of my elbows and the shorter uphill stride, that I hadn't noticed that my elbows had changed were they were going!

That's about where I am today. I'm still doing my 2 mile run twice a week, though I've been adding in occasional longer runs: I did a 5 mile run 2 weeks ago, pain-free! My first in over 16 years.

I forgot to tell you how fast I went in my speed tests: My PR for my 2 mile run is 16 minutes flat. That's an 8:00 mile! However, my normal 2 mile run is consistently around 17 minutes, and is never slower than 18 minutes.

I can't believe it. Sixteen years ago I was running at a 7:30 pace with bad pain. Now, at age 53, I'm running at an 8:30 pace pain-free. Lose the pain, add 16 years, lose only a minute.

I'm OK with that. Because it means I'll be doing my first Olympic distance race next year, and a half-IM doesn't look impossible for the year after.

Yeah, I'm really, really, really OK with that.

Pain-Free Running, Part IV

Some of my favorite memories from my earlier running years center on "zoning-out" during long runs. This was different than the euphoric "runner's high", since for me that only happened after I broke through a wall of pain. My "zone" was more of a meditative place, where I could let my body do its thing, and my mind was free to look at everything happening around me. If I managed to zone-out during a 10K race, I knew I was running near peak efficiency, since any body problems would always keep me out of the zone.

My new long-distance swim skills had allowed me to experience a similar meditative feeling, but it wasn't quite the same, since it was more of a turning inward, where the running state was more outward. I realized I would dearly love to not only run again, but to have a stride that would work on "autopilot" and permit me to "zone out" and cruise through the miles.

My most recent attempts at shortening my stride, easing my foot impact, and increasing my cadence/turnover, were about as far from "zoning out" as I could imagine. But I was beginning to feel I may be on the right track.

I figured I needed to look at the whole picture, at what each part of my body was doing while I ran, and stop focusing exclusively on my feet and legs. Where am I holding my head? What are my shoulders doing? What is my spine doing? What are my arms doing?

One of the best web sites I found that took a similar whole-body view was Chi Running. No, I didn't buy the book, but what I gathered from online discussions helped me realize I may be on the right track. My new stride must involve my whole body, and poking at isolated pieces of the puzzle would no longer suffice.

I researched the parts of a stride, and how they fit together. I looked at my old stride, and tried to identify what was actually going on with it. I examined the strides of other runners to learn about the range of variations in running technique. It was tough going, since I was very suspicious that what I thought I was seeing may be completely different from what the runner was actually doing! I simply didn't know enough about how the human body moves, and I wasn't about to master body kinematics to figure it out.

I decided to change how I observed other runners. Instead of trying to figure out what all the pieces were doing, I'd first see which runners looked smooth and relaxed. If they weren't in pain and weren't flailing about, they probably had all their pieces working well together. I looked at both "natural" runners, and those who were heavy and/or old.

My online searches sometimes led me into interesting corners. At one point, I started looking up some running-specific terms I had previously stumbled across. The one that interested me most was: "To go faster, lean forward." That didn't make much sense to me, unless the goal was to land on your face. What does it really mean to "lean forward" while running? Was it just a psychological thing, to "think forward", or was there a real physical change involved?

I saw lots of videos and pictures online, but none of them made sense to me. Sure, the runner sometimes looked to be "leaning forward", but nobody explained how they stayed in balance! What happened to the center of gravity? Did the stride get longer to restore balance, or what? I was left with more questions than I had started with.

Not all the searches led to corners. There was lots of common advice when it came to the parts of a run. The most prevalent was: "Keep your head up." That made sense, since it would reduce stress on the neck and upper back. Something else also became clear: "Lean forward" did not mean tilting your head forward, for that would violate the "head up" rule.

I next looked at the core, the torso, from the hips to the shoulders. What was going on there? The fastest runners, and the smoothest runners (independent of speed), all ran with very little bend in the spine, and very little twisting of the hips relative to the shoulders. Those that did run with lots of twisting were generally quite young (in puberty or younger), or had unusual weight distribution around the body.

This was especially evident for heavier runners who had far more weight below the belt line than above: It seemed the upper body had to do lots of extra twisting to counter-balance the motion of the lower body. When I looked closer, however, it was clear that not all low-heavy runners had lots of twisting. Some had no twist at all, and it wasn't immediately clear to me why not. But what was clear to me was that those who did the least twisting tended to be the better/smoother/faster runners.

I also looked at bounce, but learned nothing from it. It seems that some runners bounce, and other runners don't, and both can be excellent runners. But I did notice that most short-stride runners looked as if they bounced more than long-stride runners. Perhaps they did have more up-and-down motion, but the short stride could have simply made it an optical illusion. Since I had no reliable way to measure bounce, I also set it aside.

OK. What did I think I had learned so far? Not that much: Head up. Minimize torso twist. Short stride. Heel push. Fast turnover. I didn't quite see what kind of stride I could assemble from those parts. All that was left to examine was the arms. What should my arms be doing?

Once again, I looked a bit closer at some of the basics online. Every site always said: "Swing your arms!". Well, I thought that was just too obvious: Only Mr. Bean and Pee-wee Herman could run without swinging their arms. No way was I going to run like that! So arm swinging did indeed seem way too obvious.

But what if I were to swing my arms more or somehow differently? That's for the next post.

Pain-Free Running, Part III

To recap the prior post: As I became fatigued while running, my feet started to slap the ground, which set off a whole cascade of pain. This confirmed that I would never again run as I did in my youth. It was clearly time to change my stride into something that would work better with the bones and muscles I had today.

This wasn't the first major change I had encountered on my path toward becoming a triathlete. While I had owned up-market road bikes for 35 years, I had never competed. When I started training for triathlon, I finally started to learn what competitive cycling was all about. It all comes down to two basic things: Minimize drag, and use muscles wisely. Some would add a third basic item: Get a power meter. But my budget hasn't made that possible.

When Joe Friel was the guest speaker at a TCSD meeting, I heard about "mid-sole cleat positioning". Since I have flat feet, I was already positioning my cleats just behind the ball of my foot, to provide some support to my plantar fascia. Joe showed that moving the cleats further back would greatly reduce the load on the calf muscle, freeing up energy that would then be available for propulsion.

My bike shoes have very long cleat slots, and I was able to move my cleats back a centimeter. The effect on my feet and calves was literally night-and-day: Since pressure on the ball of my foot was further reduced, my plantar fascia never hurt, no matter how hard I pedaled, and no matter how rough the road (bumps and corduroy used to hurt my feet). Even better, my calves stopped cramping when going up steep climbs.

I found it hard to believe that such a small adjustment could possibly have such a large impact on my riding. I wondered if something similar would be possible for my running.

I did lots of running research online. I found no sites dedicated to the "bad/broken runner". There were sites for doing physical therapy and rehab on injured and post-surgery runners, and lots of sites focused on making slow runners into faster runners, but none for those of us who just can't run any significant distance due to non-fitness issues.

The odd thing was, there were lots of sites for non-swimmers, and non-cyclists, but not for non-runners. The only advice I found, repeated over and over again, was this: "Start jogging. Then start running." Not exactly the advice I was looking for.

So I went offline and started looking a bit closer at other runners, particularly those with physical limitations of some kind. Two common limitations soon became clear: High weight, and great age. So I focused on watching very heavy and very old runners. And one thing was immediately obvious: The best runners in both groups tended to run with a rapid, short stride.

So I tried running with faster, shorter strides. And I felt as if I would shake myself apart. It wasn't a pretty sight, and I had trouble getting around a single block. And I still hurt when I finished, but in all-new places: My butt and lower back hurt.

When I went back online to research different running strides, I stepped into the endless discussions and religious wars concerning heel-strike versus toe-strike versus mid-sole strike. Google for them if you are curious. The one thing I did take from the discussions was that I did not, necessarily, have to strike so hard with my heel.

The mid-sole strike got me thinking about how mid-sole cleats had affected my biking. In particular, could I use my calves less while running?

So I tried an experiment, and replaced my toe-push with a heel-push. Using a heel-push wasn't new to me: When hiking with a 60 lb pack on my back, the only way to get up steep hills was to use a heel-push, never a toe-push. Use the big muscles instead of the little ones. And when the going was steeper, take shorter steps: Sometimes, my feet overlapped, moving only a few inches up and forward with each step. I've hiked up a few mountains that way, making it to the top with lots of energy.

Trying to run with a heel-push and a short stride is vastly different than walking with one. The running toe-push seems to be programmed in at almost a genetic level, and it was extremely difficult for me not to use my calf muscles. The resulting stride still lacked smoothness, but it was somewhat more comfortable than my prior short-stride test. Getting around the block was still a struggle, but it was much less uncomfortable.

Back to the net, where I found no discussions of heel-push running. Nada. Zilch. Bupkus. Oh, sure, people will rage about foot strike, but not the push. Obviously, it was too obvious to discuss. Obviously, I was on my own.

