Monday, July 11, 2016

so we can fly

God doesn't take things away to be cruel.  He takes things away to make room for other things.  He takes things away to lighten us.  He takes things away so we can fly. -- Pat Summitt

Everybody has something in life that makes them feel like they can fly.
For me, that moment happens on a bike.  I've been climbing all day.  I'm gritty, sweaty, covered in pollen and asphalt grime, my back hurts and my water bottles are empty; I've almost wiped out a dozen times swinging at the fucking deer flies and I haven't gone faster than walking speed in hours.  Finally, the top comes.  I can slow to a stop, pause, take a bunch of selfies for instagram, swing my leg off my bike and stretch.  Maybe I drink a coke, or eat a cookie or maybe a dozen, or fill my bottles and pee and crack my neck, or maybe I simply hook around in the middle of the road and head back down.  I pick up speed, slowly as first, then faster as I shift into my big chain ring, it feels so good to get my cadence back up over 38, and that, right there, that is the moment.  I push the pedals until I run out of gears, I shift my weight, I lean, I won't even consider touching the brakes but instead I hunker down as low as I can, and I fly.  
To the general dismay of whoever is unfortunate enough to be on my wheel I sing, loudly, the entire way down, across all facets I attack life with mouth wide open, but these are the moments that make me feel like my heart is genuinely about to burst.  I have yet to experience a feeling greater than this, and over the years, I have learned that the one thing guaranteed to ruin this moment is by slamming on the brakes.  Jerking and weaving and skidding, letting fear rip holes in my joy, enduring the descent with gritted teeth and white knuckles instead of succumbing to it, embracing it (probably both of you reading can see where I am going here), is water on the fire.  Flattening out the purest and most honest form of happiness I can feel.
After I crashed my bike (nope, still not done talking about it), I hid in bed for a few days before escaping.  I've realized that I was hiding because my ribs were broken I felt like I had failed.  When I decided to take a big-and-for-real-this-time break from any sort of training, exercise, triathlon thoughts, that felt like giving up.  Like I couldn't hack it anymore, like all the critics that exists both inside my brain and out, were right.  I had asked too much of my body, I had made too many mistakes, and now I had to pay for it by never again being able to do this thing I love so much.  I was tired of fighting so I stopped.  I gave up.  And I hated myself for it.

