Monday, August 29, 2016

to make room for other things

It seems impossible to try and explain how I went from a month off to an ironman in about three and a half weeks without sounding completely off my rocker.  But writing it down is important for me and I'm sure both of the internet denizens that may still read this blog already understand that I am nuts so off we go and fuck yeah let's kick things off with a selfie and definitely one where there is something in my teeth that I'm not going to bother to photoshop out.
There was no master plan here, this summer, at any point.  When I crashed my bike and started hopping on planes, there were no thoughts in my head about races.  I had a little bit of the tantrum-y I am never going to race ever again! going on (ah, the dramatics of the human experience).  I was signed up for IM Boulder, yes.  I wanted a chance to go back and have a different experience than the one I had last August.  But after I went down in June, I realized that there was no way that I was going to be ready to complete the race, and intentionally DNF'ing or using it as a training day did not sit well with me.  So I transferred the registration forward into IM Coeur d'Alene as I was planning to be there for race support, thinking that I would swim and then spectate and enjoy the day.  And that was, quite honestly, all that I thought about that.

But then I went to Coeur d'Alene.  It was the first time I had been back since 2012.  I can't explain it, although I'll certainly use 7000 words to try, but being there, in the town, on the roads, it felt like magic, it felt like balm on my exhausted, banged-up frayed disaster of a triathlon-specific soul (hopefully that was enough words).  I went out the first day to do a shake-out ride with my athletes and I literally could not stop smiling.  Noodling along at 70 watts with the biggest shit-eating grin in the world, remembering - and laughing, more a little - at all the incredible memories of my first time through ironman four years ago.  Reflecting on everything that has happened since then, so many ways my life has changed.  And it may sound vomity-in-the-back-of-the-throat, but on Saturday afternoon I stopped in the middle of a short easy ride and laid in the grass next to the lake and stared up at the clouds and felt peace.  Healing, yes.  But also like maybe I didn't need to fight anymore.  
That trip, something about it changed me.  I can't put my finger on exactly what it was, but I came home feeling different.  It was as if I had finally gotten back in sync with a universe that I still do believe wants the best for me.  My physical body was still not quite ready; in CdA, I rode a couple of times and ran for fifteen minutes - the first anything I had done since I crashed.  And it wasn't great.  My back hurt, my hips hurt, my ribs ached.  So I took the long way home, I jumped in the hot springs instead of back into training and that was the right thing to do: to wait, to accept, to breathe.
It was the next week when things started to change.  I believe in a ton of hippie crap, everyone knows that, but it's too much of a coincidence that I spent a long weekend in Coeur d'Alene feeling joy and peace and about a week later my physical body calmed.  I went to see one of my favorite physical therapists; I had come up with an idea about how the problem wasn't originating in my back but instead in my hip.  I asked him to treat my hip and just generally blast me with one of the 200-dry-needles-everywhere sessions that leave both of us dripping with sweat and the room ringing with the word fuck.  He complied, I think only because I've responded so well in the past to these sessions (and not because dry needling is MTV TRL).  We chatted while he worked, our conversation led to a discussion about what I had been doing in the gym (nothing, because every smart person in the world told me to get out of the weight room as soon as I got injured and I agreed).  As we talked, we wondered together, what would happen if I got back in the gym?  He knows and has always supported how much time I spend in the weight room as a triathlete, and agrees that it has been a significant piece of staying healthy the last 2+ years.  I think his exact words on the subject were something along the lines of, nothing else has fucking fixed you so why not give this a try?
Two days later, I did a carefully-executed strength session in the weight room, the first one touching actual weights since maybe last December.  I didn't ask anyone for input, I went to the gym at a time when I knew it would be empty and quiet so I could take selfies and simply worked through exactly what felt best for my body.  That is notable only because I've spent so much time with so many world-class coaches and trainers, trying to absorb and integrate everything they have to teach, but when it came down to it, I'm on the inside and there will be moments when I know better than anyone watching exactly what it is I need.  And when I left the gym, I just knew.  I could tell.  My body felt solid in a way it hadn't in months.  Since that day, my back pain has been completely gone.  I went back to that PT a week later for another blast at my hips and while he worked he shook his head and said, it's a goddamn miracle.  It's crazy that the solution was so simple, but also, maybe it wasn't, and that's what I believe.  Maybe I needed to find my mojo, to heal on the inside, to spend time with people and places and set myself free, and then once I had given myself space, it makes sense that the physical body would follow.  No one else has to believe my spiritual crap, I'm a scientist at heart, a mathematician, and even typing it makes me roll my eyes at myself.  But that's how it happened, that's the story of how I healed.  
So.  With few exceptions (sea turtles), I took four weeks completely off.  The first week "back to training" had five hours of training in it, and it wasn't training, it was the easiest movement I could do and probably at least half of that was swimming and, looking back, that week ended 7 weeks out from ironman.  But I wasn't thinking about ironman then.  I was beyond thrilled to be out of pain, the ability to ride my bike and be happy was occupying any space devoted towards training in my head and there were no thoughts more complex than that.  Another week went by, I hopped on the say yes training plan which meant that whoever asked me to go and ride or swim got a Yes! from me.  