One thing was immediately clear: If I was going to run with a short stride, and if I ever wanted to run fast, I was going to have to make those short strides happen very quickly. In cycling this is your pedaling "cadence". In running, I learned it was called "turnover". The general consensus was that higher turnover was better, but that whatever your "natural" turnover was would be best.

I had no way to measure my turnover, so I purchased a shoe-pod for my Garmin 305. It goes well with the bike-pod, and serves a similar purpose. Some running web sites recommend using a metronome, but I also want to record my cadence during a run, and my Garmin 305 with the shoe-pod would that too.

On the bike, I had worked hard to get my normal cadence on the flats up from the low 70s to 90, and my speed improved with it. Should I try to run with a 90 cadence as well? I did some short test runs, and it seemed faster was actually better, since it made my shorter stride "flow" better. But holding a 90 pace was just about impossible.

My stride still needed more work.

Pain-Free Running, Part II

Last post, I described how I started to get back into running, and how it wasn't working for me. This time I'll describe where I went from there.

First, I'll share my definition of "pain-free" running: No joint pain, no foot pain, no back pain or any other structural body pain. No shin splints. No plantar fasciitis. No tendon pain.

Muscle pain, though not desirable, should not be unexpected. If cramps occur, they should be taken as a clear sign of over-doing it, and are an excellent reason to end the run and start walking. Tendon pain must be prevented and avoided to the greatest extent possible, but when it does occur it must be treated as an injury.

While doing the 1/2 mile runs described in the prior post, I noticed some pain in the front and side of my knees that tended to ache and fade slowly. I scheduled an appointment with my GP, who promptly referred me to Dr. John Fellow, a sports medicine specialist.

X-Rays revealed some roughness on the inside of one of my knee caps (mild chondromalacia), and Dr. Fellow also detected a small amount of patellar tendonitis on both knees (not unexpected at my age). After performing some mobility and stability tests, Dr. Fellow's final diagnosis was ITB Syndrome (ITB = IT-Band = IllioTibial Band, the tissue along the outside of each thigh). This too is very typical of people getting into running, and Dr. Fellow was not too concerned. He prescribed some stretches, which I added to my normal (and very thorough) stretch routine.

A note about stretching. Over the years I've put together a great 20-minute active stretch routine that borrows from yoga, modern dance, martial arts, strength training, massage therapy, and, of course, doctors. It has kept me extremely flexible and very limber, and has provided many benefits beyond flexibility: I'm much more resistant to accidental injury, since I can bend before I break, and I'm more able to catch myself when I stumble, instead of falling. I can't recommend highly enough the value of a proper and safe stretch routine!

Over the years, I've accumulated some basic rules about stretching. These are my rules, based primarily on my own experiences. Since I'm in no way a stretching expert, you should take them only as basic advice, not as laws.
  1. Never stretch a cold muscle. This is #1 for a reason, since it is the easiest way I know to rip muscle and tendon. Don't do it. Never, ever. Always warm up a muscle before stretching it.
  2. Never stretch immediately before hard exercise. Recent studies have shown that stretching decreases both muscle strength and endurance when done before hard exercise. Stretching is best used as a recovery activity, or as part of a series of low-intensity exercise or training activities (such as in a fitness class). Think of stretching more like vitamins: Something you want to take daily, but not right before a big race.
  3. Always activate the muscle being stretched. Never "relax" into a stretch. Work against the muscle being stretched, but don't over-do it. Mild to medium activation is all that's needed.
  4. Never "fall" into a stretch using gravity. Gravity may be used provide a slight assist, but should not be used to force a muscle to lengthen. Re-orient your body (such as lying on a mat) so gravity can't help over-do the stretch.
  5. Never "bounce" in a stretch. This is another great way to rip a tendon or muscle. The worst general error in this area concerns stretching the groin and Achilles tendons. Be very careful!
  6. Never "force" a stretch. Go gently and slowly to the limit of motion, then hold using dynamic tension (pull using opposing muscles, and stay in the same place). Excess force can cause a range of injuries, including joint dislocation.
I won't go into the "why" behind each of my rules, but I will say they are generally based on my own mistakes, or watching the mistakes of others. I won't describe my specific stretch routine here, though that may be a topic for a future post.

The bottom line is to make no assumptions about stretching: If you don't know what you are doing, then stick to doing an easy warm-up followed by very gentle stretches, with muscles activated (stretch against a tense muscle using the opposite muscle), without any gravity assist.

Back to the main topic: I did only easy 1/4 mile runs while waiting for the new stretches to help correct my ITB Syndrome. When all was well, I resumed my 1/2 mile runs, this time without knee pain.

When I extended my run to 1 mile, I started huffing and puffing at the limit of my fitness, and the old ankle and hip pain returned (without knee pain this time), I also had shin splints, and my feet hurt. I was running with the same style I was using 15 years ago: A long stride with a hard heel strike. Immediately after that run, I took off my shoes and probed my feet and all my joints. My plantar fascia were tender, and my joint stabilizing muscles all were tight, much tighter than I had ever noticed before.

Some Googling led me to several running and sports medicine web sites, which helped me put together a picture of what was probably going on: When running faster and farther, as I started to fatigue my hard heel strike caused my foot to slap onto the ground. That slap sent a shock wave up my leg that caused my shin splints. The foot slap was also stretching my plantar fascia, which was making my foot hurt when I pushed off of the ball of my foot. The stretched plantar fascia was making my foot less stable, which in turn was causing me to tighten my ankle for additional support. The ankle support muscles soon tired, and the knee tried to provide the needed stabilization. But my knee was now more limber, so rather than taking more damage and hurting, it became weaker, and the weakness traveled up to my hips.

I had gone from running using my feet, legs and muscles, to running on flippers under stacks of wobbly bones. No wonder I hurt!

At this point, it was clear I needed to do things differently. My next thought was simple: If I could get rid of that foot slap, perhaps I could completely prevent the rest of the joint pain. More about that in the next post.

Pain-Free Running, Part I

This is the first in a series of posts on my year-long evolution from a broken/painful non-runner to now being a pain-free runner.

First, some history: I started running while I was in the Navy ('75-'81). I ran 1.5 miles twice a year. That was about it. While in college ('81-'86) I ran even less.

But at my first job immediately after graduation, I shared an office with an engineer who ran all the time. And he hated to run alone. So he dragged me out, kicking and screaming (literally), and coached me until I became a runner with a 7:30 min/mile and a 10K time under 45 minutes. I should mention this engineer was married to one of the fastest women in San Diego, and was her coach. I once watched her win her age group while she was 8 months pregnant!

I should also mention that I have long narrow feet that are utterly and completely flat. Like pancakes. And I have skinny ankles that were always getting twisted or sprained. And I'm a bit bow-legged. Not exactly the ideal legs for a runner. My coach and I worked diligently to find a stride that was fast, efficient, and comfortable for me. I was overjoyed that I was able to do consistent 7:30 miles.

After a few years I stopped getting faster, and I grew tired of running 10Ks and not improving. At that point, the universal advice was: "If you can't go faster, go longer." So I started training for half-marathons. I extended my training runs to 7 miles, then 8, then 9, then 10, at which point I experienced lots of pain in all my leg joints; hip, knee and ankle. Even the soles of my feet hurt.

Following advice, I took a few days off from running to wait for the pain to face, then tried my original training run. The pain immediately came back. I took more time off, then tried a shorter run. More pain. After a few months, it was getting to the point that the pain was taking longer and longer to fade between runs, and I had some joint pain when getting out of bed in the morning (though it never affected my sleep).

At that point, I made an appointment with my GP, who said I had no detectable damage to my joints. He recommended no physical therapy, since once the pain faded, my walking was completely unaffected. So I retired from running, and pursued other sports.

One year ago last August, after 15 years without running, I became involved with triathlon. I quickly changed from being a non-swimmer to being a fish (2 miles in 1 hour). My bike performance started to improve as I went on TCSD club and sponsor rides. But my main concern was the run. I didn't want to start running again until I was as prepared as I possibly could be.

My first step was to see how running shoes had evolved over the prior 15 years. My old shoe was the original, classic, Nike Air Pegasus. I lost count of how many pairs of that shoe I ran through. On the advice of my triathlon sensei and swim instructor, I went to the San Diego Running Institute (SDRI).

Jesse at SDRI first did a battery of measurements, with my foot under load and unloaded. Then he brought out not 2 or 3 pairs of shoes to try, but six pairs! I tried the first pair on, walked a bit, jogged a bit, then switched to the next pair. After trying all 6 pairs, the list was narrowed to two. I put each of them on and ran a bit more. Then I took one shoe from each pair and ran, then again with the other shoe from each pair. Soon enough, the best pair was clear, and after one final short run, I took home a pair of Mizuno "Wave Creation 10" shoes.

I started running just 1/4 mile at a time at an "easy" pace, ready to stop immediately if I felt any discomfort. After a couple weeks, I went to 1/2 mile, and I started to feel the same old twinges in my joints.

At this point, I realized either I was not going to return to running, or I had to find a whole new way to run. I clearly chose the latter, since this wouldn't be a series of posts otherwise.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Return of the TitanFlex!

