As athletes, specifically multi-sport, multi-tackers, multi-crazy, we tend to compulsively follow our numbers, and even (at times), track the numbers of our counterparts. We live by our heart rate, our power output, how many gels consumed, hours between workouts, interval minutes, times spent in heart rate zones, weekly volume, races per year, hours in the saddle - you get the drift.
And for what?
Well, for one thing, it's simply a part of the sport. It's what we do. We are assigned a workout for X amount of time, to be spent in Y heart rate zone, with our end numbers totaling Z. Or at least that's the goal. It's one of the ways we measure improvement, we track our progress.
Additionally with this information, we can make changes, adjust our schedule.
Bike power needs improvement? Let's spend more time in zone 3 and 4, with rpms steady between 80-90.
Run cadence a little slow? Let's add drills, specifically aiming to hold 20-22 foot strikes per 15 seconds, on a run lasting no more than 40 minutes.
But what happens if our numbers are off? What if we fail at meeting our numbers, or can't seem to hold onto those precious zones?
What kind of athletes are we?
Well, for starters, we're human.
My day started with a trip to the bathroom scale. I have a love/hate relationship with my weight, as I think a lot of people do in general. As someone who has been heavier at times, I know all too well what it feels like to be overweight, regarded as "fat." I have worked hard to be the weight that I am, and try to remain as healthy as possible in the process.
For the past year, my weight has pretty much stabilized, and I only experience a few minor fluctuations. Most notably after Gulf Coast Half Ironman, where a 9 pound upwards swing after the race due to a sever fluid imbalance (because of scorching hot temperatures), left me pretty much dazed. Luckily, my weight stabilized after a few days as my body recovered from the heat and effort.
Today, as luck would have it, I didn't experience an upward swing of 9 pounds. Instead, it was 4. 4 pounds difference from 2 days ago??? WTF? What have I done?
My mind raced as I looked at the numbers, immediately trying to figure out what was wrong with me.
My Rational Self was left speechless, unable to offer any words of encouragement, as my Irrational Side took over. 4 pounds? 4 effing pounds? You have GOT to be kidding me! You are the worst person when it comes to your weight! See, I KNEW this would happen after you ate Chocolate Santa's head! And that glass of wine you had 2 days ago - that'll teach you? You are fat, you are slow, and you will never be fast - not at this rate. Not at this weight!
I was speechless. I regarded myself in the mirror. I didn't look any different? I certainly didn't feel any different, except for maybe a little bit of fluid retention in my legs and fingers (my wedding band was more snug than it usually is).
As I made eye contact with the scared girl in the mirror, I could see the her fear, and feel the pain from the awful thoughts. Her blue eyes met my own, and very quietly, very softly, the Rational Self made her presence felt.
"It's okay...it's only a number, only part of who you are. You ate after 9 pm yesterday, and surely the two whole wheat Mexican salad tortillas were heavy on the sodium. And beans. And grilled chicken. And tomatoes. And lettuce. And salsa... Although they were healthy, they packed a powerful punch. You completed 3 workouts yesterday, 2 the day before that. There's absolutely NOTHING to suggest in ANY possible way that what you ate made you gain 4 pounds. It is not possible for you to have consumed an extra 14,000 calories for that to have happened. If that was the case, there would be no way could could move. You've been eating a lot of pickles, lately, and they have a high salt content. It's only a number, and in two days, it'll be different. Just be patient, just give it time. You are not the number on the scale..."
Thank goodness my RS was able to talk over my IS, as I don't know where I would have been otherwise. Granted, the number on the scale was just that - a number. Then why did I still feel so bad?
Try as hard as I might, it's difficult for me to not base my self worth on the number on the scale. And THAT, my friends, is really sad. I'm working on this, and it's a struggle on those days when the number is higher than I want it to be. I think as athletes - in a sport where typically (note I say typically, but its not true in every case) - the lighter athlete, the leaner athlete, the healthier athlete, usually wins. And I am guilty of falling into this trap. I work so hard at watching what I eat, making sure I take care of myself, completing my workouts, watching my body, that when the number on the scale doesn't reflect my work ethic and drive, it's easy for me to get a bit down.
