Saturday, August 30, 2008

Learning to be a Stronger Swimmer

For the month of August, I swam more than 100,000 meters. However, in a way, that is nothing special. I have gotten so used to just going through the motions of swimming, that I can do this kind of training week in, week out without feeling any muscular discomfort. At the same time, I am not really getting any faster.

So, now I have to crank "it" up. Exactly what "it" means, I am not so sure. However, I read that to get faster, I need to train faster, and to get faster I need to get stronger and to get stronger I need to swim faster, etc. I measured myself today, and while I am between 192cm and 193 cm tall, if I lie on the ground and stretch out my hands, the distance from middle finger tip to middle finger tip is 202cm. So while is those respects I am not that different from some of the taller, elite swimmers, I am a lot weaker, and a lot slower.

Each day during the last week, I have been doing sets and taking rests in between them, sometimes more than one minute. So after the first three days I was on 12,600 meters (Tues, Wed, Thurs). On Friday, I covered 4,250 meters, and while I felt tired and slow that day, at least I was doing things, like 150s and 100s and 50s towards the end. On Saturday, I swam 4,350 meters, and the last 1,000 or so was mostly 100m or less at a time. Today, Sunday, I swam a total of 3,850 meters (I overslept slightly, thus reducing the available time for training). At the end of the practice today, I raced my friend over 100m, and although I barely broke 1m 30s, at least I got several fairly fast 100s, 50s and 25s in beforehand. So my swim total for the week was 25,050 meters, slightly less than in previous weeks, but then I need to focus a little more on speed now. Two "hard" 50s appear a lot harder than an "easy" 100.

While my goal may be to become an open water swimmer, speed work is important. For one thing, incorporating it in training may raise the overall pace on a long swim. In addition, it has tactical advantages. By being able to shift gears now and then, maybe I can catch on to a good draft. Then, near the end of the swim, I hopefully can outsprint the person I drafted off most of the race and then run hard up the beach to finish in a higher position.

I'm not thinking of trying to beat Alain Bernard (pictured above), the Frenchman who won gold in the 100m freestyle in Beijing in 47.21 seconds I think, but at least I hope I can learn a few things from him, without throwing up my breakfast in the process if at all possible.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Basic Workouts in Busy Times

This is not a particularly good picture, since it was probably taken from a moving bus. Anyway, it is one Hsiu-chin sent me from the Philippines where she is currently (together with the new camera that we bought!). She informed me that where she was staying there were no hot showers. This reminds me of trips I have made in the past to Indonesia and Thailand, where we stayed either a long way out of town or else the people who made arrangements for us did so with a view to keeping costs down to a minimum. Of course, we generally had to endure those kinds of living conditions for a few weeks at the most. For a lot of people, living like that is a way of life.

In Taiwan these last few days, there has been a lot of news and speculation (just how close anything is to being proved is hard to say), that certain members of the former president's family, who all had quite humble beginnings, have been stashing away millions of US dollars in Swiss bank accounts, in the Cayman Islands and large sums of money have even been transferred through financial giants such as Merrill Lynch, causing some to wonder what kinds of internal controls exist in such organizations. Anyway, the last few days have given us ordinary folk the opportunity to see how some people live, having millions in various secret bank accounts, living in luxury accommodation, eating in fine restaurants, wearing expensive Rolex watches and never having to do any work. On the other hand, a lot of people have been protesting, asking the government to raise the minimum wage. These are the people who have to work hard and who are getting less and less in real terms as the prices of food and gasoline continue to increase, and some of their earnings are allegedly siphoned abroad by unscrupulous moneygrubbers.

I consider myself fortunate in that, while I have to work, at least I can enjoy a hot shower at the swimming pool or at home, and I don't need to resort to credit cards unless purely for the convenience of using one. I wonder what these people with all these assets who have never worked do with their lives. They must be pretty miserable, I think. I'd rather spend my time swimming than prancing around some upscale shopping mall in Manhattan, even if I had other people's money to spend.

This week has gone quite well, although I am busy with work (so little "free" time) and I also have to cook (and buy) almost all my food while Hsiu-chin is away. The boys do help, being fairly good at shopping and cooking when they feel so inclined, but they keep different hours from me and often go out with their friends. So at times I feel a little hungry, mainly because I just get sick of preparing things all the time. Although Hsiu-chin did not always cook, at least the meals she made were tasty.

To maintain my sanity, I continue with the morning swims, but that is about it. On Tuesday, 4,300 meters, on Wednesday, 4,100 meters, and today (Thursday), 4,200 meters. I have been trying to break up the workout so that I am not just doing long, slow distance swimming. Maybe the first half of it is pretty consistent and relaxed, but I gradually start taking rests and then do sets of 250s, 150s, 100s and 50s, where I gradually increase the pace. I have not set any records this week. I "raced" my friend over 200 meters each day, and my times have been either 3m 07s or 3m 08s. I feel I am just hanging in there this week, while I try and get on with and finish various jobs that have been coming in. I don't know when things will get easier, but at least I will continue to have one swim practice each day when the pool is open.

I read on Bree's blog that she plans to do the Kentucky Ironman this coming Sunday, having had to pull out of Ironman Canada. I am glad she gets another chance to qualify for Kona, although it must still be a big challenge. These are long races. I wish her all the best and will lose a little sleep Sunday night (in Taiwan) to follow her progress.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Competing and Failing

Bree Wee, Professional Triathlete and Amateur Hawaii Ironman Course Record Holder

The Olympics of course had many outstanding successes, but there were also the failures (excuse me for the negativity implied by such a word, but it is hard to cover it up for what it is). Like the sprint team members in contention for a medal who dropped the baton, or the girl who hit the last hurdle, or the guy who pulled his hamstring and couldn't even get over the first hurdle when it mattered. Probably what weighs more on my mind over the last day or so is Bree's having to pull out (or be pulled out) of Ironman Canada due to getting sick after more than her fair share of adversity (a flat, mechanical problems, a bee sting, etc.)