This afternoon I returned the TitanFlex to its creator, Tom Piszkin. I didn't get another ride in due to other commitments.

Thanks, Tom, for such a generous 5-day demo, and for your endless patience answering my many, many questions!

And I also just learned I could add images to my blog posts! Here's a shot of Tom with the TitanFlex Veteran I've been demoing, just before he removed my wheels, pedals, saddle, bottle cage, and cadence/speed sensor:

This shot shows the "cleanbrake" front brake control Tom invented:
After I got used to it, I found it to be very convenient. I'm still an aero newbie, and having such easy access to the front brake boosted my confidence, and permitted me to stay in aero more of the time.

Here are a few shots showing some TitanFlex Veteran construction details that are nicely visible on the unpainted frame. First, a close-up of the cable entry into the top of the frame:

Next, a shot of the front derailleur cable exit. This photo was taken with the camera between and just above the rear dropouts. The extra cable length from the front derailleur was tucked back into the frame to get it out of the way, rather than cutting it just for my demo.

The next photo shows how the front derailleur cable tube is routed out of the monocoque frame. This hole is normally plugged before the frame is painted.

Next, a shot of the Cane Creek fork with the rear-mounted brake:
The above image also shows an almost edge-on view of the monocoque frame. The body of the frame is truly hollow, containing no inner tubes. The inserts for the bottle cages attach only to welded sheet metal. The monocoque TitanFlex Veteran frame uses only 4 short tubes: One to close the triangle between the chainstays and the seatstays, one for the headtube, one for the bottom bracket, and one to hold the beam tube.

The TitanFlex Transition frame replaces the monocoque section with a pair of shaped aluminum tubes. This link shows side-by side images of each frame type, and this link provides detailed dimensions for all TitanFlex frames. The frame I demoed is the Veteran 700-ST (Stretch), and it's detailed diagram is here.

Since this was a newbie demo, and not a formal review or test ride, I'm rather limited in the lessons and conclusions I can draw from this demo. But there certainly are some very obvious things I can state:

First, since this demo was also my first ride on a TT bike, I now know I really like riding in a deep aero position, and I've shown I can achieve a PR on a windy day, even when I'm tired. Clearly, a TT bike is in my future! However, this does not mean I will ever retire my road bike, since a TT bike is not the safest thing to ride on streets filled with traffic, nor is it practical for very long rides.

Second, the TitanFlex clearly achieves dramatic vibration and bump reduction in a very light frame. This behavior was it's primary design motivation, and it achieves that goal in spades.

Third, the extreme adjustability of the TitanFlex geometry, provided by beam tube and seatpost positioning, means almost any TitanFlex frame can be fit to almost any rider. The Veteran 700-ST ("STretch") frame I demoed was, by any "normal" measure, way too "long" for me, with a bottom bracket to front dropout distance of 62.4 cm. By comparison, this distance on my Trek Madone road bike is about 58.5 cm. Despite this apparent size difference, the TitanFlex frame was easily adjusted to match the precise fit JT (of Moment Cycle Sport) had optimized for me.

So, if a rider can get a precise fit using any of several TitanFlex frames, what factors should drive the TitanFlex frame selection process? I mean, for most bikes, we can only select among those specific frames that can fit us, which is usually just one or two frames from each manufacturer (with various accessory and component options across a wide price spectrum). Then you have to trade off between whatever features each frame designer chose to provide and how they were implemented. It seems to me that TitanFlex turns this upside down, where you can select the design features you want, knowing you are certain to get a frame that fits.

Fourth, and finally, when TitanFlex bikes are compared to other road and time trial bikes on the market, it is clearly competitive on price, performance, and features. And the TitanFlex delivers one important additional feature no other performance bike currently on the market even tries to deliver: Extreme vibration reduction. Even if you don't need that feature, it is included, and I expect it would prove valuable to all riders, from elite to newbie.

Given that Tom Piszkin is both a local manufacturer and seller, and is also a generous TCSD sponsor, I believe every TCSD member should give a TitanFlex serious consideration before buying any other bike. I suggest that the first question in our minds when we start thinking about getting a new bike should be: "Why not a TitanFlex?" We should ask this question no matter what kind of bike we need, and no matter what our budget is.

I recommend seeing Tom first, then compare his product to everything else on the market. If you do find that some other bike suits you better than a TitanFlex, please let Tom know why, to give him the opportunity to tailor his future products to better meet all our needs. Tom doesn't try to address all possible bike markets, but I do believe he targets triathletes particularly well.

Tom is one of "us", and he certainly deserves the chance to earn our business!

One final note: After several conversations with Tom, I developed a general idea of the size of his annual sales. His gift of $4000 of TitanFlex products to the TCSD 25th Anniversary Party represents a significant percentage of his total revenues, and I suspect a surprisingly large percentage of his total 2009 profits. I seriously doubt that any other TCSD sponsor is donating anywhere near this percentage of their revenues to the club! (Though I do know of several TCSD sponsors who donate even when it hurts.)

Ask Tom why he's doing this. You'll like his answers!

Reminder: The opinions expressed here are those of a total TT newbie. If you can improve this dire situation, please add your comments!

More on the TitanFlex

OK, I was going to call this "Moron on the TitanFlex", but I guess you figured that out by now.

Thursday evening is Jonathan Jefferson's Beginner's Open-Water Swim (BOWS) clinic, and after nearly a year of attending, I'm still a regular there, since I'm still learning, though I now help other swimmers when I can (I'm not the newest newbie!). Normally, the BOWS is held at De Anza Cove, but this time it was to be held on Coronado at Glorietta Bay, to provide a preview of the swim portion of the next TCSD beginner's club race.

And being at Glorietta Bay meant I would also be right next to the Strand, an ideal place to get in a long, fast ride, which is the final element I wanted to work on during my TitanFlex demo. And I also wanted to check out the recent extensions to the bike path in Imperial Beach, so I planned to arrive about 2 hours before the BOWS to get in a longer ride.

I arrived plenty early, got on the bike, and just as I was getting started, I was immediately passed by a rider on a brand new Trek Madone 5.9 (suh-weet!). I got into a deeper aero position, geared up, and went in pursuit. While the other guy didn't seem to be trying too hard (though he did go into the drops now and then), I was having a difficult time catching him. I tried using a smoother, faster spin, and did the one-up/one-down drill to get a bit more speed. I was gaining only slowly, but at least I was gaining.

I finally caught the guy just before the light at the entrance to Loews Coronado, slightly over 3 miles from where I started. It was clear I hadn't fully recovered from all my recent riding. It was also clear I only had enough gas in the tank to make it back to Glorietta Bay. When I reached the light, I turned around and headed north. The only people I passed on the way back were on beach cruisers.

So, no long ride that evening. When the BOWS started, it was clear I was really tired, since even swimming was difficult (and I'm a strong swimmer, though not super-fast).

That's what I get for trying to do a thorough bike demo when I haven't been getting enough saddle time!

Friday was a rest and recovery day. We'll see if I can get a ride in Saturday, before I return the TitanFlex at 3PM.

The TitanFlex Demo Continues

Wednesday morning, I brought the bike back to Tom for a quick tune-up. Turns out the source of the shifting problem was using too wide a chain with the 9 speed cassette. A quick chain swap and derailleur adjustment and I was on my way.

I decided to do a short ride on the nearby CA-56 bike path to charge up some of the steep hills that are easy to access from the bike path. Just how stiff is the TitanFlex frame? Well, all I can say is it is more than stiff enough to handle my 185 lbs without any noticeable deflection. It is as least as stiff as my Trek Madone carbon frame, and the Trek frame has a good reputation for stiffness combined with comfort.

Speaking of comfort, how could I best evaluate the quality of the beam tube suspension? Sure, I had already ridden over normal road bumps, railroad crossings, and small potholes without a problem. For the first several I encountered, I instinctively got out of the saddle, as I do on my road bike, to take the bump with my legs, instead of forcing the frame to take the hit. It took a conscious effort for me to stay in the saddle over these bumps, and the resulting ride was surprisingly smooth.

On the larger bumps, I was expecting the boom to flex back quickly enough to lift me off the saddle, but that never happened on any of the larger bumps I rode over. My guess is that the rate of energy return from the beam is compatible with what the body can dissipate.

I wouldn't hop a curb in the saddle (well, I didn't try), but anything smaller should be no problem. One of the things I fear most on the road is hitting a large bump I can't prepare for. On a stiff frame, a big bump can throw you from the bike. On a TitanFlex, I know I would not have to worry nearly as much about that.

So, individual bumps are OK on a TitanFlex. But what about some mean, nasty, corduroy road? You know, the kind that shakes you hard and long enough to make your fillings fall out, make your hands and feet go numb, and make your vision blurry. Well, OK, I don't know of a road like that in San Diego. But I do know of a few bumpy stretches.

You know the western part of the CA-56 bike path that goes through the edge of that gated community? There are parts of the asphalt path that have cracks from tree roots that have either not been repaired, or have been only partially ground down. Staying in the seat on the TitanFlex over that stretch of path was no problem at all. The only adaptation I made was to come out of aero, since I'm still very much a newbie in that position.

