Elaine: All Things Tri

Long Course Triathlon

posted Jan 29, 2016, 6:55 AM by Donald Vescio   [ updated Jan 29, 2016, 7:27 AM by Elaine Vescio ]

The first in a series of seminars on preparing for 70.3 and Ironman distance events, Long Course Triathlon Training for the First Timer helps triathletes know what to do 5+ months out from their long course event. Athletes learn the importance of embracing the 'Four Pillars of Performance' equally; are guided on setting season goals and supporting monthly objectives; and become informed on how to outline a long course training plan that is specific to them.

Long Course Training 2016-rev1.pdf
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Take Charge of Your Triathlon Swim

posted Jun 23, 2015, 8:26 AM by Elaine Vescio

As triathletes, we have our excuses. Excuses for missing workouts; excuses for not doing strength and conditioning exercises; and arguably the most popular--excuses for not performing well in the swim segment of triathlon. While I have experience with these excuses as a coach (and a competitor), the focus of this article is on getting rid of the need for excuses for not performing well in a triathlon swim. 

Yes, the triathlon swim is tough, especially for people who do not come from a strong swimming background. But you didn't choose this sport because it is easy, right? Most likely, you chose this sport because of its challenges, and the opportunities it presents for you to learn and grow as an athlete. So let's look at the various 'obstacles' presented by swimming, and figure a way through them. 

1. Swimming is Time Consuming. 
On the surface, I agree. You gotta pack your bags and get to the pool during lap swimming or scheduled group workouts, or you need to meet others at the lake at a designated time. Fitting in swim workouts seems burdensome. Triathletes, however, have an uncanny ability to 'squeeze' in mega mile bike rides and very long runs, or to analyze reams of data from their latest tracking gadgets and provide updates about it on social media, but they can't consistently fit in their swim workouts. Therefore, the problem isn't necessarily time constraints; it's more a matter of not getting the same feelings of accomplishment from a swim workout as one gets from other aspects of the sport. In other words, priorities. We tend to prioritize what gives us satisfaction over what makes us feel inadequate. And lumbering away in the pool without seeing progress can make even triathletes with the best of intentions feel demoralized. 

Setting the stage for feeling accomplished with your swim training can be done by setting a few measurable objectives each month related to a glaring weakness in your swimming or swim training, and tracking your progress towards these objectives. If consistency in training is a problem, an objective can be as simple as, 'To get in one pool swim workout and one open water swim each week'. If lack of progress in improving swim technique is a limiter, then an objective along the lines of, 'To include a 400 yard drill set that related to the high elbow catch' in each pool swim workout. If lack of progress in muscular endurance is a limiter, then an objective might look like, 'To attend a weekly Masters swim workout'. The goal isn't to fix everything at once, but rather to monitor progress in your swim training, which in time, should result in improvements in your swim fitness. 

2. My Swimming Doesn't Get Better
Improving your swimming requires patience (lots of patience), and a willingness to leave your comfort zone. Patience, because it's going to take time to master good technique, and develop the strength to swim strong. The willingness to leave your comfort zone is crucial because that's where growth occurs. Leaving your comfort zone means attending swim workouts with people who are a lot faster than you. It includes using swim drills to emphasize aspects of good swim technique, and then immediately doing swim sets to incorporate that technique into actual swimming. Finally, it means doing swim sets that vary in speed, including really hard sets with teeny bits of rest. These sets take you out of your comfort zone, way out, but lead to tremendous gains in swim fitness, ability, and confidence. 

3. Feel Nervous During a Triathlon Swim
Many people feel anxiety at some time during an open water swim. It's the brain warning that what we are doing is risky--we get breathless, nervous, our heart rate picks up. The innate 'fight of flight' response kicks in. Preparing your brain ahead of time is the best way to ward off anxiety during a triathlon swim. Teach your brain how you want to view yourself as an open water swimmer. Strong? Confident? Sassy? If you don't teach your brain, it will choose something (weak, unprepared, incompetent), and most likely it won't be something you like. Once you decide on how you want to be viewed as an open water swimmer, come up with a mantra that will teach your brain that view of you. And then reinforce that by repeating that mantra every day, several times a day. Your brain will have no choice but to believe it. (My brain thinks I am 'a strong, confident swimmer'). 

