on keeping your head about you

It has been a long time since I've lost my shit.
In a training session, that is, not in my entire life (because that would be a masterful feat).  I like to share stories about training for my first ironman, how often I cried, and how much I laugh at myself now for it.  The time I called for a ride and after the poet picked me up and packed me into the car and drove three miles towards home, I asked to be let back out to keep riding.  The time I thought it was a good idea to do a MAF test in the hottest part of the day (see, I do it too) and ended up doing it as two mile repeats on the track and hiding under the bleachers wheezing and crying between reps.  The time I got out of the pool and came home and called Sonja and she turned me around and sent me right back.  So I have plenty of experience with the meltdown.

It's a good thing, I think, the ability to talk yourself into holding your shit together when you really, desperately, more than anything, want to blow it apart all over the place.  After going through one round of ironman training, I knew what to expect, how I would feel, and I think that made a pretty big difference.  And now, coaching, I feel a high level of responsibility to keep my head about me when everyone else around me seems to be losing theirs, to stay calm in the eye of the shitstorm.  So swim bike and run, triathlon training, it's been a while.  Getting ready for IMLP, I can think of only one goggle-throwing incident and then by the time I dragged myself through Cozumel prep I think I was plain old too wiped out to waste energy on getting upset when I knew I was going to get back on the bike and keep riding anyway.  
Yet there I was, pounding my angry little fist on the pretty green side of the mountain we had just spent all morning climbing up, yelling FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCKITY FUCK at the sky after my third crash in less than ninety seconds, this one a slippery skiddy too-fast header over the bars that brought the bike with me and slammed all of us into the ground, rounding up the bruise count to an even two dozen and sending blood trickling down my elbow, shoulder, and knee.  I could clearly imagine the sigh that Gloria heaved before turning around and walking back up towards me with a what now look on her face (she was actually very kind; this was all my projecting).  It wasn't even the first time that day I had started to crack, but it was when I went sailing right on over the edge.
The first time was because I had realized, less than twenty minutes into our super epically awesome ride dudes, that it was likely that I was in over my head.  The plan was to climb (probably for about two hours Gloria told me as we got going) up a fire road of some sort, descend on the singletrack that hides under the ski slopes, hop on the trail and ride back to where we started.  It sounded good to me, climbing and descending is one of my favorite ways to spend the day when I'm riding on the road and I figured it would be a similar experience on a mountain bike (hopefully you can hear the bells tolling, DOOM DOOM DOOM, right now).  I am here to report, obviously, that it is not.  My heart rate was in the one millions as the rear wheel of the hardtail I had rented skidded out over and over again on the loose rocky gravely mess that was as slick as cake frosting below me.  The bike corrected, it grabbed the road over and over but every time it did, my adrenaline spiked and finally I unclipped and said, I can't I can't I can't.  So we took a little pit stop, we munched on the unfortunately-delicious-15-euro cake and once some calories were in me I calmed down.  And I was embarrassed, because it has been such a long time since I've lost my shit and there aren't a lot of things worse than losing your shit in front of your friend while on vacation in France.  
There was some walking of the bike, some pit stops to take pictures, but eventually we were at the top and I was relieved, because now all we had to do was get back down.  We flagged down some French guys descending at speed wearing full-body gear and motorcycle-style helmets and asked them to point us to the easiest trail to ride back down, and they did, although by the time we bumped into them at the brewery post-ride we realized that we had done a poor job of interpreting which over that way they meant.  I set my battered ego aside and asked Gloria for all of her best descending on the fat tires tips, which she gave me, I got ready to do all those things and we headed back down the mountain.
It was fine on the fire road, but standing at the top of the singletrack I got the same feeling that I often do skiing when I'm in over my head.  The deep-in-your-gut: well, shit.  But as in skiing, not to mention a million other things in life, the only way out is through, and the worst thing that can happen is you end up walking and your friend gets to make fun of you for being a giant pussy for the rest of eternity.  So I gave Gloria a big gap and then carefully tried to follow her line.  I hit a huge rock and went over (fuck).  I slowed into a turn but not quite enough and went flying on the loose dirt (FUUCK).  And then I worked my way forward, gathering speed and only a bit of confidence just in time to hit a bump before a pretty large ditch and go flying over the handlebars and melt, completely, down (FUCK FUCK FUCK FUCKITY FUCK).  