But I tried not to let it bother me as I got ready for my workout.
On today's agenda was a 2.5 hour brick. 60 minute bike in heart rate zone 3 followed by a 90 minute run in heart rate zones 3-4. Additionally, I was supposed to practice race nutrition and focus on recovery for 2 hours after the workout.
As it was rainy, cool, and soggy (overcast, dower, damp, foggy, call it what you may!), I had no motivation to drive :35 minutes to the trail head and do my brick up in Milton. 60 minutes on the trainer is pretty easy, even if it means holding a higher heart rate. I figured I could do the run from our place, making a loop or two up on the hills of UWF (University of West Florida).
I wrote my heart rate zones and workout on one of the white boards, along with a few encouraging quotes (HTFU!). For 60 painful bike minutes, I stared at the following:
Bike: 60 min zone 3 = 158-164
Run: 90 min zone 3-4 = 165-173, 174-180
PRACTICE RACE DAY NUTRITION!
My bike was hard, no way around it. I spent 5 minutes warming up in zone 1, and then another 5 minutes in zone 2, until my body gradually shifted into the upper 150s. I kept up shifting, chugging along at bigger gears simultaneously maintaining 93+ rpms. It was a battle, through and through. For the first 20 minutes of so, I barely registered 158, and felt as though my legs would not last much longer in an even higher gear.
"I have another 2+ hours to go. Be patient. Once you hit the heart rate, you stay there. Keep the rpms high, the power going, and it'll work out. Just be patient. HTFU and keep going. Your body WILL hit the zones - it always does in this gear, just be patient."
At one point I saw the word "CAN'T" on my other motivational board, and couldn't stop fixating on it. "I can't do this. This is too much for my body to handle. Can't get through this."
After assessing my situation, I finally told myself to HTFU, took in my first gel, and after 25 minutes or so, I was hovering at 160/161 bpm. I determined that having a negative attitude for a 2.5 hour-long break through workout was not the way to go, as zone 3 and zone 4 are painful enough - even in the best of moods.
Thankfully, the rest of the workout was uneventful. My mind was quiet, had accepted the task at hand. To pass the rest of the time, I constantly monitored my numbers. Even though I was at or around 160 bpm, my heart rate would still drop to 158, 157 at times if I lowered my cadence. In turn, I monitored my rpms, increasing from 93-97. I was still in the big ring - what gear, I have no idea (not too good with the gearing thing. I can change out my rear cassette from one wheel to another, but can't tell you which gear is which. Thankfully, I know when I'm in "the big ring" or the "little one" - that's much more obvious!).
So these numbers I kept watching, more obsessively as the minutes ticked off. I kept glancing at the minutes on my watch, how much time had elapsed, noting my heart rate, keeping track of my cadence. Once I hit 50 minutes, I took in another gel, and settled in for the final 10 minute push.
My last minutes on the bike, I spent downshifting, but keeping the rpms high. I knew that the run would be tough, and wasn't willing to start on heavy legs. For the final minute my heart rate dipped below zone 3, but held steady just under 150 bpm.
After the final seconds, I clicked off my watch, happy with my effort. It had been a struggle, but I felt all the better for persevering through. I wasn't easy, and I had found myself (on more than one occasion), having to quiet my mind, silence the doubts that kept creeping forward. I was really ecstatic about the last 40 minutes, as my heart rate had remained (for the most part) in zone 3.
Eagerly, like a little kid awaiting Christmas presents, I checked my watch data.
My grin quickly slid off my face, as I came to terms with what I was seeing: 156 heart rate average, 163 heart rate max, 1:00:01.
It could have read 120 avg heart rate, as far as I was concerned. I had failed, despite my best efforts. The numbers had eluded me, and I didn't achieve my workout heart rate. I had pushed, and pushed, been a slave to my numbers, but still the golden 158 heart rate or higher had slipped beyond my grasp. 2 beats short.
