Wednesday, November 29, 2017

in good spirits

For some reason, it makes people laugh to hear that I went swimming the morning I had surgery.
First of all, have you met me?  I didn't have to be at the hospital until 6:30am and the pool opens at 5:00am so in my head, the math was simple.  I was in the water at 5:04 and swam every last little second until I had to get out.  I ripped through the shower and showed up to check in with my hair still dripping and uncombed, my swimsuit clipped to my bag and a monster set of goggle eyes.  It is good that some things will never change.

Swimming - triathlon - is not about the obsession.  None of sport is for me, that is not my why.  It's not about burning calories, or getting faster, or selfies, or being able to flash an asshole number of watts on the Strava.  (Maybe a little bit, on the selfies).  It is an honest and deep passion for the art of movement.  Swimming is my meditation, it is a safe space, where I work out angst and anger and sorrow and joy.  The dive into the water, the rhythm of the breath, the still-dark sky when I push off and roll to my back, the quiet, dependable strokes, the hour I spend enveloped by peace.  And I knew that I was going to lose it for months due to rehab and recovery - although this time, thankfully, by choice - so it is logical that it is how I spent my last hour with two arms in 2017.

It's a bit weird how quickly surgery happens when you consider the months of recovery.  Three hours playing take apart, six months playing put-back-together-except-actually-works-now.  My surgeon had written up a comprehensive list prior to surgery called, we'll check out all of this and repair only what is needed.  Once inside my shoulder, he found that the answer was all of it, plus another tear that hadn't shown up on the MRI.  Of course that was much worse than anything else we knew about prior to slicing me open, but it doesn't matter.  He repaired everything and a few hours later, after two rounds of Zofran and 16 miniature ginger ales, I was dispatched back into the world with a killer hangover and no more (for a while) right arm.
The first week was bad.  Everyone had warned me that it would be, and I was prepared; none of that is the same as living through it.  A couple of friends came to visit or stay with me while the poet went to work to make sure that I didn't choke to death on my opioids or try to eat the plastic fruit, but the first three days I spent mostly asleep.  Dozing, actually, propped up in bed by 17 pillows and 4 golden retrievers that did not leave my side.  And I won't sugarcoat it for anyone unlucky enough to land here after googling, two labrum tears bicep tenodesis surgery does it suck: the pain is pretty fucking terrible.  The first day or two I was maxed out on my prescription pain killers, which helped about as much as when people tweet good thoughts and prayers to a national disaster.  But emotionally, I was okay, I checked in with my doctors and tried to sleep and only once did I end up sobbing on the bed after trying to get out of a shirt.
Day 4 I started working again, mostly via talk-to-text at the amusement of my patient and understanding athletes, who are probably going to miss me replying to everything within .2 seconds of uploading out of boredom once I'm healed up and can start doing other life things like leave the house.  I tried to go for a walk but that was too much; I made it to the next set of driveways before we had to turn back and that adventure resulted in a 3-hour nap.  Recovery is slow.  It resets your expectations of what you can do in a day.  The first week, I could shower and get dressed, but not on my own, and not without a break in between.  I think the worst unexpected handicap came in the form of the ponytail.  My husband is pretty awesome but he is not a hairdresser, and after a lifetime of wearing it scrunched up on the back of my head with a pencil shoved through it, it was torture to just have it laying around on my neck all day.  Hair!  The struggle, as they say, has never been more real.
Day 10 I left the house on a little trip, to visit some friends and their gorgeous new house.  Wearing a bra!  Getting in the car!  Seeing the real humans!  It was a good adventure, I got a bit tired and cranky by the time we returned home but it felt like progress.  Life has been pretty quiet.  I've been busy with work and continuing education, which is what I usually focus on this time of the year because no one is texting me crying from the middle of their 6-hour ride (man, do I miss being on the sending side of that text, though).  I had a talk with someone recently about continuing ed in coaching and how important it is because there's no real system that forces you through.  I've done it for years, it's a huge part of my daily work, mostly tracking down & devouring research as well as stalking good coaches, kinesiologists, physiologists, experts in nutrition, anatomy, mental performance.  It's as important or maybe even more so than the dailies of coaching, mapping out training loads and season planning and reading funny post-workout commentary and actually reviewing data files which apparently is a rarity among coaches nowadays.  