For those of you who really know the CA-56 bike path and the roads near it, you will also know of a tiny stretch of extremely rough road just south of CA-56 at the Carmel Valley Road exit. When you head south from the exit, you immediately turn west onto a small road that provides access to a dog boarding facility, a plant nursery, and a couple of other small businesses.

This road takes a dip into a wide natural drainage ditch, and at the bottom of the ditch is one piece of mean road work. It's an array of cement ovals that are 2" wide, 3" long and about 2" high, that are separated by 1/2". Yes, concrete cobblestones! This stretch of nasty road is only about 100 feet long, but it is a punishing 100 feet. I call it the "Tres Petit Paris-Roubaix". Here's a photo of it:

And a closeup, with my foot included for scale:

Previously, I had only traveled this road on my hybrid bike, which has tires that are 2 inches wide that are inflated to 60 PSI. On that bike, the road provides quite a nice butt massage. I had never EVER planned to ride over this road on tires 23 mm wide inflated to 110 PSI!

So, there I was, at the top of one side of the ditch, looking across to the other, with the "Tres Petit Paris-Roubaix" at the bottom. Thought I was gonna die. I took the first pass out of the saddle at about 5 MPH, to be sure I could retain steering control. Bumpy and shaky, but no control issues at all. I climbed up the opposite side, turned around, and did the same thing in the opposite direction, this time in the saddle. Surprisingly smooth! I increased speed to about 10 MPH and did it again, still in the saddle. Though my hands felt large amounts of vigorous vibration, my butt was comfortable. For the last pass, I increased speed to about 12 MPH, and the vibration became a hard buzz in my hands, but my butt hardly felt it.

I'd say the TitanFlex primary design goal has absolutely been met: The titanium beam suspension really does its job, isolating the rider from a huge amount of road vibration and bumps.

Let's compare the TitanFlex titanium beam to other means used to reduce the vibration applied through the saddle. I'm not talking about MTB rear suspensions here, but specifically about vibration reduction systems.

First, there are gel saddles, which are available starting with a thin layer of gel (to dissipate normal seat pressure), going all the way up to about a gallon of gel (for improved vibration isolation). The larger saddles do reduce vibration, but the weight penalty is large, and these saddles make it harder to stabilize the butt while spinning. They also do little to keep you in the seat over small and moderate bumps.

Next are the various seatpost shock absorbers. Some are true shocks, like the front shocks on MTB bikes, with a corresponding weight penalty. Others are little more than chunks of elastomer inside a telescoping seatpost. They handle small bumps and vibration very well, though I've never seen one that can handle significant bumps without bottoming out, which makes them worse than a gel saddle in that situation!

However, none of the above are ever seen on racing bikes. For road and TT bikes, there are very few options, none of which have much market share.

Before getting into the road accessories, let's discuss the ageless war between frame stiffness and "compliance" (comfort). I used to have back spasms, so I've always tried to protect my back whenever possible. My first road bikes (mid '70's through early '80's) had CrMo frames that twanged like crazy over every bump, and vibrated over all but the smoothest roads. Very bad for my back, but that's all that was available on the market that was also lightweight. Steel frames were significantly heavier and still twanged, though only a little less than CrMo.

Then came aluminum road frames, and while the early Trek frames were still very twangy, along came the "fat downtube" Cannondale frames. For me, that frame completely redefined what comfort on a road bike could be. I still have my '85 Cannondale frame, and probably always will. I rode that frame through the early days of carbon frames, which were either twangy or fragile or both. Not until I purchased my '06 Trek Madone SL did I find a carbon frame that exceeded the stiffness of my Cannondale with equal comfort and adequate ruggedness.

But the vibration reduction, while significant, only seemed large in comparison to the torture of CrMo frames. Race accessory manufactures have not stood still, and have tried many ways to provide additional vibration reduction.

The first change was to saddle geometry. Change how the saddle applies force to the body, and you change how that force affects the body. For me, the biggest change in this area has been my Adamo road saddle. But many people can't ride this saddle, and while other innovative saddle geometries exist (such as "sling" suspension saddles), no manufacturer has yet gone to an alternative geometry saddle as the standard saddle on their race bikes. They still ship thin hard butt-killing saddles by default.

I've only found one other accessory that claims to reduce vibration on race bikes, and that is a carbon seatpost that contains a small cantilever at the top of the post. It looks like a question mark. Genius or gimmick? I can't say. Again, no manufacturer I'm aware of even offers it as an option.

So, for a standard road or TT bike, the default solution seems to be reduced tire pressure combined with a "suck it up" attitude to butt and back pain. For many of us, that answer is simply not realistic.

If race accessories aren't effective, and traditional frames have been optimized, that would seem to leave only non-traditional frames as the path to better vibration reduction. And of all such frames, few ever made it to production, and they were all "beam bikes", somewhat similar to the TitanFlex.

There have been several other makers of "beam bikes" over the years, but the TitanFlex is the only one I am aware of on the market today. Clearly, the idea was good, but making it work in the market was hard. For Tom Piszkin, this has meant being a one-stop shop with no middlemen, so he can reduce costs and overhead at all levels to their absolute minimum. As a result, despite relatively low sales volume, Tom's TitanFlex bikes are competitively priced.

So, yes, the TitanFlex beam eliminates vibration and small bumps, and the frame is more than stiff enough to climb well. That's all very nice, but I need to know about the bottom line: Will the TitanFlex bike help me go faster in my next sprint triathlon?

My next stop was Fiesta Island, for Andy Concors' Wednesday 6PM time trial. While I have ridden Fiesta Island many times, both on my own, with friends, and in TCSD club races, this was my first time at Andy's time trial event. This was also my first time doing a timed ride on a TT bike in aero position (remember, I'm STILL a newbie). I had also been riding more this week than I usually do, so I was already a bit tired before the start. And the wind was blowing at around 10 MPH. Conditions were not ideal for an exceptional performance.

I started, and right away I had more problems. I couldn't get my cleats clipped in. And I came out of aero at the first corner, simply because I wanted a better view, despite the fact that the other rider who started with me was still in sight right in front of me. When I came around the end of the island and hit the wind head-on, I had to shift to my inner chainring, and the front derailleur refused to get the chain back onto the outer chainring. Arrgh! So I had to do the rest of the race using only the inner chainring. (Note to self: TAKE A RIDE IN THE PARKING LOT AFTER ANY BIKE ADJUSTMENT!)

The only things I felt I had going for me were that I was spending more time in the aero position, and I was on a TitanFlex bike, which hopefully would reduce vibration enough to make a meaningful difference to my fatigue and discomfort levels.

According to my Garmin, I did the 3 large loops (12.35 miles) in 36:13, for an average speed of 20.4 MPH. For me, this was a PR for this distance, wind or no wind!

If I were I fresh and on my road bike using the aero bars, I expect I could do just a well, maybe better. Why? I think the main improvement was due to my being in the aero position. I believe it will take some long rides on the TitanFlex to judge any change to fatigue or discomfort.

By this time I was dead tired. No long rides tonite! Time to head home.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

The TitanFlex Demo begins...

"If you don't mind riding your own wheels I can have a TitanFlex ready for you tomorrow!"

After six emails each, back and forth, Tom sent the above line early in the evening of Monday, August 10th, 2009. Tuesday morning, I took the saddle, pedals and wheels off my road bike, and went to meet Tom.

When I got there shortly before 1 PM, Tom had an unpainted TitanFlex Veteran in his stand, waiting for my components. The components already on the frame were a mixed bag: Suguino crank, Shimano 105 rear derailleur, Oval Tektro front brake mounted behind a Cane Creek fork, Cane Creek 200SL rear brake, and aero bars, the identity of which were obscured by bar tape. Tom said he had to gather parts from spares and other bikes to get a full set for my demo. My Bontrager RaceLite wheels, Shimano SPD pedals and Adamo saddle fit right in.

Soon enough, the bike was fully assembled, we made minor adjustments to the fit, and I was out the door.

A note about the fit: Once I knew I wanted to demo a TitanFlex, I immediately had a small problem to overcome: I had never ridden a TT bike, and I had spent very little time in the aero position on my road bike. I needed to learn how to ride the aero position on a TT bike, and I needed to learn fast.

The quick solution was also the best: Go to Moment Cycle Sports and get one of JT's famous two-hour fits. My fit actually took closer to 2.5 hours, and I was pushing 200 watts most of the time. We started with a "newbie" fit, with the seat not much higher than the aero bars. Fortunately, my years of "active stretching" had given me enough useful flexibility where a more aggressive aero position was both possible, and surprisingly comfortable.

JT produced a CAD drawing of my optimized fit, and gave me a copy. I sent the numbers to Tom, who had the bike configured very close to my fit even before I had arrived. The main adjustment required was to slightly lower the seat, since my fit with JT used a 172.5 mm crank length, and the TitanFlex was fitted with 175.0 mm.

