Monday, July 22, 2013

Race Report: NJ State Olympic Triathlon

Swim: 1,500 meters Bike: 22.5 Run: 6.2

I normally don't post such personal stuff, and prefer to keep the blog about nutrition and diet rather than my personal life; however, with the encouragement of a few friends, here is the story of the NJ State Olympic Triathlon from Sunday, July 21, 2013. This was my first triathlon! It was every bit as fun as I expected it to be!

shortly after finishing

Last November I ran the Philly Marathon and as soon as I completed it, I said to my friend, okay, I can check this off, now it's time for triathlon. I was already a relatively strong runner and was getting better at cycling every day. The big challenge was I needed to learn to swim. A knee injury shortly after the marathon meant no running or cycling for 10 weeks, so I jumped feet first into the pool (literally, I have no clue how to dive). Despite having a high level of fitness I could barely complete two laps of the pool before I ran out of breath and would need several minutes to recover. However I remained determined and within a few weeks I was completing thousands of meters in the pool a few times a week and swimming 1:40s to 1:30s for most sets. Once the knee was ready, I added running and cycling back into the mix and mentally began preparing by learning everything I could about triathlon over the past few months.

After going to the NYC Olympic Triathlon a week earlier with a friend, I had large expectations. Like all events in New York, the NYC Tri is a pretty big event. They had a large and well organized expo and a fun and challenging course. Cheering for this race got me crawling out of my skin with excitement for the NJ Tri that I registered for. Two days before the NJ race I went to their expo. It was outside, a bit small, and I had trouble just staying cool. There were only a few venders and none seemed to be offering great deals. It was well over 90 and the sun was blazing down - the weather did not seem promising for the race. I picked up my packet and then checked out the transition area. Despite having grown up in the town the NJ Triathlon is held in, and having done most of my most of my marathon training on the run course, I decided that I needed a refresher. Earlier in the day a good friend of mine joined me on a slow and easy bike reconnaissance mission of the bike course which they changed from the year before. The heat was brutal but the course seemed as if it would be pretty fast, despite a bit of an odd turn-around point in a college parking lot. 

When I got home I realized that my packet didn't have a race number for my bike. I went back to the expo and was assigned a new number. Unfortunately this new number was much higher and as such bumped me from the front of the transition area to the very last rack. This means that I would have to walk/run barefoot with my bike further to the bike mount area, basically it just added time to the transition from swim to bike. So annoying!

Race morning finally came and I was a mix of nerves and excitement. As four time Triathlon Kona Champion Chrissie Wellington says, our nerves are a sign of how much we care. I was still a bit worried about the temperature. The past two weeks had been in the high 90s every day with a heat index of over 100 (37 Celsius). Even the lake was over 88 degrees. However the morning of the race we got a break. It was only 80 or so and overcast. Really couldn't ask for anything better. I set up my transition, gave final spectator instructions to my mom who came to cheer me on, saw a few people I knew, and then did a few minutes in the lake to warm up. As I was entering the lake my mother gave me some 
sage advice: “You better come out of that water alive.” As if I wasn’t already nervous!

                                          about to enter the swim warmup.
Racing in the under thirty wave meant that I was in the first wave to swim immediately after the elites. I ate three dates and then was sent out into the lake and forced to tread water for several minutes with 100 other competitors before they finally blew the whistle! Off we went. I've read and watched tons of videos on the infamous swim start to triathlons. Even so, it's hard to imagine what it's like. To put it bluntly, it's a full contact sport. You swim into and over people, get kicked, pulled, and bumped from all sides. 

I managed to get to the front but I have to admit I was a bit overwhelmed with the mass start and I soon got dropped from the fastest swimmers. My heart was racing and I was having trouble breathing and sighting (making sure I was going in the right direction) but I eventually settled into a groove around meter 600 or so. At this point the swim field was broken into two groups a faster group which I was dropped from and a slower group which I found myself towards the front of. Due to low visibility I couldn't quite tell how many of my age group was still with me. I assumed that I was distanced by most of them and felt disappointed with my swim even though I passed a few of the elite athletes (clearly they were struggling) but I still exited the water with a 29 minute swim split. Not as slow as I thought but definitely no record!