When I did the Kona Ironman, they told us that just getting to the start line was a major accomplishment. In fact for me, just finishing was the main goal. The first time I made it (after being on the verge of exhaustion for many hours) with just 17 minutes to spare to the cut-off. On my second attempt, despite a good swim and bike, knee pain prevented me from running, and while walking in pain was possible, it took too long to get to each aid station and I also started to feel cold, so by about 9 pm I felt so sick and dizzy I felt I would pass out. I felt I failed, because my children and friends had all gone to the finish line to wait for me, and I never came (except by ambulance).

A well-known saying goes: "If you aim at nothing, you will be sure to hit it." For many of us, at least in many areas of our lives, that is precisely what we do. In sports, however, if we wish to improve, we have to set ourselves goals, but they have to be realistic enough so that we can be challenged to reach new heights while at the same time not getting too discouraged or else just driving ourselves into the ground.

This year, several of my acquaitances were unable to swim across the English Channel when they were scheduled to do so, and some did not even get their feet wet. The generally unstable weather had a big part to play in this. Then Bree had a verybusy, in my opinion, first year as a pro Ironman-distance triathlete, which had its ups and downs. At least two brilliant races, but she missed the Kona slot by a fraction in one. Then she had a bout of sickness (actually two) each of which would certainly not have helped much with all the training needed. Then there were the mechanical problems with the bike, just when they weren't needed, plus maybe the added pressure that they created that got to her stomach.

I think a big difference between being a pro and an age grouper is that, for someone who is a resident of Hawaii, it is relatively easy to qualify for Ironman (not in every age group of course), but I was a relative newbie and I qualified in three out of four consecutive years. However, for Bree as a pro, the competition for a slot was that much more intense. There were three slots at IMC, and the fifth place woman got the third slot (the other two girls apparently had already won their slots in other races). The fifth place finisher, Lisa Bentley, a seasoned veteran, incidentally went 9hr 42m, which is still a pretty hard time to beat just to get a slot for Kona.

I guess that is the stuff competitions are made of. The people we saw in the finals of swimming or track at the Olympics were usually the best in their respective disciplines that the world had to offer. So many others had trained for years only to never make it.

Still, losing maybe should not matter, as sports are only games, and we saw many good examples of sportsmanship on TV where people acted graciously in losing. There were also a few who were not so gracious, and that not only made the viewers a little uncomfortable, but also did not help the competitors themselves to come to terms with what happened. Perhaps it is wrong to say that they were only playing games. Many were out competing, having trained full-time for years and feeling a sense of duty to repay their country, families or sponsors or whoever else for all the help received along the way. Indeed, I think a lot of people competed under a lot of pressure, which might not have been the intention in having the games in the first place. I might add, that Bree always seeks the best interests of those she competes against. There is never any sense of animosity, and her great attitude is evidenced by the many friends she has both in and out of the sport. For her, I guess it must be a great pity that there are such things as slots. Why can't just everyone join in a race? Why not, indeed?

In my own swimming training this year, I have tried to be realistic in goal setting, attempting to at least see improvement without constantly berating myself for being unable to reach some standard that I think I should be able to reach but without doing the necessary training or needed conditions. Yesterday, I swam a total of 4,000 meters (this time mostly faster swims of 500m followed by about a minute's rest), which ended with a 200m meter "race" that I completed in 3m 04s, equal to my fastest time for that distance so far. That brought my swimming for the week to 28,050 meters.

However, that is about as much as I can do for the moment. Some mornings when I woke up last week, I wondered if I would be better off just staying in bed. I had a fairly heavy cold most days, and most of my waking hours apart from swimming were spent working (always plenty of it) or watching the Olympics or resting (during those times when I could not really function effectively at anything). I don' t like to feel very tired especially later in the day after a workout. I am not young and so I often wonder if something terrible might happen to me. It is for this reason that I have set swimming goals to be accomplished over the space of one year or so. Of course, I might accomplish them sooner, but I don't want to give myself that extra pressure. If I don't get my 200m swim down to 2m 50s by the end of this year, then doing so by the middle of next year will be just as good. It is important to get it down there and then maintain it, so that it is not just a one-off achievement. Now, there remain just 14 seconds....

I wish Bree all the best as she mulls over her training and race schedule. At least she won't have to wait another four years. I also hope the English Channel weather gets better for the month of September so that many aspirants at least have a fair chance of making it across.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Finding Another Harry

Steve Hooker of Australia after a successful pole vault at the Olympics in Beijing last night. He not only got gold, only starting to jump when most other competitors had already been eliminated, but also broke the Olympic Record by clearing 5.96 meters on his last jump. While I seldom watch this sport, it was very entertaining watching the event unfold. I, for one, will miss the Olympics after they are over.

I have had a busy week workwise, plus a heavy cold, so my "Swim Camp" was cut somewhat short. Still, maybe I will do it again in a couple of weeks. Having covered 11,050 meters in the first two days (Tuesday and Wednesday), I did 4,100 meters on Thursday which culminated in a "relaxed and efficient" 200m in 3m 07s. On Friday, I got out of bed slightly earlier (though still lacking sleep) and covered 4,700 meters. At the end my friend and I raced the 200m and I again did it in 3m 07s, beating him by about 2 seconds, as opposed to 5 seconds the day before. This morning, while still feeling the effects of my cold, I covered 4,200 meters in all. Over the first 3k or so, I maintained a good steady pace (slightly faster than usual) in part because I was pulling two other swimmers and when the slower ones saw us coming they moved over to let us pass. At the end, however, I covered the 200m "race" in a slower 3m 14s, while my friend did a personal best of 3m 04s, equalling my best time of a couple or more weeks ago. I think I was a bit tired and maybe not motivated enough as I had not done any speedwork today.

