Thursday, December 27, 2012

How to be Inspiring

I meant to write this article a while back, but then we all heard of the tragedy in Connecticut and I had a hard time dealing with the overwhelming emotions spawned that day.  You see, above all other things, I am a mother.  My children are 6, 8, and 10 and are wonderful, frustrating, creative, difficult, funny, and loving children, usually all at the same time.  Because I'm interested in their physical health, I spent every Monday this past Fall teaching a strength class at their elementary school for about 40 other wonderful, frustrating, difficult, funny, and loving third and fourth graders.  We had a great time (most of the time, I admit there were some challenges) and I certainly learned a lot not only about teaching children, but teaching in general.  We finished up the class with a "deadlift meet" on December 10th.  On December 14th, I attended the PE fitness awards for all three of my children and saw many of my students there.  They wanted to show me their bracelets, introduce me to their moms and dads, and ask if they could do the class again in the Spring.  My favorite was one of my third graders who just ran up waving his presidential fitness badge and gave my legs a huge bear hug.  All in all, a great morning.

But, then, I went out to my car, turned on the radio, and began to hear of a horrible tragedy unfolding.  I thought of my kids, and the kids I taught, and how completely senseless and awful it was.  I thought of parents returning home to presents under their Christmas trees that would never be unwrapped.  I thought of terrified children who could never be comforted.  I also thought repeatedly about how little there was I could do to make it all better.  Ultimately, that is my first instinct in situations like this, as it is for most parents:  Just make it better.  Only I couldn't.  Empathy is a powerful emotion and it stopped me completely in my tracks for a few days.

Mission accomplished.
However, Hope springs eternal and on Monday, my son Francis came home with a big stack of thank-you notes from my third grade class.  He was also grumbling a bit because most of the kids were boasting about how much they had lifted during the deadlift meet and saying that they were "the strongest kid in the world".  I tried to remind him that my goal was exactly that:  to show these kids how strong they could be.  He was not amused as he had felt that he had earned that title for himself with his 121 lb deadlift back in September, but 8 year olds aren't particularly easy to reason with when emotions are involved.  Regardless, the notes I got from these children showed me that they did feel strong and felt good about themselves and their abilities.  And they should, more than half of the third grade class lifted 76 lbs with great ease and perfect form.  Those who lifted less than that were my smaller students and all of those students lifted at least their own body weight.  I felt a sense of relief in some small way.  The notes had lifted my spirits a bit and brought my focus back around to the present.  I began to think again about what my goals were not only as a strength coach, but as a teacher.

Tuesday, I was in for another surprise.  Our track and field club was planning on hosting a Christmas party for the children at the Durham Rescue Mission, one of the local homeless shelters.  My entire family went and we helped the children make crafts that they could wrap up and give to their moms as gifts.  I sat at the wrapping table and had a crowd of children around me who were overwhelmed by the idea of having their presents wrapped in pretty paper and ribbons.  I was a bit overwhelmed by their excitement and it resurrected for me a glimpse of my own childhood excitement about Christmas and all the magic that comes with it.  As adults, some crafts, wrapping paper, cookies, and juice boxes may not seem like much.  But for children, they might as well be in Santa's workshop.  And for children in a homeless shelter, the experience was profound.  Driving home that night, I felt like a weight had been lifted off of me.  I knew I couldn't make anything better in Connecticut, but I could make things better in my own community.

And I had.  Every Monday for about twelve weeks, I taught two classes to the third and fourth graders.  We started with basic strength movements:  a squat, a press, a pushup, and an assisted pulllup.  We practiced broad jumps, did walking lunges, learned to support weight overhead, learned to deadlift a kettlebell, and pushed bumper plates across the carpeted floor.  We warmed up with agility drills, obstacle courses, and at the end of the strength session, had some fun playing games or doing relay races.  They thought it was play, but they were learning.  I saw posture and coordination improve, I saw consistency develop in their movements, and when I asked them what their feet, backs, shoulders should look like for each exercise, they could tell me right off the bat.  During the last four weeks, I decided that they were ready for me to bring in some barbells and learn how to deadlift.  We kept the weight light, emphasized good form, and did multiple reps and sets with adequate rest periods.  They were pretty excited about this as most 8 and 9 year olds don't get to lift barbells.

On our "meet" day, I had everyone warm up with lighter weight and then one by one, I had each of them go to the bar and lift it one time.  If they did it quickly, and with good form, they got to advance to the next round.  I started with 36 lbs on the bar and added five lbs each round.  I let some of the stronger kids skip a round or two as to not wear them out.  They not only had big smiles on their faces, but cheered each other on as well.  Even when most of the fourth graders had already been taken out of the running, they continued to cheer for the boy and girl who would go on to pull 91 lbs.  It was fun and exciting and I gave each of the kids a sticker with the amount of weight he or she lifted that day.  All of them were proud of their stickers.  I also gave each of them a bracelet that simply said "strong!".  Because I wanted them to know that I know they are strong.

I often see fitness trainers and coaches saying they want to inspire people.  They want to inspire us to get off the couch, get a six-pack, train for a race, put down that cookie and work on getting a pull-up.  And this is great, we all need inspiration.  In fact, I love working with folks who have a long way to go, but all the cheerleader stuff only goes so far.  If you want to inspire a change, you have to be willing to not only set a good example, but be willing to teach, adjust your methods as needed, and never forget that you are training a unique individual.  Most of all, you have to be patient.  Its not all that difficult, you simply have to care.  And the truth is, being inspirational can be rather easy when you take that approach.  However, when you work with kids, its not only easier, it can have a more profound effect on a person for the remainder of his or her life.

There is an obesity epidemic going on right now.  There is also a sports injury epidemic on the rise.  Our schools lack the resources to deal with a lot of these problems and many of the solutions are too expensive for the majority of our youth.  Many of our children who do not excel at sports are uninspired to be active in other ways and may lack the opportunity to do so.  I challenge those of you who want to be inspiring to get into our schools and youth organizations and offer your help as a volunteer.  Teach a strength class, teach an exercise class, teach a nutrition class.  Work with the unathletic, the uncoordinated, the unmotivated.  Start an after school club, set up a training challenge, volunteer with a local athletic club.  But, most of all TEACH.  We can all get better, we simply need to learn how.  Teach our children to be fit and healthy, teach them to love physical activity, and most of all, show them that they are capable of far more than they imagined.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Oatmeal and Sausage

Whether you have ten lbs to lose or 100 lbs to lose,
this process is the same:
Know what you are eating; change what doesn't work.
I'm in the middle of my first week of "trying-not-to-eat-like-a-human-garbage-disposal". And it is kind of hard.  Habits are hard to break and when you get into a behavior pattern, you will do things without even realizing it.  You will also have a hard time making decisions about the relative impact of your daily choices.  For example, having justified eating a big lunch from my local sushi bar a few times a week, it was hard to force myself to look up exactly how many calories I was eating because I had already classified this behavior as "good".  It doesn't mean I can't continue to do this, but once I took the responsibility of realizing that the two rolls I was eating for lunch were accounting for about 900 calories, I know that I need to dial it back a bit.

Monday was my first day and I started off pretty good with good healthy breakfast (oatmeal and turkey sausage with maple syrup, 215 calories), but then the inevitable happened.  I got hungry.  Since I was supposed to lift later that day, I used this hunger to justify a snack.  In this case, crackers, lots of them, mainly because I was out of bananas, but crackers have a lot of calories.  So, I ate a 200 calorie healthy breakfast and then ate about 300 calories worth of crackers.  Silly.

This could have been a good start to the day,
but I stopped paying attention to what I was stuffing in my face.
And to make matters worse, I did not get around to getting into the gym, I used the residual hunger and potential training as an excuse to eat a big, not-so-healthy lunch.  (This is where the 900 calories of sushi happened.) It is important to note that I had a pretty bad cold at the time and had lost my voice and so fatigue and lack of motivation were already looming on the horizon.  I also went on spent the afternoon teaching strength at my children's elementary school to about 40 third and fourth graders.  So, did I come home in any mood to lift?  No.  Did I lift?  No.  Was I hungry?  Yes.  Did I eat more crap? Yes.