Mastering skills specific to the open water--swimming straight, navigating buoys, and dealing with anxiety--help mitigate nervousness during an open water swim. These areas are covered in my blog article, 'Open Water Swimming: Fun and Exhilarating vs Dark and Scary'. 

In summary, don't rely on excuses for the results you get in your triathlon swims. Rather take charge of your triathlon swim. 

Wondering Why You Swim Faster with a Pull Buoy

posted Mar 18, 2015, 8:29 AM by Elaine Vescio

It's fairly common for some people to swim faster with a pull buoy than without. Since pull buoys are not allowed in triathlons, it's a good idea to fix what is causing you to swim slower without the pull buoy. Seems like a smart way to get faster swim splits at races. 

Here are five things to consider when trying to figure out how to fix this. 

1. Lifting your head when breathing causes your legs to drop. 
Just a little lift of your head triggers a corresponding big drop at the other end of your body.A pull buoy reduces how much your legs would drop in reaction to the head lifting when breathing, so it reduces the drag created by this problem in your swim technique. Trust that the water will support your head, and make sure the air from your lungs is exhaled into the pool as you are rotating to take the breath (versus completing the exhale when your face is out of the water). These two little steps can help you avoid lifting your head when breathing.  

2. Poor core control makes it difficult for your body to be in the correct, streamline position. 
Squeezing a pull buoy between your thighs helps to engage the core without your thinking about it. Get that taut body without the help of holding a pull buoy. When you push off from the wall seek a tight streamline position, and maintain that taut, yet relaxed body control while swimming. Play around with this tautness feeling when doing side kicking drills. Go from ridiculously stiff to loose like a noodle. Eventually find that taut, relaxed feeling, and own it. An added benefit is a nice streamline off the wall works your core. So you are getting in some core exercise while becoming a better swimmer. A two-fer!

3. Wide legs when kicking creates drag and throws your body position off. 
Think 'swimming in a coffin' or a tube if the whole coffin thing freaks you out. 

4. Kicking with your feet flexed acts like a brake. 
During the down kick, the pressure of the water should be able to move your foot into a streamline position with the toe eventually pointed. This doesn't happen with tight ankles so do some stretches to loosen your ankles. (This tends to be a common problem with people who come to swimming from a running background). 

5. Proper kick timing helps your body rotate. 
Whether you are using a 2, 4, or 6 beat kick, the key to good timing is that when your hand enters the water to initiate the stroke,your opposite leg should kick. With a 2 beat kick, that's the only kick. With a 4 or 6 beat kick, there are other kicks in between, but the most important one for timing is the one when your opposite hand is entering the water. The Monkey Swim Drill (one arm swim with the other hand on a kickboard) is a good drill to exaggerate the extension of your leading arm from the scapular as the opposite leg kicks. Most people's kick timing tends to be ok, just not emphasized enough to give a lot of umph to the body rotation. 

Working on these items in the coming weeks can help you become a faster swimmer. The second one, which focuses on good core control, should be done at every workout and every time you push off the wall. Then choose two of the other items to work on at each workout for the next month and see what happens!

Open Water Swimming: Fun and Exhilarating vs Dark and Scary

posted May 23, 2014, 11:04 AM by Elaine Vescio

The biggest mistake that people new to the sport of triathlon make is to underestimate how different it is to swim in the open with a group of people versus in a lane of the pool with one or two other people. You see these people at almost every triathlon. They are the ones who turn back soon after their swim begins or who need assistance from the life guards or who eventually complete the swim after spending a lot of time floating on their backs or swimming with their heads out of the water with a terrified look in their eyes. This is completely unnecessary. Several practice swims in the open water can dramatically transform how a person reacts to the novelty of a mass start triathlon swim.  

Here are some of the surprises the open water swim has in store for a first timer:

·         It’s dark.

·         You can’t touch the bottom soon after starting to swim.

·         It’s challenging to swim in a straight line.

·         It can be difficult to navigate around a crowded turn buoy. 

·         You get breathless due to heightened anxiety and colder water temperatures.

·         Sometimes you get a mouthful of water instead of air when you go to breathe.

You can deal with these factors, with a little practice. The first two are givens—open water is dark and deep, but that doesn't matter. There is nothing under the water that you need to see in order to be able to navigate the swim course, and you don’t need to touch the bottom to be able to swim. 