As I was walking the bike to my car, another issue came to mind: Would the solid-body TitanFlex Veteran frame fit on the Thule "Spare-Me" bike rack bolted to the spare tire on the rear door of my tiny Suzuki Grand Vitara SUV? Turned out not to be a problem, but it was close. The front strap had to go completely around the TitanFlex frame just behind the fork, and the strap was barely long enough. The open-body TitanFlex Transition frame would have had no problems. Here are some photos:

In the car, leaving the parking lot, I now had to decide where to go for my first ride on the TitanFlex, which would also be my first time on the road with a TT bike. I was near Sorrento Valley, and I knew that Sorrento Valley Road between Carmel Valley Road and Carmel Creek Road had minimal traffic. I went to check it out, and found it deserted. Unfortunately, I also knew my risk of crashing would be highest during my first few minutes on the bike, so I'd prefer to ride where there are people, but where traffic would not be an issue.

Only one place came to mind: Fiesta Island. After parking between the two loops (where the spring TCSD club triathlons are held, as well as other club events), I did a small ride to ensure everything was dialed in. The first thing I noticed was that the steering was very twitchy, and my elbows were much closer together than the were during my fit with JT or on my road bike. First stop, adjust the aero bar separation. Ah, MUCH better!

As my confidence grew, I added a little speed. When I came to my first significant turn, I applied some brakes, but very little happened. Second stop, adjust the brakes.

I forgot to mention a special customization Tom made to the front brake: It had no brake lever! Instead of a lever, the brake cable went from the tip of the bar to near the center, making a triangle with the bar. Tom calls this his "cleanbrake" system. To stop, you could either push the cable with your left arm, simply by dropping it from on top of the aero bar to next to the end of the bar. This motion is both fast and economical, since you don't have to lift your arm off the pad. Just what's needed to bleed off a little speed before a turn.

For harder breaking with the front brake, shift your hand to the bar, and wrap your thumb over the cable and close your hand. This takes a little getting used to, but it isn't difficult. The mechanical advantage of the front brake, combined with the use of high-friction brake pads, means plenty of stopping power is available.

The neat thing is this: To apply the front brakes, you need only push on the cable from any direction, and braking will occur. This is much simpler, faster, and more versatile than having to remove your arm from the areo bar and arm pad, grip the bar end, and reach for a brake lever. But it sure is different!

With the brakes adjusted, the ride resumed. As my cadence increased, I tried to shift, only to find the derailleur was very reluctant to give me the gear I had selected, skipping gears and making clicking noises almost all the time. Another stop, this time to adjust the rear derailleur.

OK, I now saw the moral of the story: When demoing a freshly assembled bike, take the first short ride IMMEDIATELY, and do so IN THE PARKING LOT!

After another stop, I realized I was no good at rear derailleur adjustment. Instead of losing more time with repeated adjustments, I shifted through all the gears to find the ones I could use, and continued my ride using only those gears.

I completed my loop around the north end of Fiesta Island, during which I became more confident in my ability to control the bike from the aero position, and started adding more speed. My second big loop was a full loop, during which I started to add more speed on the straights.

Two observations: First, I really like the aero position! The wind was blowing 15-20 mph during my ride. In the drops on my road bike, I'd be lucky to maintain 14 mph into such a stiff wind, even out of the saddle. My first time on the TitanFlex, and my first time in a serious aero position, and I was easily doing 16 mph.

Second, the TitanFlex boom suspension doesn't let you cheat! You know how, in spin class, if you take it too easy at a high cadence, you start to bounce in the saddle? I found I was bouncing on the TitanFlex boom whenever my power output dropped significantly while my cadence was high. This meant I either had to use the gears more to keep some power applied at all times, or coast. For me, the bouncing tells me I haven't been getting enough saddle time lately, and my continuous power level had dropped somewhat. Like I said, no cheating!

After finishing that loop, I called Tom and made an appointment to bring the bike back for a quick tune-up in the morning. The adventures continue in the next post!

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

TitanFlex Tri/TT Bike

The TCSD 25th Anniversary party is next month, and one of the largest gifts from a Club Sponsor is Tom Piszkin's HUGE donation of a pair of $2000 gift certificates, applicable toward the purchase of a TitanFlex bicycle. For more about Tom, see:

I only recently added aero bars to my road bike, and I'm still not comfortable with them. So I haven't even been thinking about getting a triathlon / time-trial (T/TT) bicycle. But Tom's generous gift to the club changed all that. There is a chance, however small, that I could win a new T/TT bicycle at the TCSD 25th Anniversary party!

I had to learn more. First stop, the TitanFlex web site:

My road bike is a light-weight carbon princess ('06 Trek Madone SL 5.2 triple, where "SL" stands for Super Lightweight). It was never intended to be put on a bike rack for a long road trip (I have a hybrid bike for that), nor to be shipped cross-country very often. It's my "home" bike.

However, if I ever get really serious about this triathlon stuff, I will want to participate in competitions all over the country (time and funds permitting). And to do that, I will want a bike that is as light as possible, while also being rugged enough to take lots of abuse while traveling. To me, that means a metal frame, since carbon can easily suffer hidden damage from even a minor ding or accident, causing invisible internal damage that can eventually result in catastrophic failure.

My younger brother, a bike fanatic, owns a pair of titanium bikes, a road bike and a mountain bike. They've taken tons of abuse, and don't even show a ding, dent or major scratch. And the frames alone each cost around $3000 new. As a 52 year-old age-grouper, that's just slightly beyond my budget.

Which leaves aluminum. I've been a fan of aluminum bikes since I bought my first "fat downtube" Cannondale road bike in 1986. At that time, no bike that weighed less had a better ride combined with better stiffness than my Cannondale. I loved that bike so much that I never got rid of it: I'm in the process of turning it into my indoor perma-trainer bike.

My hybrid bike is a cheap aluminum Trek, and it has taken huge amounts of abuse without a wimper. It has never needed anything more than chain lube, tires, and an occasional tune-up.

So, unless some other miracle frame material comes along that is as rugged, as light, and as inexpensive as aluminum, that's the material I want the frame of my T/TT bike to be made from.

The TitanFlex frame is aluminum, except for one key part, the boom, which is titanium. Read more about the TitanFlex frame concept and implementation here: and here:

The TitanFlex frame is very light. Why? Because the design uses less material than "regular" bikes. Less material means less weight, no matter what material is used. The TitanFlex frame weighs less than many carbon frames!

There are several TitanFlex frame styles (, and the one I'd want on my gift list (or raffle list) is the "Veteran 700c medium" frame with the "Rocky Road" boom (see for details).

So, I contacted Tom, to see if I could get a demo ride on a TitanFlex. More about our conversation in my next post.

End of re-posts

OK, that was the last of the re-posts from the TCSD list.

Aside from the "First Ever" posts, there were several more long "research" posts than I had remembered.

Bike Pedals Advice

This was posted to the list on Tuesday Aug 4, 2009 9:12 pm

Re: [TCSD] Bike Pedals Advice

I have extremely narrow, flat feet, and the ONLY bike shoes I've been able to find that fit comfortably are MTB shoes (with laces), which means SPD cleats and pedals. For years I used to look longingly at all those other groovy high-tech pedals out there.

However, SPD does have some notable benefits I've come to appreciate:

1. Cost. You can get great SPD pedals for under $50! From several manufacturers. And replacement cleats are dirt cheap.

2. Popularity. SPD is the only pedal I've seen used on stationary bikes in gyms. And I like using my road shoes for training.

3. Flexibility. Want to experiment with mid-sole cleat positioning? SPD is the easiest way to go: Just two screws. Plus, the cleats are tiny (and cheap), so I can easily carry extra cleats with me.

4. Walking. SPD cleats handle dirt extremely well, and can also handle lots of walking before needing to be replaced (inexpensively).

When I lusted after tri bike shoes, I realized I could save a ton of money simply by replacing the laces in my MTB shoes with elastic laces. Now I'm easy-in and easy-out!

And what if you want to use the same shoes on your stationary, hybrid, mountain, road and TT bikes? SPD makes it a no-brainer. Imagine needing SPD for the gym, eggbeaters for your MTB, and SpeedPlay for road and TT. Add up the cost of pedals, cleats and shoes. With multiple bikes, SPD savings add up.

The negatives with SPD? I can think of only two:

1. Weight. While SPD cleats are very light, most SPD pedals are heavier than their titanium cousins (though very light SPD pedals are available, for a price). But then again, the weight difference is less than an inch of water in your bottle, or a gel.

2. Adjustability. SPD does not have separate adjustments for float and release tension. Some other pedals do, most don't. I'm slightly bow-legged, and the SPD float of 5 degrees works well for me.


On 08/04/2009 02:32 PM, marion marion wrote:
> I was hoping to hear the pros and cons of using different bike pedals
> for road biking.
> I am contemplating switching from SPD pedals (I know, I know; used them
> for years) to Speedplay Zero, Look or Shimano.
> The SPD pedals have worked well in terms of low maintenance, high
> durability, and most of all, running in and out of transitions.
> I am leaning toward buying Speedplay Zero, since I don't like a lot of
> float. I've heard mostly positives...
> However, I've also heard that they can irritate IT bands, which would be
> an issue; and most of all, that they are very hard to walk in and I am
> not going to leave my shoes on the bike.
> I appreciate all your great feedback!
> Marion

Motobecane Nemesis Tri-bike reviews?

