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As time permits, in-depth musings on myriad subjects will be posted. Abbreviated adages will be announced via Twitter.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Suunto Spartan Sport WHR

Ever since Gerard Butler emphatically proclaimed “This is Sparta!” in 2006’s 300, Sparta and its adjectival variant have had a special spot in the American vernacular. Finnish sports manufacturer Suunto may have had this in mind when introducing its Spartan series of watches over the past few months. Because Suunto’s initial offering, the Ultra, had been documented as being riddled with bugs and other issues, so it was with great apprehension but greater optimism that I pre-ordered the Sport model. The Sport had a few more months of development and wrist-based heart rate (WHR), so the seemingly more basic model could prove to be more of a performer than its heftier-priced sibling. The trigger was pulled and a week later, the Suunto Spartan Sport WHR (in all black) was delivered to my door.

Suunto is no stranger to me. Since late-2010, when I was preparing for Ironman Texas the following spring, I’ve used their devices to train for and participate in multisport, starting with the t3d, a glorified chronograph that could pair with foot and bike sensors for tracking movement. Through the first three variants of the Ambit series (I loved the original Ambit, but the addition of cadence and swim options in the Ambit 2 wooed me to upgrade, while the introduction of Bluetooth (BLE) sensors and syncing with the Ambit 3 led to yet another), I have stuck with Suunto, preferring their design aesthetics and software interface Movescount to their competitors. It was, indeed, the little things.

Little things, again, led me to SSWHR. For some time, the endless beep alerts from the Ambit 3 (outdated since before Suunto entered the GPS market) had been grating on nerves around the house, so the addition of vibration alerts was certainly a game changer. Add in touch-screen controls (meh) and wrist-based HR, and the SSWHR was geared to be a winner. Despite having WHR through a Scosche Rhythm+ HR strap (the Spartan Sport WHR would utilize the same brand of sensor, demonstrated to be superior to its sundry competitors), having WHR integrated in the watch seemed just too good to pass up.

Getting Going
The Spartan series makes use of a new computer interface in order to sync with Movescount called SuuntoLink. Interfacing requires the use of a new USB interface cable, too. This one seems to connect with greater stability and ease by use of a magnet, instead of the clip style found on the older t-series and Ambit series of watches. The first link charged the SSWHR to 100% and updated the software to its latest version (1.8.26 at the time of this writing).

The SSWHR comes preloaded with several exercise profiles (activities) preloaded, each labeled as Basic. Logging into Movescount allows the removal of exercise modes not needed (I live in south Texas, so the likelihood of me going alpine skiing on a regular basis is pretty slim) and the customization of others. If not being utilized, Basic exercises will need to be removed from what’s called the Short List in order to keep said list short.

It’s been a precious few days that I’ve been sporting the Spartan sport, and a very interesting few days it’s been. At first, there were some issues in just how buckled down the strap needed to be to get a good HR reading (initial trials were beyond uncomfortable and almost painful level; that’s since been resolved), as well as how to engage an interval timer (Ambit watches had an advanced setting in Movescount for setting/adjusting intervals and were activated in a sort of secret screen on the watch; Spartan watches require an interval-specific screen to be added in Movescount, which requires enabling under activity options prior to beginning an activity AND manually engaging the interval timer after the selected activity’s general timer has begun—it’s really quite easy once it’s understood, but the setup is not terribly intuitive, requiring a bit of trial and error), but once things were understood, it was a fairly easy transition to the Spartan. It did make me wonder, though, how patient others might have been, especially given the rather high price point of the Spartan series.

Born to Run
The first “real” activity I got to do with the SSWHR was running, and I’m sort of glad but also sort of not that it worked out this way because, hands down, the SSWHR is the positively BEST running watch I have ever used.

Setting up several screens had been customary for me through various iterations of the Ambit series, so I followed suit with the Spartan. What I found, though, was the screen pictured above was really all I needed—with only one modification: Switching the bottom field from time of day to overall time.

Perhaps what I liked most of all (apart from not having an HR strap attached elsewhere) was the real-time feedback on pacing. Suunto finally got away from having pacing round up or down in 5-second slots, so a 7:42/mi pace displays as 7:42, not as 7:40 or 7:45.

The new column layout for Spartan displays proved superb, with the 5-display field (heart rate, cadence, average pace, current pace, duration) easy to read at a glance, even while running a good clip—and while pushing a double running stroller loaded with two toddlers, too. Heart rate seemed to be on point with previously recorded efforts over the same course with a variety of straps (Suunto SmartSensor, Whaoo TICKR, Scosche Rhythm+), with screen shits of comparisons below.

When my wife and I began dating and running together, the latter required a previously ignored ritual: Stretching. Integrating this few-minute custom prior to and/or after efforts of varying degrees improved not only my physical performance but also my mental performance, during and (long) after the effort.