Swimming Straight and Navigating Around Buoys

It is challenging to swim in a straight line. Pictured to the left is the indirect route taken by a swimmer in a sprint triathlon. White lines show the direct route; red lines show the route taken. This is an example of poor sighting--a common problem.  

In the open water you navigate by swimming towards the swim buoys that mark the swim course. You can do this by peeking forward occasionally while swimming--sighting on the next buoy or landmark behind the buoy. However, sighting by lifting up your head and chest, causing your legs to drop lower in the water, can waste a lot of energy and slow down your swim considerably. So practice efficient sighting in the swimming pool and in the open water. Begin by exhaling completely into the water, breath to the side as you would normally do while swimming, but then turn your head forward keeping you chin low. By the time your head is facing completely forward, you have gotten a panoramic view of what is happening to your side and can sight on the buoy or landmark that is your target. Remember to only sight as often as needed to swim in a fairly straight route. 

As you approach the turn buoy, avoid the temptation to swim close to the buoy. While this is the shorter route, it can get crowded at a turn buoy (think toll booths during rush hour). Instead, take a path a few yards from the buoy. This will avoid crowds and allow you to use a more normal freestyle stroke while turning. 

Dealing with Anxiety

Breathlessness is related to anxiety and a panicky type of swim stroke, and can be exasperated by cold water. While you cannot control the water temperature, you can work on controlling anxiety and maintaining good swim form.

During practice swims in open water, consciously inhale bringing the air deep into your lungs and then slowly and completely exhale the air into the water.  Focus on achieving long, rhythmic swim strokes versus short, frantic ones.  The “catch up drill” is a good approach for elongating your stroke as it exaggerates a hesitation between strokes. During the catch up drill, swim your regular freestyle stroke but wait until you touch one hand on the other before beginning your next stroke. This means for a moment, both your arms will be extended in front of you. Incorporate a minute or two of catch up drill into your open water swim if you are feeling breathless. It’s less taxing than regular freestyle plus helps to eradicate a short, panicky swim stroke. If you cannot lessen your anxiety while swimming, temporarily resort to a “panic stroke”, the stroke that you will use to help you relax. Breast stroke and side stroke are popular panic strokes because they allow you to get your face out of the water and breathe whenever you want. Try to avoid floating on your back as you cannot navigate in that position. As soon as you start to feel calm, switch to freestyle stroke, even bargaining with yourself that you will do 25 strokes of freestyle before resorting to your panic stroke again.

Finally if a mouthful of water causes you to begin coughing, slow down, take a gulp of the water to try to wash down what is in your throat (I know lake/ocean water can be gross but it beats choking), and switch to the side stroke or breast stroke for a minute or so in order to relax. Then proceed with your swimming. You may need to make adjustments to minimize the chances of taking in more water. Breathe to the other side if it’s waves or a splashy swimmer that is causing you to take in water. Roll your body a little more on its side when you are going to take a breath which should get your mouth closer to the surface, making it easier to reach for the breath.

In addition to the open water swim practice, incorporate mental training into your open water swim preparation. Come up with a brief phrase for how you want to view yourself as a swimmer. (“I am a strong, confident swimmer” is the phrase that works for me; "Just keep swimming" is the phrase that works for one of my clients). Repeat the phrase while you are stuck in traffic, when you swim laps at the pool, as you cook dinner, etc. The more you repeat it, the sooner your brain will believe it.

Practice the open water swim segment for your triathlon in the comfort of your own home by visualizing it. Imagine lining up with the other people in your swim wave. Hear the race director signal the start of your swim wave. Feel the cold water envelope your body as you make your first few strokes. Accept the darkness and depth of your swim environment as you focus on your deep breathing and long, swim strokes. Imagine occasionally having trouble sighting the buoy because of the hordes of swimmers and rough water, but being patient knowing that the next time you take a peek you will see the buoy a little closer than it was the last time you looked. Stay calm and patient while boxed in by other swimmers knowing that you will find space for swimming soon. During your visualization, steadily make your way through the swim segment all along thinking, “I am doing a triathlon!”.

The swim segment of your triathlon does not have to be dark and scary. You have the ability to make the swim segment a fun and exhilarating start to your triathlon. All it takes is a little practice and some positive thinking. 

