Tuesday, March 29, 2016

it's never a comeback, it's always just life

I have a friend, a good one that I've known since middle school, that posted on the Facebook a few months back looking for a gym buddy after work.  He couldn't find one, so for the last month or so, I've been texting him most afternoons to kick his ass help him stay motivated.  (Hashtag friendship).
At the end of last week, he mentioned that he was going to run a 5K Saturday morning, and that planted a little seed, it woke up a thought in my brain.  I had a really great coffee chat with my friend and trainer and training partner Erin about a month ago when I was trying to sort through all of this.  And she told me, when you feel like you can go out and run a hard 5K, that's when you are ready to start training again.

Things have not been magical superstar unicorns everywhere in the two weeks since the last round of prolotherapy.  I ran ten miles and that was great, true, but there were some days when I rode the trainer for such a small amount of time before bailing that I simply just erased the file without dumping it in my log.  Which, for an OCD Type A nut like myself, is notable.  Despite my massive impatience with my physical body, I was feeling well enough by Friday afternoon that I did some poking around on the internet to find the least expensive way to find out if I could run a little bit hard.  My "race plan" was to start running, see how it felt, and if it wasn't something my body was ready for - and my body has not been shy about this recently - well, I am at least confident that I can run three miles at eleven-minute pace.  And that would be okay, too.
Last week we had the kind of crazy weather that exemplifies spring in Colorado.  Tuesday it was 70 degrees and I ran in shorts and Wednesday morning we got something like 15+ inches of snow.  It cleared up a little bit on Thursday and Friday but we woke up Saturday morning to another 8ish inches.  One of our cars has four-wheel drive, though, so off we went.  We got there early enough that I was able to register and then jog about two miles of the course.  I almost never arrive at races early enough and with my shit together enough to jog the whole course but I was glad that I was able to cover a bit because most of the path around the park was solid ice.  This is going to be a contest of 'he who eats shit the least gets to the finish line the fastest' I told the poet when I made my way back the car.

The last time I pinned on a bib was over four months ago so it's likely unsurprising that I have completely forgotten how to do anything on race morning.  I managed to stop instead of lap my watch multiple times while warming up, I lost my toe tag somewhere in the fifty feet between registering and the car, I forgot to drink my bottle or eat my snack or use my inhaler and I didn't take off my iPod or my long sleeve after warming up and I was nowhere near the start when I heard TWENTY SECONDS RUNNERS! over the little loudspeaker.  I managed to stuff my new toe tag in my shoe and finish pinning my bib on crooked while jogging up to and over the line, laughing, because how am I such a disaster on the morning of a 5K yet ironman unfolds fairly smoothly all the way into the water?
Because of all of this, I went blazing out down the path trying to get around some of the bigger groups that were at the back, and about three minutes went by before I realized that whatever pace I was running at was a) faster than I had run in months and b) a terrible idea.  I hit the brakes a little as we ran off the path and down an icy trail, under a little bridge and then waded through a ditch at least calf-deep with slushy wet heavy snow. 
I saw the poet somewhere around the first mile marker and I think he tried to tell me something (if I'm going to forget to ditch my shuffle I might as well have it on).  I realized that I was running hard and my back wasn't hurting and it felt so good to dig into my lungs a bit.  So I waved at him as I went by, I smiled and gave a thumbs-up, I didn't care about anything other than the fact that I was out there, not in pain, happy.