The routine has changed a bit over the years, mostly adding additional stretches as my body has aged, as well as slightly reducing the length of time each stretch is held. Regardless, a repeating interval timer has been an essential function of whatever watch I use; Suunto has been difficult in agreeing to play nice—but they are getting better.

Where the t6d would repeat (and with a single beep instead of the 10-second series common on most sport watches), the first beep was always inaudible due to the t-series’ design in that the first minute of any activity was spent searching for HR and/or other sensors, requiring either a mental countdown or watching the screen to see the countdown to know when to switch. Those first forty-five seconds were always the worst.

Ambit’s lineup was better but now required all timer setup to be performed within Movescount and then synced to the watch. It wasn’t until the Ambit 3 that this became somewhat better, thanks to BLE syncing; versions 1 & 2 demanded a direct PC connection with the charging clip. Once on the watch, intervals could be accessed after an activity began, so this was a step in the right direction.

Spartan sort of combines both ot these with how it handles intervals. Movescount still dictates whether or not an activity type can include an interval with the addition of an interval screen, with interval type (duration or effort) also configured in Movescount. Once synced, activating the interval is done in two parts: Part 1) Scroll through the Options prior to starting the move, how many the duration of either interval settings, and how many times the interval will be repeated—all of which is reminiscent of how intervals were configured on the  t6d; Part 2) Swipe to the interval screen once the activity is begun to manually begin the actual interval countdown—right away or at any point(s) during the activity. Why a basic function like an interval timer needs to be so complicated to configure and activate (at Wally World it’s, like, three or four button presses on a watch costing one-tenth of the SSWHR) remains a mystery to me. But, I’m no developer.

In the Swim
Thursday would bring day two of activity for a workout in the form of a quick swim at the neighborhood natatorium. It was probably best that the swim was not my first activity session with the SSWHR because, if had it been, it would have been the last.

This is not to say the SSWHR is not a good swim companion—it is. It’s just not as good of a swim companion as is the Ambit 3 Sport.

Because I like to tinker with the display settings in the watches I use, the basic settings for pool swimming were thrown out, and a fairly straightforward pool swim configuration of four fields was thrown in: Time of day, heart rate, lap duration, overall duration. But, when I activated the swim activity, I decided to use the light background instead of the default dark. Unlike the Ambit 3, the light background actually made the screen more difficult to see (through blue-tint Swedish goggles. anyway), so making use of the SSWHR’s display was fairly moot; nothing could be viewed on the fly.

A second swim on Saturday yielded slightly better results with the dark background, though the display is still not as clear to see as is the Ambit’s. However, having real time tracking of heart rate during a swim—without an additional sensor—is really quite nice. So long as the workout is configured properly prior to hopping in the pool, it is quite easy to track the workout through Movescount. How to make the most use of gleaned data is still being contemplated.

Unfortunately, I’ll not have time to head up to the area watering hole to test the open water swim feature for some time. This is a bummer, because I know how great the Ambit 3 Sport is for OWS; I’m hoping the SSWHR is at least half as good.

Before I got into triathlon, I was a diehard cyclist. A roadie, mostly, though I would also toy around on the trails at a local park to work on cadence or just “get away from it all.” As such, when it comes to bike computers, I’m fairly a traditionalist, for datafeed, as well as setup: I think a bike computer should be mounted to the bike. Additionally, I don’t like wearing things on my wrist when I ride—at least on my road bike; TT and MTB are both negotiable.

Through the t- and Ambit-series, I generally did not use them for cycling functionality. For the most part, though, the SSWHR could fix that. Sure, I could get over my preference for keeping things off my wrist whilst riding, but the limitation of a single speed/cadence sensor (and presumably the same with power—were I to have a power meter) is really quite irritating. Pairing a different sensor between my road and TT bikes is really no big deal, and the same could almost be said for a mountain bike, except that the wheel circumference would be different—a change which necessitates a computer connection to Movescount to remedy.

All that said, I genuinely enjoyed using the SSWHR as a cycling computer—if for no other reason than the fact I did not need an additional HR strap or other peripheral on my bike, save that of a speed/cadence sensor. Again, power is not present, though there may be room for that down the road.

The display of the Spartan was clear and easy to read in its “dark” mode at a variety of angles, proving itself superior to the display of the Ambit 3. Tracking via GPS was on-point with previous rides using both the Ambit 3 Sport and a Garmin Edge 520; both used the same Wahoo speed/cadence sensor, since it transmits in both BLE and ANT+ simultaneously.

Screen configurations for the SSWHR are pictured below.

Rowing with It
Weight training with the SSWHR does not really require mentioning here other than to say that it’s nice to go through a routine with nothing more on me than what amounts to a watch—all while gathering HR and set data. One additional indoor activity, though, where the SSWHR promises to surpass its predecessors is indoor rowing.

