Monday, July 11, 2016

so we can fly

God doesn't take things away to be cruel.  He takes things away to make room for other things.  He takes things away to lighten us.  He takes things away so we can fly. -- Pat Summitt

Everybody has something in life that makes them feel like they can fly.
For me, that moment happens on a bike.  I've been climbing all day.  I'm gritty, sweaty, covered in pollen and asphalt grime, my back hurts and my water bottles are empty; I've almost wiped out a dozen times swinging at the fucking deer flies and I haven't gone faster than walking speed in hours.  Finally, the top comes.  I can slow to a stop, pause, take a bunch of selfies for instagram, swing my leg off my bike and stretch.  Maybe I drink a coke, or eat a cookie or maybe a dozen, or fill my bottles and pee and crack my neck, or maybe I simply hook around in the middle of the road and head back down.  I pick up speed, slowly as first, then faster as I shift into my big chain ring, it feels so good to get my cadence back up over 38, and that, right there, that is the moment.  I push the pedals until I run out of gears, I shift my weight, I lean, I won't even consider touching the brakes but instead I hunker down as low as I can, and I fly.  
To the general dismay of whoever is unfortunate enough to be on my wheel I sing, loudly, the entire way down, across all facets I attack life with mouth wide open, but these are the moments that make me feel like my heart is genuinely about to burst.  I have yet to experience a feeling greater than this, and over the years, I have learned that the one thing guaranteed to ruin this moment is by slamming on the brakes.  Jerking and weaving and skidding, letting fear rip holes in my joy, enduring the descent with gritted teeth and white knuckles instead of succumbing to it, embracing it (probably both of you reading can see where I am going here), is water on the fire.  Flattening out the purest and most honest form of happiness I can feel.
After I crashed my bike (nope, still not done talking about it), I hid in bed for a few days before escaping.  I've realized that I was hiding because my ribs were broken I felt like I had failed.  When I decided to take a big-and-for-real-this-time break from any sort of training, exercise, triathlon thoughts, that felt like giving up.  Like I couldn't hack it anymore, like all the critics that exists both inside my brain and out, were right.  I had asked too much of my body, I had made too many mistakes, and now I had to pay for it by never again being able to do this thing I love so much.  I was tired of fighting so I stopped.  I gave up.  And I hated myself for it.