When athletes come to me for coaching, I have them fill out a long Q&A, as most coaches do.  Through this, I ask them questions about where they have been and where they want to go and what they believe is missing from their current routine.  All of these potential athletes talk to me about wanting to be fitter, faster, healthier, beat that jerk in the next lane over, go longer, race stronger.  And most of them say something along the lines of, I need someone who can kick my ass.
But here's the thing.  When I start working with these athletes, and getting to know them, for the most part, they kick their own asses.  These are high-functioning adults with successful careers that have gotten far in life by having their shit together.  They never miss workouts and when they do, they agonize over what that thirty-minute easy run will do to their ironman seven weeks away.  I never have to say to these athletes, er, pick it up you need to work harder.  That is not what they need; they froth at the mouth for the hard workouts, they wreck themselves beyond belief and then write notes telling me that they want to try again because they think they can find one more watt.  These athletes don't need someone to teach them how to suffer more, when they come to me and write I want to be stronger fitter faster, what they are actually saying is, Katie, teach me to be resilient.
It's tough to discuss resilience, it's become such a buzzword these days (I accept my fair share of the blame for this), especially when paired with vulnerability.  But when I look up a definition of resilience, here what it doesn't say.  It does not say, resilience is never ever ever giving up.  It does not say, resilience is beating yourself into submission and sacrifice all things to reach a goal.  It also does not say, everything went perfectly all the time and I never gave up or struggled or hurt or questioned myself.  What resilience actually is, is the ability to bounce back, to recover, to be elastic.  Resilience is not riding every goddamn wave perfectly.  Resilience is spitting the sand out of your teeth after the wave has plowed you facefirst into the ocean floor and paddling back out to sea.  Resilience is being willing to get knocked down, knowing that you are strong enough to pick yourself up off of the ground.  And in thinking about the key to developing resilience, what I have come up with is this.  As high-functioning, OCD, type-A organized athletes that are accustomed to success, what we don't need is more grit, more pain, more suffering, not always.  We don't need to be taught perseverance - we have spent our lives learning these skills and flawlessly displaying them across our carefully ordered lives.  What we need?  Is a little bit of grace.
I went to Hawaii.  I gave myself space to heal.  I went to Coeur d'Alene, I let the roads and the lake and the air fill me up, revive my fat little sumo wrestler of a soul.  When a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to drive back to Colorado instead of fly, my first response was no.  I have to get home, it's time to be in my routine again, I need to rush through this experience and back into my real life.  But the truth is, I can work from anywhere, and I can respond to emails and write programs and read research while hooked into my iPhone data plan for seven hours on the roads of Montana just as well as I can at my desk.  I had my bike, my bikini, and enough clean clothes, so I said yes.  And the healing continued.  I swam in the hot springs in Montana.  I watched sunset with the friend who I hold personally responsible for my first ironman registration on the lawn of the capital in Salt Lake City.  I saw hot air balloons rise backed by sunrise in Park City.  I spent plenty of time doing nothing but staring out the window, watching the landscape change, breathing.  And all of this?  This entire month which I keep describing as reckless irresponsible wanderlust?  It was actually nothing more than that little bit of grace.  When I landed back in Colorado, I could tell that I had mended, that something deep inside me that was broken for months had started to stitch back together, finally, again.
Not physically, certainly, there are still struggles and work that needs to be done on the body I inhabit and I can tell that it is going to be a long build back towards whatever I decide I'd like to be.  A month of nothing but swimming with sea turtles and taking jumping photos did not magically heal me, I don't believe in that kind of magic anyway.  But I don't need to decide any of that right now.  My soul is soothed.  I am ready to be patient with the healing process, it has been far easier to ride the undulation of the last few weeks of physical work now that my brain feels whole.
Last summer, I got a new tattoo.  When people ask what it means, I usually just say, it's for my grandmother, because that is true.  It is her light.  But that isn't all of it.  It's Marianne Williamson saying, it is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.  It's the shitty football movie inspirational speech that got me over the finish line of that half marathon over five years ago, when I clung to Al Pacino, the inches we need are everywhere around us.  It's the second time in my life that I've gotten a tattoo at what feels like rock bottom, a reminder, we can stay here and get the shit kicked out of us, or we can fight our way back, into the light.  Maybe fighting doesn't look like what I thought it should.  Maybe instead of suffering through, of never giving up, of pushing as hard as I can, what fighting actually looks like is letting go.  The greatest joy is found when you succumb to the mountain, you don't even think about the brakes, you simply weight your ass down into your saddle and let the world fly around you and apparently I only wear striped pants anymore.
If I had been training for ironman this year, I wouldn't have gone to Hawaii with one of my best friends.  I wouldn't have witnessed her own healing on the top of a mountain in thirty mph winds, I wouldn't have swam with sea turtles or watched so many different kinds of sunsets or done cartwheels on the beach until I collapsed in laughter at my own ineptitude.  I wouldn't have gone to Coeur d'Alene and felt so full, erupting, riding on the roads, remembering so clearly, so fondly, my first trip through that many miles four years ago.  I wouldn't have hopped in the truck and talked non-stop for three days (sorry but to be fair you totally knew what you were getting into), I wouldn't have gone stand-up paddleboarding or to so many baseball games or driven out to Lake Dillon just to have lunch and walk around.  
There would have been no cannonballinng into the hot springs or dancing like your embarrassing uncle Eddie on the streets of Denver or hiking up Sunshine Canyon in flip-flops just to watch the sun set in the wind or getting more than a little bit shitfaced on the fourth of July.  There would have been no riding all the different bikes on all the different rocks and dirt and gravel once I decided to start rolling again on two wheels.  And I wouldn't have missed these things, because my life would have been filled with other joyful moments, but actually, maybe I would have missed all of these things.  This whole year, I have been agonized that ironman had been taken away from me, because that's how it felt, like something was taken, rudely, abruptly, yanked away.  I don't feel like that anymore, not after the last month, not after I let go, because I get it now, that maybe it was taken away to make room for other things.  Instead I finally feel like I have been given a chance to experience so much life that makes my heart full, people and places and probably way too much beer, the chance to learn about myself when I'm not riding my bike 10+ hours a week and living on carefully measured sweet potatoes and bed by 9pm no matter what.  
This year.  It's July.  I haven't ridden one hundred miles or run twenty, I haven't been in the pool 20K+ every week, I haven't done hill repeats or strides or form work or a million banded 50s or videotaped my deadlift or any of the things that have been a normal part of my happiness in the past.  But I have learned the definition of grace.  I have figured out how crucial it is to be able to show love towards someone in the moments they feel like they deserve it the least.  To be able to direct love inwards in the moments I hate myself the most, something we all experience but never discuss, it's ugly, and dark, and disgusting to admit what we feel sometimes when we look in the mirror.  What I needed to heal was not more struggle.  It is not perseverance or toughness or mantras that are why I am still here, why I've laughed more in the last couple of weeks than I have in a long time.  It is grace.

Monday, June 27, 2016

on adventure

I am a sentimental person.
A bit of a gross understatement along the lines of sometimes people do not agree on Facebook.  For a long time, I was embarrassed by the deep extent of my emotional, nostalgic, downright cheesy streak.  I have an excellent memory for important events in my life; one of my high school boyfriends and I still argue about which day who said what to who and which song was playing on the radio when it happened back in 1996.  Every important event in my life has music linked to it, emotionally, embarrassingly so.  I can clearly recall the Indigo Girls song that was playing the first time I kissed my now-husband, the Nico & Vinz that played on repeat while training for my first crack at IM Boulder, the Diana Krall that never fails to rip my heart wide open, the Journey song that made my ears ring in the bar down the shore where I first met one of my oldest friends, the Lionel Richie I played on repeat for months after my first silly teenage broken heart, the Lifehouse that got me through my divorce (I warned you, embarrassing), the Barenaked Ladies song that, twenty years later, still instantly transports me back to Blue Bell, windows down, off-key at the top of our lungs trying to cram all the words out.  I remember things, I have a soft spot in my heart for friendship, for old loves, for whatever kind of family you build around you, I believe that the universe is not an accident.  I know that plenty may claim that the whole idea of a universe and a bigger purpose is a tidy bunch of crap but that is not what I, personally, feel to be true.
I crashed my bike, that's where it began.  I spent a couple of days in bed with prescription narcotics, wincing every time I breathed or itched or rolled or sneezed, not sleeping, laying in the dark, staring at the ceiling, thinking.  When a doctor tells you to minimize time in front of tiny screens, it sure does open up a whole lot of time in life these days.  (And all you brats get off my lawn!)  What I was left with felt like another kind of rock bottom.  I was done.  Ready to throw up my hands, to open wide to the sky, beg, please, reveal the lesson already!