I came to indoor rowing in early 2011, while prepping for Ironman Texas. While I don’t get to row near as often as I should or as I should like (especially considering the fact that I have an indoor rower in-house), it’s still the best go-to workout when nothing else seems to be able to come together.

Suunto’s SSWHR goes into the indoor rowing game by offering a rowing pace option in its sport configuration, basic and customized. You can bet I’ve added it to a customized screen display.

What I’ve found regarding this pacing feature is that it’s useless. For the timed 500-meter test row (done at well-below threshold pace), the central display was just dashes, and the completed move recorded no distance. Needless to say, I am most disappointed in what could have been a saving grace for the watch.

Closing Comments
Admittedly, WHR was what sealed the deal for me in ordering my SSWHR. I really like how the watch sits on the wrist and reads/operates for daily operation. Not having my wrist beep every time I receive a notification is a nice plus, too. Plus, being able to engage in almost any activity with only the watch and not have to find (let alone put on) a chest strap or other HR-related apparatus is nice beyond almost any means of measurement.

Through the t6d, three versions of the Ambit series of GPS-enabled sports devices, and countless updates to Movescount, I have continued with Suunto and genuinely think they make a superior product. The Finnish-made Spart Sport WHR finds itself superior in many respects. Below, though, are a few thoughts on where the SSWHR and the Movescount interface required to configure it falls short:
  • Interval timers. As mentioned above, a $35 digital watch from the local megamart has a more functional (and easier to configure) interval timer than does the SSWHR. Why the hybrid configuration between the t- and Ambit-series watches was chosen is beyond me, but I would think that as many years and versions it has been since the first Ambit was introduced that the development team at Suunto could get this one thing right.
  • The backlight is too cumbersome to operate. T- and Ambit-series both activated the backlight with a single button press, with the Ambit adding the toggle feature. Since so much of my running (and some outdoor cycling) is done in the dark, a return to a more simple activation would be nice. The current 2-finger activate/deactivate operation is intermittent in operation (depressions must be rather and deliberately precise—not always an option in the midst of an activity) and requires the watch to be “awake” in order to turn on or off, adding an additional step when one might just want to check the time in the middle of the night. Further, the shower at the pool has activated the light on more than one occasion—it just must have the right amount of heat and pressure.
  • Modifying the Basic configurations in Movescount would be nice—especially since there is no way to add a graph to any of the new/customized sports configurations. Sure, this is more of a Movescount feature, but, since Movescount is required to update the watch in the first place, I consider the two inseparable.
  • For God’s sake, build a better bike mount. Suunto’s bike mount solution is just short of insulting: The wrist-to-handlebar adapter harkens back to 2001, when I had my first heartrate monitor. Given the cost of the Spartan and the countless advances made in bike computer technology, my expectation is that a better solution would be available; it’s not. Yes, the SSWHR complicates things with that whole OHR/WHR feature, but, perhaps even a new (Suunto) product that attaches to a bike in a fashion akin to Garmin’s Edge series that can mirror the display of the SSWHR—sort of like how the Movescount app on a smartphone can—is a possibility.
  • Broadcasting HR to BLE receivers, such as computers. My schedule keeps me from riding outdoors much of the time, and indoor bike training solutions such as Zwift have been a godsend. Being able to wear the SSWHR and have it broadcast HR data to my Mac Mini while on Zwift would be nothing short of amazing, making the SSWHR a true, all around training tool. As is, I must resort to either a chest strap or a different OHR, such as Scosche’s Rhythm+. Again, given the rather steep price of the SSWHR—and that its competitors (costing less) do offer broadcasting—it would be worth looking into.
  • Improved customization of alerts. A mix of beeps and vibration alerts would be a very nice touch: Beeps when a button is pressed but only vibration for notification alerts—or only vibration alerts when not in an activity. Or customizing what types of notifications can be received and/or how those notifications are alerted within Movescount.
  • Better battery life is a must. For day-to-day wear and use, the battery life seems pretty good. However, for Ironman or other really long endurance races, the published 12 hours simply isn’t good enough. Sure, I’ve finished 140.6 events in well under 12 hours, but race plans don’t always go to plan and having the bug in the back of one’s mind that their $500 timepiece might crap out on them prior to reaching the finish line does little to calm one’s already stressed nerves.

Optical heart rate is so choice. Sure, there are those who tout that OHR or (when worn on the wrist as in the case of the Spartan Sport WHR) WHR is not as accurate as a chest strap, and they’re probably right. But I am not one of those athletes who is at the caliber of performance where that sort of accuracy is so crucial. I’m willing to bet that the overwhelming majority of users of HR—chest strap and optical—are also not at the level. And even chest straps are not without their problems, be it spikes in performance or outright dying due to dead batteries or other issues. To be honest, HR is not something I monitor so much in real-time, and a good chunk of athletes and coaches likely feel and operate the same. In this respect, then (OHR/WHR), the Spartan Sport WHR is an absolute winner.