I think it was around the two-week mark that the pain really started to calm down.  The surgeon wanted me in physical therapy right away but due to a bundle of scheduling issues, I wasn't able to get in until I was two weeks into recovery.  I had done some research googling and started at home with some range of motion work, and it almost came as a surprise when I woke up the day of my first appointment and realized with a start that all the ridiculous nerve pain had been gone since the day of surgery.  The absence of pain is a crazy thing, it's the ringing silence after an explosion, the sonic boom to the shell that is left when suffering lifts.  The pain was - and still is - gone.  Gone.  My nerve pain is gone.
It's hard to look in the review mirror and see how difficult life has been for the people around me over the last six months or so.  So many injuries, the incredible amount of frustration that comes from working through the healthcare system - one that most of the time seems to be chock full of doctors who only want to turf you into someone else's office.  So much emotion (gross) around so much pain, so much struggle to keep chipping away; more phone calls, more physical therapy, more research, more getting up in the middle of the night to search for more specialists, but here I am.  Out the other side.  I made it through.  And as I'm starting to crawl out from under this massive rock of depression and grief, the first thing I'm doing is trying to find my people again.  To say to them, maybe not with words or all that well, thank you.  For not giving up on me.  There are a few people in my life who have taught me this year what friendship really looks like when it gets down and gritty, and I will value these relationships maybe a bit more than I used to, because now I know.  This is what it means when someone literally has your fucking back.  

There is still a lot ahead before I'm back to what I consider my own normal.  I haven't even really started into rehab yet; this morning I celebrated that I could hold my toothbrush with my right hand and put toothpaste on with the left instead of wedging it between my hip and the counter, an operation that has resulted in a lot of Toothpaste Jammies Fuck.  I'm looking forward to the day where I can once again put a shirt on not like pants, or ponytail up my hair, fall asleep starfished on the bed, scrub out both armpits without an assist.  Let's not even discuss the "blender started dancing and I didn't have a hand to catch it before it fell off the counter while still on" incident.  And I know there's going to be more pain to work through as I teach my shoulder to act like a shoulder again instead of a weird dead arm baby that I carry around stapled to my side.  
But I'm in good spirits - that's the thing I say when people poke me to see how I'm doing.  I am in good spirits.  I'm starting to feel like me again, I might even be cheerful sometimes, the wrench of chronic pain has cleared and is no longer is the first thing I see when I look in the mirror.  Surgery was the right decision, and I'm putting it in print because lord knows I'll need to remind myself of that over the next few months.  The world feels different, and not just because I have to do everything with my left arm.  I can look happily into the future again.  I'm grateful to move through life again without relentless nerve pain.  I am, unfortunately and ironically after so many years of talking shit about bloggers who abuse this sentiment, blessed.  

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

light begets light

I don't even know how to talk about everything that has happened.  But I've got about thirty-six more hours on this planet with the use of both hands (just for a while, I'm not donating anything to science), so if I'm going to get a story out, it's going to be now.