Let's Go to the Midway

posted Feb 23, 2014, 3:07 PM by Elaine Vescio

Today my family and I attended a mass for my father who died four years ago. When I got home, I dug out this essay that I had written a few months after his death. It's called "Let's Go to the Midway". 

Most of the time, triathlon plays a positive role in our lives—feelings of accomplishment, improved health and wellbeing, and the sheer fun of swimming, biking, and running. However, there are times when triathlon brings frustration, disappointment, and even physical pain--bad races, equipment problems, and injuries. Learning to deal with the downtimes can help our overall experiences with the sport and with life.

Through example, my father taught me how to deal with the sport’s letdowns even though he had never trained for or competed in a triathlon. I’ll dust off the old cliché for this article, because when life gave him lemons, he made lemonade. And he did this through his final days.

A situation that clearly illustrates my father’s determination to enjoy life occurred this past January. My father had been battling mylodysplasia for years, and the disease was progressing. My sister brought my father to a doctor’s appointment and the prognosis was not good. When my father and sister came out of the examination room, my mother asked my father how it had went.  My father responded, “I’m fine. Let’s go to the Midway”. (The Midway was one of my father’s favorite restaurants). Shocked, my sister asked, “Dad, Did you understand what the doctor had said to you?” My father replied, “I understood what he said; now let’s go out to lunch”.

My father had understood; his prognosis was dire. There would be no more holidays, no more birthdays, and no more anniversaries. He would not live to see his youngest grandchildren grow to adulthood. My father only had weeks left to live. But at that moment, he was feeling ok. He was with his wife and his daughter, and he was a little bit hungry. So rather than wallow at his failing health, he decided that the best thing to do at that time was to enjoy lunch at his favorite restaurant with his family. He wanted to go to the Midway.

There were plenty of times during his final years that my father felt sadness and anger and fear as he battled mylodysplasia. He acknowledged and dealt with those feelings.  Yet, he knew instinctively to make the most of the moments given to him, to embrace the simple pleasures that life has to offer. And we should do the same. So when faced with feelings of frustration or disappointment about training and racing, let’s acknowledge and accept those feelings. Then as soon as possible, we can make the most of the time that has been given to us and let’s go to our “Midway”.

Oh No! A Weight Loss Plateau

posted Feb 18, 2014, 12:30 PM by Elaine Vescio   [ updated Feb 18, 2014, 12:55 PM ]

Usually all goes well when a person makes up their mind to lose weight. The positive reinforcement from the number on the scale dropping each week and clothes fitting better help to keep motivation high...at least initially. Then it hits. The scale won't budge or edges a bit in the wrong direction. Oh no! A weight loss plateau. When this happens (and it does for almost all people who try to lose weight), take a deep breathe and say, "I can do this!'. Because you can. You just need an approach for tackling this. 

Here are four tips for breaking through the dreaded plateau:
1. Think through the food choices you have been making around the time that the plateau hit. Look for calorie creep: slightly larger portion sizes; more meals outside the home; mindless grazing on junk food; more alcoholic drinks, etc.  It takes a caloric deficit of 3500 calories to lose one pound. Calories multiply quickly when your guard is down, making that 3500 calorie deficit a thing of the past.
2. Recognize that if you have lost a few percentages of your body weight, your daily caloric needs have probably dropped. If you weigh less, your Resting Metabolic Rate (energy cost of doing nothing) decreases. This is exacerbated if you lost some muscle during those early weeks. Muscle is metabolically active, burning more calories than plain old body fat. You may need to take in fewer calories than before in order to continue to lose weight. Don't get drastic. Just dropping by about 200 calories a day (or exercising to burn an extra 200 calories) from the point you were before the plateau should do the trick. 
3. Track your daily food/drink intake and exercise amount using a food/exercise log. This holds you accountable (goodbye calorie creep), and gives you a clear indication of the calorie intake/exercise amount that you need to achieve to lose weight. MyFitnessPlan.com and fitbit.com are two of the easier logs to use. 
4. Boost your activity outside your workouts. You know what I mean. Triathletes will pop off a two hour run, but will circle the parking lot at Target until a spot opens near the door, or will wait for the elevator at work instead of using the stairs. Wear a Fitbit or a pedometer to track your steps and then set a goal to boost them. 