That said, I’ve returned the watch to Suunto/Amer for a refund. I’m just not convinced that the $500 plucked down for the Sparton Sport WHR is worth it. Given the above bullet points—and that the rowing pace feature did precisely squat—I could not rationalize keeping the watch. After all, the Ambit 3 Sport did/does nearly everything I’ve wanted in a sports watch, save optical heart rate and vibration alerts. A Scosche Rhythm+ resolves the former, and I can just make-do without the latter until later down the road. Plus, I know the Ambit 3 will make it beyond 12 hours of battery life in race conditions.

While Suunto do appear to have done better than the even pricier Spartan Ultra model (I’ve experienced no issues with syncing, data discrepancies in Movescount, or other maladies plaguing users of the Ultra), my issues with what the SSWHR isn’t in comparison to its older, allegedly inferior cousin the Ambit 3 Sport are just too great to justify such a great expense.

Still, I’ll keep an eye out for sales on the Spartan Sport series down the road. Were it to fall to a price point below that of the Garmin Forerunner 235, I could definitely make a more wholehearted go of it. Until, the Ambit 3 Sport will continue to grace my wrist and help me find my direction in training and in racing.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Saving Face

In the days leading up and since the election, I've made a point to stay away from Facebook as I've a friend list all over the political spectrum. For the most part, it's predictable—who will post/like/share what, much like the content (and I do use the term loosely) itself.

Tonight, however, after finishing up weekend grading duties (except for Friday's timed writing assignment—but I will get to them, I promise!), I pulled a Job and logged in. 

The results were largely as predicted.

There were pictures and shares and pathos aplenty, none of which made for a convincing argument. One exception, of course, being the failed robbery attempt at the mall where I worked eons ago; one person died, several injured, and the entire mall on lockdown for some time. The other being a friend whose family was victim of a robbery when their vehicle was robbed while they were at an event. (Praying for you, Lindsey.)

What I'd found from my Facebook hiatus was that I managed to get a LOT more done over the course of a day or even evening—and I was every bit as informed as I had been, thanks to Google News, Flipboard, and even Twitter. Facebook, it seems, just creates this bubble of familiarity, regardless of how well we try to diversify our likes and such. I'm sure it's that familiarity that keeps folk coming back and others coming into office. But I digress.

Going forward, I'd like to see myself checking in less on Facebook, save the weekly or so updates to the Run EPC page in order to get folk running together and enjoying coffee. Steps to achieve this goal include removing the app from my phone & tablet, as well as downloading a really long, but really good book I've not read since my high school days—Stephen King's The Stand. For many reasons, a reread of it just seems fit for right now. That, and I really like King's style and want to soak in more of him again as I attempt to write more and write more better. (Yes, that was intentional.)

Here's to hoping, then, that we both fare well on goals and resolutions established, regardless of it they were made a few weeks, days, or even seconds ago. 

As always, thanks for reading.

Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Stride to Stumble

Back in the day, this was the ultimate in kids' shoes:

In the eons since, though, increased competition in the kid shoe market has almost made Stride Rite shoes and store somewhat of a novelty. Indeed, even the pair of shoes we bought for The Boy this past August were the Saucony brand, despite being purchased at what was our nearest Stride Rite store. 

And so it was that the kids found themselves in need of new shoes—and we found ourselves in possession of both gift cards and coupons—so we headed to the nearest Stride Rite store at North Star Mall, where we'd been purchasing our Stride Rite shoes since The Boy got his first pair roughly four years ago.

What should have been a quick morning outing, however, turned into an all-day ordeal.

Because life with MS impacts one's mobility to an extraordinary extent, we structured everything about the trip right down to the parking space. A non-handicapped one when we can help it, for we know there are others with equal or greater than need. 

We rolled out from our home in the burbs, timing our arrival to the mall at just past ten o'clock. We arrived, found optimal parking, and wrangled the kids and ourselves into the mall, which was still waking from its evening slumber. The Stride Rite store, however, was shuttered, with all signage and indeed signs of having once housed a whole lot of children's shoes. 

The better part of the next hour was spent, attempting to determine what had happened to the store: Did they move elsewhere in the mall? Did they move to a different shopping area, in a trendier part of the city? Was the location on the far side of town (La Cantera) still open?

Mall directories still indicated Stride Rite was still in its former location. Google thought the same. Mall security was equally clueless. Only the Stride Rite website indicated what had happened to the store,basically showing it no longer existed. The nearest one was in the outlet stores in San Marcos—forty miles in the opposite direction of our home, nearer to Austin than San Antonio.