When you lose something you love, whatever it is, there is grief.  We know that, it's a fact in the world. And I, an ENTJ with absolutely zero patience for stupidity, adore cold hard facts.  
There are facts about what I've been through in the last six months, straightforward well-documented medical information.  In July, I was diagnosed with two herniated discs, scapular dyskenisis, and a whole bunch of torn shit in my shoulder.  BOOYAH, here we go.  I was already rocking a dozen stitches up the poonanny thanks to the nod from a year of bicycle chaos and then while continuing a long trend of doing what I was told, I ended up with a calcaneal stress fracture.  So I finally decided to shut it all down.  For real.  Not just I'll just go to yoga and do an easy hike, but twisting the handle firmly and all the way over to OFF.  When I say it like that, it sounds like I had a choice.  But with a torn up shoulder and a torn up saddle-sitter and a busted foot, there just wasn't anything left.  (Other than, as a friend helpfully pointed out, the Single Arm Tai Chi Chair Olympics).  
It didn't help.  Of course it didn't help, don't be ridiculous, but I did it anyway, if for no other reason than to shut up all of the (mostly well-meaning) fucking assholes who felt inclined to chime in on my situation unsolicited, with absolutely no information other than that I was in pain (thanks!).  I found a new physical therapist, a different kind who specializes in neuromuscular reeducation.  She was actually quite a bit more knowledgeable than some random people on Instagram and she didn't even seem to mind that I cried almost nonstop for the first eight weeks of working together, a flood with no outlet.  My neurologist person at the same time guided me through many many rounds of medication and nerve studies and scary things done to my neck down at CU Anschutz in Denver, where they have the greatest-tasting ginger ale on the planet in their surgical recovery room.  And for a long time, for weeks that turned into months, I did nothing.  Nothing except watch my life pass by without me, imprisoned by a body that had totally fucking had it.  
There are facts about what this did to my mental state, facts that are probably oversharing but there's nothing really left on my fake bullshit highlight reel.  Depression, yes, that's what happens.  And I don't mean, oh man they discontinued my favorite flavor of coffee creamer I'm so bummed kind of depression.  I mean the real, ugly, dark & twisty kind, the kind where you don't leave your house for days at a time, where you stop getting out of your pj pants because it starts to seem like an exhausting effort to do so. Pain that lasts more than six weeks is considered chronic; mine lasted over five months & still isn't gone.  Nerve pain is its own particular inferno, because muscle relaxers don't help, steroids don't help, naproxen doesn't help, a hot bath and a glass of wine doesn't help, meditation doesn't help, actually nothing helps, you just walk around trying to figure out how to keep breathing in and out, all the while being mercilessly stabbed with thousands of knives.  So the only thing to do is to chase down the next doctor who might know something, or be able to prescribe something, or move something, or fuck it can we just chop my neck off if that will make it stop?  And in our brilliant health care system everything takes two weeks: scheduling appointments, getting a follow-up, finding a new specialist, seeing if the latest meds will start working, and that's a lot of dead time of waiting for a few quick seconds of hope before the doctor disappears out the door in a whirl of white coat.
October is my favorite month.  I'm in love with fall and everything it brings - the birthdays of everyone in my house, arm warmers, cool nights, dark beers, fuzzy boots, all of that crap.  And every year for the last seven years, for my own birthday, I've written a blog post.  It's generally just another pile of overly adverb'd nonsense, but routine, rituals, rhythm - these things are meaningful to me.  This year, I didn't do it.  This year, I missed the whole thing.  One of my best friends was in town to celebrate, and oh, it broke my heart that she spent the time and effort to come out and visit in the middle of this, that she had to bear witness to some of the worst moments of my life.  I woke up the morning of my birthday, and I tried to go for a ride.  That's what I do every year, usually it's the 80+ mile loop through the mountains that makes me happy in a way that not a lot of other things do.  This particular morning was Colorado-windy, and I was in a tremendous amount of pain, and I rode less than forty minutes before I was back home, and if we're going to be honest on a deeply squirmy level, I spent most of the ride hoping that a car would hit me so that it would be over.  So it could all just stop.

Yeah.  That kind of depressed.  That kind of hopeless.