We had actually had a conversation a few days earlier, about being in over your head, and confidence and skills and fear of looking like a wuss and how that all relates.  And I shared with her how I've done some riding with a friend in Boulder that I probably wasn't quite ready for, but instead of saying, um hang on a second, I shoved all my doubts down and barreled right on through, heart in my mouth, hands sweaty inside my gloves.  I do the same thing on the ski slopes all the time.  I will never say, no, that looks too hard for me.  I've been skiing since I was a little kid, and there is absolutely nothing I won't try, no matter how beyond my ability it may be.  I like to describe myself as fearless on skis, however there are times when the fear is there but I launch myself down the mountain regardless, and I make sure I am whooping and laughing as I do it.  Brash, reckless, stupid, I will take any of those adjectives over the dirtiest, blackest, ugliest word in my book: afraid.  
And that, probably, explains how I got into ironman in the first place.  A lot of people tried to talk me into waiting a while, building confidence and ability at the shorter distances, and I listened to all of them and then did the thing that I the hell wanted to anyway, which was to sign up for CdA.  I remember laying on the couch - the same couch I'm laying on right this minute - tapping in my credit card number, breathless with excitement about doing the daring thing, the crazy thing, attempting the thing that not everyone attempts for whatever reason but I will do it because if there is something I am goddamn not, it is, afraid.  Of anything.

So here's the crux of it; here's the root of the root and the bud of the bud as my second-favorite poet in the entire world says.  Ironman doesn't terrify me anymore.  Signing up for ironman is something that is now squarely inside my comfort zone.  Don't misunderstand, I still have a great deal of respect for ironman, I still have a strong desire to crack the nut of the distance and put the puzzle pieces together in the right order with no broken bones, but I don't stand at the start line that morning filled with fear.  Hopping online to pay the many hundreds of dollars and fill out all the ridiculous questions doesn't make my heart pound hard, not anymore.  Maybe it's okay, sometimes, to have a life filled with things that don't scare the living crap out of you, but when I was crying my little mad tears on that mountain in France, I realized that it's been a really long time since I've done something that has pushed me so far outside of my comfort zone.  And what followed on the heels of that is realizing that maybe it's time to start looking around again for things that do.  But if that's not ironman, than what is it?  And should I be asking myself the question, when I am afraid of something why do I feel the need to throw myself fiercely in its path?  Knowing, in part, that the answer has a lot to do with needing to have something in my life that makes me feel crazily, desperately, vibrantly alive?

(After Gloria took this picture she said, man, you look like I HAVE SEEN SOME SHIT TODAY).
There's a difference, now, in what I do after the meltdown passes.  After the first one, Gloria offered to turn around and ride the easier trail back, and I didn't say yes or no but, stubborn as an ass, pushed my bike up the fire road until I found a spot flat enough to get rolling again.  When I crashed, yes, all the times; after I stopped flipping out and got over myself, I climbed back on and kept trying, kept moving forward instead of turning back, instead of giving up.  I lost my shit, but then I meekly walked around, picked up all the pieces, put them in my pocket and said, okay, let's go.  At some point, the crazy downhilling trail met up with another slippery fire road, and we hopped off there.  And then we made our way back to the real road (asphalt has never felt so good) and then a few miles of river trail, riding that I had the skills to maneuver through quite easily, up and down, over huge roots and dodging rocks and I only walked over one bridge.  By then, I was laughing again, I was happily pushing the pedals and bouncing my way back to town.  
But the feeling that I'm missing, the one I found again on the mountain despite colossally and repeatedly losing my shit, I think it's a feeling that I need to chase.  I haven't figured out, quite yet, what to do with that, or how to think about it, and whether the desire to hunt adrenaline is something I should be feeding with plant food and sunshine and bedtime stories or squashing like a bug.  I do know, and not just because of the picture of the chalkboard that coaches post on their blogs all the damned time, that the magic happens outside of the comfort zone.  Right now, I've had a great year, ups and downs but largely successful, and it means I am fat and happy and square inside mine.  How do I get out?  I don't know.  Ironman for me has never been about speed, it's been about the experience, using swim bike and run to find that feeling, the same one that I get when I stand at the top of the ski slope, in the open door of the airplane with a parachute on my back, staring down the steep singletrack.  I don't know where I need to go or what I need to change to find it, but I think one of the many things that I learned about myself in France (other than how much I can eat in a single day if I really put my mind to it) is that I'm ready to find out.  And the same thing I said a month ago rings true here: may I bring it forth in a motherfucking firestorm.  Lest it destroy me.