This was posted to the list on Thursday Jul 16, 2009 11:43 am

Re: [TCSD] Motobecane Nemesis Tri-bike reviews?


When buying a bike online, be sure to allow for the following back-end costs:
1. Who will assemble the bike for you?
2. What if parts are missing?
3. Who will do your bike fitting?
4. Who will service the bike?
5. Is there a warranty? If so, who will service it? Will you have to mail you bike somewhere?
6. What if the bike "just isn't right" for you? What is the return policy?

Have you priced all of the above items, and included them in your budget? After adding all of them together, an inexpensive online bike, no matter how good it is, can easily become an expensive bike that has no local support. Or, worse, a bike you hate and don't enjoy riding.

Have you checked the offerings from local shops? Most, sometimes all, of the above items are provided at no extra cost when buying a new bike locally. TCSD has many bike sponsors, each of which offers discounts to club members.

Though I'm certain all local bike shops have similar deals, I recently checked Moment's web site and found some outstanding values under $1000.

If you also need a wetsuit and other triathlon gear, many local shops offer full tri kits that include just about EVERYTHING you need for a triathlon, and the bundled price may be the best deal on the market, including online!

If money really is the issue, consider getting a used bike that has been lovingly cared for, and has been supported by a local shop. You may be able to get a much better bike for far less money.

What concerns me most about buying a bike online isn't really the money or the support: It's not being able to take a test ride. The bike I currently ride is NOT the one I would have picked had I been shopping online or from a catalog. The test rides changed everything for me. You can't assess things like frame stiffness or ride smoothness from a picture.

In this economy, I feel it is especially important to support local businesses. They will reward you for being their customer!


buyerryan wrote:
> I am looking for feedback on the Motobecane brand and the Nemesis
> tri-bike model in specific. I am a newbie and cannot seem to get enough
> reviews online to feel good about the purchase without throwing it out
> there to you guys. It really seems to be a lot of bike for $900
> delivered. The off thing is that the two distributors suggested are
> online bike shops. Please let me know your thoughts. -Ryan

Calve Muscle Cramping

This was posted to the list on Monday Jul 13, 2009 12:38 pm

Re: [TCSD] Calve Muscle Cramping


I can only share my own experience, but for me the answer was simple: Stop (mis)using the calf muscles, and take better care of them!

This is yet another one of my long posts: The punch line is in the last five paragraphs. I won't hate your forever if you skip ahead. Really.

It's been almost a year since triathlon encouraged me to return to running after 14 years off, and I'm still very much on the learning curve. Back in the day, I was a consistent 7:30 miler at the 10K distance. When I stopped getting faster, I tried to go longer, and encountered joint pain problems that eventually convinced me to pursue other means of cardio exercise.

I should mention that I have flat feet and am bow-legged. Running has never been easy for me, though I always enjoyed it whenever I could do it free from pain and injury.

Triathlon has encouraged me to return to running, initially at the Sprint (5K) distance. But it's like the legs I have today are bad replacements that just don't work the same. My first months of running soon hit a wall at 10 minutes per mile (over just a 2 mile run). However, having been a decent runner back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, and using the full resources of the Internet combined with observing other runners and listening to coaches and other professionals, I've started to piece together a new running style for myself.

As I explored changes to my stride, I've stumbled across some basic "rules" I use to guide my overall efforts, which I've listed along with how I applied them to the specific issue of my own calves (and running in general).

* Rule #1: If it hurts, STOP DOING IT! (Find a better way.)

My calves hurt like crazy when I (re)started running. But you can't stop using your calves while running, can you?

I first heard about the idea of reducing calf muscle use from a question at the end of Joe Friel's talk at a TCSD club meeting earlier this year, where he was asked about the mid-sole positioning of bicycle shoe cleats. When I moved my own clips back as far as they would go (behind the ball of my foot), I immediately experienced much less foot sole (plantar fascia) discomfort (I have VERY flat feet), and my calves completely stopped bothering me during bike climbs/sprints, all with no reduction in peak or average speed. I figured if I don't need to use my toes/forefoot to bike, could I use them less while running?

I changed the emphasis of my running stride to push through the heel and roll off the ball of the foot. I reserve "full-on toe-push" calf use only for sprinting/kicking (and I never sprint/kick). Oddly enough, this change did not make me any slower, which to me means I had been (ab)using my calves for NO speed gain! I still use my calves when running, but I just use them less.

* Rule #2: Build sport muscles using non-sport exercise.

There are many great ways to strengthen the calves while also improving endurance. Jump-rope is a popular favorite, as are other jumping-related exercises (e.g., shooting hoops). Just be sure to do them in long gentle sets that represent the duration of a decent short run (something that applies to most exercises intended to improve muscle performance for endurance sports).

* Rule #3: Short & Fast is better than Long & Slow. (Uh, except for swimming.)

When I had trouble sprinting and climbing seated on my bike, everyone told me to drop a gear and increase my cadence. Turns out this was good advice for all parts of my biking, including on the flats and even downhill (recovery). Could something similar apply to running?

Back in the day, I had a long stride with a hard heel strike. My leg muscles still love that stride, though my joints can't tolerate it. Shortening my stride and increasing my "turnover" (running cadence) made each running step FAR less stressful to my joints. What surprised me most is that it also made me nearly 10% FASTER over just the first week of trying it! I'm now doing 8 minute miles over my two mile training run. It also eliminated the mild shin splints I would occasionally encounter.

My current goal is to have my flat running cadence match my flat cycling cadence, which for me is 90 RPM. This is where my Garmin Forerunner 305 really helps: Just as I have a bike pod to monitor my cycling cadence, I also got a shoe pod to monitor my running cadence.

Another change due to Short/Fast strides for me is that I'm no longer a hard heel striker. Though I wasn't focusing on changing my footfall in any way (I don't understand the online debates on this issue), shortening my stride has made me more of a "mid-sole" striker. I suspect this is the source of the reduced stress on my joints (until recently, my knees hurt after most runs).

Other Short/Fast benefits for me: My maximum sustained heart rate has taken a big step up: My average pulse rate over an "all out" 2 mile run used to be 160-165 BPM. In my first "short stride" run, and in every run since, it is now 170-175 BPM. I expect this number to slowly go back down as my conditioning improves (or not, if my speed also continues to improve). I mentioned the reduced shin splints, which for me came with longer downhill runs: I now run downhill faster than I did before, and I suspect this is where most of my initial speed improvement has come from.

Overall, I suspect my Short/Fast stride could be slightly less efficient that my old stride, but for me it is far more EFFECTIVE, in that I can run faster, harder and longer, uphill, downhill and on the flats, all with less stress and pain, though I certainly am more tired at the end of each run than I used to be.

* Rule #4: Active Recovery.

No, I'm not talking only about what you do immediately after running, though cool-downs, mild stretching and rehydration at that time is certainly a Good Thing. (Stretching BEFORE running, however, can be a Bad Thing: "Never Stretch a Cold Muscle." It has been shown to REDUCE performance!)

For me, Active Recovery is a set of activities done between workouts that help the body recover from and prepare for hard exertion, and also help treat mild pain and heal minor injuries. Yes, this certainly includes proper hydration, calorie replacement, nutrition and focused exercise. However, for me, my most important active recovery tools are my Foam Roller (4" diameter, 4' long), and a Rolling Pin. I use them at home both before and after races and major workouts.

For running, I roll the IT band (side of the thigh), quadriceps (front of the thigh), hamstring (back of the thigh), calf muscles (and Achilles tendon), and the sole of each foot (a golf ball also helps here). A thorough job can easily take nearly an hour, which gives me a reason to watch TV. (Yeah, like I needed one.)

Enough about me: Let's return to your specific problem, calf pain for the first 3/4 mile of the run. This leads me to two fundamental questions. The first question is: "Why did your calves start hurting?". The answer here seems obvious to me: You clearly are over-using your calves during this period. However, since the appearance of this pain puzzles you, I'm guessing you have no discomfort during the start of your regular training runs.

Which leads to a deeper question: Could your calves have been killed BEFORE you started the run leg? Could your calves be exhausted when you get off the bike? I strongly suspect that is what's happening here. Try reducing calf use during the bike leg, especially at the end of the ride, where the focus should be on calf recovery. Replenish fluids during the ride. But what if you don't use your calves that much during the bike ride?

We can go further back: Could your calves have been killed by the swim leg? Factors in this area include: Do you ever get calf cramps or pain while swimming? Do you forget to kick to warm up your legs before getting out of the water? Do you sprint on your toes from the water exit to transition? Remedy: Avoid punishing your calves before they are warmed up! If you do kill them, focus on recovery before reuse!