When I lived and trained over a period of several years in Kona, I would often train with a friend called Harry, as we saw each other a lot and our speeds and desire for hard training on a regular basis were very similar. We also did most races together and so the Peaman or Mango race was as much a competition against each other as against anyone else. We also occasionally learned to work together which helped in the smaller races. While at times I beat him, on the whole he was the stronger athlete, and despite being younger and taller, somehow I never reached the stage where I could consistently beat him.

After returning to Taiwan last year, I did not feel very motivated to do anything. I no longer had a bike, and running alone on very steep inclines (around where we used to live) alone did not appeal to me, and I opted to walk instead and enjoy the scenery and also take some work along with me into the hills. Then, of course, I was particularly busy getting the old house ready for selling, and if I wasn't my doing the work myself, then I was paying huge sums of money having things done professionally.

When we moved down to Kaohsiung early this year, I had one or two opportunities to join a few members of the expatriate community to swim or to run. However, everything involved a lot of time just getting to a venue or else being forced to sit around drinking beer that I really looked forward to going back to Kona. Fortunately, I quickly found out about an indoor 25m pool nearby and while at first I went in the afternoons and swam some and did not talk to anyone, after I went in the early mornings, I met this guy who at the end of a workout challenged me to a 50m race. Well, a little race at the end of the pool session when the lanes became clear became a kind of ritual each day (we rarely miss a workout), and I now realize that I have found a new "Harry", or at least a swimming one. He is still faster than me over 100m, and now we share the same time for the 200m (freestyle). He thinks that I would beat him at anything longer because I cover roughly twice as much distance as him in our workouts. While he has trained as a swim coach and can swim all four strokes quite well, as with many people here he is not particularly motivated to increase his speed as there are few opportunities for him to race here. If people are not planning to go to the Olympics, or they are beyond the prime time of their youth (my coach friend's daughter will soon finish elementary school), they are considered to be "old" and there is nothing for them. This is a great pity. I looked at the qualifying times for US Nationals, and there is not much difference in times for people aged 25 and 55 in the longer freestyle swims. This goes to show that many Americans maintain their speed and fitness through most of their life. I think very few people in Taiwan realize that there is more to exercise than just swinging their arms to music in the park once they reach middle age.

So in a sense, while I don't think we are really trying to beat each other on these swims, I am getting good training and if we continue to improve in this way, then I will have a better chance of beating the real Harry when I make it back to Kona, even if just for a visit.

Meanwhile, I plan to run a marathon in early November in Taiwan (just try to go slowly without a lot of training), and I hope to at least have a bike by the end of the year so that I can consider applying for Ironman Japan next year. In that way, maybe I can just be part of something bigger as opposed to just seeing every day as just so many meters and a personal time for a specified distance. If anyone wants to race Ironman Japan next year, then hopefully we will meet there.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Congratulations Simon Whitfield & Swim Camp News

I know he was beaten close to the finish, but what I find remarkable about Simon Whitfield (whom many of us who have lived and trained in Hawai'i and know or have seen race personally), is that he won gold in Sydney in the year 2000. So eight years later he is still right up there, bagging the silver medal and missing gold by only five seconds. That is truly inspiring.

Recently I wrote about having a Swim Camp this week, which really meant extra training sessions at the pool on my own. Well, this week has proved a difficult week for doing it. First, I have been inundated with work, much of which is quite urgent and, secondly, I have quite a heavy cold, probably because one of our sons had one a few days ago. Thirdly, the pool was really crowded in the afternoon when I went for that extra session. It is August after all and there are so many kids there, too.

On Monday morning, I did my usual steady workout, covering a total of 4,650 meters, which included a 200 meter race in 3m 08s at the end of it. Then in the afternoon I returned to the pool. Due to the crowded conditions, I decided to do 50s fairly fast (using more of a power stroke as opposed to swimming easy). In this way I could wait until there was sufficient distance between me and the next swimmer to at least get a good start and I could regularly review lane conditions. I covered a total of 2,000 meters in this way. It was not all 50 meter swims, as when conditions got better I occasionally did a more gentle 200 meters.

This morning (Wednesday), I clearly felt a little more sluggish and my pace was a little slower. I covered a total of 4,400 meters and near the end my friend and I raced over 200m. I went 3m 14s, which shows that I still felt rather beat. However, I realize that when I recover from all of that, I will be a little stronger and possibly faster.

What I learned so far, is that some speed work with fairly lengthy rests between swims is beneficial to me and will help me get the strength I need to swim faster and hopefully break 3 minutes for 200 meters. I also realized that there is no point trying to push myself too much when I am busy with work, etc., as I need more rest and there is no need to put myself under a lot of pressure. So hopefully in the coming weeks there will be more time to devote to these extra workouts, and then there should also be fewer people at the pool (after schools start up again).

I might add that the extra workouts or distance have not affected me in terms of injuring me. Like anything, if we build up gradually there is no reason why we cannot do more workouts. Just listen to your body.