I kept traveling and drinking beer and riding my bike all over the fucking everywhere.  I went out to Copper to get dropped in four seconds by a professional triathlete ride with a friend that came into town, I spent half a day pushing my mountain bike over rocks at Buffalo Creek, I started meeting one of my best friends for short easy morning jogs where we spent half the time complaining about our pace and the other half our sky-high heart rates, I went to Kansas for two days to remember what humidity is like.  And I thought about my time in Coeur d'Alene.  The way the town made me feel.  The Pat Summitt quote I shared, about how things aren't taken away to be cruel but to make room for other things.  Somewhere in this mishmash of euphoria over being able to move again and self-discovery and living a life of wild tiny adventure, the thought rose to the surface that maybe, just maybe, I could attempt the full ironman.  It came about in thinking about the cyclic nature of the universe, and how last year I was supposed to race IMCdA but instead raced IM Boulder so what if this year my journey was that I was not supposed to race IM Boulder but instead I was meant to go back and race IMCdA, to finish what I chose not to start out of grief?  Maybe that is the room for other things?  And, as things do, once the idea was there, I couldn't shake it, despite how ridiculous I know that it was.  I kept riding, and running, and getting the shit beat out of my hips, and finally one Tuesday morning I went out for a ride, and I was tired, and I spent about an hour mentally going, should I or shouldn't I? and that when when I knew it was time to ask someone else to write the parade.  So I sent Liz an email like thIs:
We talked on the phone for only a few minutes later that day, me chattering ninety miles a minute trying to not take up any more of her time than necessary as she had a new tiny human in the world and I just had an insane and maybe quite stupid idea.  I tried to explain about how I was supposed to do this race last year and my grandfather had a stroke and then I pushed forward into Boulder and that was a colossal grief-saturated meltdown and then this year I was signed up for Boulder and after six months of injury and a bike crash I pushed that one forward into IMCdA and maybe yup it's beyond insane but I wanted to do this in honor of my grandparents.  In honor of two people who always wanted the best for me, who made their life together out of hard work and sacrifice and wanted nothing more than the happiness of the people they loved.  And I know it may sound ridiculous, completing an ironman is a really bizarre way to honor and remember people who have passed away, it's such a small thing, a selfish thing, but it was powerful to me and once the idea got its teeth into me, all I knew was that I wanted to try, to do this tiny thing that would somehow say, I knew.  We all knew, how loved we were.  So Liz told me, with all the caution of a seasoned coach slightly backed into a corner by an overly emotional triathlete, well, let's just see how it goes and less than four weeks out, I started(ish) to train.
And, not to take anything away from her masterful ability as a coach but nothing she did to me was that much of a surprise.  I decided that since travel and drinking beer and riding my bike anywhere I could drag it was some sort of key to my happiness and healing and I needed to keep doing it, and she worked with the hot mess of scheduling that was my life for these weeks.  The day that I woke up at 4am so I could ride 100 miles - about 70 of them on loose gravel which brought about the first ironman-bike-meltdown I've had in several years - before hopping a plane to San Francisco to spend a weekend with friends and handing people sponges for a little while at Vineman.  Or when I decided to spend a few days in Lake Tahoe riding as part of the say yes plan, or trying to fit a big weekend of training around supporting and volunteering at IM Boulder, and then not banging her head on the wall in dismay when I came down with strep throat ten days out (thanks to all the bike-touching in T2 at IM Boulder, I am certain).  Not to mention dealing with the instability of a veteran ironman athlete experiencing the slight anxiety of panic-training for a distance that includes an incredible amount of suffering even when impeccably prepared.  It wasn't easy - training for ironman never is - but the fatigue was familiar and comforting, I know it well and that made it easier to simply ride the wave.  
There were a lot of things I didn't do, in these weeks.  I didn't get on the scale, holy shit would that have been a terrible idea.  I'm highly aware of what it would tell me based on how I've been living my life for the last eight months and I knew that there was zero helpful information it could provide three weeks before an ironman (other than maybe it would be a good idea to buy a new tri kit which race photos have now confirmed).  I didn't take these 3.5 weeks to try and "clean up" my eating: I eat plenty of plants but I also have spent the summer having plenty of cocktails on the patio and eating plenty of not-plants.  I kept lifting, trying my best to drop those sessions in where they would wreck me the least but feeling connected to the idea that it was a big part of how my body was responding.  I didn't shut down all the traveling but instead let training flow around it and if my longest long run only got to 12.3 miles (ooof, but also, hooray!) because I flew to California for a few days then so be it.  Because whatever I was doing in the month of July was working.  I was healing, I was starting to feel strong again and I didn't want to upset the apple cart by trying to lose fifteen five pounds or make sure my macros were perfectly balanced or say no to the IPA of the month.  God-willing, there will be another ironman in my future where I may decide to return to these things, but if I did one thing right this time around, it was to feed my body richly with food and experiences alike.  I didn't obsess about watts or pace.  I watched, certainly, because I'm a math nerd consumed with the process, but I never came home stomping my foot because of how much heart rate it had cost to hit a certain pace; I'm not sure I even looked at pace on the run, really, for these weeks.  
I rode the living shit out of my bike, mainly by heart rate and effort which is different than the glued-to-the-power-meter experience of the last two years and I think was absolutely the right call.  My swim didn't have a chance to make it into the depth I needed to come around and I didn't care, and I could feel that my run was very slowly inching back towards normal but I knew it wouldn't make it there in time for the race and that didn't matter either.  At no point in time did I have any goals for this race other than to see how far I could get.  No secret goals - God almighty if I have learned one thing from all these years of coaching it's that nothing destroys a race faster than secret goals.  Finishing was not a goal.  I wanted nothing more than to see how far I could get.  To go until I couldn't go anymore.  And then, I knew, I would think about my grandparents, and how much they meant to me, and maybe, just maybe, with a little bit of luck and a whole lot of stubbornness, I could do the whole fucking thing. 

