Wednesday, November 23, 2016

how the light gets in

I wrote, five or six weeks ago at this point, about the cautious early work of rebuilding.  The first time this, the first time that, the early steps back towards the chasing-watts-and-puppies life I am accustomed to living not to mention the monumental amount of selfies in a bike kit that show up on instagram as I blunder through the world.  
I went to Arizona - not this past weekend where holy crap some lucky athletes got to experience maybe the best weather in the history of ever - but the weekend of the 70.3.  I signed up for the AZ 70.3/140.6 double a year ago, when I had enough faith in a body that I trusted to plunk down $900 towards a race schedule.  I thought about racing the 70.3 but in the end, I wasn't ready.  I've participated in enough races for one year, and I was not interested in standing on a line until I felt strong, healthy, and deeply fit.  I'm still not.  At that time, I was hopeful that I could build enough to take a chance at the full, and the two-week hole that the half would rip into my training was enough to say - not me, not now, not this time.  That was okay. 
As things happen, though, most of my trip was already paid for, having been booked from the passenger seat as I road-tripped my way back from Lake Tahoe in early August, planning my future with a confidence that I can now see was only a fragile illusion.  Recovery from ironman was a slow process, getting my body sorted out took longer than I had hoped, and I probably should have known better than to try to forge forward into a hefty fall race schedule after I had gotten lucky enough to finish IMCdA without serious damage.  So I decided to head down to Arizona to train, to spend a weekend riding my brains out in the blasting oven of summer that I missed in Colorado as I flitted about the world.  
It was a good call.  I rode every day, everywhere I could remember.  I soaked up the heat and the sunshine and Dallas Smith plugged into my right ear, hope you never stop laughing and your sky stays this blue forever.  I introduced someone new to the ride that will forever be called so fucking dropped right now in my head after experiencing it myself for the first time back in 2014, I had dinner - twice - at one of my favorite restaurants and I sang Gershwin in the shower to the likely dismay of my upstairs hotel neighbors.  And on Sunday, race day, I packed up my little roller skate of a rental car and drove down to Tucson to climb Mount Lemmon.  I rolled out of the McDonald's parking lot just before 7am, the weather was perfect, I didn't look at my Garmin, I didn't do anything except breathe and climb and breathe and climb.  I stopped about fourteen miles up to stretch a little bit (this is a terrible idea as nothing feels worse than getting back on) and reorganize my snacks, and it was almost too soon that I coasted into the Cookie Cabin, a little bit sore, a little bit ready to rip out my adductors and a lot tired of sugar but happy.  More, different, than happy.  Sated.  Peaceful.  Fulfilled.  In my tiny world, there is nothing better than spending a few hours turning the pedals up the side of a mountain and letting my brain sift and sort and discard all the crap that floats around up there, talking to myself most of the way.  When I came flying - and I mean FLYING - back down that mountain, I felt whole again, confident in just me, nothing but myself.  For the first time in a long while.  
I flopped in the gorgeous ASU pool, I ran a bunch of miles the next morning in the dark, and I took my bloated and inflamed butt back home to Colorado.  That contentment, that peace, it has been hard to hang onto since I've been back, but it's in there, still with me.  It's led me to continue to make some changes & decisions across the landscape of my life; some major, some minor, all I'm confident are dragging me quite merrily down the path I want to be on.  I realized fairly quickly that I wasn't going to be prepared to race IMAZ the way I'd like to be the next time I stand on a line, and there was no emotion attached to that decision either, no regret in letting it go.  Instead I raced a 5K, pacing one of my athletes to a PR but also still somehow running the fastest three miles I had run in well over a year, and nothing broke or fell apart (close your mouth). 
I went back to DC to visit with some of my closest girlfriends, and while a big piece of my heart misses living so close to these amazing women, the huge and overwhelming peace that I feel when the plane lands back in Denver reminds me how sure I am that this is my home.  I ate, drank, visited, swam, held these friends close to me for a few short days.  And I ran.  On the Mount Vernon trail which simply explodes with memories of beginning to run, the first time I ran four miles, 5, 6, 17, training for all the things I trained for while I lived in Alexandria.  My body felt healthy, cautiously showing up for me, over and over and over (sorry, you guys, the outtakes always win).  