All the best to Bree in Penticton. It is a big race for her as she competes with many fantastic athletes for three Kona slots. In addition, Congratulations to Lisa for finishing the Beijing Olympic triathlon despite having a nasty fall off the bike. Everyone in Holland and Canada (where she resides) is proud of you (as are many people elsewhere)!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Putting Money in the Bank

As I prepare for my week "more focused swim training", I was particularly impressed by a quote from Michael Phelps (probably now the foremost authority on swimming!) who said: "Bob (Bowman) has a saying, "Putting money in the bank"." I had heard of this before and have even used the expression in my blog before (at least I think so), but I did not realize it was Michael's long time swim coach, Bob, who said it. So I decided to go through my blog records and try to find out how much money I have been putting into my swim bank. The weekly summaries are as follows:

Apr 16-Apr 21 18,500 meters
Apr 23-Apr 28 20,900 meters
Apr 30-May 04 20,800 meters
May 6-May 11 28,100 meters
May 13-May 18 19,725 meters
May 20-May 25 30,750 meters
May 27-June 01 31,150 meters (a record)
June 02-June 08 21,150 meters
June 10-June 15 23,800 meters
June17-June 22 21,900 meters
June 24-June 29 29,100 meters
July 01-July 06 24,000 meters
July 08-July 13 19,950 meters
July 15-July 20 23,550 meters
July 22-July 27 26,750 meters
July 29-Aug 03 26,150 meters
Aug 05-Aug 10 26,300 meters
Aug 12-Aug 17 26,450 meters

If I added up correctly, that gives a total of 439,025 meters (439 km or some 273 miles) in 18 weeks, which is a couple of days over 4 months. I started going to the pool in early March, but I did not keep records for the first several weeks. In any case, the first couple of weeks I was doing more like 8,000 to 10,000 meters a week at the most, and I only "broke the 4000m barrier (for a day's swimming)" on April 24. The first few weeks I was just getting back into swimming after not swimming since the Hapuna Beach swim in Hawaii on July 01, 2007, in which I did relatively poorly compared to previous attempts at that race.

Training in swimming is a learning process, and from all the workouts, the blogging about it and comments and encouragement from friends, as well as the Olympics, I have learned a great deal. However, I feel I am only just beginning, and there is so much more to learn, and so I will try to swim more this week, while at the same time trying to continue to put money into my real bank account, too. Of particular note is that I went through "shoulder problems" during the first two weeks of June, but I adjusted my approach to warming up and have not had any discomfort since. I can't wait to get in the pool tomorrow!

When we engage in some activity and persist in it, whether it be swimming, learning Chinese, or cooking or whatever, we will certainly see improvements. The big deciding factor is whether we keep at it, for "Where there is a will, there is a way (有志者事竟成)." When I first started to learn Chinese, I just bought a book called "Teach Yourself Chinese" and it was a real struggle. However, my passion and determination led me to study under some of whom I consider to have been the best teachers of Chinese in Taiwan, and then to continue with my language studies after language school when my energies were mostly focused on making a living.

It is probably not surprising that I feel euphoric these days - the Olympic Games being held in Beijing and my watching all the TV coverage in Taiwan with Chinese commentators. I truly feel I am in the right place at the right time. Swim training should be a lot of fun, and my only regret is that some of my equally inspired friends cannot join me for it. I will continue to put pennies into the (swim) bank, and I hope one day I can hit the jackpot in a swim race.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Forever Friends - One World, One Dream

The title of today's blog posting is that of a song that is part of the Beijing Olympics, only that what I saw on TV was sung in English, and the one you will hear as you read this is in Chinese. To me at least it is in a language I am familiar with - the same people are singing it, only this time in their native language.

At times I wonder if all these songs are just for PR or even propaganda, but one thing is that anything that encourages friendship, especially across linguistic and ethnic barriers, is a great thing and something our world needs so much.
China is leading the medals table, and while I don't know whether it will still be at the end of next week, it all goes to show that China has emerged as a big and powerful nation, with its people ready to mightily influence the whole world whether for good or not so good. So I am glad that I made that effort to learn the language many years ago, starting at the time when the "Gang of Four" in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution was perhaps the main event of the time. Who could foresee then that a modern and increasingly prosperous Beijing would host what may be one of the best Olympic Games in history? I certainly did not, although I did foresee the people having a lot more hope and purpose in life than they did then.
So, Michael Phelps got his 7th gold medal, winning by 1/100th of a second. Unbelievable, but at least the slow-motion action replay was there to prove it. Rebecca Adlington of the U.K.'s victory and world record in the 800m freestyle was really impressive. There has been so much that has been so great watching and so inspiring. It has certainly helped me focus on my own goals.
Well, as I mentioned before, I will try to have my "Swim Camp" next week. What this means is that I will try to go to the pool three afternoons next week in addition to my usual six mornings. In the afternoons, I want to have a shorter workout and focus on some speedwork, but also perhaps some "slow" things like experimenting with other strokes (trying to learn the mechanics of them) or just spending some time at the pool relaxing. At the end of all of that, maybe the following week, I want to have a crack of breaking 3 minutes on a 200 meter swim. My best so far (a little over one week ago) is 3m 04s. This morning I went 3m 07s but I felt pretty strong on it, meaning that with a bit more speedwork, I could have pushed the pace a bit more.
This week I continued swimming each morning, and after a total of 4,400m on Tuesday and 4,600m on Wednesday, I did 4,600m Thursday, 4,300m Friday and 4,300m on Saturday, or a total of 22,200 meters in five days. Tomorrow morning (Sunday), I will have my last swim for the week. Of course it does get boring and I get tired especially during the day when I should be working, but my swimming just feels a lot smoother than it has ever felt before. My swimming distances are no comparison to those of Michael Phelps or any others among those Olympians. Not that I should make any comparison. We all have our personal goals and aspirations. The main thing is to keep at it while there is opportunity and not give up.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Help, I can't breathe!