The second fundamental question is more interesting to me: "Why did you calves STOP hurting after the first 3/4 mile?" Why didn't they hurt for the entire run? My guess is that the pain "encouraged" you to use your calves less, which in turn allowed them to recover and permit the pain to fade. Could you have prevented the pain by using your calves less right from the start? Clearly, reducing calf use is a factor. Improving calf conditioning is another. Warming up the calves before hard use, and recovering between hard uses, may the the most important factors.

Again, these are just my own observations based on my own evolving running style, and what works for me may not work for you (YMMV). Much of the above also makes sense to me from the sports physiology and physical therapy perspectives, and listening to professionals in those fields has been, and continues to be, an enormous help (about a bazillion of them are TCSD members).

It's time for me to go run...



PS: Did I mention that TCSD ROCKS!

Anita Talevski wrote:
> Dear Chris,
> I have a similar problem. Solution: electrolytes, lots of salt, water
> and stretching. It's a balancing act.
> This is only my opinion.
> Best,
> Anita
> --- On *Sun, 7/12/09, Chris Knopp /<christopherknopp@...>/* wrote:
> From: Chris Knopp <christopherknopp@...>
> Subject: [TCSD] Calve Muscle Cramping
> To:
> Date: Sunday, July 12, 2009, 10:26 PM
> I wanted to ask the group if anybody has any tips on preventing muscle
> tightening and cramping in calve muscles at the beginning of the run
> portion during a race. My calve muscles really cramp up for about the
> first 3/4 miles. Do I just need to do more brick workouts to
> condition my legs?? Any advice would be appreciated!
> Thanks,
> Chris

Best Indoor Bike Trainer

This was posted to the list on Wednesday Jul 8, 2009 11:24 pm

rebecca lewis wrote:
I have a QR Kilo (size 46, if that matters -- it's very small) but anyway... I am looking to purchase a bike trainer shortly and would love to hear some of your reviews about which trainer is "best." Now I know that everyone has their own personal preference, but seeing as I do not have any experience with indoor bike trainers, would love to hear what everyone has to say.

Thanks in advance!!


Hey Rebecca,

There are three basic types of bicycle trainers: "Rear Wheel Trainers", "Roller Trainers", and "Stationary Bikes".

Stationary bikes are in every gym, and come in vertical and recumbent styles. These can also be purchased for home use, and are always available used.

Rear Wheel trainers require you to replace your bike's rear skewer with one that the trainer can mount to. Once the bike is rigidly mounted to the trainer, you must correctly adjust the friction between the rear tire and the resistance (wheel load). Too little friction, and the rear wheel could slip, possibly causing injury if you are standing on the pedals at the time. Too much friction, and your rear tire can wear out incredibly fast. After that, you'll need to raise the front wheel to get the bike level. However, once your trainer is correctly configured, subsequent setup is faster.

The wheel load (resistance) on a rear wheel trainer can be provided in at least three ways:
1) Electro-Magnetic ("mag" trainers)
2) Air ("fan" trainers)
3) Liquid ("fluid" trainers)
Each kind has its advantages and disadvantages relative to the others that I won't go into here, though factors include noise, power, cost, durability, etc.

Overall, you can think of a rear wheel trainer as a device that converts your bicycle into a stationary spin bike. Pretty much like the ones in a gym, but with your own saddle, bars, clips, and instruments.

Roller trainers are simply a set of three rollers that are about 18" wide: Two cradle the rear wheel, and the front wheel rests on the third. The only adjustment on a roller trainer is to set the position of the front roller. If you use only one bike, then it is a one-time setting. This setting will need to be adjusted whenever you use a different bike on the trainer. There is no mechanical connection between your bike and a roller trainer, so you must ride your bicycle (balance and steer) to stay on the trainer.

Here's my shot at comparing the pros and cons of the three types of trainers:

Stationary Bike Pros:
1. Doesn't wear out your good bike.

Stationary Bike Cons:
1. Doesn't fit you like your good bike.

Rear Wheel Trainer Pros:
1. Rigid: No balance issues.

Rear Wheel Trainer Cons:
1. You have to replace your rear skewer to mount to the trainer, and replace it again to be ready for riding on the road.
2. It takes time and care to properly prepare/mount/unmount/restore the bike from the trainer.
3. I've seen bikes fall out of improperly adjusted rear wheel trainers! This can easily harm both the bike and the rider.
4. You can stress your frame by doing sudden accelerations (hard intervals). This was particularly true of early carbon and aluminum frames, and may not apply as much today. It is best to use a rugged frame on a rear wheel trainer.
5. If you already have a gym membership, use their spin bikes instead.

Roller Trainer Pros:
1. Use whatever bike you want, with no changes to the bike hardware.
2. No setup, except when you change bikes.
3. You are actually "riding" your bike: You must balance to stay up, and must steer (very slightly) to stay centered on the rollers.
4. Best indoor simulation of an actual bike ride.
5. If you really want the stationary bike feel, you can remove the front wheel from your bike and attach the fork to a "front fork stand" roller trainer accessory.

Roller Trainer Cons:
1. Noisy compared to most mag trainers. About the same noise as fan trainers.
2. Somewhat harder to learn to ride on (see Pro #2 above).
3. You can veer off the side of the rollers! There are roller trainers with elliptical rollers that reduce this problem, but they cost more.
4. If you accelerate too suddenly you can ride off the front of the rollers!
5. Provides only a limited amount of resistance, so it is not ideal for hard intervals or simulating steep hill climbs. But the resistance is more than adequate to simulate a good long ride (spinning).

Cons Common to All Indoor Bike Trainers:
1. Trainers wear out your bike components! (Use a spare bike.)
2. Sweat drips everywhere. (Use a "bike thong" and a mat.)
3. Trainers need to be used on a hard surface, not carpet.
4. You can't use the wind in your face to gauge your effort...

I'm certain there are many pros and cons I've failed to list (such as price). There are lots and lots of discussion online about this, as a quick Google search will show.

Before buying any bike trainer, be sure you know what your training needs are, then determine which kind of trainer will best meet those needs. For example, many cyclists want to minimize the time they spend riding with car traffic, or they only have time in the evening and don't want to ride the road at night, so they want to use a trainer primarily to get more "miles" or more "saddle time" (add volume). For this kind of rider, I'd certainly recommend a roller trainer. An advanced rider without easy access to hills may want to do lots of really hard climbs (intervals) indoors. For this particular rider, I'd probably recommend a rear wheel trainer or a stationary bike.

In any event, before buying any trainer, DO take your bike to the local shops and try it with each type of trainer they sell. Learn how to properly adjust and use each trainer before buying one. And be SURE to buy from a TCSD sponsor!

My younger brother has been a hard-core cyclist for about 30 years, starting as a competitive BMX racer, and since then has bicycled all over the world, both on and off road, and has competed in insane events such as the Pikes Peak Ascent. He swears by roller trainers. It's how he keeps riding when it's raining or snowing. When he needs power/interval training, he goes to the gym and uses a stationary bike. He claims he'd never expose any of his wheels or frames to the stresses of a rear wheel trainer.

Despite my brother's advice, I did get a rear wheel trainer (a CycleOps Fluid), but only because I had an old road bike I could dedicate to use with the trainer. Also, I live close to the 56 bike path, so I have easy access to traffic-free riding. However, I do think I'll eventually get a roller trainer, simply because I want to get more realistic saddle time, especially at night after a short winter's day.

Finally, consider not getting a trainer right away, and first attend some spin classes at your local gym. Just as a group ride can be more fun than a solo ride on the road, the same can be true on stationary bikes in the gym. I used to do two interval spin classes each week, though I must admit that since I started triathlons, my gym membership has become underutilized. Yet I keep renewing it in the hope I'll soon do better...



Update 31 Aug 2011:  The LeMond Revolution trainer removes some of the negatives of conventional rear-wheel trainers, in that it eliminates rear tire wear by incorporating a cassette into the trainer itself.  It still mounts to the rear drop-outs, so the frame stress during use is unaffected.  The rear mount is much more secure, so the risk of the bike falling out of the trainer also seems to have been eliminated.

A Newbie Volunteers at the Encinitas Tri.

This was posted to the list on Monday May 18, 2009 3:30 pm

Yes, this is yet another FIRST TIME EVER newbie report!

The Encinitas Tri was my first time being a Swim Buddy. Considering that I was a non-swimmer only 8 months ago, I was a bit apprehensive, wondering if I was pushing it just a bit in thinking I was ready to become a Swim Buddy this soon. After all, I had only completed my first triathlon competition just last month, at Spring Sprint.

My concerns were quickly addressed by John Flores, who laid out our Swim Buddy responsibilities as he handed us our fluorescent orange swim caps. John told us Swim Buddies are not life guards, we aren't even coaches: Our job is to keep our swimmers company, to try to keep them focused and encouraged, and to call in a lifeguard if anything goes wrong. Fortunately, the Encinitas Tri had about a zillion lifeguards: I've never seen more!