I flew home.  Raced a 10K where I got my ass kicked by a guy wearing an enormous fleece-and-plastic turkey costume not to mention more than a dozen 9-year-olds, but came within a minute of my (years-old & not-impressive) PR, running another set of the fastest miles I've seen on a watch since who even cares when at this point.  I was somehow tricked into a MAF test and to see so many miles rack up starting with a 9 instead of the feels-like-19 I've been at all year was a surprising relief.  Still not broken.  I'm swimming hard and I'm chasing happiness watts and exorcist-style-vomiting on the bike and sure, my body isn't perfect, it's still acting like a tricky teenager that needs to be carefully managed but it is hanging the fuck in there and I am whispering thank you to it like a lunatic nearly every day.  
Among the many lessons that I have learned recently, one of the big ones is that nothing is ever going to be perfect.  I am a person who needs everything to be black and white; trying to swallow the flat truth that life is going to mainly be varying shades of gray is tough for me.  Because sure.  Life can crush you.  People can hurt you.  Your own body can turn against you, a knife slipping in your hand.  And it's easy to choose the path of the victim, to put up walls, to remain totally and completely paralyzed by pain, fear, insecurity.  I've experienced that many times over the past few years, the force with which I tried to hold out the world when my grandmother died.  How it was so uncomfortable to sit and experience grief that I did all kinds of things to try and avoid it until one day I simply exploded, nuclear-level meltdown, game-fucking-over.  
Maybe it's been since then, maybe that was my ground zero, maybe everything I've gone through in the last year started on the day that will be forever known as the day I stomped a marathon, maybe that's the final, painful, agonizing lesson to learn from the entire experience of this last season of my life.  Life will never be perfect, perfection is an ideal, so instead maybe we should try and savor the brief precious moments in time instead of being constantly disappointed in imperfection.  June, sprawled in the grass on a Saturday afternoon next to Lake Coeur d'Alene after riding my bike for the first time in a month, that was a moment.  July, cannonballing into the hot springs, napping on a picnic bench in Montana, paddleboarding at the Union Reservoir surrounded by friends while the sun set, more moments.  August, shivering and laughing and running on the beach of Lake Tahoe in the dark, climbing mountains, ironman.  September, October, the sweet peace of finding my body again, trail running, raging at my own ineptitude while pushing my mountain bike through six inches of sand in Moab, racing back on the highway outside of La Junta trying to see how long I could hold off someone on my wheel and two hundred watts both, rooftop margaritas, birthdays, bicycles, coffee, hard work, joy.  These are moments of perfection, scattered across my normal human experience, mixed in with frustration, anger, confusion, fear, heartbreak, loss, and maybe all we get sometimes is a little handful, glimmering chips among the muck.  
And maybe I'm completely full of crap, maybe I have nothing new to say here at all and I'm just babbling gibberish littered with extra commas as I try to find my way.  But maybe the universe is more kind than that and Leonard Cohen was right when he said, There's a crack in everything.  That's how the light gets in.  I have decided, good or bad, I don't want to be paralyzed while waiting for perfection to drop out of the sky.  I'm going to sign up for races even though my hip is being weird and I'm going to run hard even though it still scares the fuck out of me and I'm going to buy plane tickets to take me to the other side of the world even though I'm scared that I may never feel completely healed and ready to stand on a line and I'm going to do it now.  Not in a year when I might be stronger or smarter or fitter or more confident or settled or tough, but now.  
The risk, of course, is that I'll be disappointed, that I'll fail, that I'll be crushed by yet another left hook that I didn't even see coming, that Lucy will yank the football away.   That's the chance I am taking and I'm either brave enough or stupid enough to accept the risk - in a second - over being frozen, scared, numb.  As I recently fumbled through trying to explain to someone the intricacies of my fears, the biggest one being that I am afraid to continue to repeat the mistakes of my past, that I'm afraid those crucial moments will show up and I won't have enough courage to choose differently, he said to me, you have everything that you need.  It's hard to hear, trust, actually believe in that on a molecular level, because my life has cracks in it, I know, I see them every day.  But that's how the light gets in.  