There are facts about what this did to my physical state, and the next person that says nah you still look great to my face is getting their eyes clawed out and I am not even joking.  Because I've gained more than twenty pounds at this point, and twenty pounds on a 5'6" frame that has completely stopped exercising does not look the goddamned fucking same.  My running shorts are gathering dust, I've been rotating between the black yoga pants and the stretchy blue yoga pants when I deign to get dressed at all.  My boobs have exploded fantastically outwards into being, when I stuff myself into a sports bra I am the grand prow of a ship; I'm Courtney Cox in the fat suit, a shadow of the person I used to be except the opposite of a shadow, a caricature with four chins.  So when you say, shut up you look fine, either you're placating me or you aren't seeing me - or my pain - at all.   Both of those are worse.  
Nerve pain, that's been my problem throughout.  When the superstar doctors solved my neck issue all of the pain should have stopped, and went it didn't, everyone just kind of stumbled over their feet and went, huh.  About a month ago, I saw yet another specialist.  She mapped out a couple of experiments to try and route some kind of path forward, and I was in, ready to try anything, sure I will buy your purple snake oil and drink it while reciting German poetry backwards at moonset because I bet THAT will fix me.  I was almost ready to listen to someone on the internet!  But one of them worked, although it was the bad kind of "worked," the kind that means, well, we figured it out but you are really not going to like the answer.  My herniated discs were compressing a nerve, and that sucked and probably kicked off at least part of this mess, but it turns out the all the Torn Shit around my shoulder wasn't holding the shoulder in place - you LITERALLY have one job! - and when it flopped forward to where it's been living for the last six months, it was compressing a nerve.  Actually a whole crapload of them.  And nerves DO NOT like that, NO NO NO NO NO, they bitch and moan and pull on every single muscle they can reach, and now I know exactly how many there are back there, surrounding my scapula.  It is a lot.  I've spent the last several months busting my ass in physical therapy to try and get my body to put my shoulder back where it goes and keep it there, but we haven't been able to crack the pain/flare-up spiral at all and no one could figure out where all the nerve pain was coming from.  This particular doctor, who will now get a Christmas present from me every year for the rest of eternity, voodoo-taped my shoulder back where it's supposed to be, and over a period of about a week, most of the nerve pain went away and the muscles started to calm down and all of a sudden I remembered how to smile.  After about three weeks of working hard and hoping, we pulled the tape off to see what my shoulder had learned and everything went batshit to hell, because, like I tell my athletes all the time, hope is not a strategy.  So on Thursday, another doctor is going to take my shoulder apart and put it back together correctly because tape is not a permanent solution.  And all of the 17 opinions that I've gathered from real doctors about moving forward in this direction are confidently positive that with about 6 months and a zillion more dollars of physical therapy, I'll get my life back.  Exhale.
But I won't be the same.  I'm already not the same, I'm already different in a way that I can't quite put my finger on but I can see, and not just in the boobs and thighs.  I'm more careful, with my body but also with my life and the people that are allowed inside.  I'm sure that stress contributed at least in part to this, and I've finally started to learn how to set real boundaries around my time, my energy, my heart.  

Figuring this mess out and scheduling surgery lifted a lot of the dark clouds that were hanging over me.  Even though it means the next few months I'll be in a sling and on the stairmaster and knocking things over trying to navigate the world with my left hand and oh fuck I just realized I'm incapacitating my selfie arm, even though it's a few more months of staying inside while the world seems to pass by in high speed outside of my window, there's an end, or maybe just yet another day one.  There is a light.  And light begets light.  
More well-intentioned friends have tried to point out a silver lining here and there.  I've been able to focus more on work, and I do truly love what I do or I wouldn't still be doing it, but if someone took away a bunch of crap that make you really happy and rewarded you with more time behind a computer telling people they don't eat enough on the bike, would that 100% be a good thing?  As a coach, it's hopefully not immodest to say that this year has been really great, and in a lot of ways that has helped what I have been going through personally.  I don't want to take the credit because it's all of my athletes that are out there busting their asses, but I feel really lucky to be working with the people who have found me.  People who are rebuilding from something themselves, or seeking new heights, or chasing whatever kind of dream that gets them out of bed in the morning.  And this year, athletes that I have coached for years have experienced some incredible breakthroughs.  I'm torn between wondering if it was because I had more time to nurture their experience and truthfully understanding that it is a combination of hard work, planning, opportunity, patience with the process and just a tiny sprinkle of luck.
I've been able to see how much my husband loves me, and tucking in a few lines deep in this post is in no way able to embrace the incredible significance of how supportive he has been.  He has tried to fight for me when I could no longer fight for myself, and if that isn't what marriage is supposed to look like, then I don't want to know what is.  
When we found the correct band-aid for what was going on, I was able to start moving again.  And I don't want to call it training, it's barely even been exercising.  I've made a lot of jokes about how it's been going, the watts and the pace and the near intolerance of the spandex, but it has felt good to move again.  To work through the process of starting from scratch, all on my own terms.  I've always said that as an endurance athlete I would never be without a coach to prevent myself from falling down the ironman stairs naked in the dark, but this isn't training.  I'm not an athlete right now, and I know that no one on the planet knows better than I do what I need.  I'm not even sure I would trust anyone to try.  So I've been building it myself, and patience is easy to come by after everything that has happened.  It has been a month, and I've watched myself grow, and I'm excited to do it all over again once this is truly behind me.  A couple people have asked why I would bother to spend a few weeks now rebuilding when I'm going to turn it all off again after surgery for more than a little while, but that's easy.  Because it's who I am.  Because it's how I take care of myself, because after all this darkness I needed some sunshine, because it's the few moments on this planet that I feel more me than anything else I've ever experienced.  I have no idea what the future will bring, but I know I have two choices, I have a reminder that I see every day.  I can stay here, and get the shit kicked out of me.  Or I can fight my way back.  Into the light.  I can climb out of hell...one inch at a time.  I was stuck there for far too long.  I gave up.  But now, I am ready to climb.  

