Sunday, December 14, 2014

On Cost-Benefit Analysis

My husband and I disagree about a critical aspect of Richmond life: leaf raking. When I rake, I don’t worry about getting every last leaf. I go in and quickly rake up as many leaves as possible, which means targeting very leafy areas and raking until the leaves thin out such that they take more effort to rake. Tim prefers to meticulously tackle the leaves one zone at a time until that zone is completely free of leaves. The root of this disagreement lies in a difference in opinion over the costs and benefits of leaf raking strategies. I feel the benefit of quick and efficient raking outweighs the cost of a few straggler leaves. Tim, who I’m sure is thrilled (not) to be in this blog post, feels like the benefit of an aesthetically pleasing yard free of leaves outweighs the cost of the additional time demanded by his strategy.  
30% of the bags of leaves I've raked
Whether you consciously recognize it or not, cost-benefit analysis is a routine part of our lives because we’re constantly making decisions, however mundane. In order to make those decisions, we – implicitly or explicitly – must weigh the costs and benefits of each alternative. I love cost-benefit analyses. Different forms of these analyses are critical parts of my academic field – pharmacoeconomics – and I believe they have the capacity to help improve healthcare in the light of limited healthcare resources.

But this is a triathlon blog, so how does cost-benefit analysis relate to triathlons?

Most triathletes juggle work/school, triathlon, and family life. A simple fact of life is that dedicating more time to any one of these things takes away time from the others.  We all have to find our own balance between these legs of a stool (throwback to elementary school government, anyone?).

I think one of the keys to success in balancing these aspects of my life is continued cost-benefit evaluation. There are a few things in my training and lifestyle where the benefits clearly outweigh the costs, e.g. a number of quality workouts each week with a substantial fitness impact and getting at least eight hours of sleep. There are others where the benefits pretty consistently outweigh the costs, e.g. eating chicken, rice, and veggies for dinner on a disproportionately high number of weeknights (benefit: quick and budget-friendly, cost: food boredom) and getting nine hours of sleep (benefit: whoa, I can think straight? cost: my social life). Then there are the tougher decisions I face, e.g. the relative costs and benefits of training with differing degrees of illness or when facing a particularly busy time at school and whether or not to dry my hair after swim practice (cost: being that girl who always shows up to school with wet hair, benefit: 4-5 extra minutes in the pool). I think the important thing here is that I am always looking for ways to improve my efficiency, or my “bang-for-the-buck”, by focusing my time on the most cost-effective (in time, money, and/or energy) ways to make progress in my training and in my professional life. I’m fortunate to have a coach who understands and works well within the context of the limited time of working and family-oriented triathletes.

If you recall my Augusta 70.3 saga, you know that I learned an important lesson about nutrition in a 70.3 – PACK IT ON YOUR BIKE. This year, I plan to be more prepared to tackle the half distance. I suspect that the benefits I’ll reap from proper race-day nutrition will far outweigh the costs of the time it will take to educate myself on proper race-day nutrition. My professional team, Maverick Multisport, is partnered with InfinitNutrition, so I have an incredible opportunity to focus on improving my training, racing, and recovery with nutrition. As we head into the new year, I challenge you to look at your time and resources and evaluate what aspects of your training and gear are most (or least!) efficient. Then, work towards efficiently improving your training and gear to make gains without harming the balancing act otherwise known as life.

Finally, shameless plug to follow my new twitter account @JPattersonTri and “like” my new Facebook page I will attempt to keep discussion of my research on C. difficile to a minimum. Speaking of which, to the family members who make up approximately 50% of my blog readership, if I’m going to spend another semester researching C. diff, I’m going to need to add it to my collection of “giant microbes”. <cough, Christmas gift, cough>.

Ebola and Malaria need more friends!

Sunday, November 16, 2014

On the Fear of Failure or The Importance of Learning to Fail

I can tell you the first time I didn’t know an answer on a test. I was asked to estimate the number of students in my school, and I couldn’t decide if it was closer to 500 or 600. I was five.

I can tell you the first time I cried about a grade. I missed a spelling word on my spelling pre-test. I was six.

I can tell you the first time I got a “bad” grade (I got a check on a scale of check minus, check, and check plus). I was seven.

I am, at best, mildly compulsive about doing my best. I am, at worst, a perfectionist. Perfectionism is a weakness, because a drive for perfection cultivates a fear of failure; the fear of failure is a limiting factor for success because it prevents you from taking advantages of opportunities when you may not succeed.

Enter the importance of athletics in my life.  I am so proud of being a student athlete. Sure, some NCAA athletes have been under fire for various controversies (UNC scandal, anyone?), but I still love the NCAA commercials that feature student athletes balancing vocations outside of athletics. I think these athletes would pretty unanimously say that athletic participation shaped their careers, even when they “went pro in something other than sports”.