Hang in there. You are an endurance athlete. You don't quit when a workout or a race gets hard because you expect it to be challenging. That's what draws you to the sport. Use that same mindset as you work towards your weight loss goals.  

Two Running Drills to Improve Footstrike Mechanics

posted Feb 17, 2014, 7:14 AM by Elaine Vescio   [ updated Feb 17, 2014, 7:20 AM ]

Runners are bombarded with information on the importance of proper footstrike, and with advertisements about running shoes that help promote proper footstrike. Here are two simple running drills that accentuate correct footstrike. The repetitive motions of these drills train your body to do these specific movements during your run. 

Jog easy for about ten minutes before doing these drills to increase your body's core temperature. Then spend about one to two minutes on each drill. 

Drill #1--Tapping on Hot Coals
Use a very short, quick stride. Strike the ground with your forefoot, allow your foot to roll down to the heel, then immediately pop to your next stride. Take tiny steps with almost no knee lift, and minimal time with your foot on the ground--like you are touching hot coals with your feet. 

Drill #2--A Spring in your Step
Jog forward with a very short stride, and a light, bouncy movement. Emphasize landing near the ball of your foot with a level footstrike under your center of mass, then quickly lift your foot up. It's a light, bouncy feeling, not a forceful, pushing off feeling. 

Try to experience the feeling from each drill during various parts of your run workout. 

Sleep: Measure It and Manage It for Better Triathlon Performance

posted Jan 30, 2014, 2:01 PM by Elaine Vescio

Triathletes tend to sacrifice sleep in their quest to squeeze more and more into over scheduled lives. Are you guilty of this? Well, then you are probably undermining your training if you are not getting the 7 to 9 hours of sleep needed by most healthy, active adults each night. Research has shown many impediments to athletic performance caused by inadequate sleep including impaired ability to use glucose, delayed and/or inadequate post exercise tissue repair, and weight gainFortunately, now technology is available to allow you to conveniently measure and track the quantity and quality of your sleep, an important step in your pursuit of adequate zzzz's for your training and racing. 

Fitbit is a wireless-enabled, wearable activity tracker that makes it easy for the user to track and see trends in various aspects of a healthy lifestyle including physical activity, food, weight, mood, and sleep. While each of these components are important, the novelty is in Fitbit's ability to allow you to track and see trends in your sleep quantity and quality.

sleep info

The data displayed above shows that on this given night, the user only slept for 3 hours and 34 minutes out of the 6 hours and 20 minutes that he was in bed, a sleep efficiency of 57%. Plus he woke up 13 times during the night. For years, he had known that he didn't sleep well, but it wasn't until he started tracking his sleep that he realized the extent of his sleep inefficiencies. 

So what's a triathlete to do when he or she gets data that signifies big sleep inefficiencies? Fix it. The same way you would attack a lousy swim stroke, bad bike fit, or heel first foot strike. You find out what you should be doing differently, speak to experts if necessary, and work at it. 

There are a lot of tips out there on how to sleep better. With the Fitbit, you can track your sleep trends to figure out which changes improve your sleep. Some areas to explore include:
  • Go to bed earlier. Say 'no' to your favorite television show. Shut down the computer. Put away the smartphone. Just go to bed. 
  • Practice relaxation techniques to help quiet your mind. Deep breathing. Progressive relaxation. Count sheep. 
  • Don't think through the day's problems while you are in bed. There's plenty of time to stress about that stuff during the day. 
  • Try a more relaxing bedtime routine--warm bath, gentle stretching, yoga, reading, etc. 
  • Minimize caffeine intake after late morning as it can take up to 10 hours for it to leave your system. (Coffee, tea, sodas, and chocolate contain caffeine). 
  • Avoid alcohol late at night. It may seem to relax you, but alcohol actually causes people to sleep less deeply. 
  • Avoid exercising close to bedtime. That workout will do more harm than good if it interferes with your getting adequate sleep. 
  • Keep electronics out of your bedroom. Let this be the one room in your house dedicated to rest and rejuvenation. Keep the noise from the outside world out. 
Set realistic goals for improving your sleep. If the person in the example above sets a goal of in a week improving his nightly sleep by just 30 minutes, after 4 weeks he will have increased his sleep to 5 1/2 hours a night which is a lot better than 3 1/2 hours a night. 