So I left.  I felt taunted by the routines of my life (Monday swim lift Tuesday bike run Wednesday swim run...). I woke up two days after the crash, packed a bag and three hours later I was boarding a plane (Southwest points excellent for spontaneity).  Eight hours after that I landed with a friend who lives near the beach.  He didn’t ask any difficult questions but instead gave me a set of keys and pointed me in the direction of the sea.  I slept a lot, I kept to myself, and in some quiet way, I figured out how to grieve so many things that have been lost, finally, to let go and leave it behind, there.
Another handful of days and airports and continents and oceans later, I ended up in Maui with a different friend, one who has been going through the same kind of rough patch over the last little while.  The best kind of friend, the one that you can call and say, life is fucking terrible, and two hours later you get off the phone with a week of vacation booked in Hawaii.  Off we went.  I didn’t think about training for even one second.  We cooked, we ate well, we slept, we explored, we soaked up the sun.  I let my mind and body be still.  I paused, I sat back.  And I swam in the ocean every day.  Not for fitness, not for exercise, not for a reason other than taking selfies with the GoPro there is nothing more healing to my soul than that.  Wading in, dolphin-diving through the break and slowly, gently, stroking along the shore.  We chased schools of fish, climbed on rocks with crabs, and on the last day, swam around the point into a little family of sea turtles, honu, probably eighty years old. Quiet, ears plugged with salt water, dove over and over again, totally buoyant.  I explained to Julie about how honu are a sign of incredible luck, and when we looked it up later that night, somewhere, I read that they also signify endurance and long life, and no matter how lost, they can always find their way back home.
I healed.  A day or two in, we were exploring the north end of the island, taking ridiculous pictures on a cliff into the blasting wind and Julie said to me, in this picture you look like you are laughing harder than you have laughed in a long time.  That’s what it felt like, the whole trip, like I finally remembered how to smile, to laugh, to be.  There is something inside of me that has been twisting for months now and I didn’t even notice until it paused, struggled, and set itself free; the shocking emptiness, a diseased, dead tooth popped neatly from its socket.
I managed to catch a cold on the plane ride home and spent the next few days holed up in bed, still healing.  Waiting patiently for my body to say: I am ready.  What I’m learning, what I’ve lived is that life is a series of setbacks and comebacks, the critics have that right at least.  I realized at some point that this entire setback has felt like failure.  That is what I have been carrying around for the last six months.  I am injured, I have failed.  Worse, I am a failure.  I have let people down, I have let myself down.  But I can finally, tentatively, say to myself.  Hey.  It doesn’t have to be like that. This is not the real story here.
You don’t get to choose.  Even though, I know, all the inspirational crap says otherwise.  Everything that says that you are in charge of the future, you can design your life, you get to absolutely pick who you want to be and where your path will take you, it’s fucking bullshit.  Because someone dies.  Someone leaves.  You crash your bike, you miss your flight, you break your ribs, you lose, over and over and over.  Your story builds itself around you, despite best-laid plans.  And you have two choices.  To fight it, to rip into resistance.  Or to accept the vulnerability of life and then, do what?  I don’t know.  I haven’t figured that part out just yet.  But I know that there is a choice there.  And I am making it.
Last week, I went and saw a physical therapist, slightly despondent that after two plus weeks of no training or exercise or even walking a little bit briskly, I was still in pain.  Only a little bit frustrated that all the arm-chair quarterbacks who insisted that I was overtrained were wrong, because if eighteen days of rest doesn’t fix my body, what will?  (I’m aware of how illogical this sounds).

We talked.  And something she said steadied me.  She told me to stop.  Stop the massage, stop the core work, stop foam rolling, stop using the mobility ball the stick the lacrosse ball the belt sander, stop self-adjusting three times a day, stop doing 25 clamshells before bed every night, just stop.  Step back.  Let healing happen unassisted.  Let the body do.  I squirmed a little in my chair, unhappy and disbelieving, because if I want to heal I need to WORK at it, right?  I need to be doing everything I can to fix the spiral of injury, seeing every doctor, doing work every day, strengthening massaging mobilizing activating, work.  That's what I've been doing all spring, and as I said it, I could hear how it has exhausted, strained me.  And she said, no.  That the body needs a certain amount of tightness to work properly.  That MY body is clearly trying to find this stability and every time I massage a muscle and loosen it up, it’s going to clamp back down twice as hard.  And I am confident that I do not need to deconstruct this metaphor but it was a hammer to the head, cartoon-style, the lightbulb went on.  My body is telling me, it is not time yet.  I am not ready.  So my wandering adventure continues.
I am a sentimental person.  And it does not escape my notice or commentary that I am writing this blog post as I fly to Spokane to support my athletes racing this weekend, that I will roll in town pretty close to the exact minute that I crossed the finish line there for the first time, four years ago tonight.  Ironman isn't for everyone.  Right now, it may not be for me, and that has finally become okay.  I think it will come back around.  I think it may come back to me, if I let it go.  The universe chimes.  I believe in it.  And I have to believe in a universe that wants me to find my way.
This weekend, I will swim in the lake.  Maybe I'll ride, I might even run a few minutes on the roads of Coeur d’Alene.  I’ll try and connect with all the reasons why this sport is where my heart beats, this incredible deck of indescribable emotion that we, as athletes, constantly try and fail to put into words.  I'll continue this adventure I started when I went down into the road almost three weeks ago, the one that has already gone further to heal me than any amount of therapy, physical or otherwise.  I’ll stay quiet, I will make peace with a body that I have fought so hard these last few months, and I will hope.  Because even after all of this, I still have this.  Hope. 

