Friday, October 14, 2016

to chase excellence

I read a lot.  

I always have, I learned how when I was about eleven minutes old.  There's a tale I tell about the first time I ever got in trouble at school; it was for reading books under my desk instead of paying attention in class because I had already read the entire textbook.  For most of fifth grade, my backpack was checked at home before I left in the morning then searched again by my teacher to make sure I wasn't sneaking any books into school; I am, above all other things, the original nerd.
I still read just as much as I did as a kid, I consider it one of the pillars of my own continuing education as a coach.  There are plenty of blogs out there that I read regularly and Jordan Rapp is high up on the list at least in part because I get the sense through his writing that my brain works a little bit like his does.  Detached, scientific, thorough, meticulous, compartmentalization level: expert (he fortunately seems to be missing the piece that makes him Exorcist-style power-vomit emotional garbage all over the internet).  Something in his writing consistently either makes me think hard, usually while staring out of the window blankly at nothing, or it teaches me something, both of which I appreciate.  He wrote weekly leading up to Kona, and in his final pre-race post when discussing the idea of kaizen, improvement, he wrote:

"Mark Allen, who I believe unquestionably to be the greatest triathlete and one of the greatest endurance athletes of all time had this to say after he finally broke through to win in Kona.

In my failures, I saw the darkest part of myself, where I was weak, where expectations did not meet reality. Until you face your fears, you don't move to the other side, where you find the power.

In this idea, I find one of the truest expressions of kaizen; it's hard to imagine a greater improvement than a move to "the other side," away from fear. The best part - and the hardest part - of racing is that you are truly accountable. You are accountable to your process. To your decisions. And to your outcome. That's why it's so easy to be afraid. But real opportunity is a rare and special thing. It is scary. But I am not afraid."

I'm on the couch in my fuzzy pajama pants and a hoodie that dates back to 2001, one of the oft-touted pros of working both for yourself and from home.  It is October 12.  This morning, I ran fourteen miles.  According to my training log, the last time I ran this distance or further, other than that pesky ill-advised ironman in August (or the more highly advised one last November), was November 8, 2015.  Nearly a year.  And I note it, not to brag (humble or otherwise) about training, but more because to me it is another quiet indicator in a long line of nearly-silent signs that I have returned to myself.  The run was not particularly fast but it was effortless.  It's been so long since I ran that loop that I couldn't remember which right turn onto which dirt road would deposit me back on my door step in the correct amount of time, my eating-and-drinking-while-moving skills are creaky with disuse, my music was too loud because I'm not used to running with it and left my ears ringing for hours afterwards.  But it was work.  I am doing work again, not just cautiously jogging with every internal dial turned up to 11 waiting for something to break down.  It is unremarkable, the simple pleasure of stacking up day after day after day of consistent, patient, training.  And it is my joy.
Some may describe it as fascination, obsession, addiction, but it is none of those things, or maybe it is all of those things.  Maybe those are the keys to mastery, maybe those are the hallmarks of simply letting time pass around dedication to a singular focus.  I chose triathlon.  Ironman.  On the surface, it's silly - swim bike run, tiny clothing, terrible hair, all the eating and drinking and dealing with your body violently opposing that much exercise for so many hours in a row.  I have the perspective to see that it is a hobby, not some noble pursuit; I am not saving the world, I am just trying to crack 1:10 in a 100 and see something other than an 11 on my watch again not to mention maybe just a few of my abs.  The root of it is not at all that I dreamed my entire life of being a triathlete.  I don't have heroes in the sport, although there are certainly many athletes that I view with a great deal of respect.  I don't secretly dream about racing professionally, I don't even dream about qualifying for Kona or breaking the tape - those are good dreams, valid dreams, but they are not mine.  
I train the way I do because I want something in my life that embodies greatness.  It could have been anything, I could have started riding horses, or kept playing the horn, or finished a PhD, or learned how to be the best goddamn electrician in the state of Virginia.  For whatever reason, it's triathlon.  My heart is here.  That's why I continue to come back, and it has nothing to do with racing and everything to do with the raw purity of athleticism, the taste of blood in my throat when I'm chasing watts sixteen minutes into twenty, the shakiness of my quads at the end of a timed 200, the naked feeling of looking down at my watch during a hard run to see that I am doing it you are doing it just hold on hold on hold on.  The deep breath, in and out, before I settle my hands, stack my back, and close my eyes for just a moment as I root down into my core and lift.  