While efforts were made in Beijing to improve the city air quality in time for the Olympics, today in Kaohsiung, which will host the World Games in 2009, for about one hour this afternoon I could hardly breathe in my own home. It was not so bad with the windows closed, but it definitely goes to show just how much a single family here can do to increase greenhouse gas emissions and exacerbate the already critical problem of global warming. Why three metal cans when one will do? Although the fires were already blazing, there remained a huge amount of paper money on the sidewalk waiting to be burned.
August is the "ghost month" in Taiwan, and in their efforts to placate or drive away the spirits that are temporarily released to roam to and fro across the earth, the more religious and superstitious in the community (a surprisingly large proportion of people in Taiwan) burn huge quantities of paper money (often with the "Bank of Hell" printed on the notes) right outside their homes and apparently without any concern for who will have to suffer from the huge clouds of smoke generated (which they always make sure doesn't blow into their own home).
It is certainly difficult to talk to the more superstitious neighbors about this. To them religion is of course a very personal matter and they have always done this and everyone else does. The environmental authorities also turn a blind eye to it. Only international pressure might eventually lead to change, just as it did over an international outcry over various body parts of tigers being sold in Chinese medicine shops some years ago.
To be fair, these particular neighbors have so far only done things like this on so grand a scale on key Chinese festivals during the year. Normally, they don't cause any trouble. However, suffocation from gas inhalation is a little like drowning in water. It may only last a short time, but that is enough to kill you. Somehow people need to be educated, and to learn that what they do is fine as long as it does not endanger the health or lives of other people.
Turning to the Olympics, I have really enjoyed the swimming coverage, with nearly every swim race morning and evening being shown live. I have also watched a few other sports like weightlifting, archery, tennis or badminton, mainly because athletes from Taiwan have been competing. To see race after race with so many different nationalities represented really amazes me, and with so many sports being played, it seems that each nationality or race of people is able to excel in something or other.
It is great to see so many people competing who have been training hard and overcoming a lot of difficulties and doubts in their journey to Beijing. In a country like Taiwan, it is unfortunate that there are so few athletes who have gone to compete, relatively speaking. It is not so much an issue of whether the money exists to train athletes, but few people it seems aspire to something like being an Olympian, and if they do, there are so many social pressures to discourage them and cause them to opt for a more secure future career-wise, which will often lead them to develop a lot of unhealthy habits like workaholism, no time for exercise, smoking or eating poorly.
While increasing numbers of people are doing some form of exercise here, whether it be cycling, swimming, tai-ch'i or modern dancing, the vast majority do little or nothing. Sport is just not ingrained in the national consciousness as it is in many countries in Europe and elsewhere. Fortunately, the local government of Kaohsiung has been actively promoting health and fitness and has built a lot of bike paths around the city. That is a good start, and one can see many people riding bicycles. When I first arrived in Taipei over 25 years ago, very few people rode bicycles and if you did, you rode at your own peril and there was nowhere you could ride, except in a sea of rapidly-moving motorcycles.
The last couple of days I went swimming as usual: 4,400 meters on Tuesday and 4,600 meters today (Wednesday). Nothing particularly spectacular time-wise, but it did feel very smooth. Maybe I am being a bit laid back this week. At least I feel comfortable and I am maintaining similar times to those in the more distant past with less effort. Next week I hope to have my swim camp. How much I do will depend on how much work I can still get done. With all the swimming on TV this week, my work has suffered a little, although I guess I need to take a break sometimes. Michael Phelps said he needed a lot of time to rest, and so should we. We cannot be on the go all the time.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Finally a Run!

Since I had written yesterday that I would run this morning, I could not really go back on my word, and I set off a little later than expected (at 6:53 am) with a camera, cell phone and a little money in case I needed sustenance. The weather was excellent for running (cloudy and even a little rain at times), but it was not very good for photos and because my camera wasn't set properly the photos are not good enough to post. Instead I will post a couple of photos of a meal I had with my family last night in celebration of Father's Day in Taiwan which took place on August 8th.

As for the run, the main thing was that I was on my feet for almost two hours. I may have only covered about 8 or at the very most 9 miles. The plan was just to get round a certain course, which involved running around a huge lake, and hence there were few options to shorten the distance. I felt my knee a little as I left the house and again about two-thirds of the way through, but apart from that I have felt fine. Stair climbing at home is fairly OK this evening, though I wonder whether I will feel more uncomfortable tomorrow morning. I'll just have to see. Anyway, hopefully I won't need to use my legs too much swimming except when pushing off the wall.

I figured that since I normally swim close to two hours, to spend about the same amount of time on my feet should not be a problem. Certainly my lungs did not feel tired, only my legs.

The reason for all of this is because I have the opportunity to take part in a running race in Hualien in early November, and I can choose either the Half Marathon or the Marathon. I will need to ask Bree which one I should do, so I am undecided at the moment. The course is apparently beautiful -running alongside a marble gorge as it twists its way from about sea level to at least 2,000 meters above it. There are a lot of good spots for whitewater rafting, too, though I would prefer just to watch that.

I probably won't run again for several days, but when I do I may just run the same course and try to get round it a little faster. I will also try to measure it with a motor scooter or something.

Today I was able to watch just about all the swim races that were held in Beijing live on TV (no time change, here). It was indeed exciting. Phelps and Co. just won the 4 x 100m freestyle, Kitajima won the 100m breaststroke gold medal, and an English girl caught Katie Hoff at the end to win the gold in the 400m freestyle. I watched Natalie Coughlin in the heats for the 200 IM. They were some amazing races. A Taiwanese guy reached the last 16 of the men's 200 butterfly.

The only problem is that life gets a little busy trying to watch all that on top of all the other things one has to do every day.

The beautiful Taroko gorge in Eastern Taiwan. I walked some 19 miles of it in the mid-1980s. Soon I plan to run it.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Still a Long Way to Go!

Our new sofa and coffee table (we bought the last one 20 years ago). Now we can watch the Olympics in style.

I am about one-third of my way into my one-year-plus training program for some swim races in summer 2009, and I am glad I have seen at least some small improvements. With the Olympics taking place and being fortunate to be able to see some swimming on TV being broadcast live from Beijing, I have been able to think a little about how I can move forward from here.