By this point, it was getting late, and both toddlers were getting hungry and correspondingly cranky. The plan was modified, then, to rocket us to San Marcos for shoes, pitstop at Jason's Deli in New Braunfels on the way home, and then finally home four or five hours after we had left for what should haven been a 90-minute tops outing. 

Fortunately, traffic was light on the way to the Tanger Outlets, but inside the Stride Rite store, it was pretty heavy. And only one person working, as had frequently been the case at the Northstar store (or what had been the Northstar store), which did complicate things, though no more than the previous complications experienced thus far.

Service, however, was still excellent, albeit delayed, given the volume of customers who were not only regulars to the outlets but also those redirected from San Antonio. We commisserated with many who had also gone to Northstar and were surprised to see Stride Rite was no longer housed in said mall—or San Antonio, for that matter.

We also got the scoop on what had happened: Stride Rite had been sold (albeit in 2012) to Wolverine, a company specializing in work boots, although they also own some other brands. Those folks at Corporate were apparently not too happy about the numbers the two San Antonio stores had been producing, so they shut those stores down, leaving nearly all of the entirety of south Texas without a store specializing in the fitting and selling of children's shoes. Rumor had it, too, that if numbers weren't good in San Marcos, they, too, would be shut down. (One woman who was lost from the Northstar location's closing had been with the company for more than two decades; no algorithm can duplicate that level of experience.)

In the hustle of so many customers and so few associates to assist, one pair of shoes did get left behind. It took a series of phone calls and an hour or two of waiting, but the shoes were located and shipped to us the next day. All said, this was the most annoyingly, inconvenient and outright pain in the rumpus shopping experience in my near-four-and-a-half decades on Earth. 

I get it that businesses need to watch their numbers and profit margins, but the disturbing trend indicates that businesses in nearly every market are doing so at the expense of their customers. Without customers, there are no sales (let alone profits) to report to shareholders. Without properly managed and staffed stores, there are no customers.

The kids are set on their shoes for the next few months, though, so we'll need not brave the outlets for some time. When that time does come, though, we will be checking to ensure that Stride Rite is still open for business. It may seem a trivial inconvenience to have to travel from one location to another, but when young children get thrown in—and an autoimmune disease as dastardly as multiple sclerosis—such an outing becomes an outlandish taxation on a family, on a customer base. If Wolverine's intent is to steer more customers to the Stride Rite website, they are certainly succeeding. They are also succeeding in alienating a customer base that either may not care to shop online or would prefer the human expertise generally available at your Stride Rite store.

Sunday, January 01, 2017


It's a new year. 

Just shy of 24 hours old, and already the myriad media insist that with the new year a new me is necessitated. But I disagree.

Rather than a whole new me (my wife and kids are all type A personalities—as am I—so such drastic changes would not be so easily welcomed), I'd like to think that a few tweaks to the me of the present moment may suffice. So I've made two resolutions for the new year that permit a rippling of improvements across my life as a whole:
1) Ride more.
2) Write more.

Resolution #1 (riding more) is for me to get atop a bicycle three or more times each week. I'll not be too picky in order to leave the window open for commuting, riding the trainer, or riding on roads or trails. Naturally, the latter is my preference, but life has a bad habit of insisting on negotiating one's preferences. Somehow or other, then, I will be on my bike more in 2017 in order to be more active and more mindful of everything from breathing to diet to what ot is I think and feel about any particular subject. 

Riding like that was how I got through my undergraduate years in such a good frame of mind—and with such a high GPA. While there are no points awarded for being a good husband/father/teacher/what-have-you, riding more will allow me the necessary outlet to be better at all of those things. And each could use a bit or many bits of improvement. It's wonderful how far-reaching the simple act of straddling a bike can be. 

Writing is an area requiring even more attention than riding, despite my near-casual consistent pace on a bicycle these days as an English teacher, I should be writing more but tend to produce more excuses than prose (and certainly more than poetry) as to why I don't write more. Resolving to write more will serve as a requisite for staying off social media, thereby theoretically providing ample time to type out what I wish to say on whatever subject I wish to speak—all of which will be shared via social media, natch.

So there are my resolutions. With 2017 now 22 hours and 45 minutes old, I can say that I've managed to do both of my resolutions today. I eeked out 32 miles on the bike this morning and now have my first blog entry of the new year now almost complete. Yay me.

Happy new year, and thanks for reading. 

Monday, December 19, 2016


A good race report is intended to recap the events of a race and how it went for the athlete. A good race report is also intended to express sufficient gratitude to those who helped get the athlete to the starting line, as well as across the finish line. The very intent and nature of a race report, then, is to be optimistic for not only what has transpired but also for what is planned for the athlete going forward. Unlike my intents for Ironman Arizona, then, this race report should be successful on all three counts.