I flew over to my bike, dropped my goggles and swim cap, grabbing my helmet, and then endured the long run to the bike mounting area. They call this Transition 1 and I managed to get in and out in 2:22 (better than I could have hoped!) I felt I had let myself down with the swim and as such I decided I would hammer the first of the two laps pretty hard on the bike to make up a bit of time. I saw my family cheering for me as I hopped onto my bike. Reminding myself about the old Bruce Lee quote: "The less effort, the faster and more powerful you will be," (I have this quote taped to my aerobar) I relaxed and smashed down on the peddles. I passed several people on the first lap- some of who spent tons of cash on super bikes- and was riding strong. Despite having a bottle tossed when I hit a large bump, (thankfully I wasn't given a littering penalty!) the first lap went better than I could have hoped! The course was flat but by the second lap it was much more crowded as most athletes had exited the water by this time and were starting their first lap of the bike. I flew by most of these people and pulled into T2 (Transition from Bike to Run) having finished the 23 mile course in 1 hour even. I was feeling pretty good!

As I was running my bike into T2 I took off my helmet and unfortunately the magnetic visor fell off twice forcing me to stop and back track to go pick it up. Lesson learned, unclip the helmet but keep it on the head until you get to your rack. Even with the two stops, I got my running shoes on and was off 
to the run in a 1:44 T2 time! 

 Tossing the visor to my family

I felt strong but definitely knew I was going out a bit too fast. My first two miles were sub 7 min per mile pace. I saw my family again cheering for me around mile 3 and by this time I settled into a more manageable pace. While on the bike I started to feel some stomach cramps. This is the first time this has ever happened to me while exercising. I think it was caused from my gasping for air and swallowing water in the first few hundred meters of the swim. This pain became more noticeable during the run. I pushed through this discomfort and still managed to choke down another date which I grabbed during my transition. I was able to finish the entire thing off with a 44:18 run split. A bit slower than I would have preferred, but it was hot and I killed it on the bike so I wasn't too disappointed. As I ran into the finisher shoot the announcer saw that my race kit has the words "GO VEGAN" printed on it and he yelled "this guy is powered by vegetables!" to a loud cheer from the spectators. 

My total time was 2:18:00, over 10 full minutes faster than my goal. My tank was empty and I was exhausted at the end. I found out shortly after that I came in 19th place for my AG (out of 91) and 113th overall (over 1,000 athletes!). Not too shabby for my first triathlon!

 such a terrible finishing photo!

My only complaint, well besides the fact they messed up my race packet during the expo, was with the post race activities. The race organizers said there would be free massage, race day photos, and a few other goodies for the athletes. However, after you crossed the finish line there was almost no direction and most of the volunteers only knew about their specific roles. After a few minutes of wandering around I gave up and went home without getting a massage... 

What an amazing time! I have a second, longer race coming up in September and can hardly wait for it to get here!

Saturday, July 13, 2013

Blood Test Results: Blood pressure, Cholesterol, and HDL

Yesterday I went to the Doctor’s for the results of the blood work I had drawn last week. After first telling me I had Chlamydia, the Doctor pulled up the correct chart (Thankfully, I don’t have Chlamydia, unfortunately there is an Anthony in Harlem who does.) the Doc began going over my numbers.

After being vegan for 6 years, my B-12 levels were perfect. The healthy range is between 200-900 pg/mL. I scored a 695. I did this by consuming a few fortified foods once in a while such as soy and almond milk but I also take a B-12 supplement every few days. It is the only supplement I take and I don’t take it every day.