And so, I've already eaten the bulk of my calories for the day and we still have to sit down and eat dinner.  This is was much better, baked chicken and a salad with kale, avocado, and tomatoes, but then I screwed it all up by eating two biscuits while I cleaned up the kitchen.  Why did I do this?  Because I didn't eat enough dinner.  Why didn't I eat enough dinner?  Because I felt guilty from indulging at lunch and snacking later.  And then I had two glasses of wine.

So, Monday's grand total:  I didn't train and I ate about 2500 calories, 700 more than my calorie calculator allowed me for weight maintenance.  Typically I will eat more than my daily calorie allotment on the days that I train and eat less on my recovery days.  This was kind of the opposite.  And this has been typical for about four months.

So, changes I am incorporating this week:

1.  Breakfast will always be the same.

Oatmeal:  It's good for you.
I've tried a lot of things for breakfast and I have found that I need a decent dose of protein in the morning to keep me going.  I also need some carbohydrates.  Over the past few years, I have always come back to having oatmeal (the rolled oats kind, not the instant) and turkey sausages or an egg.  So, in the interest of consistency, I'm keeping with this.  It is easy to prepare, easy to eat, and provides me with 12 grams of protein, 2 grams of fiber, 24 grams of carbohydrates, and 4 grams of fat.  If I get hungry later in the morning, I will have apples and/or bananas on hand and if this is consistent, I'll bump the oatmeal up to the full serving.  Being prepared is 90% of the battle.

2.  I will determine the calorie and macronutrient content of everything I eat.  Even when I'd rather turn a blind eye.  I have some book references and I have the internet.  If you can google, you can find it.  Don't worry if you've already eaten it, you still need to know what you're eating.  I just downloaded My Fitness Pal onto my phone so I really have no excuse to not keep track of things.

3.  There are no such thing as "cheat" meals.  I will enjoy my food, make changes in my daily eating pattern when there is a known indulgence on the horizon (holiday party, dinner out at a restaurant, Christmas dinner, etc.), and control my portions even in the midst of decadence.  In other words, PAY ATTENTION to what I'm eating.  When I fail to lose weight or just eat healthier, it is always due to a lack of attention.

I'd just like to finish by saying that I don't consider this a diet, I consider it a behavior re-set.  I let things get out of hand, I stopped paying attention, and I was just being lazy.  You may look at the photo above and think "You're not fat at all!" or you might think "You're a trainer!  Where is your six-pack!". So, before we get any further with this project, let me clarify two things:

1.  I don't think I'm "fat".  I have a healthy BMI and I am very fit.  However, I am "fluffier" than I'd like to be, a lot of my clothes no longer fit well, and there's no reason I can't maintain my weight and my waistline where I want it.  I have hypothyroidism and had half of my thyroid removed a few years back because I had a tumor growing on it.  I now have to take Synthroid every day to regulate my metabolism.  I must be vigilant about my diet because it is relatively easy for me to pack on the pounds rather quickly.  It takes a lot of work, it is hard, and a lot of times, its not fun, but changing my habits makes it a lot easier.

2.  I had a six-pack once, and it was awful.  I had a six-pack, but I also did not have any breasts.  I looked like a twelve year old boy with a Barbie head stuck on top.  Six-pack abs are something that very few people walk around with, especially if they are over the age of 25.  Achieving bodyfat that low is something that bodybuilders and figure competitors do to prepare for a contest, but rarely maintain it through the course of the year.  Women with bodyfat low enough to have a visible six-pack will often cease to menstruate.  It can also cause a shift in hormones that impact one's bone density and overall health.  So, no six-packs here.

It is Wednesday and I feel I'm getting back on track with self-discipline and routine.  As I usually tell my clients to do, I'm logging my diet and exercise using My Fitness Pal.  There are a number of similar free online apps you can use for this purpose, or simply keep a notebook.  No matter how you do it, paying attention will benefit you far more than not.  I'll post another update in a few days and see if I've managed to get any closer to my goal.

Monday, December 3, 2012

So, What to Eat?

In my last blog post, I presented my thoughts on diet and exercise and what to do if you want to lose weight.  And since I want to lose some inches from my waistline, I also presented a basic plan for myself with regard to the overall calorie and macronutrient intake I was going to start with for myself.  It is now a week later and by simply paying attention to what I was stuffing in my face, my pants are a tiny bit looser.

Chocolate, bourbon, pecan pie.  
I'll tell you a secret that's not really a secret.  My clients often allude to the fact that they think I eat like a monk with tireless dedication to perfectly balanced meals epitomizing optimal nutrition.  Well, its not true.  At all.  I'm actually an unapologetic foodie with a sweet tooth and a minor diet coke addiction.  When I'm hungry and there is pie in the house, I have pie for lunch.  Likewise, the kid's Halloween candy stash is not safe unless cleverly hidden from my casual observation and we just don't keep chips of any kind in the house because I will eat the entire bag.  I favor fatty meats, rich sauces, and vegetables roasted in loads of olive oil and salt.  I love to cook and I will spend hours preparing a meal just because I had a craving for something very specific like thai green curry or pecan pralines.    I once ate an entire pound of duck liver, all by myself, over the course of week.  And I'll probably do it again this year.  I love duck liver.  (Humanely raised and slaughtered of course, but that is a different topic entirely.)

Unfortunately, I don't even always make superior culinary choices when my diet goes horribly sideways.  When I first learned to lift heavy, I would return from those training sessions so hungry I would often just walk into the pantry and eat whatever was in front of me.  Saltines with honey poured on them, chocolate chips out of the bag, handfuls of cereal, one time, a piece of beef jerky dipped repeatedly in rasberry jam.  Lately, my biggest mistakes have been, and yes I'm serious, forgetting that I've already eaten lunch and going for a second round.  And its not like I'm eating salad.  I once accepted a lunch invitation from my husband for Mexican food after finishing a turkey sub with a quarter pound of meat on it.  And I ate a two burritos.  And then three hours later, I also ate dinner.  A big dinner.

Bacon wrapped stuffed and grilled jalapeno peppers
 from my garden. What are they stuffed with?  Bacon.
It has taken me years and a lot of self-control to overcome these tendencies, but I still screw up from time to time.  The really big stupid comes out when I put in a half-hearted effort to eat better.  I've learned that this just doesn't work, but I always end up here from time to time.  It starts something like this:  "I'm going to eat a big breakfast, a smaller lunch, no snacks, and then I'm going to have a light dinner."  Sounds like a great plan, doesn't it?  But, when I put it into action, my brain, which has no sympathy for my stomach, makes it something more like this:  

7:00 am  "I sure do want to lose weight fast.  I'll just reduce the amount of this breakfast and get a head start on the calorie reduction, its not THAT long til lunch.  I'll just eat half the oatmeal and make up the difference with blueberries.  That will be good for me."

10:00 am  "Holy crap I'm hungry.   Maybe I'll just eat lunch now and then I won't be as hungry later.  I'll just eat half a turkey sandwich and an apple, that'll be healthy."

1:00 pm "I'm hungry again, but I already ate lunch, I'll just have some cheese or maybe a yogurt.  Or maybe just a banana, with peanut butter on it."

4 pm  "I'm so HUNGRY!  I'll eat a little snack so I can get a handle on this and then I'll eat a good dinner.  Wow, those crackers are good, maybe I have some cheese . . . ."

6 pm  "I ate too many snacks, I'll just eat a little bit of vegetables and I'll be good to go til bedtime."


Sound familiar?

It should.  A lot of you do this.  Do what exactly?  Starve yourselves all day and end up snacking  between meals and at the end of the day.

