Thursday, June 25, 2015

where to even begin...

The weekend that my grandmother passed away, team amazing day was hosting training camp in Boulder.  My third and the largest one yet, and Colorado weather made sure to teach me a good lesson about planning.  Unlike camp in February, where we had cracking 65ยบ weather through the last day when we were treated to a few inches of perfect fluffy snow, this time we got hammered with rain, flooding, hail, snow, thunder, wind.  By the end of the weekend, I think the only workout that we had completed as originally on the schedule was the race.  
Regardless of all of that, I love hosting training camp; to spend time with athletes in person is priceless.  But also to watch how they work through a challenging weekend, to see how they fare and react as the fatigue piles up, I know, your crotch hurts and you’re tired of eating and then a road was closed so everyone got lost, when it stops being easy and fun and starts been plain old hard work, those are special moments and not just because I like torturing people with a bicycle but because I love watching them grow.  And as each athlete has scattered back home, they’ve carried something they learned that weekend with them, whether it’s a little bit of toughness, perspective, a little bit of embracing things that are hard instead of bitching about them on twitter, or maybe even just a little bit of joy in the art of movement as my friend Ron used to say.  There is pleasure in doing things that are really fucking hard, and at camp we did a little bit of that every day (one of my friends doing SAG support said on Monday, I just can’t believe how much crying I saw this weekend and I shared with him the title of the memoir I will write someday which will be called When Girls Are Tired They Cry).  The first day we swam twice to the tune of somewhere between seven and nine thousand yards, the second day we rode up to Ward which for some of the flat-landers would have been enough of a challenge but as the group climbed it started to drizzle and then snow and then hail, and the last person up the mountain was crusted in frozen snow and she won the badass of the weekend award because she lives in a place where two feet of elevation gain is considered a lot.  The third day we did a classic Boulder ride out to Carter Lake, we time-trialed up to the top on exhausted legs and then started a second hard effort coming home not knowing that a road was closed and a detour was set up due to the rain the day before and some of our campers ended up TT’ing as hard as they could in the general direction of Kansas before SAG finally tracked everyone down and got them rolling home.  And then we ran off the bike, to add insult to exhausted injury, but when everyone piled back in my house to eat themselves silly, the talk wasn’t what the fuck did we just do, it was more like, holy shit I can’t believe what I just did.  And that, to me, is the best reason to ever go to a training camp of any sort, every time I have hoisted myself out of my comfort zone to go get my ass kicked for a weekend, I have come home with stories that start out, I had absolutely no idea that I could do that but..., and to be able to pass that along to the awesome group of athletes that showed up in Colorado to train is fucking amazing.  
I ran the Bolder Boulder with one of my best friends, isn't it funny how people wander into your life and poof, can we go ride bikes? turns into powerful friendship.  We went out with a plan that I called let’s run the first mile and see how fast it is and then decide whether or not I’m racing and when we clicked over the mat around 9:00 pace, it was an easy call.  Our day quickly degenerated into laughing and chatting and pointing out crazy costumes and spectators and a woman in her driveway talking loudly on her cellphone and wearing nothing but a very short mink coat.  We stopped for the jello shots, to hug friends at the Doritoes, to take multiple trips down the slip’n’slide, to grab cookies and pretzels and cupcakes and slugs of beer.  When we trotted around the stadium and through the finish, my happily-heel-striking laddered-with-triathlon-tan-lines legs felt fine although my abs hurt from laughing and I realized it had been a short but very welcome respite from the grief that I had been carrying heavily the last two days.
Last year over Memorial Day weekend I had some athletes out to train, a smaller group and much more informal, but doing the same again this year was good for self-reflection on my part as a coach.  What I have learned in the last twelve months is staggering to think about, the coaches that I have been able to work with side-by-side as well as under, the classes and experiences and billions of books and articles and plans, the trainers and therapists and other specialists of the human body that have freely shared their knowledge, I’m fortunate to be able to build my own education in this way.  And certainly I would not be growing if it wasn’t for the stable of athletes that I have partnered with in their own athletic journey, all the people that make me laugh and bang my head on the desk, figuring out patterns and individual periodization and the differences that make each of them tick, what motivates them, what holds them back, celebrating their victories and being someone to lean on while they struggle.  