Still, I was nervous as the first wave prepared to start. Since I was surrounded by nearly two dozen other Swim Buddies, I decided I would be a "backup" Swim Buddy. I was oddly relieved when none of the Elites requested a Swim Buddy. Subsequent waves needed one or two Swim Buddies, then more. When several waves simultaneously in the water, the number of available Swim Buddies soon started to dwindle, and I knew there would be no "backup": I was going to become a Swim Buddy.

I noticed that, in general, female swimmers were more likely to request a Swim Buddy before the start of their wave than were the males. When I mentioned this to another Swim Buddy, he told me there also was a general tendency among novice triathletes to over-estimate their swim and entry skills. The experienced Swim Buddies allowed for this by following each wave into the surf, looking for swimmers having difficulty.

I figured following a wave would get me into the water, and would let me watch senior Swim Buddies in action. So in I went behind the next wave, and moments later another Swim Buddy was pointing at a swimmer next to him as he passed her with his swimmer. I was the closest Swim Buddy, so I immediately had my first Swimmer!

For this swimmer, a fast run to the water followed a difficult surf entry had tired her out, and she couldn't "find her stroke". She was huffing and puffing with her head held high, and was ineffectively pulling at the water. I immediately identified her breathing pattern with my own introduction to open ocean swimming: "Neoprene Smothering", where the pressure of the water, the mild constriction of a wetsuit, and a touch of anxiety combine to make catching your breath much more difficult, something that happens even to experienced swimmers.

She was tiring, but had not yet reached a panic state. So I asked her to ease up a bit, and let her wetsuit hold her up. She held her own, but wasn't recovering her wind. I suggested she roll onto her back and breathe while fluttering her arms and legs. She rolled over and started doing an effective back-stroke. Clearly, she was an experienced pool swimmer.

In just 30 seconds she had caught her breath, so she rolled back over, put her face in the water, and started doing a freestyle stroke. At which point it was immediately clear her surf entry had pushed her goggles up her face, and the lower seal was open to the ocean.

She was still a bit overwhelmed by the swim so far, so she didn't immediately see what was wrong as she returned to her head-high stroke. I suggested she reset her goggles, which also gave her a moment to collect her thoughts.

When she next put her face in the water, she took off with a strong, smooth freestyle stroke, and was zig-zagging toward the turn buoy. However, each time she lifted her head to spot the buoy, her forward progress halted, and she had to do a significant push to get going a gain, which clearly tired her.

Since she was consistently turning to the right and she also breathed from the right, I moved to that side, and suggested she guide off of my position during each breath, and I would keep us both headed toward the buoy. That worked well, until the first time she bumped into me, at which point she stopped to apologize. I told her we were both covered in foam rubber, so we won't bruise easily. With a chuckle, she was off again. She maintained her steady stroke all the way around the buoy. She bumped against me only a few more times, smoothly correcting her course after each.

As we headed back toward the shore, I started wondering what I should do about the impending exit. You see, I had thought plenty about the surf, and I had thought of the most important things to tell a swimmer about going through the waves. But here I was next to a swimmer with her head in the water, and I didn't want to stop her to talk about the exit.

Since she was swimming strongly, I simply decided to deal with situations only if they arose, and to not interrupt her focus. Fortunately, we reached the shore between sets, so the exit was uneventful. She thanked me, and I surprised her by thanking her for being my VERY FIRST swimmer!

On my way back to the Start, I thought about that swim. First, despite having just covered 750 meters in "full alert mode", I was exhilarated instead of being tired. Second, I realized my first Swim Buddy experience had been a total, 100% success. Basically, all I did was let the swimmer show me what she needed, and otherwise not distract her from her swimming.

Full of new confidence, I followed the next wave of swimmers into the surf, and soon exited after they all made it through the surf and were swimming toward the buoy.

I made it back to the start in time for the very last triathlon wave, the Super Sprint. The announcer made the call for anyone wanting a Swim Buddy to raise a hand. Two did, and two other Swim Buddies paired up with them. The call went out again, and when no other hands went up, I figured I would be following this wave. Then the announcer made a third call, and one more hand went up. I was the closest Swim Buddy, so I went to meet my swimmer.

She was a first-timer, very excited, and more than a little concerned. She told me she had done some pool swimming, but this was her first ocean swim in "a while". She mentioned that as a kid she used to enjoy body surfing. I told her she may get to do some of that at the end of this swim!

In a moment of keen observation, I noticed she wasn't wearing goggles. I asked her about this, and she said she had never found a pair that fit, and the hassle of flooded goggles was one thing she didn't want to have to worry about. Well, I suppose I could also be a Seeing-Eye Swim Buddy, since my first swimmer had proven that steering by contact worked just fine.

Next, I told her that when the horn sounded, she should jog, not run, to the surf so she would have lots of energy to get through the waves. And that she shouldn't dive below any waves until she was in waist-deep water. Then I shut up.

The horn sounded, and I looked up to see the angriest-looking wave set of the morning! While the announcer had kept to his schedule, I wished he had also kept an eye on the water: It would have been considerate to delay the Super Sprint start for a minute or so. My swimmer didn't notice this as she headed into the surf.

She made steady progress through the waves, though twice she nearly had sand splashed into her eyes. Then she started swimming, or trying to swim, using a stroke I had never seen before: It was a head-high stroke like a dog paddle, but combined with her hands moving forward from the shoulder in a freestyle-like way, though her hands seldom broke the surface.

Her forward progress was minimal, and each set of swells pretty much halted it. After several minutes with slight forward motion, she looked at me and asked: "Is there a time limit?" I told her this was her race, and the course was hers for as long as she needed it.

While her stroke had negligible efficiency, she was clearly very strong, since she effortlessly maintained a steady stroke rate with no sign of fatigue. Ever so slowly the buoy approached, and by the time we rounded it, it was clear we were far behind the other Super Sprint swimmers. In fact, all but two had already exited.

On she went, gradually heading back to shore. The lifeguards, having nobody else in the water to watch, surrounded our path like water-borne paparazzi.

As we encountered swells nearer the beach, she looked back at the waves, which completely halted her slight forward speed. I suggested she focus on going forward, and I would count down the waves as they approached, letting her know the relative size. "Medium wave in Five, Four, Three, Two, One". Over and over again. And on she went.

We soon reached the outermost break, where some of the swells started to break near us and on us. I added this warning to my countdown, and she ducked under these waves. We finally approached the main break, and I told her it was time for her to show me her body surfing chops. This brought a grin and a new burst of energy.

The first wave she caught quickly brought her half the remaining distance to the beach. But this also was the first wave of a tight set, and we were pummeled by three more in quick succession. After surfing one more small wave, she was up and lunging through the waist-high water, waving and shouting to her mother who was waiting at the edge of the dry sand.

As my excited swimmer reached shin-high water, she stepped into a pit and landed face-first with an audible thud. I reached toward her, but she was up in an instant, a huge "Oh Well" smile on her face, running again.

I jogged with her to the base of the ramp up to transition, told her she had finished the hardest part of becoming a triathlete, and wished her the best on the bike and run. She flashed me a grin as she headed up the ramp. As I turned toward the showers, I realized that, on my first day as a Swim Buddy, I had just escorted the last of the day's triathletes from the water. Nice symmetry.

I thought about the weekend as I removed my wetsuit and showered. I had spent Saturday afternoon at the TCSD booth, which was a total blast. Then Sunday: Waking up at 4 AM, meeting the other Swim Buddies, my apprehension, John Flores' talk, and my two amazing swimmers. I realized I was more proud of myself at that moment that I had been when I crossed the finish line at Spring Sprint, my first triathlon competition.

I finished showering, gathered my gear, and headed back to the Expo area to change back into my street clothes. While climbing the ramp, I felt how, for me, giving back just feels so right. The thing is, until recently, I had generally been a loner: I have never been much of a joiner, nor a giver for that matter. Not only is triathlon still very new to me, but so are these extra dimensions of membership and contribution.

I started posting what has become a series of "First Ever" notes to this list because I wanted to share my newbie experiences while they were still fresh, in the hope that others would remember their own beginnings in triathlon, and hopefully "fall in love all over again" with this sport.

I doubt there will be many more posts like this from me, since it seems I've already done a little bit of all the major stuff. I'm not a newbie any more, despite still being very much a beginner, and having so many new things ahead of me. Going forward, I hope to do my part, along with the rest of TCSD, to help provide each future newbie with their own wonderful set of "First Ever" experiences in triathlon.

As I said in a prior post, there clearly is far more to triathlon than "Swim, Bike, Run": There is also the bigger picture of "Spectate, Volunteer, Compete". I realize that, for me, I've been getting as much satisfaction and joy from spectating and volunteering as I have from competing. Maybe more.

There are so very many of you within the TCSD family who have helped this ex-newbie over the past several months, all of whom I've mentioned in previous posts. Thank you again! However, one person stands foremost as both my primary encouragement for learning, and as my inspiration for giving back:

Thank you, Bobbie Solomon!

No matter what I achieve in triathlon, or what I give back, I will always be drafting behind your lead.

(Except on the bike, of course: That would be illegal! ;^)