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

it's the sudden stop

Well.  So here we are.  
I find myself wishing that I had kept up with blogging these last two months, for myself, to have all this shit written down somewhere in a permanent fashion.  Last summer it was helping me to write my way through, but now I understand what it's like to be completely exhausted by my own story.  I am tired of being trapped in a spiral of injury, I am tired of constantly feeling frustrated, isolated, sad, angry, and I am beyond tired of talking about it.  If I heard it once growing up I have heard it a thousand times, if you don't have anything nice to say then don't say anything at all.
There is really no way to summarize any shorter than this.  Coming out of New Orleans, my mojo was brimming over, my batteries were at 100% and I honestly believed that my physical body was ready to start training again - really training, not just la-tee-dah what shall I do today training.  As it turns out, it was not.  A little niggle in my high hamstring that I had been managing, a niggle that I can trace all the way back to the 5K I raced in March, got worse.  And it got bad fast, a swift thunderclap, BOOM, right back on the couch.  It took about eight frustrating weeks of chasing my tail before prolotherapy plus an unplanned week off the bike when I flew to DC to help out a close friend with her adorable new baby finally allowed me to put all the pieces together.  My SI joint on the other side of my sacrum was the root of it.  Every time I was treated, I was told no running for a few days but riding and swimming were fine.  And then it turned out that the bike was the problem so all I was doing was re-irritating everything immediately following treatment which is why I wasn't getting better and nothing was healing.  I made some changes myself, I booked a bike fit, I rode the new fit and spent about ten days continuing to make minute adjustments as I worked it out.  
But the hamstring wasn't it either, really.  See, I fundamentally believe that the body can only deal with a certain amount of stress.  It doesn't matter if the stress is coming from hill repeats or fighting with your husband or a lack of sleep or multiple court appearances to deal with unpleasant business matters.  What matters is that there is a breaking point.  My body was throwing off warning signs all spring.  I had a skin biopsy come back not exactly negative.  I gained weight that wouldn't come off no matter how well I was treating my body with nutrition.  I got a weird rash in a line up the back of my leg that turned out to be shingles - a viral infection that can be reactivated in the body after a period of intense stress.  I ignored these things, clinging desperately to the medical advice that encouraged me to keep moving, hoping that one day I would wake up and all my various pains would have melted away and I would be able to run, ride, happy, again.  I thought I was getting there, I thought I was close, and that's when I went down.  
The day started off pretty well, we rode up to Loveland at the crack of dawn so I could swim 2.4 miles in exchange for a new cap and all the bananas I could eat.  The course was long (got my money’s worth!), but I had a pretty good swim and ended up taking a little silver cup home to add to my collection.  I joined up with one of my athletes for a few hours of cruisey riding once I got home.  I was pretty wrecked from the race but 1200 calories and a triple espresso turned me around.  We were about two hours into riding when we stopped to investigate a weird creaking sound on his bike.  After tightening some screws that had nothing to do with the issue, we clipped in to roll out and I fell over.  It happens, it’s dumb, but I’ve seen it happen to even the most experienced cyclists, sometimes you reach for the clip and you miss or you slide and you just - splat - on the ground.  I got a little scrape on one arm but it wasn’t a big deal, ten seconds later I was back up, fine, exclaiming I haven’t done that in years and years because falling over from a standstill never fails to make you feel like a complete moron.  The real crash came about twenty minutes later, we were going around a small corner and there was a lot of sand spread through the intersection.  I slowed coming into the turn but my rear wheel slipped it and just like that, my bike threw me into the road.  I felt myself land in slow motion on the ground - ribs - shoulder - head.  Smash smash crunch.  I hopped up as quickly as I could, mortified, and told everyone that had stopped, I’m fine I’m fine I’m fine but I’m going to call for a ride no go on I’m fine. A nice guy in a Jeep offered me a ride back into Longmont so I climbed in and the poet came and rescued me from there.  I was mostly just annoyed.  I really hate road rash and my helmet smacking the ground had given me a wicked headache but I thought I was fine, and I was pissed to shut down a ride when I was having a good time and my hamstring didn't hurt and goddammit already with this year.  I got home, though, and after a few minutes I noticed that my left eye was a little bit droopy and my vision was blurred and actually a few of my ribs were hurting kind of a lot and just like that I got myself packed off to the ER.  A couple of hours of scans and x-rays and having my road rash inadequately numbed before being scrubbed out with a brillo pad (sweet jesus) later, I was done.  Big time, for real, shut it all down, done (this is my super not-impressed let-me-take-a-selfie blogger pose, hopefully you can tell I've been practicing).
I’ve been thinking, these last few weeks, about how I got injured in the first place.  I've been thinking about how this rollercoaster started as I transfer registrations and cancel trips and try to reorganize my year all the while hoping to quell the very small voice of panic that continues to point first at my current fitness and second at my race schedule.  I raced IM Cozumel back in November, I would describe it as a solid day, a happy day, a little bit of revenge on what went down in Boulder, the race that will forever be known as the day I stomped a marathon off the bike.  Coming out of Cozumel, I didn’t feel as if I had that much fatigue so I took a few days off and then asked to leap straight back into training, and my coach agreed.  And look, I’m not blaming anyone for anything here because when it comes down to it, I am an adult and the boss of my life but in hindsight I think that was simply the worst thing I could have done.  I didn’t respect the distance & I certainly didn’t respect the six months of stress leading up to the race.  I ran somewhere between eight and twelve miles chasing athletes around in Tucson, six days after ironman.  It felt horrible and I ignored it.  I jumped straight into a lifting program in the gym which was high-rep high-intensity even though I think I knew in the back of my head that what I needed was the opposite sort of stimulus if I needed any stimulus at all, and I lifted myself silly the next three weeks while my volume shot back up.  I ignored some warning signs in the gym that were whispering, hey maybe you should be working on form in slow motion instead of 4x15 reps here, because I follow instructions and gotta check that box!  The workout where things fell apart, a four-hour trainer ride less than a month out from ironman, I knew, I should have shut it down but I didn’t because I am really fucking stubborn and 4-5 years of training without injury had lulled me into a false sense of invincibility and honestly even typing this out is making me cringe over and over.  And over.    
If I go back, if I read the notes in my training log and remember the things I was feeling, I was stupid.  I own that.  My body, the universe, it has been trying to tell me something for months now, and I have not been listening, I have been fighting as hard as I know how.  Maybe it’s all touchy-feely bullshit but you know what, it’s what I believe in and that’s all that actually matters.  And what I believe in, is that when the universe is trying to tell you something, it throws cotton balls and then acorns and then snowballs and then bricks.  When the universe is trying to get your attention you will lose every time because the universe has deadly aim, the universe is a sniper that can take out a flea from seven hundred thousand miles away; when the universe is trying to get your attention, the universe does not fucking miss.   