Lately I've seen it thrown around quite a bit - find your why.  And I had my why.  I know that in ironman, at the end of the day, it's rarely that we reach our physical limits - I certainly don't think I have ever experienced this.  It's our mental limits that slow us down (or only consuming three ounces of fluid and a single cracker on the bike).  I know that if I could dig down and hold onto the really formidable reason that I wanted to do this race - for me - then all the other little stuff would just fall away.  That anything, really, other than running a 3:30 off the bike, could be possible.
Four days before the race, as I took my antibiotics and gave my tri kit a very terrifying stink eye and commanded it to grow three sizes larger, I had a conversation with someone about how I would feel if I finished, or didn't.  And I realized that it wasn't about the finish, not entirely, but more about the fact that I felt confident enough to start.  When I crossed the finish line at New Orleans in April, it was the first thing out of my mouth, there is NO WAY I could attempt an ironman right now.  I was still too injured, my fitness wasn't there, my body wasn't there.  And how I felt during race week was the complete opposite of that.  I knew I wasn't even close to as physically prepared as I have been in the past, I knew it might take every single second of those 17 hours to get to the finish line, but I felt healthy, strong enough to start.  I had no expectation for a finish - and honestly, the truth about ironman is that no one should ever expect a finish, the day is too long and too hard - but I felt physically and mentally prepared to try.

I went back to masters swim on Monday morning, six days before the race, which never fails to refill my happiness tank.  I got my toenails painted with my athletes, I flew to Coeur d'Alene.  I kept working, I tried to interrupt life as little as possible and take care of my athletes racing mainly by forcing them to nap.  And I could sense it, the happiness of getting ready to race, buzzing under the surface of my normal life.  I rode the short leg of the bike course and felt again, the incredible magic of the town, another set of stolen lyrics, my heart is pumping up so big that it could burst.  (Speaking of big).
I stayed out of the circus that surrounds the ironman village, I snuck in and out of check-in, I swam in the pool instead of attending the practice swims, I did my shakeout sessions early in the morning before the rest of the house was even awake.  I packed my bags, I checked in my bike, I ate a giant pile of white food and I set my alarm.  And I felt ready, as ready as I could be.  To try.