We slid and tiptoed around the park in the ice, I noticed that I was hungry somewhere in the first mile (please see: forgot to eat my snack), we got to splash through the ditch again and that was about it.  I felt like I could keep running at that pace for a while but that I had no capacity to turn my legs over any faster than I was doing, which makes sense based on the amount of running I've done over HR 140 in the past four months i.e. nearly zero.  When I saw the finish line I sent a message down to my legs forty seconds left let's turn it up which was completely ignored & I ran steady and straight over the line.  I had no idea what my time was or who was around me or anything except I had raced again.  I can try to qualify it with the size of the race (small) or the weather (snowing) or my pace (unremarkable) but there is not a better feeling in the world than to cross the finish feeling thrilled with whatever went down between the lines.  The goal was to run hard if I could and I did.  Check.
The race was small enough that I won my age group (and got thumped soundly by three other women, one of them ten years old), so that was fun although I'm not sure when I will be able to use my free week at the bungee karate gym but I did enjoy my bottle of OSMO the mini Crunch bars as a recovery snack (this whole post should be entitled do as I say NOT AS I DO).  I happily blasted social media with my joy and we stopped to add another pair of running shorts to my closet on our way home, as you do.  Someone sent me a text, something about a comeback and at first I was all F yeah who's the comeback kid I'm ready to go now but later that afternoon I realized, no.  It's not a comeback.  (Comeback to WHAT, anyway?!).  It's never a comeback, I don't want to go back.  It's always just life.  No one over the last 3-4 months has really been able to help me pinpoint what exactly derailed me so badly here, over and over again I have been told sometimes things just happen and there is no reason.  And I want there to be something, a glorious moment of my own spectacular jackassery, so that I can learn from it, so I can avoid it, so I can move forward hopefully a tiny bit smarter than I was before.  
Regardless of all of that, here I am.  It's the end of March.  I am desperately out of shape.  I have gained over ten pounds, I haven't even been back on my bike long enough to be able to be aware of how disastrous my fitness is there, I've done one hundred thousand fucking clamshells but I have not touched a weight in months, let's not even discuss the workout bikini situation, my body does not feel like me, it does not feel like my own.  But I've never been more aware of the fact that I get to decide what to do from here.  I can hang it all up, I can say it's not the right time in my life to chase goals in this sport, I can chuck out this season and take some time off and try again next year, or the year after, or not at all, I could come up with a dozen different really excellent reasons to let the part of me that likes training and racing sit in the backseat for a while.  Except for one thing.  I don't want to.  I don't think it's time for that.  I feel ready.  To take the deep breath, to start looking at the future, and to start working on the little things that have been shelved while the big thing was exploding with fire.  I learn a few years ago that I get to choose.  Nothing changes unless you change.  So no, it's not a comeback.  Don't call it a comeback.  Call it life, and let it be.  

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

the spark is tiny

I flew back to DC to spectate the first race I would be DNS'ing on the year.  I had athletes racing the full and the half, plus one of my closest friends was having a baby shower than weekend so it was great timing for a trip.  
I decided that the morning of the race, I would wake up early and run from where I was staying to the Lincoln Memorial which was mile marker 2/3 of the race.  I jogged up the Mount Vernon Trail that I have run so many times in my life, it made for a slightly squishy and emotional little trek.  The first time that I ever ran more than 8 miles was on that trail, I trained for ironman on that trail, I ran with Graham on that trail when he was young & before he got sick, I ran alone and with friends, I still know every crack in the asphalt and every turn.  My heart rate was low and pace was steady and everything was quiet.
Something I realized a few weeks ago is that training is part of the way that I take care of myself.  It's time that I spend almost entirely alone, in the quiet, decompressing.  Even when I'm working so hard on the bike that I want to puke or blowing send-off after send-off in the pool, I still recognize that I need this time to take care of me before I can do a good job of taking care of anyone else.  I haven't been training much these last few months; what training I've been doing has been holding-my-breath oh-god-what-hurts-now walking-on-eggshells trying to get through sessions without making anything worse.  Which is not exactly stress relief.  So even though getting in a run on race day meant I had to set my alarm for 5-something which was actually 3-something to my poor confused body, it was 100% worth it to have that hour or so of centered quiet, it gave me what I needed to be ON the rest of the day.