But I also don't believe that the universe is a total asshole.  There have been moments, brief, grateful moments where I get a glimpse.  There’s a moment on the bike, maybe you’re tired, or soft-pedaling, and someone (hopefully that you know) rolls by on your left and you have less than a second to decide.  Do I hop on and possibly destroy myself trying to hang or do I let them go?  There was a day, about a month ago, where I got to decide that.  And in the ninety minutes that followed, ninety minutes where I stopped looking at power or heart rate or anything except the hub of the wheel in front of me, I threw away all the logic and reasons and silenced the alarm bells going off in my brain clamoring YOU ARE NOT FIT ENOUGH FOR THIS KIND OF JACKASSERY and instead, said firmly back, I WILL NOT GET DROPPED TODAY.  Fuck fitness, fuck good sense, I will rip out my own teeth and spit them over my left shoulder into the slipstream if I have to in order to not lose this wheel.  Every cyclist in the world knows, respects, in a twisted way absolutely lives for this moment.  We stopped to refill bottles and one of my girlfriends said something to me about never seeing me ride this strong, and I laughed but I wanted to cry, I wanted to plant a stake in the ground, THIS is how I ride, THIS is who I am.  And you don’t know me, not at all, if you don’t know that, but of course you don’t know that because I haven’t seen that person in the mirror in a very long time.  
June 8th.  I am, flatly, honestly, exhausted.  I have spent the last five months of my life in pain.  Physical pain, emotional pain, stress, anxiety, it has piled up.  I am out of fight.  All the training I’ve done this year has been walking the tight-rope of what my fragile body will allow me to do.  I feel as if I’ve spent every day of this year bracing against pain.  Every procedure I’ve had, every time a doctor has assured me, it hurts now but you will feel better later!  I’ve spent countless hours laying facedown on a treatment table saying, fuck FUCK fuck fuck fuck, over and over again, squeezing my eyes shut and taking deep breaths because if there is one thing I do not do, it is fucking cry, not me, not in front of you, no matter how excruciating, no matter how big your needles are.  And it has exhausted me.  I stopped going to morning masters for the most part because sleep dragged at me no matter how early I went to bed.  I stopped getting bikini waxes (TMI but fuck off if you actually care) because I couldn't lay on another table tensing against any more pain, not for one more minute, I have completely maxed out my ability to endure.  It has extinguished the fight I have in me, my desire is gone, my flame is out, all these months of trying to be strong.  It has taken away the joy I used to find in training, and fuck racing this has never been about racing.  When I can’t complete a swim without a pull buoy because kicking is irritating my joint, when I start every ride by heading out the door on a Saturday morning telling my husband, I’ll be back somewhere between three minutes and two hours, when I run the first thirty steps down my driveway holding my breath, praying that the pain is low enough on the 1-10 scale that I can make it around the block today, when that is what my life has become, that is when it is time to step away.  So I decided, after this crash, finally, to step away.