Well, doing the exact opposite is actually what you should do.  And by that, I do not mean start your day with an ice cream binge.  You may notice from the above description that I didn't really eat that much actual food.  What I actually stuffed myself on was snacks.

Its not all bad, fresh figs off my fig tree are one
of my favorites.
So, instead of telling you how awesomely well-behaved I am on a regular basis, I'd rather tell you how it often goes horribly wrong.   Mainly because its funnier and makes for a better story.  However, I am going to try and be an actual good role model here and set a goal for myself over the next four weeks.  The main part of this goal is to not gain any additional weight.  The second part of this goal is to actually lose a few inches off my waist.  Although I weigh myself every morning, I'm not going to focus on the number on the scale because I am lifting and might actually get heavier.  However, I currently have a 31 inch waist and 42 inch hips.  I'd like to keep the hips and lose about 2-3 inches from the waist.  Most likely, I'll lose an inch or two on the hips in the process, but we'll see.

Over the next few weeks, I'm going to practice what I preach, write down what I eat, and keep track of my training and see what happens.  This could prove enlightening (for you), embarrassing (for me), or most likely, a good bit of both.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Fattening Up for the Holidays

The only truly useful book in this group is the one
written by the Kansas City Barbeque Society and I
highly recommend the recipe for BBQ rub.
Every single year, the same thing happens.  We get through Thanksgiving thinking of it as a single binge before Christmas and instead, find our pants have gotten a bit tighter than we intended and have no intention of slowing down.  Its hard.  There is good food everywhere, the weather does its best to discourage us from getting outside and exercising, and the stress of the holidays makes it hard to keep a consistent schedule.  And so, we begin to put on a bit of weight.  I am particularly good at this, I believe one year I gained 10 lbs within a two week period and I don't think I was pregnant at the time.

Anyway, weight loss is something I discuss a lot with my clients.  There are a lot of gimmicks, fad diets, fad exercise programs, books, and lots of pills and powders out there that would have one believe that weight loss can be easy and the truth is, its not.  Its simple, but its not easy.  Before anyone gives me crap for having never been overweight, let me correct you.  I've lost weight from three pregnancies and a 40 lb weight gain following surgery.  It was never easy, it was a lot of hard work, and maintaining my weight is a daily challenge.

There is one thing that would benefit just about everyone in their quest to lose weight and that would simply be to educate themselves on exactly what they are eating.  Food labels confuse people and the foods that are good for us often don't have labels.  But, this shouldn't stop you from figuring out how many calories and grams of carbs, fat, and protein you're eating.  Educate yourself and pay attention.  No one else can do this for you, if you want to lose weight, you need to pay attention to and control what you eat.  A favorite reference of mine for this is Corrine T. Netzer's Complete Book of Food Counts

And as far as weight loss goes, here are the facts:

1.  Exercise does not necessarily help one lose weight.  

Exercise can help a person lose and maintain weight loss, but exercise alone will not guarantee weight loss.  Unless your exercise results in you increasing your muscle mass, which requires that you GAIN weight, you are simply burning off the energy you consume, not necessarily what you've stored.  However, without exercise, losing weight is much more difficult.  it is a necessary part of the process, but not the driving force.

2.  Weight loss (or gain) is the direct result of what you eat and don't eat. 
If you want to lose fat, you have to reduce the number of calories you are eating.  Its that simple.  And you don't have to crash diet, leave out major food groups, avoid certain macronutrients, or order your food by mail.    Just pay attention to what you are eating.  Gradually decrease your intake and improve the qualities of the foods you are eating to make sure you are getting enough protein, fiber, fat, and carbohydrates.  This is especially important if you have children.  Set a good example. 

So, that's easy right?  Yeah, I know, its hard.  I'm going to show you a picture.  
On the left, me at the Tough Mudder at 148 lbs, 32 inch waistline.  On the right, me lifting a 113 lb stone at 128 lbs, 27 inch waistline. On the left, nothing but endurance, bodyweight work, and some high intensity intervals.  On the right,  nothing but heavy lifting and a clean diet for 5 months straight.

So, about a 20 lb difference there.  Its not very obvious, but in the picture on the left, I'm a comfortable size 8.  In the picture on the right, I'm a size 4.  I think a good amount of that weight difference is in my posterior, but that's never a bad thing.  The interesting thing is that when I was doing more endurance based work, I put on a lot of weight.  Some was fat, but some was muscle as well.  When I was doing a lot of heavy lifting, I was not only light, but very lean.  This is how my body works, other bodies may work differently.  My point is this, the kind of exercise I was doing likely had some effect on my body weight, but it wasn't what most people expect.  That's because the biggest effect on my body weight was from what I was eating.  Since I was new to endurance work, I was having a lot of problems with recovery and so I did not limit my calories.  In other words, I ate like a teenage boy.  

Three years ago, 118 lbs, 25 inch waist, precisely
3 days  before tearing a muscle in my abdominal
wall demoing a "knees to elbows".  I was
experiencing severe shoulder pain at night
and had lost 30 lbs on my clean.
Notice the lack of breasts.    
If you are training for a specific purpose not related to body composition, not restricting calories is wise if you want to maintain or improve performance.  I never recommend that my clients set a performance goal at the same time as a body composition goal.  If you need to lose weight and your performance goal is important, ie, setting a PR on a 5K, deadlift, etc., approach these separately and you will be more successful at both.

Now that I'm done with all that running and endurance work, I'm getting back to heavy lifting in preparation for the Highland Games in the Spring.  Now, I know how to feed myself for lifting and so I will be watching what I eat and try not to get into the cookies on a regular basis.  And, if I can control what I eat, I will get back down to my comfortable training weight of 135-140 and with any luck, keep that new backside.  I like this weight range because I am strong and still look like a woman.  Controlling what I eat is the challenging part, but I have a set of routines that make this easier for me.     

So, in regard to weight loss, I'm sorry, but it just doesn't get any more simple than exercise more and eat less.  Let me clarify that statement:  I didn't say easy, I said simple.  Having reviewed many many diet journals, I can tell you that most people eat too many calories in general, snack too much, eat too much sugar, and eat too much fat.  They also don't get enough protein, don't eat on a regular schedule, and don't write everything down that they are eating.  They also rely too much on endurance work and not enough on resistance training.  You have to know what you are eating in order to lose weight.  If, as a scientist, I never wrote down what I put into my experiments and made them different every time, I'd be foolish to assume that I would get any useful data or results.  The point in having a diet journal is to see what you are currently doing so you can see where you may need to change your routine.  Giving up your old eating habits in favor of something completely new and/or extreme may work, but its hard to stick to and stressful in and of itself.

At 145, I'm a little thicker around the waist
than I'd like, but I'm strong and healthy. 
The last point I want to make here is that most people who come to me for body composition changes rarely need to change very much.  A few simple changes in diet and they usually lose those few pounds.  If they can't make those changes, the pounds don't go away no matter how hard they work.  But the truth is, most of them are focused on some body ideal that may not only be unreachable, but completely unnecessary.  As long as your weight is not causing you health problems, you need to think seriously about how much you actually need to lose.  A six-pack is only useful if you are a fitness model.  Many very fit athletes do not resemble their body-building counterparts unless they have a naturally lean physique or the gift of youth.  Playboy models have an average body fat percentage of 18%, there's a reason for that.  Let's face it, we're all impressed with well-muscled, athletic bodies, but there is nothing wrong with the average physique and looking well-fed, healthy, and strong is far more attractive than all the gristle in the world.