So as you work through your training plan for 2014, be sure to consider how improving your sleep can do more to improve your triathlon training and performance than most of the gizmos, supplements, and triathlon training tips combined. 

Veggies...Just Do It!

posted Jan 22, 2014, 9:40 AM by Elaine Vescio   [ updated Jan 22, 2014, 1:29 PM ]

It is a bit befuddling that triathletes who regularly get up before the roosters to complete a swim workout with buddies, bang off intensive bike intervals alone on an indoor trainer after a 12 hour work day, and endure two hour runs on a treadmill to avoid missing a workout because of a freak snowstorm, cannot figure out a way to consume a few veggies each day. The benefits for athletes to consume veggies each day are well known so there is no need for me to list the "why eat your veggies". Instead this article will focus on the "how" to eat your veggies. 

1. Consider eating veggies each day as an integral part of your training. Put it right up there with getting in your specific workout(s) and foam rolling, because that's how important it is. 
2. Have a weekly plan for how you will get those servings of veggies in. Each week, you know which workouts you are doing each day, and then you plan your life around getting those workouts in. Do the same with the veggies because winging it doesn't work just like it wouldn't work with your workouts. 
3. Start slowly. You wouldn't expect a person new to exercising to be successful long term if right out of the gate he/she tried to workout for 60 minutes a day, seven days a week. If you haven't been regularly consuming veggies for years, then schedule in one serving per day for the first few weeks. You are more likely to be successful achieving that than immediately trying to get in four or five servings in a day. Slowly increase your target number of daily servings over the course of a few months until you take in four to five servings each day regularly. 
4. Go with the familiar. Just because you can't read a triathlon article without someone hailing kale or beets as the must have vegetable for epic performances, doesn't mean that's a good place to start. Eat a tossed salad with dinner, a bowl of vegetable soup with lunch, or a glass of good ole V8 as part of a mid morning snack. These are simple and familiar items to add in. 
5. Frozen vegetables are fine, and often times retain more of the nutrients than fresh. Stock up in your freezer. Cook a bag in your microwave at dinner, and then bring the leftovers with a sandwich for lunch. 
6. Don't love vegetables? That's ok. Eat them first at meals when you are really hungry, and you'll be amazed at how much yummier they taste than after you have wolfed down a complete meal. 
7. I mentioned vegetable soup earlier. This is a wonderful approach especially this time of year. Make a big batch of a vegetable soup on the weekend, and freeze some for handy lunches, dinners, or post workout fueling. 
8. No more excuses. When it comes to your veggies....just do it. 

Three Steps to Lessen the Thanksgiving Calorie Damage

posted Nov 27, 2013, 1:22 PM by Elaine Vescio

According to the Calorie Control Council, the typical American consumes more than 4500 calories during Thanksgiving Day festivities--about 3000 from the dinner alone plus another 1500 nibbling on appetizers and drinks before and after the holiday meal. Add in another 1000 calories to cover breakfast and other pre and post Thanksgiving festivities' consumables, and you are looking at a 5500 calorie day. While I am a big proponent of enjoying the holidays and loosening up one's dedication to training and racing on the holidays, the numbers shouldn't be ignored--a 5500+ calorie day can set back any athlete's weight management efforts. 

Let's look at the Thanksgiving math for a person who's daily caloric need is about 2000 calories. 5500 calories consumed minus 2000 calories needed equals an excess of 3500 calories which is equal to a gain of one pound in body weight. Yes--One day. Plus one pound. So what's a person to do? A quick Google search will give you a whole bunch of strategies for dealing with the holiday meal. I think anything more than three steps becomes info overload. So here are three steps to lessen the Thanksgiving calorie damage. 

1. Portion control. Yup....decrease by 1/4 to 1/2 your portion sizes. I know this can be tough with a heavy handed grandmother doling out the servings, but use your speed and dexterity to take control of that serving spoon and manage your portion sizes. 
2. Choose wisely when it comes to the nibbling on appetizers. Pick one or two of the higher calories appetizers to sample, and then go for the lower calorie choices like the selections on the veggie or fruit platters. 
3. Burn some calories. Squeeze in a workout that morning or convince a few relatives to join you for a post feast walk or hike. 

Thanksgiving is just one day, but there is no reason you need to let one day damage your hard fought weight management efforts. Here's to a happy, no regrets Thanksgiving. 

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