And usually when I am forced to take rest, I enjoy it for a day or two and then I start to itch to move, and I’m on day four of this self-imposed break and I feel nothing.  I feel empty, barren, my soul is scorched earth.  Steph Davis talked last year about the difference between endurance and resilience.  She says, enduring is really about being's about getting the job done instead of falling apart and giving up.  What I have been doing, these last few months, that has been endurance.  Bearing down, accepting pain, living with pain, gritting my teeth and saying, I'm fine go ahead it's fine because I wanted so badly to be healed and also because I refuse to give up.  I can tell you what endurance looks like.  It is laying on a table in running shorts that don't fit, covered in road rash and bruises and aching from head to toe, trying to hold up cheerful conversation while you feel like your eyeball is about to explode because your physical therapist has one finger in your mouth and is doing deep work on the muscles that hold your brain in place.  Explaining how you were turning, sure, but you had both hands on the handlebars and had slowed enough for the stop sign and have good handling skills and weren't even taking any selfies!  And the universe threw you at the ground anyhow.  But really, it's not at all about the crash, it's not the fall that kills you, as the joke says.  It's the sudden stop.
I know how to endure.  I know how to tolerate pain.  I've done ironman seven times, not to mention living a life full of all kinds of other crap, a lot of it tougher than ironman in incomparable ways.  But resilience is different.  And what might look from the outside like giving up, maybe that's actually where resilience starts to grow.  I get that I have a choice, we always have choices.  I could hold on, I could keep pushing, struggling, desperate to force my fragile body through more months of movement, most of which at this point has been stripped of joy.  Or.  I can let go.

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

NOLA 70.3: race report

I can tell you the exact moment I decided to race.

It wasn't Monday evening when, after a big - all things being relative - weekend of training and a long day of work, I sat down and wrote a brief race plan only so I wouldn't do something stupid like forget to pack my bike shoes and then had a bowl of ice cream after dinner (no, all of my clothes being tight right now is not a mystery).
It wasn't Tuesday afternoon when I dropped my bike off with Wes (ProBikeExpress is the best way to go, as always!) and laughingly told him that I was sending it on vacation and maybe we could ride Saturday afternoon while everyone else was napping.  It wasn't Thursday afternoon when I was getting the shit beat out of my hamstring or Friday morning when I showed up to swim half of masters with all my friends before hopping on the plane.  Or later that day when I switched over from "eating like a normal human" to "eating only food that is white which includes both pizza and malted milk balls" or even the next morning when I checked in and let someone clip a colored band around my wrist and hand off a timing chip and a swim cap.  I still felt like, nope, this is TBD.
It was Saturday afternoon, in the last couple of minutes of the shake-out brick I did with my athletes, it was there.  As I listened to the feet work around me and breathing get heavy, as I focused into form and turnover, I realized that I had spent the week simply removing barriers between myself and the race.  I gave myself space to decide what I really wanted to do, the freedom to make a choice based on everything I know about my body, my fitness.  My heart.  And it was in those moments that I knew that I wanted to try.  For the same reason I always want to start a race, to go find out.  What is inside me, where I am, what I can do, what comes up when we strip down to raw physical suffering and the mind is forced to react.  So after a short freak-out about a tiny gash in my tire, I racked my bike, took a bath, sat in recovery boots, listened to music, quieted my mind, packed my bags.
Sunday morning I woke up to a text from my husband that hurt my heart a little.  It said, I am proud of you for getting to this starting line.  No one else may see how hard it was.  I do.  Because it's true.  He knows.  Along with everything that I have gone through the last 4-5 months, he has suffered too.  It may be harder to watch someone you love be in pain than to actually experience the pain.  Knowing that, finally out came something I wanted from the day.  If at all possible within the physical limitations of my body, get to the finish line.  I was grateful and content to be healthy enough to start; that, for me, was enough.  But to finish, that would be for him.  He is the loudest and best spectator of my life and I knew that nothing would make him happier that day than watching the final split roll through into a finish time.
Race morning.  For the last two years, something has changed about the morning parking situation at this race - I believe a ramp is closed that used to be opened for morning traffic - and has turned it into a monster clusterfuck.  It took about an hour to get the 3-4 miles to the start from our hotel, and that included hopping out of the car and walking the last quarter mile or so.  The wind was blasting pretty good already, and the race ended up being delayed so support staff could drag all the buoys back in line.  I ate my snacks and put on my sunscreen and did a shake-out jog slash portapotty hunt.  I got over to the start in enough time to line up right at the front of my age group.  My buddy Matt was in the wave before me and it ended up that we were lined up together to leap off the dock.  The timing-mat-person said, ten seconds and the girl on the other side of me, who had been chewing on her lip and watching the chaos already in the water said, nope, fuck this, I'm out, and turned around and walked off the dock.  Startled, I turned around to say something - I don't know what - and that's when the whistle blew.  And for the fourth year in a row, I cannonballed off the dock and into the water.
Swim: 1.2 miles, 36:30, 3rd AG
The water was crazy, laughable, insane.  And I loved it.  I was in a very late wave, which means that the course was wall-to-wall uncomfortable athletes trying to make their way through chop.  The first leg out we were swimming into the wind and wedged between the buoy line and the marina wall, so we were getting slapped with water and dragged every which way.  After a minute or two, I could tell that this wasn't going to be "find a draft and work hard" swimming but instead "be patient swimming around and through the masses because drafting LOL no."  I had been testing out a new pair of goggles for about two weeks before the race, and the vision was great but I had to stop 6-7 times to reseat them as they were leaking like mad no matter what I did so they will be going in the trash.  After the first turn buoy, conditions were still nutty but the water seemed to clear a bit.  Everywhere I looked, kayaks were full of athletes being taken back to shore, and all the buoys has a small clump of swimmers hanging on and taking a breath.  I was pleased to feel no anxiety at all about the swim - my first open water swim in a race was in flat peaceful water and I freaked out and backstroked the whole time so I have complete empathy for anyone who was struggling - but instead I just happy about all the paddle work I had been doing all spring and that I was fairly confident there were no sharks or rabid beavers in that particular lake.  I could tell that I was in the water for a long time but wasn't worried about it, I swam a pretty cruisey effort, telling myself over and over in my head, the goal is the finish line (along with, this may be rough but the bike is going to be worse so let's not hurry).  I managed to pee at least three times while swimming (I can do it in the water but not on the bike to my eternal dismay) and popped up the ramp, happy to be out, happy to be there, happy to simply just be.  