Part II:  How to get it done

So, now for some recommendations:  Use this on-line calculator to get a starting calorie range for maintaining your weight.  Use these as a jumping off place.  You are an individual and so a one-size-fits-all recommendation will not necessarily work for you.  Also, be VERY honest about your daily activity level.  You can run three miles a day, but if you sit at a desk the rest of the time, you may be minimally or lightly active.  You need 40-80 grams of protein a day, maybe more if you train with weights or have a physical job.  The remainder of your calories should be a mixture of fat and carbohydrates.  Fat recommendations have changed somewhat, but the acceptable range is between 20-35%.  I know this is dismissed a lot these days by journalists and bloggers who fancy themselves scientists, but if you want to lose weight, excess calories are still the main culprit and fat sneaks itself into virtually everything.  Carbohydrates are a dirty word these days, but they don't have to be.  Fruits, vegetables, and whole grains are all sources of carbohydrates and quality counts.  Processed carbohydrates are not just easier for your body to process and store, they often contain unhealthy or excessive levels of fat as well.  

Better than skinny:  138 lbs, 30 inch waist,
40 inch hips, able to take my kids camping,
and hike up a mountain.  
So, I put my data into the calculator above: 40 year old female, 5'8", 145 lbs, moderately active.  I chose this level because I train with weights for an hour 4 times per week in addition to a few runs here and there.  I am also fairly active throughout the day, training others and doing house and yard work.  This gives me a range of 1850 calories per day to maintain my weight.  I have a bit more muscle mass than the average gal so I would guess that may be a little low, but we'll just have to see.  I typically need about 80-100 grams of protein per day and protein has 4 calories per gram so that would account for 400 of my 1850 calories.  Thirty-five percent fat calories from 1850 calories is 1850 x 0.35 = 647 fat calories per day.  Fat has nine calories per gram so that accounts for about 70 grams of fat.  That is a reasonable amount of fat, but not if you eat a lot of nuts or duck liver.  This leaves me with about 800 calories from carbohydrates.  Carbohydrates have 4 calories per gram so that leaves me with 200 grams of carbohydrates.  This is a lot of carbs for the individual who eats a lot of vegetables, but I usually start my day with a bowl of oatmeal (26 g) and usually have some other whole grains with lunch so I think I'll be fine.  When I don't get enough carbs, I get tired and my recovery suffers, but too many processed carbs and I just don't feel good.  

So, now I have some numbers to target and use to tweak things to my advantage.  From past experience, I know I do better with more complex carbs at lunch and breakfast, and more protein and vegetables for dinner.   It helps control my hunger and gives me energy during the active times of my day.  I will probably take in a bit more fat in my diet than recommended and probably a few less carbs, but I will stick to this prescription the best I can and see what happens.  I predict a couple of things may happen:

1.  I will be hungry.
2.  I may find myself tired.
3.  I may neither be hungry nor tired.  
4.  I may lose weight.
5.  I may not lose weight, but lose fat.
6.  I may not lose anything.  

And that's how it should work.  I begin with an informed starting point and leave the work up to me.  I track what I'm eating and see where my typical diet falls within those guidelines.  And then I start to make some changes.  My goals are to get stronger, lose a few inches off my waist, and feel good doing so.  Hopfully, I'll be able to do this AND enjoy some cookies along the way.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Elementary School Fitness Testing

I'm about to start my seventh week of teaching strength to the third and fourth graders at my children's elementary school and it has been a great learning experience.  The class I'm teaching is part of the school's "clubs" program which is basically a series of special classes that the children can choose from.  These classes cover everything from art to music to physical fitness.  After volunteering with the PE classes last year, the PE teacher asked me if I'd like to teach a strength class and I gladly agreed.

I've talked a lot in other articles about how I feel that proper strength development is essential for kids, especially since they do not get out and play like we did when we were kids.  Additionally, sports injuries in children are rampant and usually the result of overuse injuries and/or a sorely lacking strength base.  However, the main reason I decided to teach this class at my children's elementary school was for one reason in particular and this reason stands out far more than all the other justifications swimming around in my head.

Before I begin my long-winded explanation of my motivations, let me just say that the PE teacher at my children's school is wonderful.  How she manages multiple classes a day of 20 or more hyperactive, distracted, and sometimes just plain full-of-themselves elementary school children is beyond me.  During the fitness testing period every year, however, she requires some parental assistance and so last year I volunteered.  During the fitness testing, we actually test for two different sets of standards.  The first is the Presidential Fitness Test and the second is First in Fitness.  The Presidential Fitness Test has been around for at least thirty years as I remember doing it when I was in sixth grade and it consists of five tests: sit and reach, curl ups (basically a sit-up), a mile run, a pull-up test, and a shuttle run.  Translated into abilities, these translate into the following qualities:  flexibility, core strength, endurance/cardiorespiratory fitness, upper body strength, speed.    The First in Fitness test includes speed jump rope, long jump, 100-yard dash, pull-ups or mile run.

I want you to think critically about these tests for a moment and think about what it would require to do well at each of these.

This is what I think:

My daughter Elizabeth can deadlift 1.5 times her bodyweight
and run a sub-eight minute mile.  But, she can't pass the sit
 and reach test.  Is she not fit?
Sit and reach:  If you have long legs you're screwed, unless you have equally long arms.  Flexibility can be trained, but kids who are going through growth spurts have a harder time keeping up with this.  I saw a lot of taller kids fail this test.  So, big thumbs down on this one.

Curl Ups:  Situps are a weird thing.  I suppose this is okay, but I think a plank hold would be far better.  We don't practice situps in every day life, but we do have to stabilize our core muscles just walking around.  Some kids who are overweight have a hard time getting up off the floor and their bellies get in the way.  This is important because more than half the kids I see are overweight.  Its an okay test, but I don't like it.

Mile run:  This is good actually.  Everyone should be able to run a mile.  However, children should be required to have proper footwear for this.  I don't know what it would take to educate parents about not sending their little girls to school in high heels or their boys in overly big shoes with laces that can't be tightened.  Good bye achilles flexibility and ankle stability.  I'm in big favor of school uniforms with proper gym shoes for this reason.

Pull-ups:  I like pull-ups.  I think everyone should be able to do one.  But just like the curl-up test, overweight students are penalized on this test.  They may actually be stronger than the smaller children who can do pull-ups, they simply can't pull up their own bodyweight.

Shuttle run:  Well, small agile people are going to do well at this test as well.  Its agility, a skill that needs to be practiced.  And some kids just aren't fast.  Its the luck of the genetic draw.

My son Francis:  A genetic freak at speed rope.
The First in Fitness tests, in my opinion, are even less of an actual measure of fitness and more of a measure of genetic advantage.  Standing long jump?  Genetics.  I had one first grader jump almost seven feet having never done it before.   One hundred yard dash?  Genetics.  Just a couple of sub-15 second runs in the first and fourth grade, one from a little girl in high heel boots. Speed rope?  Definitely a developed skill and I tested a lot of kids who didn't know how to jump rope and therefore did very poorly.  And again, the pullups.  The mile run is the only "fair" one here.

Maybe y'all didn't know this, but speed and power are qualities that some people have a substantial genetic advantage in. I see it in track and field all the time.  The fast kids are fast from the first day of practice and they get faster.  The slow kids sometimes do, but mostly don't.  So, maybe they are better at longer distance sprints and running and again, some succeed, some don't.  Some kids can jump, some can throw, but these abilities are pretty obvious from a very young age.  Skill and practice help a great deal, but you can't change certain things very drastically.  And that's okay, its a sport, not fitness testing.

So, is First in Fitness about actual fitness?  Or genetic athletic advantage?  I'm pretty fit, but the kids who succeed at that competition can kick my butt on virtually everything.  Does this somehow make me less fit?  No, it doesn't.  But, it does send a very clear message to the kids who don't succeed at these tests or aren't as good as their peers.  I can see it on their faces.  It tells them to stop trying.