Hence I reach an important way in which athletics have positively impacted my life; sports have taught me that failure happens. Because in sports, failure is inevitable and frequent. I’m not necessarily talking about catastrophic failures here. I’m talking about those times that you try to hit a risky shot and just barely miss it and those times that you miss your target pace in a workout by two seconds. Every failure is a learning experience – did you need a little more topspin to make that shot successful or to pace your 1600 a little more evenly to hit the time? One of my favorite trainer ride YouTube videos is this Nike commercial with Michael Jordan

Athletics, ripe with opportunities for failure, can be a stressful place for a perfectionist, until she realizes that you don’t have to be perfect to be a success. Slowly but surely, athletics teaches a perfectionist that she has to take the risk of stretching herself beyond her abilities in order to learn, grow, and advance, and that lesson is critically important not only in sports but in life.

Thus we arrive at the 2014 Richmond Half Marathon.  In mid-June, I had to put training on hold to tend to my injured ear. On July 15th, I did my first post-injury run. I ran ten minutes.  My next run was scheduled to be 15 minutes, and I only made it ten. My training in August was spotty at best with my move and my coach transition. So when I started with Kyle on September 1st, ten weeks before the half marathon, having not done a hard or long run in at least ten weeks, I felt confident that the race was well beyond my capabilities. I was afraid of entering the race and failing. And, in at least some sense, I did fail. I stayed on pace for eight miles but failed to hit my goal pace for the last five miles. I failed to PR despite making some very serious fitness gains in the last two months. But if I had let my early fear of failure from training for and competing in the race, I would have missed the opportunity to feel that starting line rush, to feel the excitement of competing again, and to feel that burning race day desire to work harder and get stronger in every single workout as I head into a dark, cold winter training block. Don’t look up my time in the half marathon. It’s not important. I wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t need to be. I needed to race again. And that, I did. Successfully.

Special thanks to Kyle, Samone, Lindsay, and my entire training family at Endorphin Fitness. You have made this recovery process considerably more enjoyable.

Friday, October 10, 2014

An Ode to Coaches

Since it’s officially fall, I can confidently say that summer 2014 will go down in the books as the summer in which my triathlon season did not go according to (my) plans.  At the risk of stating the painfully obvious: I didn’t have a 2014 triathlon season. I could tell you about how I lost an entire season because I blew my nose too much, reinjured my round window membrane, struggled through debilitating imbalance and motion intolerance, experienced disturbing hearing changes, and raked up a wonderful sum of medical bills, but I’ll spare you the details.

Instead, in light of recently starting with a new coach, I have done a lot of thinking about my past coaches. I have come to better recognize the significant contributions of these individuals to my development as an athlete and a person. Nothing I can ever say or do will be able to fully express the gratitude I feel towards these individuals for their role in my life. If you are one of these people and are reading my blog - thank you.

Jim Callahan first coached me at the age of six-ish at Brookside Country Club. I spent my summers swimming there and winning year-end awards like “pacemaker award” and “coaches award” because I worked hard but was never good enough to get MVP. Jim is therefore my longest running coach, as he was also my high school coach and post-high school Masters coach when I’m back in Worthington. Jim wakes up before 5:00 am every day all winter in order to swim, often alone, because he loves swimming. To this day, my very best athletic memories are watching the summer sunrises from the Brookside pool as I swam alongside Jim’s group of masters’ swimmers. Jim taught me how to love my sport.

A lot of people don’t know – or forget – that I grew up playing tennis. I still think that tennis was probably the best outlet for my love of competition because it’s a relentless one-on-one mental battle with your opponent.  My coaches Brian Heil and Sara White Quart taught me how to read an opponent’s weaknesses and how to use my strengths to strategically exploit them. They taught me how to remain calm and even-keeled whether I was winning or losing and how to manipulate the pace of play to my advantage. I beat a lot of girls who were better than me because I out-competed them. As a high school junior, I got a letter of apology from a player who had grown so angry at my tactical play that she cursed me out. Several times. Brian and White-y taught me how to be a competitor.

I still remember the fateful night in July 2007 when Steve Taylor called me at 8:30pm asking me to join the cross country team at the University of Richmond, where I would be starting as a freshman the following month. I was already in bed, as I was getting up the next morning to swim with Jim. I ran all four years under Lori and Steve Taylor. I think they were the first coaches to really see athletic potential in me beyond anything I could imagine. With Lori, I laughed and I cried, I weathered the highs and the lows of college, and I grew into an adult. I gained an ability to focus on workouts with a new level of intensity and learned to consistently hit times in practice regardless of what was happening in my life outside the track. The Taylors taught me how to be an elite athlete.

Michael Harlow was my first triathlon coach. It was under his guidance that I learned how to properly structure a workout week that balanced the three sports. He navigated with me the transition from college athlete with a daily team practice to pharmacy school athlete training alone in the middle of winter. I made my transition to racing at the professional level under Michael, and he made me believe that I could actually compete with the best in big races. And through all of that, he became to me a friend, a mentor, and a Brother in Christ. Michael taught me how to be a professional triathlete.