T1: 5:03
I let the wetsuit strippers peel me and then took my time in T1.  I pulled on my gear and shoes and double-checked that I had everything I needed.  There were a lot of bikes on the rack which is never a bad thing, my Garmin had turned off so I got everything squared away there and headed out.

Bike: 56 miles, 3:01:22, 8th AG
The first little bit of the course was in the tailwind, so I did have a brief moment of, oh, maybe the wind calmed down as if by magic!  But soon enough we U-turned at the top of the ramp and that was the end of that.
Certainly enough people have discussed the conditions in excruciating detail by now so I'm going to attempt to not spend too much time on it.  I was on my new bike with a new power meter that is very different from my old set-up, so perceived exertion against numbers is a pretty broken system right now.  After about 5 miles of hauling trying to get power up, I had a little chat with myself in my head (as you do), and made a decision.  I knew that I could keep riding that power and make it through the bike.  But with so little riding at 70.3 effort and almost no brick running going into the race, I didn't know what it was going to do to a physical body that needed to run.  I'm absolutely owning this decision, I wanted to finish above all else, and ripping myself to shreds like I would normally do in a 70.3 didn't seem like the choice that was guaranteed to get me there.  So I did what often makes coaches hold their heads in their hands, I stopped looking at my bike computer and rode by feel alone.  It didn't feel like a race effort.  It felt steady, it felt controlled in the wind, it even felt a little bit good, but it did not feel like holy shit out I am racing a 70.3 right now.  We had some pretty wicked gusting crosswinds on the way out in addition to the fabulous monster headwind, so I knew not to expect the trip back to be 35mph at 60 watts.  I ride in the wind all the time in Colorado, I feel confident riding strong in it, there were only a very few times where gusts made me feel a little unsafe but for the most part it was just hard.  

Once we turned around to come back, I picked up the effort a little bit, but then my bladder was bursting so I stopped at an aid station to pee.  I sat (hovered) in the portapotty wondering if the wind was going to push it completely over before I could finish and then heard a little crash and came out to find a very nice volunteer chasing down my bike that had blown down and off the rack.  Everything was fine, though, and I hopped on and headed back.  I knew that my time, watts, pace, all of it, was going to reflect a slower than usual day but I also felt confident that I could run.
As a scientist, it was interesting to race with so few bike miles in my legs.  I'm not sure I can describe it other than to say that I could feel that missing fitness, that strength, that I am used to being able to dig down and find.  Maybe if I had been willing to go out and rip myself to shreds I might have uncovered it, but instead it just felt like gaping emptiness where I am used to feeling a solid foundation.  It was a good check-in for me, to be completely aware of where I am right now, and it's motivating to realize exactly how much work I have ahead to get me back to where I want to be.

Nutrition: 2 Bobo's bars, 1 Honey Stinger waffle & 1 package of Skratch chews for 1040 calories at 346/hour and 80oz of OSMO for 26oz/hour.  

T2: 2:57
I was hungry coming off the bike - I think my pre-race calories need some tweaking.  So I sat for a second and ate an entire bag of chews in T2.  This is such a terrible idea and I KNOW that it's a terrible idea and I did it anyway, and as I headed out I crossed my fingers (and my intestines) that my body would not freak out.