In the past whenever I watched the Olympics or even golf, I would get somewhat discouraged as my skills were so inferior to those of the world's best. However, rather than sitting back on our new couch and feeling discouraged, I am recharging myself with new insights and goals. Here are a few things I have learnt these last couple of days.

Observation 1: Those (male) swimmers look so strong (meaning that I look really weak).
Response: To get faster at swimming, I need to be stronger physically. Besides maintaining a consistent swimming distance in my workouts, I need to do more strength-building exercises at home and also eat more and more often.
Results: A day is too quick, but I have been aware of this for at least a couple of months now, and I am about one kilo heavier than I used to be. Besides, I am eating potatoes, bananas, granola and various other foods rich in carbohydrates on a fairly regular basis (at least every day) and I am not wasting much time in preparing them (I peel potatoes pretty fast now).

Observation 2: Those women freestylers are not lifting their elbows really high (like I have been). It is difficult to see clearly when they are gliding through the water so fast. But I watched Stephanie Rice of Australia win an IM400 heat yesterday and her freestyle (as well as that of all the others) looked so much more efficient than mine. Maybe in an effort to rotate my body or avoid waves in choppy oceans or because my arms are too weak, I have been wasting time and effort by raising my arms too high.
Response: I need to focus on technique, one thing being to swim a little flatter with my arms while focusing on rotating my hips as opposed to trying to turn my shoulders 180 degrees every stroke. Of course I also need some professional help, but since this is likely to be occasional, I will endeavor to try to understand things myself, too. I will try to film it one of these days, too.
Results: This morning I first swam 3,650 meters non-stop in about two minutes faster than I think I would have done if I had lifted my arms higher. Then my friend timed me a little later over 200 m, and I went 3m 04s, which was my fastest time so far (by one second), and while it is hard to say if I went faster because of technique or just because I felt less tired than yesterday, at least it was an encouraging sign.

So the Olympics is giving me new energy and a new determination. And let me not think that I am too old for this. Someone in the 65-69 age group went about 28 minutes in the King's Swim and it wasn't Bob Momsen or someone 7 feet tall. So it can be done, and I'll give it a go.

Recap on the last week: I swam a total of 26,300 meters (4,250 + 4,400 + 4,350 + 4,250 + 4,550 + 4,500). On one or two days I swam a little easier, but I mostly tried to meet certain standards as regards time, etc. On Thursday I went 3m 05s for 200m, on Friday 3m 06s, on Saturday 3m 05s (despite feeling weak and tired), and today (on Sunday) 3m 04s. I was somewhat tired but sensed I had it in me to break my record at this distance, and tried to swim more efficiently in terms of moving my arms.

Tomorrow (on my day off) I'm going to try something different - a run! For me this is like starting out as a complete beginner. I'll try to go easy on myself and I hope that it does not mess up my swimming on Tuesday. I hope to be out running - and perhaps walking! - for about one hour. There will be some hills, but some nice scenery and so I may get a few pics.

All the best for Mark and the other English Channel swimmers. I don't know if the weather is good enough yet for them to make the attempt.

Friday, August 8, 2008

The Olympic Games Start

Our new 37-inch flatscreen TV bought just in time to watch the Olympics

After being without a TV set since we moved to Kaohsiung at the end of January, we finally bought one (we had to sell a house to be able to afford it), just in time for the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. I am so unaccustomed to TV now that I forget we even have it and if I watch for more than ten minutes I seem to feel dizzy. It is a bit like my swimming was after an 8-month layoff earlier this year.

I understand that the local Taiwanese TV stations will together be broadcasting various different events. At least it's all in Chinese and so there won't be any need for translation. Fortunately, I won't be needing to get up at 3 a.m. to watch something. The opening ceremony was very interesting to me. How that country has changed since I first started studying China seriously in the mid-1970s. It was interesting that they picked as one of their themes "All men are brothers" (四海之內皆兄弟也). This quotation from the Analects of Confucius was something I studied when in language school in Taiwan in the early 1980s. I certainly would not have got to study that had I studied on the mainland.

The Olympics are so vast with so many nations represented and so many different sports. It hopefully makes us think about how our own training fits into the grand scheme of things. At least triathlon involves events in water and on land, and pretty good all-round body training, and it is also something we can do as we get older. However, we should not let ourselves get sucked into just one event or a particular format for an event. Enjoyment should be the overriding consideration, and not just because the rest of the triathlon community only do certain events or because we may think that the best races cost the most.

To briefly recap on the last two mornings, I swam 4,350 meters on Thursday (yesterday) and 4,250 meters today (Friday) despite a slightly later start. As with other recent workouts, I swam steady for about the first 3,000m, and then took rests between faster 50s and 100s or 150s. Finally, I raced my friend. Yesterday, the plan was to race 100m. I found that I was swimming comfortably, but was not going fast, and towards the end of the 100m, my friend was about two body lengths ahead of me (about 6 seconds roughly). So instead of stopping, I just continued and tried to maintain my steady rhythm. In the end I finished 200m in 3m 05s, knocking 2 seconds off my "record" of less than a week ago. Today I tried to do the same again and went 3m 06s. The improvements, although small, are still coming, so that goal of breaking 3 minutes is looking all the more possible.

For the last several days, my training has been "lighter", in that I have continued with the morning swims, but have not done dry-land exercises at home. It is mainly that I have been trying to get on with my work when not doing something related to our house (which fortunately is not very often, but still consumes a chunk of my time) and I have not had a lot of free time.

I am not sure if I will watch a lot of the Olympics except around meal times. However, I will try to follow specific events (swimming, triathlon, modern pentathlon, etc.) by watching YouTube in the hope that I will be able to get a reasonable amount of work done. Some of my friends will be training for their Ironman events over this period and others will be attempting to swim across the English Channel, so I guess we will all be rather busy.