They can both do pushups.  Patrick is not as gifted as his
brother at athletics, but he's just as strong.  
And so, while administering these fitness tests last year, I watched an overweight kid run a sub-seven minute mile in jeans and dress shoes.  And then, I watched that same kid fail the pull-up test, sit and reach test, and the curl-up test because he was overweight.  It was kind of disheartening.  Let me be very clear, its not his fault he's overweight.  School breakfast, lunches, and whatever he's being fed at home by well-meaning parents are at fault there.  I can't change what he's eating because he's not my son.  But, I know that I can show him something he's good at.  I can show him that he is strong and by making him stronger, I can improve a lot of his abilities.  And so, that's what I started doing this year.

The last thing we need to do as adults is give kids a reason to give up.  We have to find ways to inspire them, give them confidence, and excel at the things they are good at and still do the things they are not so good at.  I'm not advocating getting rid of the fitness testing in schools, I think the intention is good and it gives kids something to work towards.  However, I think the tendency to call things "fitness" when they should be called "genetically advantaged athletic ability" is high.  Let's get our kids active, strengthen their bodies, and have regular testing that shows them the progress they've made rather than awarding them an arbitrary grade based on skills and abilities they may never excel in.  Contests are great, but if we want to encourage our kids to get fit and enjoy an active lifestyle, we need to pay attention to all of them, support their efforts, and allow them all to succeed.  If we are going to be using fitness tests as a standard for our children's fitness, substantial development of the qualities that are tested should be a substantial part of the PE curriculum.  Of course, this would also require that PE be a more substantial part of the school curriculum as a whole, but I'll save that argument for another day.

Friday, November 9, 2012

The Trap Bar Deadlift

My new trap bar.
In my training practice, I work with a lot of different individuals with different goals, fitness levels, and body types.  I believe that strength is the one quality that transfers the most to other aspects of fitness and so strength training is a large part of what I do with my clients.  However, the challenge to find exercises that my clients can do both safely and effectively is one that I deal with on an almost daily basis.  The deadlift in particular can be a challenge to both teach and execute for a number of reasons and yet, it is my favorite loaded strength exercise for most people.

At full extension, Kelly's arms are at her sides,
not in front as they would be with a
traditional barbell.
The problem with the basic barbell deadlift is that for a lot of folks, they can be dangerous.  Now don't get me wrong, I love deadlifting and its the one lift I use most often, but a lot of my clients are older and inexperienced with barbell training.  They often lack the balance, kinesthetic awareness, and/or posterior chain strength to recruit the right muscles to deadlift properly.  As fatigue sets in, backs start to round, bodyweight shifts into the front of the foot, and the shoulders take a beating, even when using a mixed grip.  This is a recipe for disaster.  In short, in the face of inexperience and fatigue, the tendency to lift the bar with one's back extensors alone becomes more likely.  If you've ever done this yourself or watched someone else do it, its not only ugly, it can hurt or seriously injure you.

So, if only there were a way to deadlift where the bar path would not interfere with one's legs and make keeping one's center of gravity between one's heels easier . . .

Well, this is where a modified sumo deadlift with a kettlebell is very useful.  In fact, I usually teach proper deadlift mechanics this way because it encourages people to use their rear ends and not their quads to lift the bar.  I use this kind of deadlift a lot with the children I train as well.  However, with full grown adults, unless you have an extensive kettlebell collection, you are going to run out of useful weight very quickly.  My kettlebells only go up to 60 lbs so how do we keep moving the weight up while keeping my clients safe from injury?

At the start of this lift, Stephanie is able to
lift with the center of gravity of the bar close
to her own whereas a traditional barbell pitches
her forward.  
The trap bar deadlift of course!  I love this thing and have been wanting to get one for a while.  The trap bar is shaped like a hexagon and you stand in the middle of it to pull.  Therefore, there is no bar banging into your legs and you can simply focus on the movement.  Additionally, this bar is loadable, just like a barbell, so you can load it up for some good old fashioned heavy lifting.  One of the other great things about this bar is that the handles are perpendicular in orientation to a regular barbell.  This means you can use a neutral grip when pulling which is far kinder to the shoulders than a regular pronated or mixed grip.  

The truth is, being strong is really good for you.  However, lifting enough weight to get strong can be a challenge if you have some joint or flexibility issues.  A traditional barbell deadlift is only mandatory if your intent is to train for and compete in a powerlifting meet.  If you do not intend on doing this, you can use whatever tool you like.  Getting stronger is something most of us should strive for, especially as we get older, and we should use whatever tools that will enable us to achieve this goal.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

My Tough Mudder: Part II

A philosophy that all our fellow Mudders adhered to.
And now for the rest of the story.

At the conclusion of my last telling, we had traversed about 14 obstacles including a number of mud and water crossings that may or may not have been actual obstacles.  We had encountered three water/fuel stations including one with bathrooms (this is important for older people and those who have given birth at least once) and had stopped to wash the sand out of our shoes a few times.  One of our teammates, Suzanne, was starting to feel the effects of the cold made obvious by her shivering and her nose turning blue, and I, as our team leader (mother hen), made her put on a hat (swim cap).

Happy Halloween!
The next segment was a longer running bit during which we encountered some rather friendly characters including three young men who were trying to get into the spirit of Halloween by carrying a pumpkin and a bag of candy throughout the race.  They very generously offered us some of their candy supply as they ran past with their pumpkin.   We were taking another clean-the-shoes break and they might have thought we were collapsed with hunger and/or were overtaken by our fatigue and gray hair.  Nevertheless, we kept up with them until the next obstacle and then did not see them again until the end.  I'm happy to say that perusing the pictures of the day, I saw that the happy pumpkin carrier made it up Everest with his pumpkin.

The next obstacle was called the "Dong Dangler" and this was a cable stretched over a large pond and (thankfully) covered with a
thick plastic covering.  We were to use that cable to cross the pond by grabbing on with hands and feet and sliding our way across.  We had to wait a short time to get over this obstacle, but we had a pretty decent mud coating to protect us from the wind.

Now, I do have to stop here and be serious for a minute because as we approached this obstacle, we were passed by a lone Marine carrying a Marine Corps flag.  As he got in line, he simply rolled up his flag, place it on his belly, and crossed the water before unfurling it and continuing on his way.  As I mentioned in the last article, there were a lot of military folks at this event.  Some were there to have some fun with their friends, some were running with the names of their fallen comrades on their shirts and their bodies.  When I was checking in, a young soldier with a prosthetic leg was in line behind me.  The Tough Mudder is a fun and challenging race, but it is also a fundraiser for the Wounded Warrior Project.  One of the great things about this race is how it encourages teamwork and camaraderie between complete strangers.  We are there to support each other and through the work of the organization, support our soldiers as well.

So, back to the Dong Dangler:  A cable across a pond.  Not actually that bad, although at the middle, you were pretty much in the water again.  And, we had a bit of a back-up on my cable which meant my face got right under my teammate Mereth's muddy foot.  And yup, I got a big dollop of mud right in my left eye.  It didn't really bother me all that much so we crossed the pond and got back to running.  We probably ran another half mile or so before getting to one of the bigger challenges of the day, the Underwater Tunnels. Thankfully, just before this obstacle was water/food/bathroom station that was greatly welcomed by our team.  After a very short break, we continued on to the large pond in front of us.

The Underwater Tunnels did not look that bad from the shore.  There was a sign up just before it that encouraged people to opt out if they could not swim or didn't feel confident in the water.  The water that day wasn't freezing, but it wasn't warm either.  Being fully dressed and wearing shoes helped some as did being active, but the water was going to drain us of heat and we were about to be in the water for a little while.  As we went into the pond, it became very deep right away and I could no longer touch bottom only ten yards from shore.  This was a little unnerving, but I found that I could float easily on my back and do a half backstroke, half sidestroke to get about two thirds of the way across the pond to where the barrels were.  A few people turned back when they realized the depth of the water, one from a sudden and severe hamstring cramp.  Although there were plenty of lifeguards, the water was murky and you couldn't see much more than an inch below the surface.