In America, heart disease is currently our number one killer, but as Dr. Esselstyne boldly states in the documentary, Forks Over Knives, “if the truth be known coronary artery disease is a toothless paper tiger that need never, ever exist and if it does exist, it need never, ever progress.” Now if you’ve read Dr. Esselstyne’s book How to Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease (BYOL review pending), or Rip’s Engine 2 Diet, you’ll remember that there are a few magic numbers when it comes to blood pressure and cholesterol that nearly guarantee you’ll stand apart of the majority of Americans who currently suffer from the disease (many of whom won’t know they even have the disease until after they have died of a serious heart attack!).

First, blood pressure. Unfortunately, according to the CDC, one in three Americans have high blood pressure, many of whom are told to take medicine for the rest of their lives to artificially lower it. We consider high blood pressure, or hypertension, to be a natural part of the aging process, but this is not true. Rather it is a natural part of the Standard American Diet. Adults who consume a mostly plant-based diet typically have blood pressure levels similar to their children. I’m happy to use my Mom as a shinning example of this. She has had high blood pressure my entire life and for the last several years was on medication to control it. Last August I convinced her to switch to a plant-based vegan diet. Since the beginning of April, she has been completely off her medications!

Blood pressure is expressed in two numbers. The first number is called the systolic blood pressure and this represents the force your heart exerts on your arteries when your heart squeezes. You want your systolic pressure to be 120 or below. Mine was 106.

Next is the diastolic blood pressure, and this represents the force the blood exerts on your arteries when your heart relaxes. This number should be below 80. Mine was 60.

Cholesterol is, perhaps, America’s real greatest killer! And to think most people willing put extra cholesterol into their bodies whenever they chose to eat an animal based food! The average American’s cholesterol, again according to the CDC is around 200 mg/dL. This, by their standards is borderline risky, however the research shows that even this number is too high. Heck, just common sense can tell you that! Currently ¼ of the population will die from heart disease… something is clearly off with our numbers. Rather, Dr. Esselstyne argues from his research that to be “heart attack proof,” our total cholesterol levels should be below 150. Among others, Dr. Campbell’s The China Study concurs with this number. Mine was 88 mg/dL.

Now besides the total number, cholesterol is also made up of a few numbers. The two most commonly discussed are LDL, or low-density lipoprotein, and HDL, or high-density lipoprotein. We traditionally refer to LDL as bad, and HDL as good because LDL sticks to our arties, while HDL tends to clear them. 

If LDL is bad, we obviously want our LDL reading to be low. Most people’s LDL is around 100, but according to Dr. Esselstyne that number is still too high, and can put one at risk of heart disease, and several other chronic degenerative diseases. Instead, he recommends we should aim for 80 or below. Mine was 34.

Now HDL is a bit more tricky. Because it is the “good” cholesterol, we assume we want that number to be high; however, according to several research studies, what is far more important is to have your total cholesterol and LDL levels in check.

My HDL level was 27 mg/dL. My Doctor told me that it was way too low and it could potentially put me at risk for heart disease; however, I believe - and the science supports me - that there is an error in his thinking. Yes, 27 mg/dL is very low, however, my total cholesterol is over 100 points below average. So obviously my other levels will also be low. According to Dr. John McDougall, “When total cholesterol is lowered, all fractions of cholesterol are reduced, including HDL-cholesterol. This is not bad, but expected, and actually of no harm.”

In a study done on the Indian population, Tarahumara, a population that thrives off of a nearly complete plant-based diet and has almost zero accounts of heart disease help prove this. The researchers subbed the Tarahumara plant-based diet with an “affluent” diet high in fat, animal protein, and cholesterol, the natives total cholesterol raised 31% from an average of 121 to 159 in just five weeks. At the start of the study their HDL levels were around 32 mg/dL. Over the five weeks, those levels, on average, also jumped by 31% to 42. The study concluded they were at significantly higher risks for contracting heart disease at the end of the study then they were at the beginning even though their “good” cholesterol level rose. Essentially, labeling one form of cholesterol as “good” and one as “bad” is a classic example of the reductionist thinking that is too common when it comes to health and nutrition. A certain amount of both forms of cholesterol are needed for the body to function properly- and our bodies make both so there is no reason to increase our consumption of it with animal foods.