Anyway, if I watch something that drives me wild (like a particular swimming world record), I will probably try to post it for those who might have missed it. Hope you enjoy the show, whetever you are and whatever you are doing these next few weeks.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Swimming, Work and Feeling Tired

The air-conditioned reading room on the end of the Golden Lion Lake featured at the top of my blog. This is a great place to spend some time at just to have a change from working at home. It also has a few Chinese newspapers so I can catch up on the local news.

I guess there is only so much we can do in any given day. When reading some blogs, it seems that some people are super-achievers, working at a job 50 hours a week, commuting over one hour each way to work, maintaining the training regimen of an elite Ironman athlete - you name it, they are doing it.

As for me, a little under two hours in the pool most mornings requires me to catch up on the sleep I missed the previous night at some point (or several points) during the daytime. Even when I was young, I remember sleeping a lot after long exercise. I rode my first hundred miles with a couple of friends in one day on a bike at the age of 12 (just a three-speed bike that was my mum's). After I got home at about 7 pm, I could barely keep awake for 15 minutes while I ate something before falling into a deep sleep. In my mid-20s, I tried leaving on one of my 180-mile bike trips at midnight instead of going to bed. At about 3:30 am I fell asleep at the wheel and woke up suddenly when the front wheel hit the kerb. Luckily, I did not fall off, and I immediately and desperately looked for cover as it was drizzling. After sleeping on a pile of hay in a barn for about 90 minutes until daybreak in the middle of nowhere, I set off again and reached home (my destination) somewhere around 5:00 pm (the last three hours on the bike I was only able to keep awake by taking large quantities of Dextrosol (glucose tablets)). After getting my bike into my rented room, getting changed and eating a bowl of cornflakes, I went to bed and woke up 14 hours later.

I have rarely felt as tired as on those occasions, but I am often finding myself daydreaming and half dozing off when I am trying to do my work. My work requires a lot of concentration and has little excitement, and so, if I am tired, doing my work is probably only going to make me more tired. Still, I am glad I am not doing a job that requires me to rush around here and there. Hopefully, I can channel more energy into my swimming and other sports, and I will need to if I am to get any better.

After returning from Taipei on Monday evening, I got slightly less sleep than needed and swam 4,250 meters on Tuesday. At the end of the workout, my friend and I raced only over 50 meters as he claimed to be tired. I went about 39.5 seconds which pleased me. On Wednesday morning (today), I swam a total of 4,400 meters. At the end of it, we raced over 100 meters, and while I thought I swam well, it took me 1m 30s. Maybe I was a little too comfortable, I don't know. Perhaps I should have done 200 meters instead. Certainly I need to do more speed work.

There are still some things we need to buy and have done for our new house, so there will still be some running around to do on top of training, work and daily activities like food preparation and eating. On the subject of running, I want to get back into it, and will probably try to run for one hour early next week and see how it goes. At least if all goes well, I will feel better prepared to face the challenge of a Peaman should I have to go to Hawai'i by the year-end.

May I wish the English Channel swimmer friends, Mark, Enda and Maggie, the best of British (and Irish) luck, and also thank them for expanding my horizons regarding the realm of possibilities.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Day Trip to Taipei

View of Taipei 101 building and most of Taipei from the hills behind our old apartment in Hsintien, Taipei County (click on photo to enlarge)

One of the banks with which we have an account located in Taipei

Taipei sky at night near the train station. The cloud formation suggests that a typhoon is coming soon

Hsiu-chin and I travelled to Taipei and back today, by shinkansen both ways, in order to finalize the sale of our old apartment. While that has been sorted out, there is other paperwork to be done in Kaohsiung, while I try to make sure we don't go on a wild spending spree while being deluded into thinking we have made it. Hopefully, life can get pretty much back to normal starting tomorrow, although I won't be too demanding on my morning swim in case I feel tired. In some ways I am glad I don't have a coach, as then I feel I would be serving various masters.

I am pleased to have bought a new camera, which I believe is capable of taking some good shots. It seems, though, that while today was a nice, clear day for photography, I was never quite in the right place at the right time. Today was my "rest day" as Mondays I usually do not do any training. However, I walked about 30 minutes mostly uphill to get the panoramic shot of Taipei. Had I gone two or three hours earlier, I think the sky would have been clearer. Rarely does one get a clear sky over this busy city of 3 million.

Taiwan has a lot of beautiful scenery especially in the less visited parts. I really hope to be able to travel the island on a bicycle with a camera and a computer so I can keep in touch with the world and work a few hours a day on trips.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Torturous Training Needed?

Part of one of Hsiu-Chin's paintings, painted using the acrylic medium while in Hawai'i.

This morning I finished off my swim training for this last week, adding 4,700 meters to bring my total for the week up to 26,150 meters. Add the 26, 750 the previous week, and that makes a total of 52,900 in the last two weeks.

However, I did not find the training particularly difficult. I only had to make sure I got up in the morning and got down the pool, and I kind of went as I felt, rather than being tied to some rigid workout. This morning at the end of the main workout and after I had a several minutes' rest (including in the jacuzzi), I raced my friend over 200m and one of the lifeguards timed us. My friend must have been a bit tired today and was not his normal speedy self, but I went 3m o7s, for the second day running. So at least yesterday's swim was no fluke. Today I felt the swim was smoother and the turns better, which probably meant that I put in slightly more effort yesterday. I have not felt any discomfort today.

So at this point I ask myself the question: in order to get better, do I need to engage in torturous training sessions? I am constantly reading about people whose arms are about to drop off, or who are doing sets on wild send offs, or suffering a lot of discomfort from various kicking drills. So I don't know. I will have to see what is necessary to get this swim time down to 3 minutes.