Thursday, August 17, 2017

when things fall apart

Writing all of this down has been circling in my head for the last few months.  To be honest, I was waiting for the point when I would climb up out of hell, and then I could casually talk about it in the past tense through a veil of optimism & strength, oh yeah, sure, it was hard but I got through because I'd be beyond it, finally spit out the other side.  But, without being melodramatic, I'm not sure if or when that is going to happen, and spouting my overly-wordy crap in this space is one of the few coping mechanisms I have left.

It didn't start, as many injuries do, with a thunderclap.  It was more like a splinter, so small I barely noticed it. Then another piece cracked, then another, and then one day I woke up and everything had fallen apart.  It began in April.  I noticed in the pool that the back of my shoulder felt a little bit tight and that the last two fingers of my hand were going numb.  I chalked it up to the fact that 99% of my swim training for the last six months could be described as, maximum effort & still getting lapped and made a mental note to get a massage.  It came and went, barely noticeable, forgotten once I was out of the water and dragging myself home to eat, work, and then scrape into the next as hard as I can session on tap.

Later that month, I woke up one morning and couldn't turn my head to the right.  A crick in my neck, I thought, we've all done it, slept a bit weird and then spent the day popping your jaw and Advil both.  I had an appointment with someone the very next morning, he worked on my neck and shoulder and upper back, frowning and harrumph-ing and saying more than a few times, this is really quite bad.  It fixed me right up, though, I treated myself carefully the next few days as it eased off and then got straight back to it.  Anything to be great, right?  

But a week later it was there again, worse, sharp, shooting down along my spine and up into my skull, into my shoulder, through the rotator cuffs, wrapping around the ribs, wrenching me into tears should I momentarily forget and look over my shoulder to change lanes in traffic.  I started ringing the alarm bells into the village I've grown here in Colorado, talented intelligent people who have been key to letting me continue to do this crazy thing that I love for so many years now.  And that's where it all just gets a bit blurry and difficult to trace.  Everyone was able to provide relief - for a few days, and then it would come crashing right back in.  Four months later, I've seen three orthopedists, one sports medicine specialist, seven physical therapists, two massage therapists, a chiropractor and an acupuncturist.  I've taken a dictionary of medicines, I've been through a glacier of ice, heat, don't even fucking twist your mouth to ask me if I stopped training, stretchy bands, injections, strength, walking, yoga, meditation, therapy.  Nothing has changed.  Without exaggeration, I am in pain all of the time.  That's incredibly hard to type, to admit.  As athletes we are meant to be strong, stoic, tough; we silently agree to never admit to weakness or suffering or distress until it is long over, and then only in flip references to how much it absolutely sucked.  But I am not past it.  It is not over.  And it stopped being about swim bike run quite some time ago.  It became simpler than that - breathe.  Move.  Live.  Many days - just survive.

I've had two MRIs - loudest nap ever!  Both have shown something pretty seriously wrong but somewhat common to athletes of my age, which means the only thing that practitioners can really agree on is that surely it must be something else.  The sports medicine doctor (that I trust inside and out) sent me to the shoulder specialist to get scheduled for surgery, who instead immediately turfed me over to the neck specialist so they could quibble about who would stick needles in me first and where, which pretty well sums up my journey through our healthcare system.  It reminds me of a time about four years ago when cycling was causing knee pain.  The physical therapists all told me I needed a new bike fit and the bike fitters all told me I needed physical therapy and I recall venting in frustration to my friend Scott, I need a physical therapist who also is a bike fitter just so that he can't kick me out of his fucking office.  And somewhere in the beginning of all of this, a saddle-sore-turned-cyst reappeared, ruptured and needed to be surgically cleaned out.  Then a huge hematoma developed so on top of everything else, I've been frightening a completely different set of MDs about my seven-week-old purple donkey testicle that refuses to die or be swallowed back into my body and honest to God I would love it if I could go just three days in a row without someone asking me casually and without humor, how's the vag today? 

