Tuesday, June 4, 2013


noun \ˌklȯs-trə-ˈfō-bē-ə\

Not much truly scares me. I am not fond of snakes or spiders, and walking over a trestled railway bridge yesterday made my heart leap a little but these things don’t really scare me. However, the one fear I do have is that of “having no escape” and/or “a feeling of suffocation”. Claustrophobia.

I was recently watching a show, Property Brothers on HGTV - we’re renovating a house so it’s now my go-to channel! - and the presenter needed to crawl under a house to fix a pipe and had about 16” of clearance in which to do it. I found my breathing rate increase and my body tense up as I watched him crawl under the house to fix the problem. Last week, I was at the dentist, and my knuckles turned white as I gripped the chair when the dentist/hygienist had all the equipment in my mouth… you’d think I was being water-boarded given the panic that gripped my body. I felt claustrophobic…

The Property Brothers
This fear has affected my swimming over time… In fact, I did not learn how to exchange air while swimming until my first Ironman in 2004. When I first learned to swim, I hated to put my face underwater and keep it there so I swam head’s up/doggy paddle for 3 years in triathlons! Even now, it takes me a few hundred meters of warm-up swimming before I’ll start to flip-turn and totally feel comfortable breathing in the water.

I’m currently preparing for Olympic distance and half-ironman distance races over the next 6 weeks and in the last couple of months I’ve been attending swim/bike/run training sessions with Matt Dixon of PurplePatch. I’m coached by Chris Hauth of aimpcoaching.com and he choreographs the larger training plan (Kona is the A race) and gives me guidance for the effort levels in each session but he’ll leave the details to whatever Matt has in store for the group… trusting I will use my experience to adjust as necessary.

In the pool, Matt pushes us hard, upping the ante in swim sets by frequently demanding that we deck up between intervals and dive in for the next interval. The swim effort level might only be at threshold (80-85%) but the strength and agility required to quickly deck up and then dive back in adds an anaerobic element to the session. I am usually sucking wind as I dive back in and need to figure out how to settle my breathing without coming to a complete stop in the pool. I find it suffocating… it’s claustrophobic… I have to fight the urge every interval to hang out at the wall and take a breather. Thankfully, the camaraderie and support of my lane-mates (Monica, Ariane, Danielle) help me to keep my head in the game and not give in to my claustrophobic fears. Besides, being caught hanging on the wall would make me the target of Matt Dixon’s next joke which is something I’d rather avoid, not least because he’s not funny ;).

Recently, in Matt’s computrainer classes at VeloSF, we’ve been doing increasingly longer intervals of Z4 watts. The pinnacle was a workout last week where we held Z4 for 16mins, 12mins, 8mins and 4mins… and we were not spinning easy between those sets either! The first few minutes are comfortable but then you hit a point as you sit on the bike in the packed and airless studio where it becomes “uncomfortable”. Frequently, coaches and athletes refer to the concept of “get comfortable being uncomfortable”, you’re not blowing up as it’s still somewhat aerobic but it requires focus to keep the pedals moving and to quiet the internal voice that is telling your legs that “it’s okay to quit”. Matt said: “this will feel claustrophobic” and I think that was the best description I’ve ever heard for this kind of athletic effort level. For me, I’m on the edge of discomfort but I’m not quite at failure, so I can keep going but it’s suffocating and it becomes a mental battle of head over legs and conquering my fear of claustrophobia.

Treadmill sessions have the same effect on me. Last week’s session was 5x10mins where I alternated 7mins at 20secs faster than Ironman pace and 3mins at 20seconds faster than half-ironman pace… and I forgot my iPod so it really was just me and the mental battle!

Thankfully, the past weekend, I was given a break from the claustrophobic sessions with aerobic trail running on the schedule… Chris tailored my training plan perfectly around a weekend trip to Oregon. We were in Mt. Hood for a wedding. While several members of the wedding party hiked up Mt. Hood the morning of the wedding, my husband and I joined Sami Inkinen and his wife Meredith for a lap of Timothy Lake. The trail was a 20mile drive from the resort (we stayed at Timberline Lodge) and thankfully we lost 2,000ft of altitude in those miles so our run was at a more comfortable level of 4,000ft. The lake trail was almost exactly 11 miles around and was for the most part very cushy underfoot. It helped that there was a trail marathon taking place, marking the course with floaty pink ribbons. At the end of the run, it was fantastic to cool off in the ice-cold lake waters… and of course, my husband decided to take a running leap into the lake!