Arizona was my third Ironman, and the decision to enter was somewhat hasty. Granted, I had been itching to do a long-course triathlon for some time, but when I received the text from friend, neighbor, and now fellow-Ironman Josh, events were set into motion.

At the time, I was an at-home dad, taking care of the preschool boy and few-month-old girl, while also searching for a new job that would allow Nicholle to resign and be at home. One morning, I off-handedly sent a text to Nicholle, telling her that Josh had gotten into Arizona. Given the prospects for our long-term plan of my returning to work and her resigning were looking positive, she asked if I wanted to go, too. After a few more exchanges and a visit to Ironman.com, I found myself registered to race.

The training plan for Arizona was intended to mimic that of what I used for Texas in 2011: Steady base building until four months out, then begin focused training of one key workout per week while sustaining work across three disciplines. For example, week one would be swim-focused, with one, long swim set thrown into regular workout sessions; week two would be bike-focused; week three, run. The fourth week would have no long sets but regular sessions of swimming, cycling, running before starting the focused weeks over again. Additionally, there would be strength training, as well as indoor rowing and stretching.

Such was the plan.

Like all best laid plans o’mice and men, this plan was rapidly riddled with complexities, ranging from a return to full-time work for both me and Nicholle; balancing time with family, work, and working out; as well as living with the complications of MS. While I do not have multiple sclerosis, Nicholle does, and when her symptoms are exacerbated, they often will ripple throughout the family. These symptoms can manifest in her experiencing feelings of extraordinary lethargy, difficulty with balance and/or walking, or even outright paralysis. While that last one happened only when Nicholle was fighting an infection and her fever spiked, any one of the symptoms surfacing meant training time took a back seat.

There was a lot of back seat time.

Still, I managed to get in some regular riding and running—and even swimming—the first half of 2016, but then I went back to work, teaching and coaching at a nearby high school. The lack of a swimming pool meant early morning practices in a neighboring district and late nights in the classroom or at home grading papers; family time took priority to training time in what little free time I was afforded. Non-swim meet Saturdays meant running in the morning and house/family stuff thereafter. Sundays offered early AM rides and then family and prep work for the week ahead. Ironically, triathlon helped prepare me for the constant juggling of so much with so few resources.

The Wednesday prior to race weekend, Josh and I piled all of our gear and bikes into his truck and hopped on I-10 West for the next fourteen hours until we hit Tempe. It was a long, punishing drive to Tempe that we hoped would take us longer than it would take us to complete Sunday’s race.

Once in Tempe, we got ourselves settled in for what would be home for the next few days. There were some difficulties with the condo setup to sort out, but I think everything got sorted out fairly OK-like. We had a place to eat and sleep and store our bikes until race day, so, in-all, we were good.

The race village at Ironman Arizona was a more lively, interesting experience than either Texas or Coeur d’Alene. Over the next few days, we were treated to pneumatic massages from Normatec and Rapid Reboot, great on-site food and talks by pros (including Kelly Williamson, with whom I have shared a running dialogue on subjects ranging from running to MS advocacy for several years; there is no better ambassador for sport), as well as the merchandise tent. Without question, WTC took lessons from Yogurt himself.

On Saturday morning, Josh and I checked our bikes and gear bags before dipping into Tempe Town Lake for a practice swim. I felt fairly relaxed and comfortable with the 66-degree water temps. Despite my wetsuit showing signs of aging (beginnings of tearing around the arms were present in the previous two swims I’d done, but I just hoped the suit would hold), it performed flawlessly as before, so I held off on buying a new wetsuit from any of the vendors present. Besides, most didn’t have my size on-hand.

Once all gear-check, practice swimming, and whatnot were all wrapped, it was back to the condo for nourishment and an afternoon of resting. Talk about challenging but worth it.

Come race day, I found myself both fatigued and nervous. Despite several days away from challenges and demands of work and family life, I found myself unable to sleep soundly, for my mind was typically elsewhere with what I was missing out on from work and family alike. It was quite the conundrum I was (fortunately) able to set aside once my feet hit the water and the timer on the Ambit3 Sport was ticking. Sadly, such calm would be short-lived.

Within 100 meters of the swim, I knew something was wrong. I was experiencing a difficult time in controlling my breathing, which, as I continued to swim, I learned to be caused by excess water seeping into the suit through those tears around the arms. These tears would cause the arm to fill with water as I entered the water for the catch and pull; as the arm exited the water for recovery, there was additional weight of water. Every stroke was executed as though I had a bucket of water strapped to each arm. For 2.4 miles.

As I exited the water and peeled the wetsuit off, I felt much better due to being out of the water and being out of the water faster than expected. The trot to T1 was much quicker than I had anticipated and left me feeling ready for the 112 miles ahead. That was, of course, before I tried to tuck into my aerobars.