Chronic pain is different from an injury.  This isn't, my knee hurts when I run after fifteen minutes.  This is, my neck hurts when I breathe.  How to baffle all the, well if it hurts when you do that, don't do that doctors around!  It's nerve pain, I think we are nearly agreed.  It's chronic, it moves around, and if I could amputate my neck and the entire right side of my body above the waist, I would do it.  That's where I'm at.  Being in pain this long has changed me, not for the better.  All my dials are cranked up to 10.  You know that morning, the one where you oversleep and forget to eat breakfast and then drop your coffee cup on the floor in the garage where it shatters but you're late to work so you have to leave it and then someone cuts you off in traffic and instead of giving you the finger gives you the smug little wave, you know the flash of pure rage you get in that moment?  That's how I feel, all of the time.  And I may be a dramatic person but this is not drama talking, this is honesty stripped raw, any filter or fluff worn away by how plain old hard the last few months have been.  I'm angry at how I ended up here, at how no one has fixed it yet, at the people who I feel like have abandoned me along the way because they can't be troubled by a complicated problem that doesn't have a clear answer or an athlete who dares to feel pain, at the fact that I can't do something as simple as get out of bed in the middle of the night to pee without wincing.  And I don't think anyone really knows how bad it has been, other than my husband, who is destined for some sort of mega cotton-candy-naked-lady-wine-coolers-and-cocaine-bounce-house afterlife after the last five months (not to mention, seven years) of surviving our marriage together.  He knows, he feels it too, he would do anything to fix it and he might be the one person on the planet more angry than me about what has happened here; I know how hopeless he feels, every day, that he can't take away my pain.

I know I've retreated from the world, it's hard to have the energy to support the friends you love when everything is though a haze, and that is a horrible truth for someone who loves people the way I do.  Eight.  My pain is an eight.  Each new doctor, therapist, everyone I see asks the same stupid fucking question, where is your pain today?   I've spent a lot of time facedown on a lot of tables repeating the word fuck and counting to three because I can't process any more numbers than that, I've had a lot of really horrible close-to-blacking-out treatments and a lot of those things have worked.  For a day.  Maybe two or three, which is just enough time to shake myself off and believe that I'm at the end of this hell, just enough time to breathe, and then sure enough, it slams back into me and I go down.  Again.  That's even worse than whatever the fuck is going on in my body; this rollercoaster of hope and despair is what is actually going to break me down completely.  When someone asks, hey, are you okay? what they are generally hoping to hear is some version of, yup, hanging in there!  Because after a while it becomes too depressing to repeat all the time, nope, not okay, still in pain, horrible actually, I feel completely broken, my body has failed me, I'm falling apart, I can't bear it, I don't know what to do and I'm not actually sure I'm going to make it here.  The truth is awkward, it's exhausting, no one likes to be the friend that's in crisis all the time, no one wants to complain constantly, so at some point it just becomes easier to lie, or to simply not reply at all, to hide just a little bit more in the blazing nightmare that your life has become.  I know that there are people in the world dealing with chronic pain much worse and longer lasting than what I have been through and I am here to say that I honestly do not understand how they do it.  I'm not sure I could do it, I don't want to live like this, I can't, I won't.  

It would be easy to blame it all on ironman, of course everyone wants to dump it on either the distance or my own stupidity, but here's the thing.  On the inside, I work hard to do this right.  I educate myself, I do the strength training, the recovery, the sleep, mostly the nutrition (cookies have never herniated a disc or compressed a nerve bundle or torn a labrum in any research that I have read), I don't cut corners, I do the 1%, I don't do this alone, and after so many years in this sport I know that you do not get to nine finish lines if you are being a jackass about it.  I surround myself with people that I trust in order to protect myself, to protect my life in this sport that I love, to protect my own body, and while sometimes I have been really incredibly wrong about the people I have chosen to trust, this seems like a pretty harsh way to learn that lesson.  