What did that make me?
I struggled with this idea as I changed out of my biking gear and quickly threw on my run clothes and shoes. I grabbed my trusty camel back (no water stops on UWF, and as I had been instructed to practice "race day nutrition", I wasn't taking any chances. Besides, my stomach doesn't cope well with gels and NO water), 3 various flavors of gel, wrote down my bike numbers, reset the watch, and was out the door.
Before even starting the bike, I had decided to spend the first 10 minutes of the run getting acclimated, letting my body warm up into its running groove. I knew that I would be covering between 12 and 13 miles, and it was just a matter of time before I inevitably hit my assigned heart rate. So I spent 10 minutes building from the 140s into the 150s, passed by my first mile marker in just over 7 minutes, and felt (finally) that I was coming into myself.
My camel back sloshed merrily away, the the gels in my pocket kept cadence with my stride (92 rpm, in case you're wondering).
I hit the UWF Campus in just over 14 minutes (my 2 mile marker), noted my time, and did a double take when I saw my heart rate. I was still in the upper 150s, barely cracking 160. My running zone 3 started at 165, and I knew I would have to up it a bit if I wanted to achieve my objectives.
For the briefest of moments, I felt the old negativity, bad self-talk returning. It was as though my Irrational Self was trying to resurface, bring back those elements of doubt. "You can't maintain a zone 3 pace. It's too hard. And your body is too tired. 90 minutes is a long way to go - remember how awful you felt a few days ago spending 50 minutes in zone 3? This is nearly double. And besides, think of how much harder you'll have to run to combat those 4 extra pounds you're carrying..."
I bit my lip, felt my chest tighten, and struggled to hold back tears.
Why was I doing this? What purpose did this serve? What was I trying to accomplish?
If the goal was to make myself feel as bad as possible, the mission was already well accomplished. Okay, sure - I was 4 pounds heavier, didn't meet my zone 3/158 heart rate bike set - but what did this mean?
Was I a "bad person" because I didn't hit my numbers?
Am I a failure as a triathlete because my weight was higher than I wanted?
Am I a bad biker, because I was 2 beats below my zone 3 heart rate minimum?
So - what gives? Why am I beating myself up? This has absolutely no forbearance whatsoever on what kind of a person I am.
And then, my Rational Self took over, once again. She countered that my weight is always in fluctuation, that doing this Ironman training thing is new, and that my body is adapting just as much as my mind is. She reasoned that the first 10 minutes of my bike had been in a significantly lower heart rate, and that for the main set of the workout, I had undoubtedly hit my heart rate goal. It just wasn't apparent because I didn't hop on the bike and immediately start cracking out 158 bpm. If anything, what I did was reasonable, and responsible: I let myself warm up and then started my set.
The way that I looked at it, I had a choice: I could choose to be upbeat for the final 70 minutes of my run, pushing myself as much as my body would tolerate, or I could decide that I sucked and that zone 3 was too hard.
Thankfully, I choose option number 1.
And as soon as I made that choice, I relaxed and felt my pace increase. Yes, the hills were still a killer and I watched my heart rate jump up and down depending on the terrain, but I refused to be mad because I couldn't meet my assigned heart rate. For all I knew my Mexican taco dinner the night before had given me an extra boost of energy - my body using the extra water efficiently. Additionally, the "cooler" temperatures made it difficult for my heart rate to achieve a certain level, as I'm used to training in warmer weather.
There were too many circumstances, too many different things that could have thrown my body for a loop.
And while I couldn't control my heart rate, couldn't play "the numbers game" the way I wanted, I could control my mind, my pace.
With a positive mental outlook, I kept hitting each mile marker at or below the 7-minute threshold. In spite of my heart rate holding slightly below zone 3, I was ticking off great times, feeling good, following my nutrition, and pushing my pace at every opportunity that I could. I charged up the hills, leaned forward on the downhills, and felt myself fly during the brief periods of flat section.