I got in about seven miles - at least half a mile doing laps around the Jefferson trying to figure out how I've never peed there before and did not know where the restrooms were - before meeting up with Liz and flipping the switch into race spectator mode.  We saw a few athletes there, barreled across DC to catch them again at mile ten (this is the fastest mile I've ever run with a backpack on! said Liz), then flew down to mile fourteen, where an athlete & very close friend running the marathon was struggling so we hopped right in with her, backpacks and water bottles and too many layers of clothing and all.  And there was no hesitation.  It was the hardest I've run for months and months but being able to do it, even as I turned to Liz and made a silent horrified face because I did not want to shriek out loud, EIGHT MINUTE MILES ARE HOW I AM GOING TO DIE TODAY (so much for heart rate being low), I realized later that it was such a tiny, personal, did-not-matter-at-all-at-the-time not-even-close-to-the-point-of-the-day victory for my body and everything it has been through recently.  
We ran with Allison for a while, then finally our lungs gave out so we hopped on bikeshare bikes to scramble over the river and see her after 20 miles, she was doing much better by then.  I jumped in again with a quarter-mile to go and I half-stepped her the whole way to the finish line, (sorry!) explosively happy for her success but still trying to help her dig, dig a little more, deeper, all the way until she crossed and saw what she had done (huge PR & first BQ).  And at the end of the day I realized: just like that, my spark had been lit.  By her, by all of my athletes that raced; to be there in the face of it, to watch them fight and struggle and then find achievement, I feel like I'm starting to wake up from a deep dark sleep.  Like I might be able to think about the future, to have one as an athlete that goes beyond the success of an hour-long run without pain (Let's see if I can take a selfie of us on the sidewalk with no helmets while moving without spilling my coffee!  The internet will love it!).  
Despite my crazy unplanned spectator interval workout and actually running fairly close to the thirteen miles that I thought was way out of reach of my fitness (27 new records! proclaimed my Garmin when I finally shut it off), I wasn't completely wrecked.  I was sore, so sore that the light pressure of the blanket on my calves woke me up the next morning, but I wasn't in pain.  I spent the rest of my trip catching up with the handful of precious friends that are really the only thing I miss about living in DC, and it is abnormal still, to feel so normal.  This picture makes me think: wow, when did we turn into grown-ups?  
I had a third round of prolotherapy scheduled for once I flew back to Colorado.  Riding high on my successful weekend of not evaporating into dust from running a little bit hard, I cancelled the appointment and then promptly un-cancelled it (at least I am a consistent pain in the ass) after conferring with a trusted physical therapist and also knowing from so much research that the third treatment seems to be the charm.  I'm starting to feel impatient which is how I know I'm starting to feel healthy again, I want to move and run and have fun and go on adventures but logic is always the way to talk me into things so one more round it was.  It's been a setback, although I think a pretty small one.  I took a few days easy, I swam a little bit to get moving and also because somehow I've decided to swim every day this month except for the day I had the actual treatment, but didn't really do much else.  Every single workout started out like they have been for weeks, I'm just going to do ten minutes and see how it goes.  The first few days that was enough, but by the weekend I felt okay enough that my run went from I'm going to run one mile out and one mile back to I'm going to do the three - no the five - mile loop to I'm going to run the ten mile loop I haven't run since probably October.  And it's just about the happiest I have felt in a long, long time.  I don't think there's anything wrong with the fact that training makes me happy, that moving my body feels like freedom.  Not every day is magic but on Sunday morning, the sun was bright and the air was clear, I kept my heart rate in the 130s and every step felt exactly like the step before it and I couldn't believe how quickly I rolled around back home.  Starving, tired, but also, whole.
I love instagram, as ridiculous as that may be.  Sharing photos is my favorite way of sharing my world, it's all golden retrievers and selfies and running shorts, it's nothing special but it's mine.  At some point I realized that when I look back at the photos I've shared over the last three months, there are none where I am smiling.  Until about 2-3 weeks ago, right around the time I really started to be released from chronic pain.  Subtle, maybe, or just insignificant, but another small way that I can see how much happier I am when I can fill my life with all the crap I love.
It has been interesting, both to go through this and to now - hopefully - have the worst of it in the rearview mirror.  I still don't understand how I existed with that much pain for so long, it seems insane to me that people do it all the time, that I did it for even a short time.  I suppose it's like anything else: you do what you need to do to get through each day and onto the next and you don't really think about much else.  It's been good for reflection, as well.  I don't think that a huge amount of my self-worth is tied up in my performance as an athlete.  I couldn't tell you most of my PRs without looking them up except for the time I ran an 18-minute 5K (tiny possibility that the course was short) in a leprechaun hat and that I definitely have been able to hold a handstand for longer than three seconds at some point in my life.  But I do think that part of the happiness that I have found in the world is directly tied to the ability to move my body, to swim bike run.  I'm sure I've said it in the past but goddamn, when you find the thing that you love, the thing that makes your heart explode with joy, for no other reason than existing in the moment?  Then you should move hell and earth and all the mountains and ROAD CLOSED signs in the world to chase it down, you should always put up a fucking fight for whatever it is you love.  That run I did last Sunday, somewhere in the middle miles I looked around and felt breathless with how peaceful, joyful, content I felt.  Lucky.  That simple moment made all the weeks of doctors and pain and unrotating my lower back and cracking my pelvis and how much ibuprofen should one person really consume in a 5-day period and sixty billion bridges and needles and gritting my teeth and breathing through yet another horrifically painful procedure and x-rays and sleepless nights and however many medical providers I have now sobbed all over, worth it. That moment gives me hope.  The spark is tiny.  But it's there.  

Monday, March 21, 2016

chop wood & carry water

For our fifth wedding anniversary slash Christmas slash we never buy each other presents for holidays anyway so whatever, the poet let me buy bought me a fancy new Garmin.
Chop wood and carry water, is how I loosely tied it into our anniversary celebration.  And I'll chalk it up to whatever ironies there are in the world that the day I unboxed it and ran with it for the first time was the last time I would run - or really, exist - without pain, for a while.