Because my arms were so fatigued from the 2.4-mile bucket swim, I had a difficult time getting comfortable in the aero position—which was crucial for the brutal headwind we had to fight on each of the outbound portions of the 3-loop bike course. Fortunately, there was a tailwind on the return of the first and most of the return on the second loop; any wind advantage had disappeared as the desert winds shifted with the wearing-on of the day. The saving grace were the overcast skies and a mercifully pleasant air temperature. Having such well-stocked aid stations and stupendous volunteers helped keep the mind focused and balanced as I fought to maintain my balance on the bike in a mostly upright position; getting aero was just too painful on sore arms, but the trade-off would come in form of legs sore from being forced to work differently than much of training had demanded. Being so fatigued and in less-than-idyllic shape didn’t help matters any.

Despite all of the seeming disadvantages though which I toiled, I still managed to hit T2 with a sub-6-hour bike split. If I could manage to eek out a 4-ish hour run (one of my goals), I could still manage a sub-12 hour finish (yet another of my goals). Such lofty goals, however, were put to pasture within the first 10k of the run.

Sure, I started out at what I thought was a good pace, running what I thought was just shy of a 9-minute mile. But, because the Ambit3 was not shifting sport modes thereby allowing me to see things like pacing and heart rate, I had precious little to go on to reliably track my pace mile-by-mile. By the time I hit the first turn-around on the run course, I found myself utterly drained, demoralized, and in full-on damage control. Still, as I shuffled along at little more than a walk, I vowed I would finish, no matter the time. I would not stop. I would fight on because Nicholle and so many others impacted by MS couldn’t.

Finishing the first loop left a large temptation in the form of splitting off and just accepting a DNF, but it was not for me. I all but literally limped into the special needs section of the run course and applied a bit more Chamois Butt’r where needed and downed a gel. Within seconds I felt like fresh and began a brisk trot. My hydration belt kept slipping down past my hips, making running uncomfortable, so I unclipped it and wrapped it around my left hand; this helped—a lot. As the sun set, I began to sprint the sandy portions along the trail and used the paved portions as recovery, kind of like a ramped-up variant of the Galloway Method. Miles ticked by much more quickly, and I continued to feel fresh through the first half of the second loop. By 20 miles, though, I was hurting. So it was back walking along for a few more miles.

With 5k to go, I found myself in a good stride, chatting with and encouraging others along the way while also being encouraged. We were all miserable and ready for the race to be over, but there was only one way for that to happen: Get across the finish line as quickly as possible.

The split into the finishing chute was a most welcome site, running onto the carpet and across the finishing line. Hearing my name (mispronounced, again) as an educator and father and 2-time finisher announced as I approached the finish line put spring in my legs, as I crossed the line, right arm held high and three fingers held higher. While the third time was not exactly the charm, I did finish. I was and am, again, an Ironman.

Suffering through this race, now one month ago, made me very aware of just how much of a toll the past five years had taken on me, physically and psychologically. A couple of days before the race, I chatted with a friend about my preparation and how I felt going into the race, joking that this race would be mostly run on muscle memory. Fortunately, there was a lot of memory in what remained of my muscles, even as five years’ worth of life with small children and the ripple effects of multiple sclerosis multiplied what would have been considered normal on someone of my age and ability.

At the time I crossed the finish line, I considered Ironman Arizona to have been my worst race ever.

Looking back, and taking into perspective that I was even able to cross the line, it was miraculous what was managed to be accomplished in a little less than twelve and one-half hours. While that finishing time of 12:24:19 (and the abysmal marathon time of 4:48:04) kept me way outside of my time goals for this race, I cannot lose sight of reality: I finished.

The race would not have been possible without incredible motivation and support from Nicholle, as well as Josh (who had a fantastic first-time Ironman finish in just over twelve hours!), a great friend, neighbor, training buddy, and now fellow-Ironman. Additional on-site support came from Jen, Sharon, and Leah, as well as their respective entourages; it was incredible and incredibly helpful to have so many on-course to cheer and help smooth things out race morning.

I totally have to say thank you to pro triathlete Kelly Williamson for taking the time to talk at the race expo, as well as recording “You-Go-Girl” video for Nicholle. Again, there is no better ambassador for sport.

Another shout-out goes to Rudy Project (who sponsors me in the form of discounts on Technically Cool eyewear and helmets) and my rep, Ryan Marts, for hooking me and Josh up on aero helmets when it became clear that the Boost 01 helmet I ordered at the beginning of the year wouldn’t arrive in time for the race. The Wing57 totally served its purpose and is worth well more than its weight in gold, given how ultra-light the helmet is.

Thank you, also to the countless volunteers on-course and behind the scenes. You make Ironman happen.