When things fall apart, everything gets pared down.  Friendships, travel, adventure, joy, it all gets cut away.  I don't like who this has made me, this fat angry person who cries all the time and flies off the handle at nothing because my sympathetic nervous system is so beyond wrecked that I have no ability to tolerate even the smallest amount of stress.  This isn't who I want to be.  I want to be a person who rips into life full tilt, with humor, joy, gratitude, patience, the girl who bounces off to Hawaii on three days notice, who drags you up a mountain at 4am just to see the sun rise like it doesn't happen every day, who shows up with tequila when life takes a rotten dive, who is up for any adventure, who tackles fear by running straight at it, who will maybe always have five pounds to lose, the girl who works hard to love life so damn hard.  I miss it.  I miss that life, I miss movement, it's as simple as I miss my bike.  I miss my own happiness so much that it's hard to breathe if I stop and think about it for more than a moment before doggedly cracking on, calling another doctor, getting another opinion, pulling the ice pack out of the freezer with a sigh.  Which is why I had hoped that I could write about this once I came out the other side, because then I could rationally discuss the science of everything that happened and how it was solved, only show the highlights, the patience and grace that everyone talks about as a virtue of devastating injury.  But that's not where I am.  Instead, I am here.  I am broken.  I am in pain.  I am not okay.  

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

the universe in ecstatic motion

It's been nearly two years since I stomped a marathon in Boulder.

I haven't set foot on the vast majority of the run course since.  Maybe (probably) I'm overly superstitious, but it's been easy to avoid.  There are squillions of places to run in Colorado where I don't have to face my ghosts.  Because that's truly how it has felt since then.  Haunted, by grief and failure both.
The month after Santa Rosa brought another one of those little stormy seasons in training, the kind that only lasts a few weeks but when you're in it, feels eternal.  The crick in my neck flared out angrily in every direction until I ended up parked in bed with my laptop, working between muscle relaxers and people diagnosing me with too much stress.  I am fortunate to not have had too many of these train-screeching-to-a-halt injuries in the last six years but this one came all too soon on the heels of a rough 2016.  It took a while to sort out the root cause, then a few more days before it actually started calming down, yet another day or two before I stopped eating like a jackass and living in my pajama pants and suddenly it was the day before ironman.  I had signed up to volunteer throughout, supporting the swim and the run and the finish line.  I ended up having to bail on swim support thanks to the still-crabby neck/back/shoulder nerve situation but was grateful that I felt healed enough to sit on my mountain bike, mostly coasting, for three-plus hours as an escort on the run course.  

I got up early on Sunday and went for a run; it's the first time in about a month that the miles came as freely and easily as they did that morning.  I thought about my athlete racing, her first marathon and ironman both, and winged good mental mojo her way as I chugged along on deserted roads.  I got out to the bike course and caught her on the first lap, happy, smiling, working, then headed down to Boulder to wait for the pros to come into T2.
I'll be honest, when I signed up for this job, I wanted to escort the first place female.  Who wouldn't?  There was a pretty decent chance that it would be one of my swim teammates, i.e. someone who swims in the lane next to me but obviously in a completely different zip code along with most of the rest of the pool.  I'm a dork with a huge heart and that seemed like it would be pretty much the coolest (or likely the most annoying thing ever, for her).  But when the little cards got handed out, I ended up with fifth, so I started trying to sort out via the internet who that would be.  Ironman athlete tracking hit a new level of incompetence this weekend, meaning that from my phone I was unable to even pull up the list of athletes racing as the tracker produced nothing but a blank page.  

So I noodled around while I waited, mainly being a pain in the ass on twitter.  I was panicked that I would have to pee while escorting and be forced to choose between exploding or abandoning my person for 90 seconds, which led me to make 800 trips to a portapotty plus one sorta behind a bush on the creek path after telling the guy sitting there, I'm just going to duck behind your tree, don't mind my butt cheeks I hope none of this is poison ivy?  That turned out to be the husband of the athlete I ended up riding with for the first 16-17 miles, as these things happen.  The pro men came flying through, then the first two women, then a few age groupers blasting the front of the race, then women 3-4-5, little ducks in a row, off we went.
I told my athlete, hi, I'm Katie, you don't have to talk to me, I'm just going to ride right here behind you.  She asked what place she was in, I told her, and then for a while it was so quiet on the path that my squeaky rear brake made me cringe in the silence.