I hate to use the word “blessed” because it is over-abused most particularly in the land of bloggers, but after three years of working, learning, growing, exploring, making mistakes (sorry, you guys), I am certain that for at least this part of my life, this is exactly where I am supposed to be and what I am supposed to be doing.  I can only hope that over the next year I can continue to stuff information into my brain that translates into continually being better at all of the things that make a great coach: a shoulder, a listener, a therapist, personal trainer, technique instructor, support system, a nutritionist, how to take selfies of your ass in stripes along with a tiny bit of writing schedules.
Once camp was over, I immediately boarded a plane back to Pennsylvania to be with my family.  It’s been three weeks since then, and I still haven't figured out how to put words to my grief, not really, not in any way that is adequate.  The first day back in Colorado, I got on my bike.  It wasn’t about the ironman that was ahead, it was simply because no matter what Ariana Huffington says, moving my body is the best form of meditation I have ever found.  I rode a while, mind blank and empty, and I was almost fifty miles from home when the combination of an out-of-alignment bottom bracket that was clicking with each pedal stroke for 2.5 hours and finally giving myself a chance to truly be alone and grieve meant that I ended up sitting in a puddle of spilled OSMO in a ditch just outside of Masonville, crying until I thought my heart would break.  I tried to call for a ride but couldn’t get anyone on the phone so I eventually blew my nose on my armwarmers, scraped myself up off the asphalt, got back in the saddle and soft-pedaled home.  
Numb is probably the best way to describe how I got through the days that followed.  There was no spark, I had no fight, I buried myself in work, I used training as a distraction, looking back I feel like I was bailing on sessions all over the place but the boxes on my schedule show that there were really only a small handful of these.  I told Michelle over and over again that I didn’t care, there was no joy in training, I was going through the motions and nothing more.  I talked to a couple of friends, then, about dropping out of Coeur d’Alene.  A small part of me was worried about the training I had missed that month even though the logical part of my brain knew that was a bit ridiculous as I’ve been training my ass off all year.  But the bigger worry was that I would swim: numb.  Bike: numb.  And then when it was time to run the marathon, the one that needs to be powered by I still care, the one that is all heart, I would have nothing.  That I would leave transition and turn in my chip and walk down to the lake and that would be the end of triathlon for me, maybe forever.  That I would never be able to go back.  Perhaps it sounds completely melodramatic - and I’m not done with that for this post, either - but I spent at least two weeks convinced that I would never care again, not enough, that my fire had burned out.
I kept training, though.  I rode 100 miles one more time - about 30 of those with one of my athletes who was doing final prep for her first 70.3 and was unlucky enough to bump into me at the beginning of her ride when I had nothing to do but cruise.  She asked, don’t you have work of your own to do? and I said quite cheerfully, nope! and hopped on her wheel and coached her through the next two hours of her workout and then pulled around front to let her draft while she cooled down and dropped her without realizing it because I’m an asshole.  I kept riding after she headed home, it was raining pretty good and somewhere in the last few miles I realized, hey…that was kind of fun and now it’s over.  I ran a few miles off the bike, shoveled the contents of the refrigerator in my mouth and went to bed.  The next morning I started my long run at 5am because I really enjoy the cool hours of the morning and Colorado is starting to run out of them.  I sucked down OSMO and listened to Andy Grammer on repeat and blew through calories and all of a sudden I was 13 miles in and it was time to pick up a friend who had offered to join me for the last 7.  I sat on the back bumper of his car and pounded the coke he had brought me and we got going, I warned him, I’m not going to talk to you because I’m out of heart rate and I just want to get this done, so we ran silently down St Vrain and past the airport, in the last 45 minutes I think I stopped three times to bend over and put my hands on my knees and say, I can’t, I can’t do this but then when I got back to my house and it was time to choose between running three hours and running twenty miles, I ran straight past the driveway and around the corner, counting the minutes, six five four until I could turn around and finish.  I never do the thing where I run around in circles waiting for even mileage on my watch but that Sunday morning I did, I ran every step until the split beeped Lap 20 and I was done, I was sore and tired and everything hurt and I was starving but also, I was glad.  I felt a bit like the run was a huge failure because I kept banging into my mental limit but later that week I was emailing with my friend who ran with me and he said, your run was...digging and clawing your way back to the version of you that you want to be.