There were three lines of barrels floating towards the opposite shore and our task was to go underneath of them.  The barrels were floating and had a wooden frame around them which was good because I needed to hang on to something for a second while I felt underneath of it, caught my breath, and got enough nerve to go under the water.  My friend Steve was right there with me and he went under first and so I followed him.  It was a little scary.  We went under the next set, but by then, I could touch bottom and the third set I practically walked under.  However, by now we had been in the water for five minutes and the wind was picking up.

Maxine going into the ravine.
By this time, we were eight miles into the race and had three left to go.  We were feeling pretty good, but the chill was starting to set into all of us.  We ran for probably another mile before coming to another mud crawl under barbed wire.  We then encountered a back-up going through a narrow ravine.  Getting into it wasn't a problem, but getting out was a bit harder.  Luckily, us womenfolk had some help from a group of young, well-formed, mostly naked men sporting mohawks.  I think there could be a legitimate reason to have such assistance on a regular basis, but I'd have to come up with a convincing proposal to make that idea fly around these parts.

No one ran though here.  
Once out of the ravine, we hit another extremely muddy area with a very small hill to climb.  However, this mud was so slick, it was like walking on ice.  Everyone moved very carefully through this and there was a wall of people on top of the hill pulling people up.  My husband Terry and the other guys, Brett, Todd, and Steve, all took turns pulling folks up the slick hill while us girls kept moving to stay warm.

The next obstacle was the King Of The Mountain hay bales.  These were very high stacks of hay bales, probably twenty feet high although I might be exaggerating, that we had to climb up and over.

Suzanne and Todd coming down off the mountain.
This was actually looked kind of easy, but it was not.  For me, the hay came up about chest high.  I could run, jump, and press myself up, but I only had about two feet of a ledge to get up on.  I found I had to jump, press, and quickly turn such that I was sitting on the hay when I landed.  These bales were not your standard rectagular ones either.  They were the large cylindrical hay bales that you often see sitting out in fields with a large number of cows.  There were two mountains of hay and once we got over that, we had to go over two rows of hay bales.  The first one was okay, the second one, Mereth and I had to help each other over.

Brett going for ring number two.
The hay helped dry us off just a little bit and removed some of the mud which was good because we had a bit more running to do. Just a few more obstacles left, but the next three involved falling in or walking through water.  The first one was called Hangin' Tough and it was the most challenging technique-wise, but also the most fun.  It was an overhead wooden structure with gymnastic rings hanging down.  The rings were placed singly, about five feet apart.  I don't think there were more than four or five rings in the whole obstacle.  There was a pool of water beneath us the goal was to swing across the water via the rings.  Suzanne's husband, who was watching the race with their three children, had been standing there watching for a long time said he didn't see more than one or two people make it.  But that didn't stop us from trying.  The most difficult part of this obstacle was the reach.  Unless you could get a good swing going, it was hard to get close enough to grab the next ring.  Most of us got to the second ring and most of us fell off reaching for the third.  I tried to swing myself hard enough to reach the third ring, but finally decided I was just going to defy gravity and go for it.  Note to self:  Gravity does not care if you try to defy it.  Needless to say, I went for a swim.

Suzanne being awesome.
We regrouped on the other side of this obstacle and continued to run on to the Funky Monkey which wasn't that far away.  This obstacle was a set of inclined and declined monkey bars, again, over water.  We had actually practiced monkey bars quite a bit at home, but couldn't replicate the incline.  In addition, the race organizers tend to like to add a little butter to the bars to make it more "fun".  Only four of our team members made it across:  Brett, Terry, Todd, and Suzanne.  I'm especially proud of Suzanne as when we started this training, she was the only one of the four of us women who didn't think she could do a pull-up (she could), but on race day, she was the only one of us who got across the monkey bars.

I myself found the bars to be very slippery and decided to combat that by using my incredible crushing grip strength to hold onto each bar.   What I ended up doing was wearing myself out, near the top of the incline which meant I had further to fall into the water.  So, out I swam, waited for all my teammates, and found that we had yet another water obstacle to go through.  And this one was gross.  We went from stepping through mud to stepping through some sort of mud/slime/water mixture that provided just enough resistance to make you wonder exactly what was on the bottom of that pond and whether or not there were any snapping turtles down there.  I'm sure if there were any they'd have left after the first wave, but I wasn't taking any chances.  I picked up my feet and swam my way out.

Terry, Suzanne, and Steve about to enter the Boa Constrictor.
And finally, we only had three obstacles left.  The Boa Constrictor was next and after a short run, we were standing in line waiting to go through these pipes that inclined down into a pool of water.  This was a surprisingly difficult obstacle.  The pipes were small and you didn't have a lot of room to maneuver or propel yourself forward.  Going up was even worse.  I was lucky in that I'm small enough to get my feet under me and crawl, but it was a bit claustrophobic.  It was on this obstacle that we almost lost Brett.  In the pool between the two tunnels, he got a severe hamstring cramp and had to just sit and wait while it subsided before coming back up the tube.  We were all pretty cold by then so we moved on to the almost last obstacle:  Everest.

They pulled him up.  
Everest is one of the signature Tough Mudder obstacles that I think is present at every race.  Its a very large half-pipe that you simply have to sprint up.  I'm being facetious of course.  Sprinting up an almost vertical climb after running 11 miles is no joke.  However, this obstacle was designed because it is so difficult, most people need help getting up it and it can't be done alone.  Therefore, there were a line of men and women at the top holding their hands down and encouraging their fellow Mudders to run up and grab hold.  Right as we got there, there was an epic struggle going on up top that lasted three minutes or more as the guys at the top struggled to pull a guy over the ledge.  He had lost his grip, but they didn't let go and when they finally pulled him over, the entire crowd cheered.

I don't have a half pipe in my back yard so we mainly trained for this by doing hill sprints with very high knees.  I don't know if that helped or not, but most of us made it up Everest on the first try.  Mereth opted out after two attempts, but completing the majority of the race with a sprained ankle is pretty awesome in my opinion so she gets a pass from me.

A very happy group.
After Everest was the dreaded Electro Shock Therapy obstacle and it was only a short distance from the finish line.  Its basically a bunch of dangling yellow wires charged with 10,000 volts.  There are some bales of pine straw to keep you from running through too fast and a big puddle to make sure you get the most out of your shock.  I decided I was just going to try and run between the wires as best I could and not go too fast.  And once again, I didn't get shocked at all.  My teammates weren't so lucky, but we were all so grateful to be finally done.

For hypothermia, we moved on from swim caps to hugs.
The finishing area was probably one of the best things about the race.  When you cross the finish line, a volunteer gives you your headband and directs you into a largish area that is strictly for the race finishers.  There are tables on either side where you can get your T-shirt, your free beer, and most wonderfully, a thermal heat sheet which works far better than you think it might.  We had grand ideas about hanging out after the race that morning, but by the time we finished, we were all cold and just wanted dry clothes.  So, we took our free beers (somehow the most delicious beer I'd ever had), reclaimed our bags from the bag drop (another really awesome thing about this race), put on some warm dry clothes, and started to head back to the cars.

It was a 2.5 hour drive home from the race and we were pretty hungry so we stopped at the first fast food place we came to and got some cheeseburgers.  I wish I remembered what restaurant it was, but I suppose it didn't really matter, cheeseburgers somehow seemed like Nature's most perfect food at that point in time.  I'd have eaten three of them, but I knew we had some great food waiting at home.  It was, after all, my 40th birthday celebration and my parents had planned on feeding us all on our return to Raleigh.

This evening, I'm just past the point where my everything hurts.  I finally removed the significant amount of sand in my right ear and my bruises are just now achieving their full bloom.  I plan on taking the rest of the week off from doing anything particularly ambitious, but I am already thinking about my next training cycle.  I have another Highland Games to train for in April and I might just do the Master's National Weightlifting meet in the Spring.  But, all that remains to be seen.  One thing is for sure, I don't intend to lose this running base so I will probably be keeping a once or twice a week run in the training schedule.  However, if I start talking about doing a marathon, somebody please talk me out of it.

