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Friday, August 22, 2014

When Things Fall Apart

Chris Wodke at Paratriathlon National Championship Austin 2013

Enjoyment appears on the boundary between boredom and anxiety, when the challenges are just balanced with the person’s capacity to act.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Sometimes the smallest things can set me off.  I don’t always even know myself when it’s going to happen. It happened just a few weeks ago.  A simple e-mail from my coach started a chain of discussions that got really emotional for me.

An email invitation to join my coaches training group for a run workout and swim on the USAT Age Group triathlon course the week before the race. Even a race I well prepared for can be stressful. I was physically ready for the race, but I thought a group workout was not what I needed for my mental health.  I know the athletes well. Anyone paying several hundred dollars a month for coaching is a serious athlete. I’ve done a few group workouts with them and I am way out of my league.

I politely declined the run workout but asked if I could join the swim. So then my coach wanted to know why. Out came a flood of issues all of which have to do with being a CMT affected athlete.
I shared how the group workouts I’ve been to have not been much fun. I can think of three that illustrate my experience.

The first was a bike handling clinic.  It was a requirement if I wanted to go on any group rides with my coaches training groups.  Before introductions even started one of the coaches pointed out to everyone that my helmet was on wrong, my strap was twisted.  The helmet was then handed to someone else to fix and it was announced the helmet was past its expiration date.  Who knew helmets have an expiration date?  So class had not even begun and I’ve been embarrassed twice.

 We all did introductions and many of the participants introduced themselves by how many Ironman races they’ve done.  Not to be out-done I introduced myself as a “sprint triathlon specialist” and mentioned I had made Team USA for duathlon.  Yep, can’t get my helmet on right, but I’m a member of the U.S. team. There were no helmet inspections at Duathlon Nationals.

So class was moving along fine,  I was able to do all the drills until we were asked to split into two groups and each group was to ride in a circle. I was moving to join one of the groups when one of the instructors decided the group I as riding toward was too small. He stepped in front of me to stop me from joining the group.  It happened so fast I did not have time to un-clip and fell.  That was humiliating enough, but the instructor made me stay on the group and gathered everyone around me to use me to make some point. I don’t even remember what the teaching moment was. I just remember being made an example of.  So there I was on the ground in front of all those Ironman athletes, being used to make some teaching point.

A few weeks later I attended a transition clinic at a local park.  In triathlons you have two times when you change over sports. You go from the swim to the bike in the transition area and then from the bike to the run.  At the clinic we would be practicing our bike to run transition. We got some pointer from my coach and then we practiced.  We would run a prescribed distance assigned by the coach, come into transition and change over to our bike and then bike a prescribed course. Because I am exclusively a sprint triathlete I was assigned a distance about half that of the other athletes to run.  Even with that shorter distance, they were all passing me on the bike and run. Not fun.

About a month after that my coach invited me to a brick workout at a local high school track. It started at 6:30 a.m. I hate morning workouts.   A brick workout is where you bike, then run to simulate the changeover during a triathlon.   Again I was doing shorter times on the bike and the track. So I would be off the bike first onto the track. Every single athlete lapped me. It is really tough when I am trying to hit a certain mile per minute pace set by the coach and I am being lapped. Not fun at all.  I wonder what these athletes think about me as they lap me.  Do they feel like I am in the way?  Do they think I don’t belong?
I go to open water swim practice every Monday night on Pewaukee Lake.  Every week some swimmer runs into me and in some cases right over me.  Again not fun.

I’m not totally in left field to think that. One of our Team CMT athletes was told to get out of the way when she was doing a group workout. She was told “Get out of the way and let the real athletes through.”
I had a fellow para-triathlete turn to me in a race and tell me the area was just for “para-triathletes.” When I said I knew, she asked if I was a handler.  I guess I did not look like I belonged.

During a group workout I’m concerned I will be tempted to push too hard, especially since I have an injured ankle.  I weigh every chance for a group workout. Will I get enough benefit or do I need the workout to be success? Is the group workout going to be worth the personal cost to my self esteem?
As an athlete you need to be confident going into a race, being lapped by other runners, or run over during a swim workout does not help my confidence.

I really prefer to work out alone and there is some evidence to support my preference.
I’m currently reading the book “Quiet, The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking” by Susan Cain

The author explores how high achievers get their results.  She cites a study by Anders Ericsson from the Music Academy in West Berlin of expert violinists.   The professors were asked to sort their students into three categories; best musicians headed for a performance career as soloists, good  violinists and a third group preparing to be teachers.   The students were interviewed and asked to keep detailed diaries of their time.

All three groups practiced the same amount of time. The difference was the two best groups of musicians spent most of their practice time working alone. The elite musicians considered group practice time as leisure and considered their real work got done when they practiced solo.  They considered their solo practice time as the most important thing they did musically.  They practiced solo an average of 24.3 hours a week compared to 1.3 hours a week for those training to be teachers. They all practiced the same amount of time. The difference was the amount of solo practice time by the elite performers.
Ericsson found a similar result from solo practice for other kinds of expert performers.  He found grandmaster chess players spent five times  as many hours working on their game alone than intermediate chess players.