Taper started, I had one more long ride which left me feeling you think I can hold HOW MANY watts for HOW LONG? which I know is completely normal, I started fussing with getting the race wheels on my bike and rotating in a second pair of run shoes, using the goggles with the dark tint, being precise with nutrition and hydration and calories so the race would be nothing but press play, and somewhere in there I realized that by not deciding anything, I had decided to race.  It had become okay.  I think part of it happened when, after a long weekend of training two weeks out, I realized that my mojo was still crap and I had a good talk with Michelle about what to do about it, a little bit of a shake-you-by-the-shoulders chat that I desperately needed.  I woke up the next day and decided that I was taking the day off and going to do whatever the fuck I wanted to try and get my happy back, and that I was going to blow up instagram in the process.  I took pictures of the foam on my latte, I deadlifted all the way up to 195 pounds after chatting with Erin who works behind the scenes with Michelle to make sure I don’t fall down the steps naked in the dark and wreck the machine she's been building, I did a recovery swim with my GoPro, I had lunch with my best friend, I bought new shoes, I hung out with my puppies, I had a dinner date with the poet and by the time I went to bed that night I felt more like myself than I had for a long time.  It started showing up in training then, finally, I had a couple of good days, but the bad part about starting to care about training again was that I was starting to care about training again and when I went out for my last long-ish training ride, I felt like shit and rolled home into a meltdown that I have now realized is very unfortunately an annoying pattern I have developed.  I got another strongly-worded-but-kind missive from Michelle in which she grounded me from the internet, selfies, worrying, thinking about the race, reading, self-reflection and basically doing anything but mindlessly sitting on my ass, work and a couple of training sessions which I was not allowed to think about or judge until race day.  Which, I grumpily admit now, was exactly what I needed.  
A couple of those days went by and last Saturday I was planning on racing a local open water swim race, 2.4 miles in my wetsuit sounded perfect.  I woke up early, my ride was over nearly as soon as it started which is how most rides feel after how many times I’ve ridden 4-6 hours in the last four months, I chilled out all day, I took a nap, I packed up my bag and was shoveling in some last minute calories when I realized that I was actually excited, happy, nervous, and a little bit scared about going out to race.  It was almost time to go when my dad called.  My grandfather had collapsed at church, he didn’t know anything but they were on their way to the hospital.  I was carpooling over to the race with a friend so we went, my mind racing, and over the next two hours more phone calls rolled in.  He had a massive stroke.  He was paralyzed, he couldn’t talk, he was being medivac’d to another hospital for emergency brain surgery, he scored a 23 on the stroke scale, whatever that means.  Two of my closest friends were there with me and I was so glad to have them both, to sit on the beach in a friend sandwich and feel surrounded by love instead of pacing a hole through my kitchen floor.  And they both said, swim, just get in the water, it will be comforting, you love swimming, it’s okay, and I went as far as getting into my wetsuit and wading out to the first buoy, swinging my arms and trying to smile, but when the gun went off my brain just said, nope, and I turned around and got out.  I handed in my chip and went back to our pile of blankets and clothes and bottles of OSMO and just sat, alone in the crowd, silent, until my friends were done.  Maybe it’s way too personal to be sharing, but I couldn’t imagine racing while so much was unknown.  If I was in that reservoir and I got out and learned that I had been swimming while he was dying, I don’t think that I would ever get back in the water, not for the rest of my life.
My grandfather made it through surgery and to the next morning, but once a day had passed and there had been no improvement, together with my family he made the decision to move into palliative care.  To not live out many more years in a wheelchair, on a feeding tube and a ventilator, but instead to peacefully pass on.  And because of all of this, I am typing up this post on a plane not heading to Spokane, WA to line up for ironman number six but to Philadelphia to say goodbye.  That decision was simple, easy, there was no weighing pros and cons or trying to go and race and then go home next week, I spoke with my parents on Sunday morning and in a few short hours had canceled all the plans I could cancel and booked a ticket home and that was that.