A couple of days ago, our elder son came back from teaching an English class to a third grader. As he prepared the lesson, he learned the meaning of some fairly basic English words for the first time. He said to us that he was glad he was getting a chance to learn what children in English-speaking countries learn when they learn English in school. He did all of his elementary school studies in Chinese. What was even better, was that he was also being paid to learn things related to the English language that he missed when growing up.

Today at our church, the theme of the message was Father's Day. In the US, this is in June (I always remember because I did the Peaman biathlon race on Father's Day). However, in Taiwan, it is on August 8th, as 8-8 is pronounced "pa-pa". Our sons were away for the weekend. I must admit the whole idea of Father's Day is a difficult thing for me. Rather than write a lot of what will appear very negative, let me just say that we can't change the past and what the past generations did, but we can control the present, and hopefully, while we are by no means perfect, we can have a positive influence on our own children. Our pastor at church (who grew up in the US), says he believes we live in a fatherless generation. Particularly in the last ten years or so, I have heard enough sad stories to realize that there is some truth in such a statement.

Tomorrow morning Hsiu-chin and I have to take the bullet train up to Taipei to hopefully finalize the transfer of our old apartment to new owners. We recently bought a new camera, too, and are trying it out. It is small enough to carry when on a run, so if I do any longish runs, I may take a few pics, too.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Swim Times Show Slight Improvement

View of Kenting in the distance in the southern part of Taiwan. I'd love to swim this stretch of the ocean, but I am told strong currents exist, it is rarely this calm, and an escort boat would be needed.

Not having a swim coach to follow my progress at swimming or otherwise, the only thing I can really do is write about it, and then hopefully forget about it as I get on with the many important things I need to deal with in my life.

My swim practices tend to be mostly focused on LSD (long-slow-distance) with one or two fast short sprints thrown in at the end. This is in large part due to the fact that the pool can get quite crowded and because I swim six mornings per week, meaning that, if the practices were too demanding, I would probably opt to stay in bed more often. In addition, I don't want to get injured (my stomach muscles are particularly sensitive) doing some unusual and stupid movements in the water. I am training to be an open water swimmer and not a 200 IM specialist.

A few months ago I set myself a goal of getting my time for a 400 meter swim in a pool down from about 7m 00s at that time to 6 minutes by about May 2009. Several weeks ago I swam 6m 40s, so at least some progress has been made. The only difficulty with the 400m swim is that I always have to do it alone, so there is sometimes a little less incentive to try to push it, and there is always the feeling that someone might get in my way when I am just half way through it.

Fortunately, a local swimmer at the pool, who is quite accomplished in all four strokes, has been in the habit of challenging me to freestyle races (I only swim freestyle with any seriousness) at the end of my daily workouts. We started with 50m, and then it became 100m, and the last week or two we have been racing over 200m. We always race during the last 5 minutes before the pool closes at 8 am for the first morning break, and so we usually have the two middle lanes to ourselves. Currently, our times are pretty close and sometimes (usually) he wins, and occasionally I win.

So I figure that I could set myself a goal of getting my 200m time down to 2m 50s by the end of next May. Since I am a long distance swimmer, if I can do that, I should have little difficulty breaking 6 minutes for the 400m.

Some time when I feel inclined I intend to draw a graph depicting my gradual progress. For now I will just mention some recent times. On July 24 I swam the 200m in 3m 12s (my best time at least in the last two years so far), then after some slower attempts, I went 3m 10s on July 31, then 3m 09s on August 1, and then finally 3m 07s on August 2 (today). These improvements may seem small but they are improvements at least. The times can vary of course depending on how I feel. At a workout, I usually swim around 4,000 meters (sometimes more and sometimes less), then have between about 3 and 8 minutes rest before we race. Some days I feel more tired (either from swimming or insufficient sleep the night before), the swimsuits (some of which are quite inefficient) can vary, I occasionally make a really bad turn off the wall, and in some workouts I may do more speed work which leaves me more fried. The day to day times are really not that important. It is the end result next May that is going to matter. The more I swim (the last five days 4,000 + 4,650 + 4,300 + 4,200 + 4,300 = 21,450, and tomorrow morning is yet to come to finish off the week), the more I realize that there are no gimmicks or quick fixes. I spend much of the early part of the workout just focusing on smoothness, on the mechanics, stroke count, hand entry, the catch, the pull, the rotation of the hips, inhaling and exhaling, etc. Only later do I apply force or try to swim fast. I do various land exercises at home, without special equipment but just improvising on various exercising tools that have been lying around the house. I try to eat a balanced diet with a focus on consistency. I try to get enough sleep with sometimes several "cat naps" during the day. I watch footage or world class swimmers and read the blogs of people who have been there before. There are many areas in which I still need to learn so much, but I am getting better, both physically and mentally, albeit slowly.

In a couple of weeks, I want to set aside the time to have my own "Swim Week" or "Swim Camp". I probably won't be able to get anyone to join me, but I will swim with the usual people in the mornings and then go back to the pool for a "lighter" but equally focused workout in the afternoons. I can't do a lot else for this year, but at least it will be good training. The aim of these workouts will be to provide more time in the pool for additional drills (maybe using hand paddles, etc., or doing some speed work, etc.) with a primary emphasis on injury prevention. While I had some shoulder troubles a couple of months ago, I have found that my shoulders are fine now since I stopped doing warm-up exercises at home in the mornings before I set off for swim practice. Currently, my 10-minute bike ride to the pool gives me a chance to feel relaxed before I start swimming, and then I swim at least the first 300m very conservatively to allow myself to gradually feel where I am at on any particularly day. Days lost through injury will mean valuable lost time which will make those ultimate goals all the more difficult to achieve.

If anyone wants to swim with me in Kona, Hawai'i, we can probably arrange to meet some time over the next year. All the best with your swimming adventures.