Monday, October 29, 2012

My Tough Mudder: Part 1

Team GeriAtrocities
Well, we finally did it. Team GeriAtrocities traveled to Society Hill, South Carolina early Saturday morning to complete the Tough Mudder Carolinas challenge and we were not disappointed.  There were eight total members on our team and we ranged in age from 39 to 46, four women and four men.  Two of our team members live outside of Charlotte and so did their training on their own.  The other six of us are in Raleigh and have spent the last 8 weeks doing some team training during which we practiced the specific skills and strength we would need for the race with obstacle training stations.

To condition ourselves for running AND strength efforts, we gradually increased the running distances between these stations as well as the total number of obstacle stations we included in each session.  We trained together once a week and started with six obstacle stations with a quarter mile run between each station.  Our last training session, the week before our challenge included fourteen obstacle stations with half mile runs as well as a couple two mile runs between each station for a total of ten miles.  I have to say that I felt that we were very well prepared for the physcial challenges of the Tough Mudder.  We had the strength and the endurance to complete all the obstacles and run the course.  This allowed us the luxury of being able to focus on the mental challenges of getting through this course.  Strategy, motivation, teamwork, suck-it-up-and-just-do-it-even-though-its-scary, and a disproportional amount of hubris regarding one's relative indestructibility are all requirements to complete the Tough Mudder.

Maxine and Suzanne hamming it up.
This was probably one of the more fun events I've participated in since I started training others four years ago.  The camaraderie was excellent all around and even the race organizers and volunteers were cheering us along the whole way.  I hate to sound like an old bitter person, but I was very pleasantly surprised with the young people at this event.  They were engaging, supportive, and always willing to lean over a muddy ditch and help us old folks out when necessary.  Our main goal in this challenge was to complete it uninjured, stay together as a team, and help out our fellow mudders when needed.  We did all those things and then some.  It was a great day overall and its going to take about a week of doing nothing but laying around and eating to recover adequately, but it was worth it.

The nerd tribe.
As far as our fellow Mudders were concerned, there were a lot of younger people at this event, both men and women.  The majority looked to be in their mid 20's to early 30's and most of them happened to be in incredible shape.  That's probably because a large number of them were military and unlike the typical thinner endurance athlete or "I'm-exercising-cause-I-need-a-six-pack" person, these folks were well muscled, athletic, and had thick strong legs that looked like they could run for days with a log or two on their backs.  There were also a lot of  fairly average physiques as well as some heavier folks who were doing quite well maintaining their runs and getting over obstacles.  We were pleased to see a good number of participants our age and older, the most awesome of which was the sixty-five year old man who got across the monkey bars in less than ten seconds while the rest of us were trying not to slip off into the water.

It was a slightly chilly day of 60 degrees with very little sun, but that didn't stop a lot of the participants from wearing little more than tiny little shorts and even a few thongs.  There was a group of young men dressed as teenage mutant ninja turtles with green bikini bottoms and turtle shells on their backs.  There was group of men and women dressed as ballerinas with matching wigs as well as a whole tribe of "nerds" complete with bow ties, glasses, and suspenders.

Me, Suzanne, random guy, and Mereth coming out of the ice.
The race itself started with an obstacle, a low, probably 7 foot wall, that we had to scale to get to the start line.  We started a few minutes after our 9:40 start time so we were well behind the wave but quickly caught up to them as there was a short back-up at the first obstacle, the Arctic Enema.  This was tough.  Its a giant industrial sized dumpster filled with ice water.  In the middle of the dumpster is a board set across the top of the water which means you have to go all the way under to get to the other side and get out.  I carried a small fanny pack with me during the race with a few items I thought I could use during the race and for this obstacle, I pulled out my swim cap. And I was so very glad I did.  I pulled it down over my ears and when I jumped into the ice bath, I got close enough to the board that I just swam under it and surfaced on the other side.  As I came up, I realized I was hyperventilating and getting very cold, very fast so I quickly pressed up out of the tank and climbed down.  I was cold.  Really cold.  But, my ears and my head were not so within a few hundred feet of running and getting through the next obstacle, crawling under barbed wire through mud, I was actually quite comfortable.  I put my cap back in my bag and kept on going.

Only a couple of miles into the race at this point, about to
hit the first set of walls.
We came to another obstacle called the Spider's web which was simply a net stretched over a cable.  This was when I started to realize what kind of teamwork was needed for this race.  The cable dipped in the middle and although the net was secured, it began to gather and it became quite difficult for people to get over it.  Several folks began to grab the sides and pull it out to provide enough tension for their fellow Mudders to get over it.  I went and did my part for a few individuals until a fellow who looked to be in his early fifties came over and both asked to take my place and told me it was my turn to go over.  Once all of us had done our turn holding the net and getting over it, we began to run again.  This time the path was muddier and we took our time.  We had our fair share of injuries to watch out for and there was no need to rush.

Maxine doesn't need any help.  
One of our team members, Maxine, who is also one of our oldest members and the most likely to have just gone and done this race on a whim with no ill effects was out in front most of the day setting the pace.  At 46 years old, Maxine is an experienced endurance athlete who has competed in multiple triathalons and both qualified for and ran the Boston marathon.  She has recently started dabbling in power lifting and at a bodyweight of 120, is already deadlifting close to 300 lbs.  She also happens to be mother to four children ages 6 to 26.  I'm going to feel like a sissy for saying this, but she had a meniscus acting up in her right knee and therefore was being cautious, but still kicked our butts on pace.

We used a little teamwork to get Mereth
 and her bad ankle up the wall.
My friend Mereth, also a seasoned triathlete and marathoner, severely sprained her ankle 2 months out from this event and still showed up to start training three weeks ago relying on duct tape to hold her ankle together.  Race day was no different.  Duct tape and a good attitude was all she needed to go the distance.
My friend Suzanne, who also happens to be the mom of my favorite weightlifting/powerlifting/pole vaulting sixteen year old girl, was also in rare form.  A seasoned runner with lots of miles and a marathon under her belt, she also works out with a trainer friend of mine five days a week training with barbells, bodyweight, and lots of enthusiasm.

I needed a little push.
Compared to these women, I am virtually crippled when it comes to endurance, but I'm pleased to say I kept up with them and the rest of the group on Saturday.  I may be slow, but I am stubborn and had a readily available supply of caffeine and sugar to motivate me.  If anyone wants to know, Sports Beans and Gatorade gels are awesome.  Speaking of refreshments, I was pleased to see that there were five break stations along the way, all of which had either bananas,  or some other kind of snack.  Two had bathrooms which was awesome for the half of our team that had given birth.

I don't know why I'm smiling, this was not terribly fun.
Well, anyway, lets get back to the obstacles.  After the Spiders Web, we ran about a mile over some nasty terrain and finally came to our first set of walls.  I could jump up and grab the wall and pull myself up, but both myself and the wall were so slick with mud I had to quickly ask a teammate to give me a little push so I could get my leg over.   We all (well, except for Maxine) required a little assistance on these two walls, but then we pressed on to the next "obstacle".

I put obstacle in quotations because Hold Your Wood was not so much an obstacle as a strength endurance challenge.  We had to select a piece of wood, or a log if we wanted, and pick it up and carry it about a third to a half mile.  These weren't particularly heavy, probably about 30-70 lbs, but they were awkward to carry.  Picking a good log was a priority here and as one of our teammates found out the hard way, deciding to carry a heavier one was, well, kind of dumb.  They don't give out manhood points on this obstacle, its just something to get through.