She worked her way steadily through the course; random spectators kept throwing out wildly inconsistent splits or helpful commentary of the eye-rolling variety akin to, she's right up there go get her!  (Great idea, let's try that!)  My natural inclination is to chatter like a monkey but I know that when I am hurting, any stimulus makes me want to screech with rage so I mentally stapled my mouth shut and simply tried to not run her over with my bike.

I can't think of a time in my life where I have been so close to another human being suffering at that level, and it was indescribable (but bloggers lead their lives using seven thousand words where none would do, so let us crack on).  It felt sacred, holy, to bear witness to a fight of that magnitude.  Her suffering is not my story to tell, but I know suffering when I see it, the empty scent of pain, the devastating wrench of grief.  And from my own experience I do know that sometimes there is nothing better to be said or done other than to silently be present and hope to lift the isolation that surrounds.

I've been fortunate to spend the last several months seeing what triathlon looks like when it is approached as a job, not simply a passion.  A great deal of that has been really good for me, it has been a positive practice.  But the danger here, I've realized, is that it may become water on the fire of what drives me, dousing the spark into damp ashes instead of letting it burst into flame.  It's possible I'm making that mistake now, attributing so much importance to what was simply another day at work for someone.  Ironman for me is an emotional swan dive into all the crap that I hide under a rock, so that's what I saw on Sunday; one of Frankl's three sources of meaning in life, courage during difficult times.  He believed that suffering is without purpose until we give it meaning by how we respond.  I think of my own experiences with this distance, and the races that stand out are not the ones where I ran the fastest but the ones where my suffering meant the most.  Coeur d'Alene last year, done on a body slack with physical fitness but in memoriam of what I had lost.  Arizona, the first time I believed in myself.  And yes, Boulder, one of the worst days of my racing life but a catalyst for change that has propelled me forward and brought so much good into the groove I am wearing around the sun ever since.  What is to give light must endure burning.
I believe in a lot of bullshit that I'm confident makes a lot of people roll a lot of their eyes into a lot of their heads.  But this was too clearly a gift from the universe to consider it any kind of coincidence.  Where I was not given what I wanted but instead what I had no idea that I desperately needed.  The grit, the fight I saw in the exact moments that left me crumbling two years earlier, the raw courage that I was privileged enough to brush up against on Sunday afternoon - that will stay with me for the rest of my life.  

A couple of weeks before Santa Rosa, I remember swimming one morning and having the very clear thought, I don't want to do this anymore.  Not like this.  Tears in the googles, Amanda Beard's memoir, not like this.  And don't ever try and fucking tell me that the body can't hear what the mind spits out, because served up promptly a few weeks later, BAM, injury, exactly what I had asked for on a silver platter, nuclear shutdown, no swimming, then no training, then nothing at all except pain, blinding and white.  I was frustrated, I was stamping it small and shoveling rocks on top, and if I should have learned anything in 36 years it's that your body does not take that shit, can not, will not.  Suppression is simply delayed explosion.  I asked myself back in February, what is inside you?  What are you born to do?  And in the months after ironman, I lost that drive, trying to navigate life without all the awkwardness that is part of what makes me, me, trying to be perfect, not make waves, scrunch down, stay quiet, be seen but not heard.  That's the baggage I carry.  But I don't want that to be my experience, your playing small does not serve the world, I want to be the fucking universe in ecstatic motion.
I rode back out on the run course late in the day, the look of the race quite different in the hours that had passed.  But instead of haunted, it felt like the morning after hard rain, as if the water had washed everything clean.  Athletes, silent and stoic, each fighting their own personal battles on a field gone quiet.  I wanted to say to every one, but didn't, I am here with you.  You are not alone.  I spent more time volunteering at the finish line, the best moments of the day, when the suffering is over and the junkfood drunkfest can begin.  
I was confident after New Zealand that I needed to walk away from ironman for a while. It wasn't a negative decision, it was simply wanting to cast light in a different direction, dance on a different playground.  But god, it's my heart.  I don't quite know yet where, or when, or how soon (other than, not soon), all I know right now is that it will be.  A spark, bursting into flame.