When athletes come to me for coaching, I have them fill out a long Q&A, as most coaches do.  Through this, I ask them questions about where they have been and where they want to go and what they believe is missing from their current routine.  All of these potential athletes talk to me about wanting to be fitter, faster, healthier, beat that jerk in the next lane over, go longer, race stronger.  And most of them say something along the lines of, I need someone who can kick my ass.
But here's the thing.  When I start working with these athletes, and getting to know them, for the most part, they kick their own asses.  These are high-functioning adults with successful careers that have gotten far in life by having their shit together.  They never miss workouts and when they do, they agonize over what that thirty-minute easy run will do to their ironman seven weeks away.  I never have to say to these athletes, er, pick it up you need to work harder.  That is not what they need; they froth at the mouth for the hard workouts, they wreck themselves beyond belief and then write notes telling me that they want to try again because they think they can find one more watt.  These athletes don't need someone to teach them how to suffer more, when they come to me and write I want to be stronger fitter faster, what they are actually saying is, Katie, teach me to be resilient.
It's tough to discuss resilience, it's become such a buzzword these days (I accept my fair share of the blame for this), especially when paired with vulnerability.  But when I look up a definition of resilience, here what it doesn't say.  It does not say, resilience is never ever ever giving up.  It does not say, resilience is beating yourself into submission and sacrifice all things to reach a goal.  It also does not say, everything went perfectly all the time and I never gave up or struggled or hurt or questioned myself.  What resilience actually is, is the ability to bounce back, to recover, to be elastic.  Resilience is not riding every goddamn wave perfectly.  Resilience is spitting the sand out of your teeth after the wave has plowed you facefirst into the ocean floor and paddling back out to sea.  Resilience is being willing to get knocked down, knowing that you are strong enough to pick yourself up off of the ground.  And in thinking about the key to developing resilience, what I have come up with is this.  As high-functioning, OCD, type-A organized athletes that are accustomed to success, what we don't need is more grit, more pain, more suffering, not always.  We don't need to be taught perseverance - we have spent our lives learning these skills and flawlessly displaying them across our carefully ordered lives.  What we need?  Is a little bit of grace.
I went to Hawaii.  I gave myself space to heal.  I went to Coeur d'Alene, I let the roads and the lake and the air fill me up, revive my fat little sumo wrestler of a soul.  When a friend of mine asked me if I wanted to drive back to Colorado instead of fly, my first response was no.  I have to get home, it's time to be in my routine again, I need to rush through this experience and back into my real life.  But the truth is, I can work from anywhere, and I can respond to emails and write programs and read research while hooked into my iPhone data plan for seven hours on the roads of Montana just as well as I can at my desk.  I had my bike, my bikini, and enough clean clothes, so I said yes.  And the healing continued.  I swam in the hot springs in Montana.  I watched sunset with the friend who I hold personally responsible for my first ironman registration on the lawn of the capital in Salt Lake City.  I saw hot air balloons rise backed by sunrise in Park City.  I spent plenty of time doing nothing but staring out the window, watching the landscape change, breathing.  And all of this?  This entire month which I keep describing as reckless irresponsible wanderlust?  It was actually nothing more than that little bit of grace.  When I landed back in Colorado, I could tell that I had mended, that something deep inside me that was broken for months had started to stitch back together, finally, again.
Not physically, certainly, there are still struggles and work that needs to be done on the body I inhabit and I can tell that it is going to be a long build back towards whatever I decide I'd like to be.  A month of nothing but swimming with sea turtles and taking jumping photos did not magically heal me, I don't believe in that kind of magic anyway.  But I don't need to decide any of that right now.  My soul is soothed.  I am ready to be patient with the healing process, it has been far easier to ride the undulation of the last few weeks of physical work now that my brain feels whole.
Last summer, I got a new tattoo.  When people ask what it means, I usually just say, it's for my grandmother, because that is true.  It is her light.  But that isn't all of it.  It's Marianne Williamson saying, it is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us.  It's the shitty football movie inspirational speech that got me over the finish line of that half marathon over five years ago, when I clung to Al Pacino, the inches we need are everywhere around us.  It's the second time in my life that I've gotten a tattoo at what feels like rock bottom, a reminder, we can stay here and get the shit kicked out of us, or we can fight our way back, into the light.  Maybe fighting doesn't look like what I thought it should.  Maybe instead of suffering through, of never giving up, of pushing as hard as I can, what fighting actually looks like is letting go.  The greatest joy is found when you succumb to the mountain, you don't even think about the brakes, you simply weight your ass down into your saddle and let the world fly around you and apparently I only wear striped pants anymore.
If I had been training for ironman this year, I wouldn't have gone to Hawaii with one of my best friends.  I wouldn't have witnessed her own healing on the top of a mountain in thirty mph winds, I wouldn't have swam with sea turtles or watched so many different kinds of sunsets or done cartwheels on the beach until I collapsed in laughter at my own ineptitude.  I wouldn't have gone to Coeur d'Alene and felt so full, erupting, riding on the roads, remembering so clearly, so fondly, my first trip through that many miles four years ago.  I wouldn't have hopped in the truck and talked non-stop for three days (sorry but to be fair you totally knew what you were getting into), I wouldn't have gone stand-up paddleboarding or to so many baseball games or driven out to Lake Dillon just to have lunch and walk around.  
There would have been no cannonballinng into the hot springs or dancing like your embarrassing uncle Eddie on the streets of Denver or hiking up Sunshine Canyon in flip-flops just to watch the sun set in the wind or getting more than a little bit shitfaced on the fourth of July.  There would have been no riding all the different bikes on all the different rocks and dirt and gravel once I decided to start rolling again on two wheels.  And I wouldn't have missed these things, because my life would have been filled with other joyful moments, but actually, maybe I would have missed all of these things.  This whole year, I have been agonized that ironman had been taken away from me, because that's how it felt, like something was taken, rudely, abruptly, yanked away.  I don't feel like that anymore, not after the last month, not after I let go, because I get it now, that maybe it was taken away to make room for other things.  Instead I finally feel like I have been given a chance to experience so much life that makes my heart full, people and places and probably way too much beer, the chance to learn about myself when I'm not riding my bike 10+ hours a week and living on carefully measured sweet potatoes and bed by 9pm no matter what.  
This year.  It's July.  I haven't ridden one hundred miles or run twenty, I haven't been in the pool 20K+ every week, I haven't done hill repeats or strides or form work or a million banded 50s or videotaped my deadlift or any of the things that have been a normal part of my happiness in the past.  But I have learned the definition of grace.  I have figured out how crucial it is to be able to show love towards someone in the moments they feel like they deserve it the least.  To be able to direct love inwards in the moments I hate myself the most, something we all experience but never discuss, it's ugly, and dark, and disgusting to admit what we feel sometimes when we look in the mirror.  What I needed to heal was not more struggle.  It is not perseverance or toughness or mantras that are why I am still here, why I've laughed more in the last couple of weeks than I have in a long time.  It is grace.