Just one of our shoe washing stops.  
It was after this obstacle that we had to have our first cleaning of the shoes.  Here's the thing about dirt.  It generally has three components:  clay, sand, and organic matter.  The kind of mud we were running in was largely clay and sand. The clay would wash out of our shoes on the water obstacles, but the sand would not.  Therefore, after enough mud and water, we would end up with a custom orthotic, toe pad, or random painful three dimensional torture device made entirely out of sand.  Therefore, about 4-5 times throughout the race, we were forced to stop by a pond and wash the sand out of our shoes.

Great technique by the ballerino here.  
Speaking of mud, after the log carry we moved on to the Dirty Ballerina.  This was basically trench leaping.  The trenches themselves were 3-4 feet across with 3-4 feet of dry land between.  We were encouraged to start leaping and keep going, but that's for young strong well-muscled people.  Us older folks need to exercise some caution.  Slipping off the edge of the trench could mean a disastrous injury and so we took our time and leapt over the trenches one at a time.  I may be ornery and have a heightened sense of joie de vivre, but I'm not stupid.  One of the most common injuries in these obstacle course races is ankle sprains and breaks from slipping in the mud.  An emergency visit to the hospital and orthopedist might be kind of exciting and make for good story-telling if I were a 20-something without kids, but come Monday, I, and the rest of my team, have to retake the helm of that ship called home and all its short, irrational occupants.  Therefore, caution and restraint were part of our game plan.

Following the dirty ballerina, we came to my least favorite obstacle, the Electric Eel.  We arrived to this obstacle to see a similar setup as the second obstacle:  barbed wire over mud.  However, this obstacle was different in a rather sinister way.  There was not only water on the ground, there was a fire truck spraying water all over the area where people were crawling, soaking their bodies and faces.  Dangling above them were hundreds of little yellow strings.  Only these weren't strings, they were live electrical wires.

Here's what I know about belly crawling:
1.  Its hard.
2.  I do it really slow.
3.  I don't like it.

And now, I have to crawl on my belly, under electrified wires, while being sprayed by a fire truck, through water up to my nose.  If I lift my head too high, I get shocked on my head.  Electrical shocks to the head are not pleasant.  I know this because I grew up with electric fences and when we're kids, we're all pretty dumb and kind of sadistic.

I think he got shocked.
Anyway, so there I am, sliding into the muddy water that is about six inches deep and I can see the wires dangling down.  I know if I get shocked, I will continue to get shocked until I get away from the wire.  If I get away from the wire fast, it will be because I charge head-long out of the pit and I will most likely get shocked some more.  If I put my head down to avoid the wires, I would be breathing water from both the puddle and firetruck soaking me from the right side.  I started to hyperventilate again.  This was freaking me out.  So, I did what I do best:  Avoid unpleasantries.

I got as flat as possible, turned my head slightly to the left to avoid the water spray, flattened my arms out in front of me, and began propelling myself forward with just the top half of my feet and my fingers.  When I saw a set of wires, I slithered between them.  Meanwhile the guy beside me was shrieking every time he shocked his ear, forehead, and back.  I stayed low and slithered my way out without receiving a single shock so I felt kind of like a dirty cheater, but I had a severe neck cramp, the arches of my feet were seizing up, and I could barely breathe from hyperventilating.

But, then I was out and up and running again.  I had to keep up with Maxine after all.  And into some more mud we went.  We waded down a long trench filled with a dark gray mud.  We'd so far seen yellow and black mud, this was our first experience with gray.  If you are impressed at all by geological variation, the clay on this course was all different shades of yellow, red, orange, gray, and even purple.  Since we were trying not to dislocate any joints, we had time to admire things like this.

I like his shirt.  I understand completely.
This was followed by another relatively short run and then it was time to walk the plank.  This was one obstacle I was already scared of.  Its a platform fifteen feet in the air that you have to climb up and then jump off.  There isn't a lot of room up top and there are people coming up behind you so you can't stand up there and be all nervous and indecisive, you just have to go in.  But, you're going in with at least 3 other people and the water is very deep.  I did not touch bottom despite going way under and although the water was cold, it was not horribly shocking.  There were lots of lifeguards and everyone helped each other out of the pool.  Well, it wasn't a pool so much as a big hole filled with water, but it served the same purpose.  Again, a little bit of hyperventilating after this obstacle probably from the fear of falling to my death.  When falling from a great height, the fact that its water and not concrete doesn't really comfort me much.  I'm kind of scared of heights.

After this obstacle we washed our shoes out yet again and then ran a bit more before getting to a sign that told us it was now time to carry one of our teammates an undetermined distance.  My husband, being a gentleman, had me jump on his back and carried me the next 50 yards.  I should have seen this coming, but I'm dense sometimes and didn't anticipate the sign that instructed us to switch partners.  And we were at the bottom of a kind of steep hill.  Well, it wasn't that steep, but I had my husband on my back.  In his defense, he was against the idea altogether, but again, I'm stubborn and didn't want to look like a sissy so I carried him up the hill on my back.

And then, without warning, a miracle happened.  We rounded a corner and there was a row of porta-potties.  And beyond that, a water station with bananas and protein bars.  It was like an oasis in a desert of mud and suffering.  We stopped briefly for all calls of nature and then continued on to the second round of Berlin Walls.

These walls were high, I think it said they were nine feet, but I think they were ten.  We all needed help getting over these, but there were plenty of people to help both on and off our team.  The strategy that worked best here was for two of us to put our backs to the wall and get down in a half squat.  The person going over the wall would then step onto our hands which were on one knee and then up to our shoulders until they could grab the top of the wall.  We then continued to push them up until they were able to get over it.  The drop off the other side was a concern as well.  Dropping three feet to the ground may not be that bad, but with fatigued ankles, it is easy to twist or sprain something.  Needless to say, we got through this just fine.

And then it was time for the Cliff Hanger.  This should have been called the "Muddy Cliff Net Climbing Mud Climb.  You basically slid down a hill into a pit of mud and then had to climb back out on a cargo net that was practically embedded in the side of the opposing hill.  It wasn't that bad, but was very slick and you had to be very careful getting up the net.  As the guy overseeing this obstacle told us, "Be careful sliding down the other side, you'll tear your pants and I've see a lot of butts today."

Log Jammin' was next and was actually a pleasant suprise.  Generally speaking, over under type obstacles are horrible.  They are exhausting and require that you continually climb over and then under a series of barriers.  It doesn't look that bad, but halfway through, your muscles are telling you to stop and you can't breathe.  I've seen similar obstacles on a number of obstacle course races and they are always far more taxing than one initially thinks.  For this reason, I built a fence in my backyard to train this particular race demand.  And it paid off.  We got through the logs without really getting tired or out of breath and hit the trail running.  I did have to get a boost over one of the higher barriers, but for the most part, this was pretty easy.

Everyone had been very helpful up to this point, but the Mud Mile was another opportunity to see the incredible teamwork that this race encourages.  The mud here was back to gray and what we encountered was a series of trenches about waist deep with low muddy hills to periodically climb over.  It was slick and the trenches were hard at times to climb out of because there was nothing solid to grab and you'd slide right back down.  There were a lot of helping hands here and we pulled each other and a lot of our fellow Mudders along the way.  We came out of this obstacle and started to run and it was at least a mile before we finally got to the next obstacle.  At this point we were about seven miles down and the water obstacles began to get a bit more frequent.  The wind was picking up and the mud coat we acquired  to protect us from the wind and cold began to get washed off with more frequency and we began to feel the effects of the cold.  I made Suzanne put on a swim cap because her face was turning blue and it seemed to do the trick.  Remember when our moms would always make us wear a hat when we were cold?  I've turned into my mother.  And she was right.

I'm going to leave this for now.  We had actually gone through about 14 obstacles by this point but a lot were crawling through mud, tunnels, muddy tunnels, and more mud so they all kind of blurred together.  The next installment will be all about the last four miles, water, swimming, more mud, hypothermia, muscle cramps, electrocution, and beer.  And maybe cheeseburgers.  Stay tuned.