Friday, October 14, 2016

to chase excellence

I read a lot.  

I always have, I learned how when I was about eleven minutes old.  There's a tale I tell about the first time I ever got in trouble at school; it was for reading books under my desk instead of paying attention in class because I had already read the entire textbook.  For most of fifth grade, my backpack was checked at home before I left in the morning then searched again by my teacher to make sure I wasn't sneaking any books into school; I am, above all other things, the original nerd.
I still read just as much as I did as a kid, I consider it one of the pillars of my own continuing education as a coach.  There are plenty of blogs out there that I read regularly and Jordan Rapp is high up on the list at least in part because I get the sense through his writing that my brain works a little bit like his does.  Detached, scientific, thorough, meticulous, compartmentalization level: expert (he fortunately seems to be missing the piece that makes him Exorcist-style power-vomit emotional garbage all over the internet).  Something in his writing consistently either makes me think hard, usually while staring out of the window blankly at nothing, or it teaches me something, both of which I appreciate.  He wrote weekly leading up to Kona, and in his final pre-race post when discussing the idea of kaizen, improvement, he wrote:

"Mark Allen, who I believe unquestionably to be the greatest triathlete and one of the greatest endurance athletes of all time had this to say after he finally broke through to win in Kona.

In my failures, I saw the darkest part of myself, where I was weak, where expectations did not meet reality. Until you face your fears, you don't move to the other side, where you find the power.

In this idea, I find one of the truest expressions of kaizen; it's hard to imagine a greater improvement than a move to "the other side," away from fear. The best part - and the hardest part - of racing is that you are truly accountable. You are accountable to your process. To your decisions. And to your outcome. That's why it's so easy to be afraid. But real opportunity is a rare and special thing. It is scary. But I am not afraid."

I'm on the couch in my fuzzy pajama pants and a hoodie that dates back to 2001, one of the oft-touted pros of working both for yourself and from home.  It is October 12.  This morning, I ran fourteen miles.  According to my training log, the last time I ran this distance or further, other than that pesky ill-advised ironman in August (or the more highly advised one last November), was November 8, 2015.  Nearly a year.  And I note it, not to brag (humble or otherwise) about training, but more because to me it is another quiet indicator in a long line of nearly-silent signs that I have returned to myself.  The run was not particularly fast but it was effortless.  It's been so long since I ran that loop that I couldn't remember which right turn onto which dirt road would deposit me back on my door step in the correct amount of time, my eating-and-drinking-while-moving skills are creaky with disuse, my music was too loud because I'm not used to running with it and left my ears ringing for hours afterwards.  But it was work.  I am doing work again, not just cautiously jogging with every internal dial turned up to 11 waiting for something to break down.  It is unremarkable, the simple pleasure of stacking up day after day after day of consistent, patient, training.  And it is my joy.
Some may describe it as fascination, obsession, addiction, but it is none of those things, or maybe it is all of those things.  Maybe those are the keys to mastery, maybe those are the hallmarks of simply letting time pass around dedication to a singular focus.  I chose triathlon.  Ironman.  On the surface, it's silly - swim bike run, tiny clothing, terrible hair, all the eating and drinking and dealing with your body violently opposing that much exercise for so many hours in a row.  I have the perspective to see that it is a hobby, not some noble pursuit; I am not saving the world, I am just trying to crack 1:10 in a 100 and see something other than an 11 on my watch again not to mention maybe just a few of my abs.  The root of it is not at all that I dreamed my entire life of being a triathlete.  I don't have heroes in the sport, although there are certainly many athletes that I view with a great deal of respect.  I don't secretly dream about racing professionally, I don't even dream about qualifying for Kona or breaking the tape - those are good dreams, valid dreams, but they are not mine.  
I train the way I do because I want something in my life that embodies greatness.  It could have been anything, I could have started riding horses, or kept playing the horn, or finished a PhD, or learned how to be the best goddamn electrician in the state of Virginia.  For whatever reason, it's triathlon.  My heart is here.  That's why I continue to come back, and it has nothing to do with racing and everything to do with the raw purity of athleticism, the taste of blood in my throat when I'm chasing watts sixteen minutes into twenty, the shakiness of my quads at the end of a timed 200, the naked feeling of looking down at my watch during a hard run to see that I am doing it you are doing it just hold on hold on hold on.  The deep breath, in and out, before I settle my hands, stack my back, and close my eyes for just a moment as I root down into my core and lift.  

Because I want to be excellent.  In the world, compared to nobody-but-myself, I want to feel like I am constantly working to improve my life across every facet.  If you asked me what I am thinking about when I run fourteen miles, I would tell you that it's about 10% writing schedules and dreaming up swim jackassery, 2% how mad I am about that guy that flipped me off when I had the right of way!, 8% what I am going to eat as soon as I am done running and 80% how my right foot is landing on the ground.  Where my left foot is pointing when I swing through, what my arms are doing, if my chin is tucked and my shoulders and back and my hips are square and my core is drawn in and if I am PRESSING the ground away from my toes.  It's the same in the water, it's the same on the bike, two years ago Charlie impressed on me the importance of the position of my foot in the pedal stroke against the knee injury I was fighting and I spent six weeks on the trainer watching my foot in the mirror.  To this day, not a bike ride does not go by without focusing on this, thinking up the chain, into the glutes, what is my back doing, what are my shoulders doing, where is the power coming from, what needs to relax, what needs to have tension.  In the water it's all hands and width and lats and belly button and chin and press.  Is it completely beyond boring?  Yes, OMG LOLZ YAWN.  But it is part of how I chase improvement.  And maybe it is not so important to understand why I choose to chase it in this way but simply to understand that I want to chase it at all.