I've had to deal with some rather unpleasant work stress these last few months on top of everything else that has been going on with my body.  It was about a month ago when I went out one morning for a short & easy run to shake off the dry needling I'd had done the day before.  Within two minutes, my HR was through the roof.  I stopped and adjusted (spat on) my heart rate monitor, then kept jogging as lightly and easily as I could, and after a few more minutes it was in a range I generally only see in the last mile of a 5K against paces that could really be considered walking.  So I stopped jogging and walked home.  Thinking.  Listening.

I've been here plenty of times in my life, the point where stress has built the pressure inside my body to the boiling point.  And I know all too well what happens when I don't pay attention.  I end up in a ditch after my riding partner rode straight across my stomach, or walking an ironman, or having a complete meltdown because my knife is too dull to cut open the avocado.  It's not pretty.  But every time I end up there, I'm always able to look back and see that, yup, I ignored all the signs.  Something about the universe throwing acorns before it throws bricks and then next it drops a house on you because the universe refuses to be ignored.

This time, I listened.  The first thing to go was the pressure that I was putting on myself to keep "training" while I rehabbed.  Instead of actually evaluating what was going on inside my body and doing what I thought was best each day - which was sometimes, nothing - I was desperately clinging to a schedule, to the hopes that I would still be able to heal quickly enough to race well this spring.  And I can think of more than a few times when I finished workouts despite knowing, deep down in my gut, that I should have shut it down.  Returning from injury is the time when being a type-A OCD rule-follower will really just bite you in the ass.  But I make mistakes, I'm stubborn, and I'm human (and apparently only take pictures of the top of my head).
So I let it go.  Training as a whole.  My spring races.  Ironman, this whole year, if need be.  All of it.  I've been saying through these last few months that I don't care about racing, that I just want to be healthy again, but I still had those races niggling in the back of my mind.  And I needed to finally, honestly, release that.  Take it off my plate completely.  Maybe it will get added back on, maybe not, but desperation is never a good rehab strategy.  I knew as soon as I did it that it was the right thing to do.  There will always be more races, and more training schedules, and more boxes to turn green, but that's not what I need right now.

A couple of days later, I went down to Denver with a friend who was going to look at new bikes.  I only went for fun and moral support, but the poet knew, he said before I left, this is like when we go and meet the puppy just to see if we like him.  I spent the afternoon happily harassing Liz and James (who are awesome) at TriBella, laughing at Emily trying on all the bike capris and no one was surprised when I called later that day to ask detailed questions about moving my components and my power meter and my aerobars from my current bike over to a new frame.  And none of my friends pointed out the relative stupidity of buying a new bike when I can currently ride about thirty minutes max at ninety watts which is why, friends are good.
But what felt even better than buying a new bike (side note: selling a brand-new 2016 QR cd.01 frame for cheap if anyone is looking...) was spending an afternoon away from all the shit in my life.  Even now, looking at these pictures, I can see how much the stress was dragging on me, how much I needed some light.  Certainly this is expert-level rationalization but for whatever reason, buying a new bike felt like a fresh start.  Starting over, clean.  James was a wizard at moving over all my components and I got in with Charlie for a fit a few days later and it simply feels good.  Like maybe it's okay to try something new and different, maybe it's okay for everything to always be changing (more top of head).
Since I set myself free from a schedule, I've been careful (accidentally killing myself when left to my own devices the biggest concern here).  I've been swimming every day.  It's mostly pulling because kicking irritates my SI joint, but I've been building up the no-toys swim very incrementally and who ever would have guessed that I'd get tired of pulling but goddamn if it doesn't feel good to swim with only my body when I do.  I've erred on the side of extreme caution with the bike, as that is what tends to set me back the most.  I've gotten out here and there for a few short and easy rides with friends, I've done a tiny bit of work on the trainer where I can bail if needed, and for the most part every time I pull on my bibs I am telling myself, I will not ride through even the smallest amount of pain.  My goal with everything right now is to finish a session feeling like I could have done more, like I can repeat this tomorrow.
Per the advice of a great physical therapist, I've been keeping the runs short, frequent, aerobic.  My "long run" was four miles, then six, then one morning I ran eight miles in ten-minute out-and-back segments because I wasn't sure how long I would be able to jog and didn't want to get stranded three miles from home like I did in January (I'm sure my neighbors think I am nuts by now).  The poet is used to hearing me say, I'm going running and I'll be back somewhere between five and sixty minutes as I head out the garage door.  I'm doing lots of stability work in the gym, I'm roping my eating habits back into a more normal space (stupid dried mango), and I'm not thinking much further ahead than that.
And letting this pressure ease, I'm still confident it was the right decision.  I'm sure that I will turn back around at some point, that I'll start chasing watts and pace and races again, because there is joy there too, but right now I'm content with the simple ability to move my body in the absence of pain.  For right now?  It is enough.