What’s next, I cannot really say. I’m toying with the idea of selling my trusty Cannondale Slice (and a few other bikes in the stable) in order to get a nicer mountain bike for tooling around and maybe even some Xterra racing, but Nicholle has asked me to put the idea of Ironman Boulder on my back burner. Probably not for 2017, but maybe in 2018. The kids will be older and more manageable (ha!), Nicholle’s DMT (disease modifying therapy) Lemtrada will be going into its third cycle meaning hopefully continued improvement for her (thereby us), and her folks live in nearby Denver means an extended vacation of sorts. But then there’s the whole paying for it (and at the very least a new wetsuit), to say nothing of actually training for the race. Yeah. Me, train.

Much like the race itself, making it through this race report was quite the endeavor. No, it didn’t take me an entire month to write it; rather, the delay in writing and publication came about as a consequence of what kept me from adequately preparing for Ironman Arizona: Life.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Like a Monkey at an Event Horizon

PBS offers this great series of short talks on space & science called Space Time. One of these talks involves black holes and whether or not events inside of them actually happen and gives a phenomenal demonstration involving a monkey and My Little Pony, in which the monkey is perpetually trapped at the event horizon (edge) of the black hole with My Little Pony observing.

For several weeks, now, we have been that monkey, seemingly trapped at the event horizon, where the black hole is the vast, apparent nothingness that is healthcare—health insurance, in particular.

Until now, United Healthcare (UHC) has provided stellar health insurance for our family with minimal impact and cost to us. But, now, when we really need it (for approval of a Tier IV [re: stupid expensive] medication to put Nicholle's MS back in check), UHC is failing us. Badly. To the point where the physical, mental, emotional, and (potentially) financial health of this family is in peril.

When the previous medications were determined to no longer be effective for Nicholle, her doctor prescribed Lemtrada, a near-miracle disease-modifying therapy (DMT) that—while not outright curing patients of MS—has fast-tracked many to living as close to "normal" of a life as they can with minimal symptoms.The infusion center that is part of her doctor's office filed what should have been the necessary paperwork for insurance approval and what-have-you. There was a lot of what-have-you.

Not including Nicholle, there were four (4) parties involved:

  1. Doctor's office/infusion center
  2. Insurance company (UHC)
  3. Specialty pharmacy (assigned by UHC; BriovaRX, in this case)
  4. A liaison between the drug maker (Genzyme) and Nicholle (MS One to One)
Somehow, somewhere, the ball got dropped in that pharmacy approval for the medication through UHC was denied due to benefit exclusion (her employer did not include this particular drug for coverage through UHC) and a medical approval option has put the doctor's office in its own orbit around the same black hole.

Because the stress was having a tremendously stressful impact on Nicholle (and stress isn't good for MS—to say nothing of the fact that Nicholle has work to do), I got involved in an effort to learn where the ball got dropped.

A call with UHC member services pointed back to the doctor's office; a seemingly simple phone call for the medical appeal was all that was purported to be needed to get the medical approval greenlighted. UHC even tried calling the office while I was on hold to get said greenlight to no avail. So, I called the doctor's office. (I also called MS One to One and spoke to our rep. Both she—and the MS One to One program appear to be wholly useless existing as a superficial security blanket that "someone is on our side" to advocate for us and keep us covered. The only thing I feel covered in after the conversation with them is excrement.)

After several minutes of sometimes heated, sometimes emotional discussion with the infusion center nurse who handles insurance stuff (for lack of a better term; these events have left me drained on every level, save rage), it was asked what it would take to make me happy at the moment, to which I responded: A conference call.

For whatever reason, the phone systems at the doctor's office cannot handle conference calls, so it was the handy iPhone 5s to the rescue that got me and the nurse connected to the doctor's backdoor channels to UHC.

Oh. My. God.

After several minutes navigating the infinite loop of UHC's automated system, we finally reached a rep who who was about as useful as an umbrella in a hurricane—even less-so than our MS One to One rep. The new UHC rep pulled up an authorization request that was denied at midnight.. Fifteen hours before the current call to UHC was placed and eight or so hours before the authorization request was even submitted to UHC. Now that's efficiency.

The nurse at the infusion center was told she could submit a peer-to-peer review appeal for the denied request (which she had attempted previously; denied requests cannot be appealed), and the call reference number provided by the rep was not inline with bona fide reference numbers provided to this nurse multiple times a day for other calls for other patients. Patients who have had no difficulty in getting approved for their medication. From UHC.

What would it take to make all of this better? Well, a genuine cure for MS would be phenomenal, though not at all likely right now. Getting Nicholle greenlighted for insurance or other financial coverage (and the drug in her system to do its thing ASAP) would be the next best thing, for we are fast-running out of time for not only alleviating her symptoms but also ensuring I can be by her side should she need me. (Because teachers have summers off, you know.)

This was long. And rambling. But so has been the black hole-like experience in which we've been trapped since sometime in early June. And we're tired of monkeying around with this whole process.

Thanks for reading.