Worldwide (comparing people who eat different diets) those who have the lowest HDL levels (like people in rural Japan, China, and Africa) have the lowest rate of heart disease – and also the lowest total cholesterol. Those with the highest HDL levels (like people in the USA and Western Europe) have the highest rates of heart disease. 

As Dr. McDougall notes, when total cholesterol drops so too will HDL. In fact, in a study of over 500 of his patients, he found that, on average, people reduce their overall HDL levels by 19 percent (8 mg/dl – from 41 mg/dl to 33 mg/dl) in 11 days.

The Doctor told me that I should try and raise my HDL by consuming more Omega-3 fatty acids. At first he suggested fish, but then remembering that I was vegan he then offered I consume nuts and some seeds. He never specifically said walnuts, chia or flax, but those were the foods he was groping for. (As a side note, studies on cows and fish have both shown these animals get their Omega-3s from eating greens- It is not implausible to suggests humans do the same.)

Now, you might think, well, that doesn’t seem unreasonable, and until just a few days ago, I might have agreed. But we have to remember there are two essentially fatty acids that our bodies need to get through food. The first is Alpha-linolenic acid or Omega-3, which the doctor said would help raise my HDL- the second is Linoleic acid or Omega-6. According to recent studies, the ideal ratio between these two EFAs is a 1:1. A whole food, plant-based diet typically provides exactly that, a 1:1 to 3:1 (still within the safe realm) Omega 6 to Omega-3 ratio (for comparison, SAD is a 20:1 – 50:1 ratio). For someone eating the Standard American Diet, increasing their consumption of Omega-3 foods is a good idea, however for someone eating a plant-based diet it may not be. By increasing the Omega-3 intake, you could disrupt the ratio between Omega-6 to Omega-3, and this can lead to increase risk of heart disease as well as type-2 diabetes among other aliments. Both of these outcomes would be very rare with the numbers that I am dealing with, but why take the chance?

Finally, one cannot die of low HDL just as you cannot die from having a high HDL number. That said, far more people go to their graves from heart attacks believing their high cholesterol is safe because they have a lot of “good” cholesterol. We need to stop thinking about these matters in such reductionist ways. 

I hope you all have a great weekend filled with healthy foods!

As always, I am not a medically trained Doctor and this blog should not be taken as medical advice. Consult your doctor about any changes you make to your diet and all of your health concerns.

Brinton EA.  “A low-fat diet decreases high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol levels by decreasing HDL apolipoprotein transport rates.”  Journal of Clinical Investigation. 1990 Jan;85(1):144-51.

Kausik, et al. “Long- Chain Omega-3 Fats, Fish and Type 2 Diabetes,” American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 90, 613, 2009.

Esselstyn, C. Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease: The Revolutionary, Scientifically Proven, Nutrition-Based Cure, New York, Penguin Group, 2007.

Esselstyn, R. The Engine 2 Diet: The Texas Firefighter's 28-Day Saver-Your-Life Plan that Lowers Cholesterol and Burns Away the Pounds, New York, Wellness Central, 2009. 

Knuiman JT.  HDL cholesterol in men from thirteen countries.  Lancet. 1981 Aug 15;2(8242):367-8.

McDougall J.  “Rapid reduction of serum cholesterol and blood pressure by a twelve-day, very low fat, strictly vegetarian diet.”  Journal American College Nutrition. 1995 Oct;14(5):491-6.

McDougall J. “Good Cholesterol “Worstens” with McDougall?” McDougall News Letter September 2003.

McMurry MP.  “Changes in lipid and lipoprotein levels and body weight in Tarahumara Indians after consumption of an affluent diet.”  New England Journal of Medicine. 1991 Dec 12; 325 (24):1704-8.