Ironman Boulder, over a year ago, felt like a race of infinite opportunity.  Physically, I was bulletproof.  I have never been so fit, never been as prepared across the board, never had such a day held out in front of me to be plucked: my roads, my home, my race.  But my mental armor was in shreds, grief at the root over the loss of my grandparents, yes, I've been over and over that, yes yes yes it's all true. However, what is also true is that I lost my nerve.  Grief is the quick excuse, grief is what opens the door to, I could have, if only...  Grief makes it easy to write off what happened that day as an outlier, but without grief, it may have unfolded the same way.  Since then, I have yet to again be faced with the same kind of race and real opportunity that was in front of me that day.  It was scary.  It still is.
I'm not sure when or where or if I will ever have another chance like that one, it is still far too early in what I am trying to rebuild to really think about racing again.  Another signed-up-a-year-ago event will go by this weekend because I recognize that I am not ready.  I participated in Coeur d'Alene for a reason that was powerful to me, but that's all it was, participating.  Even in Cozumel, last winter, in the teardown of the race afterwards I recognized the decisions I had made to protect myself and deliver what I needed from the day.  And I recognize now that if I continue to chase excellence in sport, that what I am really chasing is the choice, the chance, to once again face that rare and real opportunity.  To face the darkest parts of myself that appear, there.

October 12th (more likely the 18th by the time I hit publish).  It is the time of year where most athletes are taking their post-season breaks and racing beer miles or cross or taking on challenges like I wonder how many Halloween Oreos I can fit in my mouth at one time.  My body feels like January 23rd.  The rhythm is rusty, what my body can put out right now in terms of speed or pace or watts or weights is not where I want to be.  But I am no longer concerned with where I used to be.  It doesn't matter what I did or did not do in 2014, other than to learn from it, to seek improvement. (My own personal record with the Oreos is 6).  What matters is where I'd like to go.  And what is lucky about athletics is that we always have the opportunity to begin, over and over and over again.  
Real opportunity is a rare and special thing.  Unlike Jordan, I am afraid.  It's scary.  There is risk involved, I could get injured again, or worse, I could stay strong and healthy and the next time I am lucky enough to face all of my bullshit, I could again lose my nerve.  I could fail.  But if my intention is to chase excellence, then this the way I choose to move forward.  Coaches say it all the time: Commit.  Believe.  And keep going.  

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

our most generous eyes

Every year I write a blog post for my birthday.  It’s yet another gleaming moment of self-absorption, I suppose, I made it around the sun one more time so let’s sit down and pound on the keyboard about it for a while. Vanity, thy name is blogger, has everyone else seen how cute my belly button is?  But it is never so much about the post as it is about the very personal reflection that occurs in the weeks that precede it.  Some years it is so easy to crap out the memories, some years it is nothing more than a gleeful description of the life I am lucky to live, and some years it is 11:45 at night and I can’t sleep because I had too many glasses of red wine at dinner with friends and there are only fifteen minutes left in my actual birthday when I spring out of bed and speed-write something in the dark, on the couch with my laptop propped up on the knees of my snowflake sweatpants, wearing my 18-year-old glasses and squinting in the glow of the screen.

I look back at last year’s post where I spent time reflecting on the struggle, and I want to give my turning-35-years-old self a hug (or a plane ticket to Fiji because seriously get the fuck out of there before more shit goes sideways).  I had no idea how much harder life was about to get.  I had no idea that my rainy season was only just beginning.
Dealing with injury - pain - wiped out so much joy from the first half of this year.  I had goals, dreams, stupid shit I wanted to chase in the name of my own journey, and it all got shelved when my physical body collapsed.  It isn’t - it wasn't - about not being able to race; to be perfectly honest racing is the last piece of triathlon that I care about.  I was stripped of the ability to move within my physical body and by extension, to take care of my own well-being (and let the emotional vomiting begin).  In injury, I struggled.  But coming out of injury, I struggled more.  I didn't know how to find my footing again.  I felt broken.  So I left Colorado, I went on adventure after adventure after adventure, but really, I was escaping, fleeing, searching.  Lost.
I think I needed this summer of travel, I recently wrote in a letter, to have the opportunity to look at life differently.  To see how my experience could be different, to breathe and explore and try to figure out what was missing from my regularly-scheduled-and-truly-quite-amazing world.  I am lucky, I know that.  I’m lucky that I have that kind of life that allows me to work anywhere, to get in the truck or on the plane and head north or south or west with my laptop and my bicycle and my bikini and a dozen pairs of running shorts.  I was lost, yes.  And in ways, all the traveling made it worse before it got better (just like dry needling!).  It made me feel as if I needed to leave, to evict myself from my life, in order to find happiness.  I found plenty, that is true, but I also finally reached a point on my most recent travels when I realized that perspective follows me everywhere.  I am the person that I am, I must be my own adventure, and my happiness or sorrow or fear or anger or joy is not something I can leave behind.
Elizabeth Gilbert said it quite cleanly:

“Listen, we’re not always in control of our fate — and that is a fact.  You may be robbed or you may be blessed (or some combination of the two, most likely), but that’s not really the point.  The point is: If you feel like you’re constantly being robbed, then you live in a world that’s all about constantly being robbed.  And if you feel like you’re constantly being blessed, then you live in a world that’s all about constantly being blessed.  What we usually see when we interpret our lives is nothing but ourselves — as the truth gets screened through a thousand-layer filter composed of all our weirdness and wonderfulness.