When Michael transitioned away from day-to-day coaching, I felt as though the loss of my coach added insult to my summer of injury. I went through my life-changes playlist, blasting “my world is changing/it’s rearranging”; “and I can’t really tell you what I’m going to do”; “life’s about changing/nothing ever stays the same”. Then, something great happened. I remembered another song that mentions change. “I keep on thinking things will never change/keep on thinking things will never be the same”. Yes, I actually watched Vitamin C’s “Graduation” music video. I didn’t stop there, either. My throwback to the 2000s ultimately left me home alone, blasting, at full volume, “it’s my life before me/got this feeling that I can’t go back/Life goes on”. And that, folks, is when I finally started laughing. Hard. And I knew that it was time to start the transition to a new coach. But that’s a blog post for another day (spoiler alert: he’s awesome).

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Welcome to 2014!

School is out for the summer, I am well aware that I did not update my blog during the fall…or the winter…or the spring, so let me give you the cliff notes version of my P3 year.

Fall: I celebrated my 25th birthday with the Richmond Half Marathon. In one of my best-paced races ever, I hit a solid PR (1:18.17), dropping nearly 90 seconds from the same course in 2012. I ran alongside a running friend (thanks Sallie!), descending the entire race and feeling strong while doing it. The race improved my confidence in the distance and was one of the most fun races of my career.

We literally slept in a cave
Winter: Tim and I took full advantage of our long Christmas break (there are perks to being a professional student). My younger sister Margaret came to Richmond for a week of sister bonding and liked it so much that she’s moving to Richmond this month! We then celebrated Christmas with both sides of the family. During my time in small town Indiana with my in-laws, I was able to swim with a local high school team. Though I had sworn off 3+ hour Christmas break swim workouts long ago, I found myself spending all morning at the pool and loving every minute of it. We then embarked on a little tour of the South. In addition to spending the night inside a cave outside of Chattanooga, we enjoyed time in Savannah and Hilton Head.

Lobster dinner in the Naples sun!
Spring: Tim and I had a blast in Florida with my grandparents and great aunt over spring break. How many people can say they genuinely love spending spring break with three 80+ year olds and a 70-something? I was voted “Most Likely to Be the First to Pay off Their Student Loans” in the Class of 2015 superlatives, an award I celebrated by making a payment to Sallie Mae. I also finished the coursework portion of my PharmD (FAQ: So does that mean you’re almost done with school? Answer: No, but I only have PharmD rotations and my PhD coursework/research left!). While I will certainly miss seeing my friends and classmates every day, I do not anticipate a sense of loss if I never again have to memorize thick packets of PowerPoint slides filled with drug names, dosages, indications, contraindications, side effects, monitoring parameters, etc. (PSA: Yes, your pharmacist knows all this information – take advantage of this accessible health care provider!). 

As my summary of the last nine months attests, my P3 year included a number of incredible experiences with great friends and family. In between these considerable highlights, though, were significant, non blog-worthy experiences that made me feel a bit like life’s punching bag. Difficult times often require self-reflection, and one particular moment of introspection was inspired after spectating the major Junior Elite triathlon hosted by my triathlon club, Endorphin Fitness. As I cheered on a number of junior athletes who I train with and reminisced about junior racing, I decided to reread – for the first time since submitting it - my Common Application essay for college. I’ve included my opening paragraph below.

Dismounting from my bike, I depart on the final run of my triathlon with equal amounts of trepidation and excitement. My exhausted body knows the pain I will endure during the ensuing run; my mind recalls how laborious each step will feel as my legs adjust from biking to running. The hours of painful training, the numerous fans who sacrificed hours of sleep to support me, and the sense of accomplishment I’ll feel at the finish line drive me, pushing my mind and body to new limits. Amidst my haywire emotions, I feel a sense of calm, a connection with God as I race, and I know that I have found my ideal sport. Triathlons are more than my greatest hobby; the sport embodies my character and ambitions. Triathlons exhilarate and excite me, challenge me physically and mentally, and teach me invaluable lessons about faith, determination, and success.

Junior Racing. Margaret is behind me wearing her "coach" shirt.
The essay reconnected me with my 17-year old self. As a homeschooled high school senior, I was in nearly complete control of my education. I accomplished an incredible amount that year, as I was free to pursue my passions in coursework, research, and extracurricular activities. Life beat me down this year, and in the fight to keep my head above water, those passions became a dim light at the end of a long, dark tunnel. I am reaching the end of that tunnel, though, and my excitement for triathlon and my education are as bright as the Richmond sun that has so cruelly begun burning me on runs. My race season will start later this year - in June - but when I do toe that starting line, rest assured that I will feel the exhilaration, excitement, and challenge that I so accurately described seven years ago as a junior triathlete.