All in all, it was a great run - but I still remained a captive to my numbers.
During the final 2 miles, I kept checking and re-checking my heart rate. I was running a 6:52 and 6:45 pace respectively, but still my bpm didn't budge much above 164. I felt myself getting extremely frustrated, and had to remind myself to, "hang in there" and that "the workout is almost over."
But in spite of the fact that I was turning in a great run at a great pace after a solid bike effort, I was still unhappy, unsatisfied with my performance.
When I finally hit the 1:30 mark, I stopped my watch, and immediately felt the tears welling up in my eyes as my chest constricted. I placed my hands on my knees, shivering in the cold rain, as hot tears poured down my flushed cheeks.
I was incredibly frustrated.
Even before looking at my heart rate data, I knew (yet again) I had failed to achieve my heart rate zones. I felt like a failure. In spite of my best efforts, in spite of running nearly 1/2 marathon in 1:30 a lower heart rate, I was still upset with my performance.
I didn't get it. I averaged 160, maxed out at 168, but wasn't anywhere close to averaging 165. I was angry, I was frustrated, I was mad.
After a few minutes of walking around outside, letting the misty rain soak my seething body, my mood began to lighten up.
There was nothing I could do about my heart rate. I don't know why it was so low, can't explain the reasoning behind the numbers. But what I DID know, was that I gave it my best effort. I didn't leave anything out there; my tank was on empty, in spite of the 3 gels and camel back.
What have I concluded?
Well, for starters - that I am so much more than a number. A number is what? A measurement? A value?
Is it an indication of our self worth?
Am I a bad person if I don't hit my zones?
If my weight is higher than the previous day, does that make me slow or fat?
So why do numbers have such a draw over us? Is it only for the aforementioned reasons in the beginning of this post? Or is there some greater meaning to discover?
You know, I'm really not sure. I can't speak for everyone out there, only myself. And I know that today, even though I wasn't able to hit my target numbers, wasn't able to reach the assigned heart rate, it doesn't make me any less of a triathlete.
What I DO know, is that I didn't leave anything to chance. I pushed my body to new levels, and I grew in the process. My numbers, my heart rate may have indicated a failure to achieve a certain result, but my body, my mind were successful because I worked my hardest.
Could I have gone faster? Would my numbers, my heart rate have been higher?
Perhaps... - but during the workout, I was constantly evaluating my performance, constantly assessing my body. My tempo felt fast, and I covered more ground on this specific workout than ever before. Even though the numbers didn't necessarily match up, I didn't leave anything to chance. I didn't want to end the workout, and wonder "if" I had gone faster...
I've learned that you can't judge a book by its covers. Same way that you can't always look at someone Else's performance and think I could do better than that, go faster than that. Because conditions change, we change, and oftentimes the surface doesn't reveal what's truly going on within.
In the end, I'll record my numbers, note the workout data, and analyze my totals. But they won't change who I am, what I'm about.
I'm still a good, ethical, moral person.
I am worth more than my weight, worth more than my heart rate.
My friends and family will still love me for who I am, not the numbers I put out.
My bike, my running shoes, my favorite pair of jeans will still be there tomorrow, and will still fit my body.
Numbers are simply part of the sport, part of how we judge ourselves. But they only scratch the surface. Yes, they reveal a bit about us, on a specific day at a specific time. Our numbers are only a small part of who we are, not the other way around.
If you believe otherwise, I strongly suggest you read "We" by Yevgeny Zamyatin. OneState, although an interesting study, doesn't seen to be as "utopian" a society as it claims to be. People are assigned numbers, based largely on their physical attributes. The dystopian classic is thought to be the inspiration for George Orwell's "1984."
Take your pick between the two.
Me, well - I'll be doing something else. Something that doesn't involve numbers, heart rates, zones, or anything of the sort. Tomorrow is another day, a chance to start anew.
The numbers can and will change. I, however, will remain pretty much the same. And that, is something that makes me happy.