If we try to see things with the most generous eyes — searching for the truth, yes, but then bestowing upon that truth the brightest and kindest interpretation — we can learn how to perceive a more beautiful world.  Do that, and I promise you this: You will get to live in one.”
 
I want to live in a world where I feel like I am constantly being blessed.  I have lived in this world before, but I spent time this year feeling like I was constantly being robbed, and that is what needs to change.  If I have learned one thing recently, it is about what I value.  In my life, my choices, and in the people that I choose to let surround me.  Time and time again, I have been faced with decisions that boil down to a question of integrity.  And I have learned that I value integrity in relationships more than any single other quality, and I learned that the hard way, by those fractured by a lack of it.  There were times when it was easy to simply step away and there were times when I became trapped by my own inability to give up, but in the end, the result is the same.
It is simple.  I want to grow.  I never want to be the smartest person in any room; I'd actually prefer to be the dumbest because that is the environment that will stretch me the most, no matter how uncomfortable that room may become.  I want to learn from my mistakes, I want to be reminded of my shortcomings, I want to never forget my failures because in forgetting I am guaranteed to repeat.  I want people in my life who are similarly-minded, who understand that sometimes decisions need to be made that are difficult, that feel intolerable, impossible; people that value the same strength of character, loyalty, hard work as I do.  Integrity.  Life is messy.  It is never black and white, it is rarely clean, but it is so very honest.  Over and over again, I saw this show up in my year.  If you wish to wait until everything is perfect to take a step forward, to make the leap of faith, then you are destined to spend your entire life waiting.  Never diving, plunging, growing.  And goddamn if I will go to my grave with an effigy that translates to, if only.  I am not interested in standing still, I am not interested in the past, I am not interested in hearing about who you used to be.  I want to hear who you are now, where you are going, what you are building, who you want to be.  I have never been more acutely aware than I am right at this moment that we only get one shot at this.  One time around.  There are no do-overs, we only get this opportunity to be alive, and I refuse to waste time being paralyzed; I want, as Elizabeth said, to learn how to perceive a more beautiful world (with my mouth wide open, natch).
That’s what my year boils down to, I have learned an incredible amount about myself and some of it only in the last few days.  What is important to me, where I will not bend.  I know that some of my values make me a difficult person to spend time around, although I suppose that is true of every single human walking the planet.  I am loud, at this very moment I am dancing in my desk chair and belting out I WISH I COULD SAVE YOU right up there with Kelly Clarkson and it keeps scaring the shit out of my dogs.  I am opinionated, a little bit bossy, I hate being wrong although I spend half my life explaining to people how much I still do not know, I talk too much and too fast and sarcasm is my main method of communication.  I accidentally offend people on a regular basis especially when I'm feeling uncomfortable, I use WAY too many commas and I can't seem to send less than four text messages at once and if you get your birthday card in the same calendar year as your actual birthday then I consider that a success.  I have to swim almost every day (to the chagrin of possibly every coach I have ever had) or I am climbing the walls, my favorite word is fuck and I have horrified far too many mothers with how much I use it, I arrange my running shorts in order of color and take pictures of them, I have absolutely no subtlety.  And I am the most stubborn motherfucker on the planet; when I am pissed off I shut down, cold as ice and unyielding and it requires fifty thousand sticks of dynamite to break it through.  It takes a lot to get me truly angry and I mean a LOT, but when I am, I know that it feels like standing in the whirl of a hurricane, screaming down the side of the mountain, the parachute that did not open, the face of the fire.
But that is not all of who I am.  I have a big heart.  Huge, it may actually be a flaw, I never give up on people, my capacity for forgiveness is enormous and I learned that about myself again this year.  I want to save everyone: from the world, from pain, from themselves.  I am fiercely loyal to the friendships and relationships in my life, I may fail to return your 87 phone calls but when you need help chopping up the body into tiny pieces and distributing it amongst the dumpsters of southern Alabama, I will be on the first fucking flight and will spend the entire time yelling at the pilot to go faster.  I might curse like a sailor but in your worst moments, I will still see you with my most generous eyes, I will sit beside you, I will not judge and I will treat you with exquisite gentleness.  With grace.  I believe in people when they do not believe in themselves, I can see the best deep inside their shell, under the bluster and the cool cat and the bullshit, and I have made an entire career out of excavating the brilliance of an individual, loosely disguised by swim bike run.  No one will ever fight harder for you that I will, I will be the captain of your corner and when you try and thank me I will blow it off with a no big deal but that isn't true, it is the biggest fucking deal there is.  I am determined, I refuse to accept that the universe will not always bend to my desire, I will throw myself fully and completely off of any passionate ledge, I will remind you that your heart is no good to you in perfect and pristine condition, rip it out and whip it at the sky and let it be used, damaged, stomped on.  Because it will heal if you let it, I am living proof of that.  It will.
This year, and who ever knew that I would grow into this person.  I have loved my journey through sport, but maybe I can find a way to appreciate that my journey has continued on even without it.  There was so little triathlon in my life, and for a while, I allowed that to devastate me.  To rob me.  I raced not at all; I participated a few times, once for a very good reason, but I did not accomplish any of the things on my post-it note of scribbled goals, hopes, ideas.  That's how life goes sometimes.  Right now, it is October.  My favorite month of the year, when the backdrop to my riding changes radically day to day; the nights cool off and the dark beers come back along with the blasting wind, the hoodies come out and I shiver in my running shorts collection until I simply can't take it anymore.  There is a sense of change vibrating in the air, there is celebration, there are many birthdays scattered across October, including my own.  And this year, I will celebrate.  The last few weeks have brought a return to my foolish life accompanied by an overwhelming sense of relief.  Selfies, green boxes, puppies, poorly timed out-and-backs because my run is still decoupling in a ridiculous fashion, peppermint creamer in my coffee, bitching on twitter about the 4:45am alarm for masters, the clothes that don't fit and farting from cheese and how fucking good it feels to bend deep, inhale, and pull the bar up off of the ground again.  
Back to Elizabeth, who also said, We can see the world as grim or grand.  It's up to each of us to decide.  This year I do feel older.  Hesitant, as I take small steps back into my life, or rather forward into whatever the future will bring, but also cautious of not being paralyzed by fear.  And the older I get, the better I understand that perspective is everything about the world I am moving through.  It's up to each of us to decide.  I choose to see the world as grand.  To not play the victim but rather each day to be aware that I am making decisions about how to move through my universe and react to it.  Ideally, I would be wiser along with older but I'd hate to claim anything on the internet that is not true, so instead I will say, free.  That moment, the best one of my life, when I press off the deck into the air and hang for a fraction of a second before the water envelops me?  I am free.  This year has set me free.