Ericcson’s theory is the key to excellence to engage in what he calls “Deliberate Practice”. This means to identify the things you need to do that are just out of your reach, work on improving your performance, monitor your progress and then revise as needed. 

Working in a group can interfere with this process, especially if you are an introvert like me.  The social interaction of a group practice or workout can interfere with the concentration needed to attain “Deliberate Practice”.  So my gut feeling that practicing alone is good for me has some basis in theory. I’ve never minded solo exercise.  As a long distance runner I am used to long solo runs. I love the time to think, the peace and the quiet.  I never feel pressured to run faster than I should to keep up with a group.  Solo runs where I set the pace have helped me to stay healthy. I feel pushing the pace could risk an injury for me on a body prone to injury due to my CMT.

Interactions with others can be draining for me.  I’m energized by time spent alone.  I need time to, think, reflect and re-energize. I don’t really look forward to parties or big crowds. Usually you will find me on the fringes observing the action.

When I’m being lapped on the track it does interfere with my concentration. I start to compare myself to other athletes. I think about the athlete I should be. I think about the athlete I once was.  I think about not really being accepted by other paratriathletes because I look normal. I think about being turned down yet again by the ITU for classification as a paratriathlete. I wonder where I belong. As I am lapped on the track or passed in bike and run workouts I know I don’t belong with normal athlete.

I just don’t have the ability to keep up with really good athletes in my coaches training group.  Everyday athletes of my ability do not have the competitive drive to push themselves in workouts.  I’m still allowed to compete in the physically challenged division of para events. I still have aspirations for National and World Championships. Someday I’m going to classify into elite paratriathlon To achieve the results I want I have to push myself. I have to be ready when my chance comes. I need the “Deliberate Practice” I can only get with solo workouts.

My coach often tells me to remember why I am doing what I am doing. I do those things to raise awareness of CMT and to win races. But it really is more fundamental than that.  I run, bike, swim, ski, hike, kayak and all the physical things  I do because I love it.  I experience what Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls a “flow” experience.  He defines flow as the optimal state where you feel totally engaged in an activity. When you are in the flow so to speak, you are not bored, or anxious and you don’t question if you are good enough.  Time can pass by without you noticing. That describes solo workouts for me exactly. I do it because I love it, not for any reward it brings. Quitting is never an option.

When I work out alone I can fully enjoy the moment of being able to run.  I can feel myself accelerate as I do speed workouts and find joy in the power of my body. I can swim and feel the water with each stroke. I can ride my bike and feel the wind in my face and the sun on my skin and not have to worry about keeping up with anyone else. I can concentrate on being the better athlete I am capable of despite the limitations of my CMT.  When I workout alone, I don’t get lapped and I don’t compare myself to others.  I can fully experience the moment. I can concentrate on the workout.  Working out in groups gets in the way of my joy in doing what I love.

So I will occasionally join a group workout. I enjoy the company of other athletes. I’ve met lots of great triathletes and runners. I’ll do them when it makes sense for my growth as an athlete. The rest of the time you’ll find me happily swimming, biking and running solo and I like it that way.

Author competing for Team USA May 2014

Chris Wodke
Founder & Manager Team CMT

Chris is a triathlete and long distance runner. She is a three time participant of the Boston Marathon. In 2012 she finished 2nd in the Mobility Impaired Division.  She was the 2012 National Champion Paratriathlon Open Division. In 2013 she qualified as a member of the Team USA Duathlon Team and was eligible to compete in 2014 at the Age Group World Duathlon Sprint Championship in Pontevedre Spain.  She chose instead to represent the U.S. as a paratriathlete at the Pan-American Triathlon Championship in Dallas, Texas.

She is the author of the book, “Running for My Life” that details her experience as a CMT affected athlete.

You may visit her author page at:

Team CMT is a group of athletes and supporters working to raise awareness and to find a cure for CMT. We have 152 members in 30 states. We also have members in Australia, Canada, Vietnam, Turkey, Finland and Iran. If you wish to join us visit our web site; or

CMT or Charcot-Marie-Tooth is the most commonly inherited peripheral neuropathy. It affects over 155,000 Americans (as many as MS).  It is a disease of the nerves that control the muscles. It is slowly progressive, causing loss of normal function and or sensation in the lower legs/feet and arms/hands.

Symptoms include; muscle wasting in the lower legs and feet leading to foot drop, poor balance and gait problems Atrophy in the hands causes difficulty with manual dexterity.

Structural foot deformities such as high arches and hammer toes are common.

Poor tolerance for cool or cold temperatures and many people have chronically cold hands and feet.

Additional symptoms may include fatigue, sleep apnea, breathing difficulties and hearing loss.

Additional Link
Follow CMT affected Paratriathlete Timmy Dixon

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