There is nothing to say here, there are no words.  I spent Monday and Tuesday in Boulder, moving my body out of nothing more than comfort and self-medication.  I felt badly every time I bumped into someone who had remembered that I was going to race next weekend and greeted me excitedly with questions about how I was feeling and had to instead share the decision I had made.  I wish there was a way that I could wear a sign that says, WARNING I AM NOT GOING TO COEUR d'ALENE if only to save my friends the little pinch of pain when I had to explain why this race that I had been getting ready for all year no longer mattered at all. 

I have absolutely no idea what is going to come next.  What I do know is that somehow in the middle of all of this, I had the desire to record everything that has happened over the last month, to vomit it out and decorate it with photos to try and take away some of the sting.  This little blog started out as puppy pictures and ass shots and Gu giveaways but its primary purpose over the last several years has been a very public journal of my life.  All the good and bad, the emotional, the journey, my many failures, too many selfies on a moving bicycle, fighting for my own self-worth, all of it, it’s here, it exists in a permanent place and while I wish I had only triumphs and success to report, it wouldn’t be life without sadness, grief, failure.  I couldn’t find the way to type my way through it a few weeks ago, but I wish I had, I wonder if it would have helped me process.  I let myself grieve privately, certainly without restraint, and was held up by all the people in my life who love me, but now it’s less like grief and more like I have been blinded, frozen, numb.  
I was starting to get my spark back, though, and I want to remember that.  I am not making any decisions right now, tentative plans yes, but no hard decisions.  But if I had to guess, I would say that I’ll be on a line again, and sooner rather than later.  As I’ve worked through the last couple of days and dealt with what not racing means, other than well since I’m not racing I might as well lift all the heavy shit I can find and swim 6K at masters and fuck I can ride as hard as I want, I think I’ve found that there’s a little bit of fight left in me.  Maybe it was coming back last week, maybe it wasn’t going to show up until five minutes before the cannon went off Sunday morning, but I think it’s in there.  As we’ve gotten closer to Coeur d’Alene and the internet has launched into a frenzy of overreaction about the temperature on race day - which, to be fair, is predicted to be record-breaking-ly hot - I had a tiny bit of, well, don’t have to fight through that, but was a little bit surprised to realize that the bigger feeling was, damn, I would have liked to stand on the front line of that battle and see what I could do.  To see how well I could manage my hydration and nutrition and effort, to see if the changes I’ve made would make a difference, to see if I could find another finish line, to be surprised by what I had learned when I wheeled my bike back to Wes at the end of the day, covered in salt and OSMO and honey stinger crumbs, and then limped on home.  This weekend isn't for me, I am exactly where I need to be in the world right now, but if all the puzzle pieces fit together the way they need to, there will be another day, another race, another opportunity to go do what I love to do: find out.

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

amazing grace

I had a lot to talk about, a few weeks ago.  My parents came through town, we went shooting, I hosted the biggest training camp yet, ironman training has been different some more, Hunter is getting big and fat, all the normal things of my life.  And then last Sunday, my grandma passed away, and none of that exactly seems to matter right now.

I was up to my neck in camp, crazy weather in Colorado meant that almost every single session on the original schedule got moved or altered due to pouring rain and then snow, I thought I was holding my shit together okay though but I woke up Sunday morning and saw that my mom had called at 3:45am and I knew.  My grandma had been sick for a while, she had Alzheimer's which I know affects a lot of people in a lot of different ways but the disease is disgusting, it steals precious moments from everyone that it touches.  But I don't want to talk about the last two years of her life and how she suffered.  I don't even know what I do want to talk about, but I know that this space is part of how I've processed so many important moments in my life the last five years and I feel that I need to use it now.   For me.  To take a moment and remember.

Grief is a physical manifestation.  It is heavy on my chest, it clogs my throat.  It affects everyone differently, true, but the emotion is the same and I know anyone that has experienced it understands.  It shows up whenever it wants to, grief is like a puppy, it's rude.  It has no manners, no sense of propriety, you can be fine in one moment and the next bent over, unable to support the physical weight of sorrow, folding your heart into your knees, desperate to remain intact.  I wish it could be private, I am a person that does not like showing emotion at all and I am angry by the intrusion that grief brings into my tightly controlled life.