----

2015 birthday post

2014 birthday post
2013 birthday post
2012 birthday post
2011 birthday post
2010 birthday post 

Monday, September 19, 2016

Ironman Coeur d'Alene Run: race report

The Pat Summitt quote about taking things away was in my head daily leading up to ironman.  He takes away things so we can fly.  When I was tired, or sore, or on a forty-five minute run that felt like how in the living fuck am I supposed to run twenty-six miles next weekend; I pound-signed it at least one bazillion times on instagram in my ongoing quest to irritate the world with asshole hashtags, every time I felt frustrated or stuck or like it was a hopeless and stupid thing to be attempting with the fitness & body I had, I came back to it.  So we can fly.  So we can fly.  So we can fucking fly.
I jogged out of transition as carefully as I could, still rocking the shape of a bicycle with my butt in the bucket and my belly full to the brim.  I rarely look at data on the run in triathlon; I record it so I can send it to my coach and that maybe helps me be 1% more accountable to not getting pissed off and walking when I can't magically run 7:30 pace but I don't look.  We train for hours and hours and hours (okay, maybe not in this specific situation but usually) with data and one of the main reasons WHY is to teach the body what the right effort feels like.  And as I headed out on the run, there was no tiny watch talking to the sky that was going to tell me better than my brain what too hard felt like.  I knew. 
I actually jogged pretty steadily for the first hour.  Not quickly, nothing about this day was fast, but it was consistent.  I stopped somewhere in mile five for a quick potty break and then in mile seven, my right hip started to spasm and completely locked down all the way to my kneecap.  I stopped and stretched it for a bit but it was going nuts, so I decided I'd walk a few minutes and put down some calories and hope that it could get going again.  It was in there somewhere that a friend of mine showed up on his bike in his flip-flops and I could tell he was ready to thrash me with tough love but I told him, look, my brain is fine, my hip is freaking out and I'm just giving it a few minutes, I am fine.  I know that I looked a total shitshow by then, hat on backwards tri kit unzipped and tucked and covered in coke and who knows what else, stalking along with my thumb in my TFL, but I was okay.  I wasn't thinking about all the miles ahead of me, I was thinking about sending patience into my hip so maybe it would let me run a bit more.