Run: 13.1 miles, 2:15:27.  13th AG.
Right away I saw some friends and chucked my sunglasses because it was overcast enough that I knew I wouldn't need them.  I knew we had the wind behind us on the way out so I expected to feel pretty good but instead I felt completely fucking terrible.  I'm not sure if it was the wind or the ride or the sheer lack of fitness but I can't remember a race where I felt as bad in the first two miles of the run as I did last Sunday.  My body felt wretched, my stomach was revolting, I couldn't stop farting and my head was chaos, and this was the first time all day that I genuinely thought I might not finish.  I usually don't look at my watch in a 70.3 run but I flipped it over so there was no chance I would catch any information because no matter what I saw, it wasn't going to help.  I made it the first two miles and then hopped in a portapotty to see if I could help my stomach but also to take a minute to simply collect myself.  I looked in the little mirror inside the door (why?  why does this exist?) and said, look, this was always going to be really hard, let's just get moving and get it done.
I tried a few more chews and some coke over the next two miles in hopes that sugar/caffeine would perk me up but it didn't, and I was just before the fifth aid station when I got the crazy intestinal cramps that mean, SOS 911 STOP WHAT YOU ARE DOING RIGHT NOW.  It felt alarming so I slammed on the brakes and walked it into the next portapotty and then everything was just angry and mad.  I don't often have terrible stomach problems anymore and certainly I know how to fix it (and 5 Pepto tabs did the trick yet again) but it was unpleasant to sit (squat?) in that little potty and wonder if I was going to get blown into the lake and if I was going to be stopping every two miles for the next hour and a half or if I could right the ship.

After that, though, things improved greatly.  I started feeling better and better as I got to the turnaround, I saw one of my athletes and she yelled something about it being windy (no shit, sherlock, as the kids say), I tried to get some more calories down because I could tell by the looks on the faces of all the athletes running back that it was going to be rough.

And it was.  I jogged around the cones and immediately hunkered down, pulled into myself, tucked in, and ran.  I tried to find some other athletes to run with but I was somehow stranded in the middle of the race.  I found a few big tall men but would jog behind them for 2-3 minutes and then they would slow to a walk, so I would pull around and keep searching, and that is pretty much how it went all the way back to town.
I don't remember much about these later miles, I never do.  I know that at some point I slowed through an aid station to grab coke and looked back as I tossed my cup to see that I was dragging my own tiny parade of athletes.  I know that I smiled just for a second, jumped in the air and STOMPED on the timing mat around mile 9 because I knew that it would send the message to the poet that a) I was still moving and b) I was going to fucking finish this race.  I know that at some point my Garmin made a crazy sound and I flipped it over to see that I had made my step goal for the day (thanks).  I know that I couldn't hear anything or anyone and that it was hurting so badly with 5K to go that I spent every step saying to myself - sometimes out loud sometimes just in my head - I AM TOUGH - with every footstep, there was nothing else in my mind except that.  I know that I ran every step up the bridge, into the wind, through the zombie parade of exhausted walking athletes.  I know that I tried to pick it up in the last mile and there was nothing there, my brain was a constant roll of hips under feet steady turnover turnover I AM TOUGH shoulders back chin up CLOSE YOUR MOUTH hips under I AM TOUGH those last forty-five minutes and then just like that, the line rose up in front of me and I threw myself over it.  Survival.  Done. 
70.3 miles, 6:01:19. 13th AG

I immediately wanted to start bawling but that's a one-way ticket to the medical tent so instead I put on my hat and drank my water and hobbled over to the tiny ice pools.  They were almost empty because it wasn't all that hot out - maybe 70ยบ or so? - so I planted my butt/back/hamstring in there and buried my face in my hands and let it out.  Just for a minute.  Because I fucking did it.  It was so hard, for so long, and I'm so lucky that I was able to go out and find that again.
In the hours and days that followed, I felt drunk for more than a little while at peace.  I got what I wanted out of the day, that's all I can really ever ask for in a race.  My own physical fitness combined with the conditions of the day makes this the longest-in-duration 70.3 I've had in a long time, maybe four years?  And I don't care (got my money's worth!).  Not even a little bit.  Not even secretly.  Because I could look at the race on paper, sure, and say things like, whoa what happened in that swim and maybe I could have ridden harder than less than 70% of FTP and um average heart rate on the run in the 130s WTF were you doing out there if I wanted to have a long list of reasons to shit all over my own day.  I've done that in the past, I know how easy it is to reach out and grasp onto shame.  But what you see on paper never tells the whole story.  You can't see on a race results page everything I've been through in the last year of my life, plenty of which I've talked about here, some of which I won't.  You can't see what my training looked like up to this race, or how hard I fought for this finish, or how fucking proud I am that I even had the courage to start.  I know that a DNF does not always directly translate to failure, I was content with the success of feeling prepared to start but I know that I still would have struggled with the emotional aftermath that comes along with not finishing.  But to go out knowing that it was possible or even likely that I might fail, that I might not make it to the line at all, and to start anyway, that's how I showed up for myself.  I took a risk, I leaned into the unknown, and once it was all over, I was still in one piece.
So, that's the day.  A week later, I'm trying not to judge it by referring to it as fast or slow, data is unremarkable, I've got lots of photos showing that my tri kit doesn't quite fit, my recovery days of farting ice cream are over, I'm still picking up the physical pieces of racing beyond my preparation.  I learned that I have a shitload of work to do to get back to where I want to be, I learned how big of a hole this setback has created, but I have also learned that the fire is not out.  I believe that to be able to find longevity in this sport, you must be able to ride the waves.  The better you ride them, the longer you will last.  And I'm not at all saying that I always rode this particular one well over the last few months, but here I am.  Still riding.