Being home, being around my family, it helped.  The end of a life is the time where all the good that you brought into the world is recalled, and my grandma brought so much.  She loved me, she loved my sister, we were her only grandchildren and there is not a lot that I am certain about but God, I know she loved us.  And we share so many of the same memories, the Slovak lullabies, crocheting backwards, walking on the beach in North Carolina, wrinkling her nose at my mom when she thought she wasn't looking, putting Benadryl in my grandfather's spaghetti, sleeping over Friday nights and getting three donuts - each! - on Saturday mornings.  Against the backdrop of our childhood, she and my grandfather were always there.  Constant.  I know that everyone in my family is hurting right now, but I know that my sister is feeling a lot of the same things that I am, and there is comfort there.  

The last time I saw my grandma and she knew me was when the poet and I flew home for my dad's surprise birthday party about a year and a half ago.  She hugged me, and she called me by my name, and I told her that I loved her that day, I am sure of it.  I talked to her on the phone over the next few months as she deteriorated, sometimes she recognized my voice and we chatted and sometimes she silently handed off the phone to my grandfather, but that was the last time I saw her while she still knew, and I have grieved that day for months.  Over the past year, my family - in particular my mom and my grandfather - has had to make some difficult decisions about her health and how to take care of her, and it has been hard to watch, and to process.  And the last time I was home, the last time I saw her, she was already gone.  Her body was here with us, I believe that somewhere inside she was still fighting, but she wasn't free.  That is what I have said over the past week, while we are all relieved that she is no longer bound to this earth in sickness, we still don't want her to be gone.

A close friend of mine had his dad pass away earlier this spring, and I hope that I am not disrespecting his mourning by mentioning it, but he is a friend that seems to understand what I need.  So many friends have reached out, I am lucky to have so many people in my life that love me, but I don't want to talk to any of them and that, I know, is selfish.  But he seems to understand that what I need is not words of comfort, but someone to sit beside me and simply, quietly, bear witness to my pain.  

I sang at the funeral.  My mom asked me to, and I said yes after rejecting her first request (Ave Maria being impossible to sing well on a normal day, not to mention ten years out of practice).  Probably not many people in my life now are fully aware of my history as a musician, but it exists.  My undergraduate degree is actually in opening my mouth and letting music fall out, it was a huge part of my life when I was young.  And when I stood up at the pulpit I had to close my eyes to even be able to start, because I can't think of a time when I sang in church, even as a tiny little bratty kid, that my grandma wasn't there watching.  It was imperfect, three verses of Amazing Grace felt like an insufficient tribute and I'm not sure how I made it through without falling apart.  I hugged my grandfather, people said nice things about it to me later, they were very kind, but all I could think of was how unfair it is that power in music is so often driven by sorrow.  

I have barely even thought about ironman.  I don't care.  Any movement I have done over the last week or so has been an attempt to be alone, an escape, and the fact that I have been moving my body at all is only a side effect.  To even call it training feels like a joke, I am numb.  Michelle has been supportive and kind, and that has surprised me, not because she is a jerk (she's not) but because I don't understand how to be on the receiving end of compassion, or how to allow myself the same grace.  I am not making any decisions or even asking for advice from anyone about what to do or expect from Coeur d'Alene later this month, but I know one thing is true about ironman.  To get through it, to run that fucking marathon, you need to care a whole lot.  That's what I learned in Arizona last fall.  I still care.  And right now I don't care at all, and I can't imagine what it would take to muster up the energy to do so.  But I am also not expending a great deal of effort worrying about it, or what is going to happen, instead I am simply letting time flow over me.  

I flew home on Saturday night, and I've spent the last few days going through the motions of my life.  I can work, I can do that.  I can take my still-ticking QR to the shop and pick up groceries and fold laundry, I can do these things.  I can show up at masters, ride quietly off the back, and inch by inch feel some stress drop away.  I can go see Charlie with all my first-world problems of my bicycle and my hamstrings and the only moment where I tipped over was when I asked for one more needle in my whatever-spinatus on the back of my shoulder and he asked, how did you hurt this? swimming? and I replied, grief.  Time helps, the days slide by, my friend says chop wood and carry water.  Part of loving people is significantly and deeply feeling their absence, allowing it to be a loss, and the depth of my grief right now is only a testament to how lucky I was to be loved for so long, how lucky we all were.  

In memoriam.