And it did.  Miles 8-9 were a bit of a walk/run/stretch that fucker out against a stop sign/walk/run but something finally released and I got moving again.  I actually jogged the next eleven miles with very few stops other than ten steps through aid stations here and there to throw coke/pretzels/ice in the general direction of my mouth.  My mind was empty, cool, not worrying about anything other than one more mile, to the next marker, to the next aid station, the next timing mat, the next turn-around.  

I saw some friends coming through town at the end of the second loop but by then I was hurting pretty badly and I had drawn in, the grit that shows up - or doesn't - when the suffering suddenly becomes very real.  I saw my athletes again, that helped, if only because I didn't know where they were on the course and the last thing I wanted was for one of them to round a corner and see me walking.  I made it as far as mile 21, just about ready to head back into town, and that's when my hip gave up on the day.  Fuck you I am done stabilizing your pelvis.  Instead of being pissed, though, I was grateful, in a way that was honest and I mean it sincerely, with no cliche.  My body gave me so much more than I had trained to do.  It gave me 21 miles of running - after giving me 114.4 miles of other crap - before it bailed.  I kept trying to stop and stretch it out, by then it was both hips and I'm not sure anything feels worse than crossing one leg over the other knee at that point in ironman - actually I'm confident a lot of things could feel much worse - but it seemed to help.  I would get 2-3 minutes more of shuffling forward before it would seize again.  At some point I was reduced to twenty steps of running, twenty steps of walking, that was all I focused on for maybe two miles, counting to twenty over and over, trying to stay strong, trying to move forward as quickly as I could towards the finish line that I had finally realized I was going to reach.
The sun started to go down and the course got quiet.  I made the last few turns up and down through the neighborhoods, and when I went past the mile 25 sign, I started to crack.  I tried not to think of anything because I didn't want to be a bawling mess at the finish line (crying is the fucking worst), but I turned my hat around and thought about my grandfather.  The last time I saw him, he was wearing this hat, and maybe he didn't understand ironman, neither of my grandparents did I suppose, but he understood struggle.  He understood hard work, and sacrifice, and I'd like to think that he would be proud to be honored with a day of suffering, of toughness and determination and how incredibly fucking stubborn I can be.  I'd like to think that he would be so proud, that they both would be, of that.

I was sniffling and trying to hold my shit together the entire last mile, a runner next to me asked me with an alarmed look on his face if I was okay and I couldn't get anything out other than FINE.  I ran over the bridge, there were two guys (one of whom I discovered after the race that I knew) mooning the course with hot dog underpants on and I snorted with laughter through my tears, resigned at this point to showing emotion (seriously the worst).  I made the last turn towards the finish, remembering the first time I ran down this street four years ago.  I thought randomly and wildly of dancing with my grandfather at my first wedding and the picture of it that still hangs in my dining room, and I stopped short of the finish line to walk the last few steps across, to take off my hat and bow my head and honor them both.  Maybe it's too much emotional bullshit to be sharing on the goddamn internet yet again, but I can't think of another moment in my life where I felt simultaneously fulfilled and shelled; where I had accomplished something so meaningful yet so insignificant, minuscule against the entire universe of what I had lost, the people I loved and the lives that they led, and how much I miss them.  Every single day.  And how I know what giving up looks like, I've done it a thousand times in this sport - in this life - before, and I finally figured out how, the last key that opens the lock, to never, ever, ever give up.  Never.  Not ever. 
Run: 26.2 miles, 5:24:18, 26th AG

Nutrition: 2 bags of Skratch chews, 2 bottles of NBS Hydration, perhaps as many as 20 chewable Pepto tabs and an unknown amount of water, ice, coke, gatorade, pretzels & bananas.

140.6: 13:28:20

I got my hat and took the medal picture which never fails to be the most horrifying shot of the day, I ate some terrible wonderful pizza and limped my way back up the hill to change clothes (and eventually hop back on my TT bike to go chase my athletes down which is maybe the worst way to thank your crotch in the hours following ironman).  I didn't want to celebrate, to make a huge deal about it or to get drunk or whatever else in the hours following the finish.  I felt quiet.  Fragile, physically and mentally, and to be perfectly honest I couldn't believe that I had actually done it.  I had spent so much time preparing for the day to be stopped short by failure that I was completely unable to handle the truckload of emotion (ugh) that came along with success.  Because without question, this day was a success.  I can try to quantify it with all the truths about preparation and execution and I could rob myself of the ability to see it as a success by comparing it to the first seven shots at this distance, but I won't.  I have not.  I will not.  As an entity, we are so hard on ourselves as athletes, we are so quick to thieve our own joy before the critics outside of the arena have a chance to do so, but this day is somehow protected in my head from the reflex to tear it down, to compare, to declare failure instead of accomplishment.  
What I learned in Coeur d'Alene is a lesson that I've been trying to learn for years.  The mind, the human brain, is incredible.  I'm not sure I've ever raced hard enough in ironman to reach physical failure; I feel confident that what has stopped or slowed me down each time has been mental weakness.  And to finish, to complete this day, that had very little to do with my physical body.  Will trumps fate.  It's from an UA campaign, or maybe I made that up after too many nights of surfing hashtags when I couldn't sleep, but it is true.  I've coached a lot of athletes over the years, not to mention lived with myself as a hot mess as I've learned and grown through this sport.  I've seen many successful race days and I've seen many days where athletes learn instead of win.  One of the common threads about learning is that at some point on race day, an athlete will bump into something that changes their expectations on the day.  Maybe it's windy, or hot, or their belly hurts, or they don't feel like eating, or they flat, or get hit by a meteor or whatever.  These things never define success or failure (well, the meteor might).  These issues are never what force the outcome of the day.  Instead, it is the reaction of the athlete that determines how the remainder of the race will go.  And the athletes that find success are generally the ones that roll smoothly over the bump in the road and get back on track.  The ones who are disappointed at the end of the day are more often the ones that realize they aren't going to hit their pie-in-the-sky secret-goal and completely shut down; instead of troubleshooting and moving forward they become bogged down in what they "would have gone" if everything was perfect.  These are the athletes that often blame the little calf or hamstring twinge, or that their coach didn't make them run mile repeats or flip over tires or do 30" pops at 175% of FTP two days before the race, or the crappy night of sleep they had Thursday night, or their race wheels or swim goggles or maybe that was a bad avocado on my sandwich.  Mara Abbott spoke about it beautifully after her race in Rio:

Would you rather have some excuse or rationale for a race outcome: Sick last week, got a flat tire, missed a feed, had to sneeze when the winning attack went, or even just that you lost your nerve that day when it got really hard (yes, this happens). With that, you can forever clasp onto the worrystone-mantra of “I could have won, if only…?"

Or, would you rather honestly know you had ridden a race to the very best of your strength and ability, know there was nothing else you could have done and have that be…not…quite…enough?

And the second piece of this quote is what is being shared everywhere, as it is brilliance and heartbreak in one, but the first piece is what we see far more often as amateur athletes simply trying to chase down the greatness in ourselves through the medium of ironman.  To have an excuse for a race outcome, we easily, greedily latch onto that.  And I am relieved, confident, content to stand on the far side of this particular ironman and own success.  There have been so many times - too many times - where I have stood on other side of a finish line and felt hollowed out by knowing that there was more.  To experience this differently - no matter what the fucking clock told the internet about my race - was a surprising, unexpected and incredible lesson to learn.  Finally.
The days that followed were hard.  Harder than I remembered experiencing ever before.  In part due to more than a little bit of what now? because I had not thought any further than August 21st.  In part due to the hormonal whack following a 13+ hour race being intensely magnified by significant under-preparation, which meant that I burst into tears for no reason at all about a dozen times a day for nearly a week (which made me extra fun to be around).  I didn't do anything, physically.  My strep throat came roaring back (shocking) & I finished the back end of the antibiotics.  My recovery was impacted; I'm not sure it's ever taken me this long to feel recovered from ironman but, as I said in an email to Liz, I'm not sure I've ever done an ironman with only four weeks of training before so I suppose that's completely fair.  I did the thing that bloggers everywhere bleat nasally to an enthralled audience and listened to my body and what my body said to me was, you are welcome now go sit on the fucking couch.  One of my closest friends came out to visit and we spent a few days in the mountains doing absolutely nothing.  The last morning we got coffee and went for a walk, maybe as much as a quarter-mile, and I was out of breath and exhausted by the time we were done.  And completely okay with that.
I don't know, right now, what the rest of my year will look like.  I don't know if or when I'm going to race again, I don't know what my next steps will be.  It's been four weeks since the race and I'm only just starting to come around into movement again.  Gentle, easy, all the steps that are part of a rebuild.  It is ridiculous, I am sure, to feel this way, but I do feel like, well, now that the ironman is out of the way I can start trying to find fitness again.  That's all I'm hoping to do.  To get moving, to continue to make peace with a body that has struggled this year, and to be open to whatever the universe will bring me next.  And to not lose touch with what I did.  It is a phenomenal thing, to finish an ironman.  No matter who you are, no matter what your story is, it is always a tiny bit of luck on top of whatever amount of training that gets you to the finish line.  I know that finding my why was powerful motivation on race day, but an ironman finish is never as simple as motivation, or preparation, or any of the little shit that we spend so much time fussing about.  Ironman is my favorite day.  It's my favorite day.  And for the eighth time, I was able to put together the confidence to start and was graced with the opportunity to finish.  I will never take that for granted.

In honor and in loving memory of Olga Yovish, 1933-2015 & Francis Yovish, 1928-2015.