Because I want to be excellent.  In the world, compared to nobody-but-myself, I want to feel like I am constantly working to improve my life across every facet.  If you asked me what I am thinking about when I run fourteen miles, I would tell you that it's about 10% writing schedules and dreaming up swim jackassery, 2% how mad I am about that guy that flipped me off when I had the right of way!, 8% what I am going to eat as soon as I am done running and 80% how my right foot is landing on the ground.  Where my left foot is pointing when I swing through, what my arms are doing, if my chin is tucked and my shoulders and back and my hips are square and my core is drawn in and if I am PRESSING the ground away from my toes.  It's the same in the water, it's the same on the bike, two years ago Charlie impressed on me the importance of the position of my foot in the pedal stroke against the knee injury I was fighting and I spent six weeks on the trainer watching my foot in the mirror.  To this day, not a bike ride does not go by without focusing on this, thinking up the chain, into the glutes, what is my back doing, what are my shoulders doing, where is the power coming from, what needs to relax, what needs to have tension.  In the water it's all hands and width and lats and belly button and chin and press.  Is it completely beyond boring?  Yes, OMG LOLZ YAWN.  But it is part of how I chase improvement.  And maybe it is not so important to understand why I choose to chase it in this way but simply to understand that I want to chase it at all.

Ironman Boulder, over a year ago, felt like a race of infinite opportunity.  Physically, I was bulletproof.  I have never been so fit, never been as prepared across the board, never had such a day held out in front of me to be plucked: my roads, my home, my race.  But my mental armor was in shreds, grief at the root over the loss of my grandparents, yes, I've been over and over that, yes yes yes it's all true. However, what is also true is that I lost my nerve.  Grief is the quick excuse, grief is what opens the door to, I could have, if only...  Grief makes it easy to write off what happened that day as an outlier, but without grief, it may have unfolded the same way.  Since then, I have yet to again be faced with the same kind of race and real opportunity that was in front of me that day.  It was scary.  It still is.
I'm not sure when or where or if I will ever have another chance like that one, it is still far too early in what I am trying to rebuild to really think about racing again.  Another signed-up-a-year-ago event will go by this weekend because I recognize that I am not ready.  I participated in Coeur d'Alene for a reason that was powerful to me, but that's all it was, participating.  Even in Cozumel, last winter, in the teardown of the race afterwards I recognized the decisions I had made to protect myself and deliver what I needed from the day.  And I recognize now that if I continue to chase excellence in sport, that what I am really chasing is the choice, the chance, to once again face that rare and real opportunity.  To face the darkest parts of myself that appear, there.

October 12th (more likely the 18th by the time I hit publish).  It is the time of year where most athletes are taking their post-season breaks and racing beer miles or cross or taking on challenges like I wonder how many Halloween Oreos I can fit in my mouth at one time.  My body feels like January 23rd.  The rhythm is rusty, what my body can put out right now in terms of speed or pace or watts or weights is not where I want to be.  But I am no longer concerned with where I used to be.  It doesn't matter what I did or did not do in 2014, other than to learn from it, to seek improvement. (My own personal record with the Oreos is 6).  What matters is where I'd like to go.  And what is lucky about athletics is that we always have the opportunity to begin, over and over and over again.  
Real opportunity is a rare and special thing.  Unlike Jordan, I am afraid.  It's scary.  There is risk involved, I could get injured again, or worse, I could stay strong and healthy and the next time I am lucky enough to face all of my bullshit, I could again lose my nerve.  I could fail.  But if my intention is to chase excellence, then this the way I choose to move forward.  Coaches say it all the time: Commit.  Believe.  And keep going.  

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

our most generous eyes

Every year I write a blog post for my birthday.  It’s yet another gleaming moment of self-absorption, I suppose, I made it around the sun one more time so let’s sit down and pound on the keyboard about it for a while. Vanity, thy name is blogger, has everyone else seen how cute my belly button is?  But it is never so much about the post as it is about the very personal reflection that occurs in the weeks that precede it.  Some years it is so easy to crap out the memories, some years it is nothing more than a gleeful description of the life I am lucky to live, and some years it is 11:45 at night and I can’t sleep because I had too many glasses of red wine at dinner with friends and there are only fifteen minutes left in my actual birthday when I spring out of bed and speed-write something in the dark, on the couch with my laptop propped up on the knees of my snowflake sweatpants, wearing my 18-year-old glasses and squinting in the glow of the screen.

I look back at last year’s post where I spent time reflecting on the struggle, and I want to give my turning-35-years-old self a hug (or a plane ticket to Fiji because seriously get the fuck out of there before more shit goes sideways).  I had no idea how much harder life was about to get.  I had no idea that my rainy season was only just beginning.
Dealing with injury - pain - wiped out so much joy from the first half of this year.  I had goals, dreams, stupid shit I wanted to chase in the name of my own journey, and it all got shelved when my physical body collapsed.  It isn’t - it wasn't - about not being able to race; to be perfectly honest racing is the last piece of triathlon that I care about.  I was stripped of the ability to move within my physical body and by extension, to take care of my own well-being (and let the emotional vomiting begin).  In injury, I struggled.  But coming out of injury, I struggled more.  I didn't know how to find my footing again.  I felt broken.  So I left Colorado, I went on adventure after adventure after adventure, but really, I was escaping, fleeing, searching.  Lost.
I think I needed this summer of travel, I recently wrote in a letter, to have the opportunity to look at life differently.  To see how my experience could be different, to breathe and explore and try to figure out what was missing from my regularly-scheduled-and-truly-quite-amazing world.  I am lucky, I know that.  I’m lucky that I have that kind of life that allows me to work anywhere, to get in the truck or on the plane and head north or south or west with my laptop and my bicycle and my bikini and a dozen pairs of running shorts.  I was lost, yes.  And in ways, all the traveling made it worse before it got better (just like dry needling!).  It made me feel as if I needed to leave, to evict myself from my life, in order to find happiness.  I found plenty, that is true, but I also finally reached a point on my most recent travels when I realized that perspective follows me everywhere.  I am the person that I am, I must be my own adventure, and my happiness or sorrow or fear or anger or joy is not something I can leave behind.
Elizabeth Gilbert said it quite cleanly:

“Listen, we’re not always in control of our fate — and that is a fact.  You may be robbed or you may be blessed (or some combination of the two, most likely), but that’s not really the point.  The point is: If you feel like you’re constantly being robbed, then you live in a world that’s all about constantly being robbed.  And if you feel like you’re constantly being blessed, then you live in a world that’s all about constantly being blessed.  What we usually see when we interpret our lives is nothing but ourselves — as the truth gets screened through a thousand-layer filter composed of all our weirdness and wonderfulness.

If we try to see things with the most generous eyes — searching for the truth, yes, but then bestowing upon that truth the brightest and kindest interpretation — we can learn how to perceive a more beautiful world.  Do that, and I promise you this: You will get to live in one.”
 
I want to live in a world where I feel like I am constantly being blessed.  I have lived in this world before, but I spent time this year feeling like I was constantly being robbed, and that is what needs to change.  If I have learned one thing recently, it is about what I value.  In my life, my choices, and in the people that I choose to let surround me.  Time and time again, I have been faced with decisions that boil down to a question of integrity.  And I have learned that I value integrity in relationships more than any single other quality, and I learned that the hard way, by those fractured by a lack of it.  There were times when it was easy to simply step away and there were times when I became trapped by my own inability to give up, but in the end, the result is the same.
It is simple.  I want to grow.  I never want to be the smartest person in any room; I'd actually prefer to be the dumbest because that is the environment that will stretch me the most, no matter how uncomfortable that room may become.  I want to learn from my mistakes, I want to be reminded of my shortcomings, I want to never forget my failures because in forgetting I am guaranteed to repeat.  I want people in my life who are similarly-minded, who understand that sometimes decisions need to be made that are difficult, that feel intolerable, impossible; people that value the same strength of character, loyalty, hard work as I do.  Integrity.  Life is messy.  It is never black and white, it is rarely clean, but it is so very honest.  Over and over again, I saw this show up in my year.  If you wish to wait until everything is perfect to take a step forward, to make the leap of faith, then you are destined to spend your entire life waiting.  Never diving, plunging, growing.  And goddamn if I will go to my grave with an effigy that translates to, if only.  I am not interested in standing still, I am not interested in the past, I am not interested in hearing about who you used to be.  I want to hear who you are now, where you are going, what you are building, who you want to be.  I have never been more acutely aware than I am right at this moment that we only get one shot at this.  One time around.  There are no do-overs, we only get this opportunity to be alive, and I refuse to waste time being paralyzed; I want, as Elizabeth said, to learn how to perceive a more beautiful world (with my mouth wide open, natch).
That’s what my year boils down to, I have learned an incredible amount about myself and some of it only in the last few days.  What is important to me, where I will not bend.  I know that some of my values make me a difficult person to spend time around, although I suppose that is true of every single human walking the planet.  I am loud, at this very moment I am dancing in my desk chair and belting out I WISH I COULD SAVE YOU right up there with Kelly Clarkson and it keeps scaring the shit out of my dogs.  I am opinionated, a little bit bossy, I hate being wrong although I spend half my life explaining to people how much I still do not know, I talk too much and too fast and sarcasm is my main method of communication.  I accidentally offend people on a regular basis especially when I'm feeling uncomfortable, I use WAY too many commas and I can't seem to send less than four text messages at once and if you get your birthday card in the same calendar year as your actual birthday then I consider that a success.  I have to swim almost every day (to the chagrin of possibly every coach I have ever had) or I am climbing the walls, my favorite word is fuck and I have horrified far too many mothers with how much I use it, I arrange my running shorts in order of color and take pictures of them, I have absolutely no subtlety.  And I am the most stubborn motherfucker on the planet; when I am pissed off I shut down, cold as ice and unyielding and it requires fifty thousand sticks of dynamite to break it through.  It takes a lot to get me truly angry and I mean a LOT, but when I am, I know that it feels like standing in the whirl of a hurricane, screaming down the side of the mountain, the parachute that did not open, the face of the fire.
But that is not all of who I am.  I have a big heart.  Huge, it may actually be a flaw, I never give up on people, my capacity for forgiveness is enormous and I learned that about myself again this year.  I want to save everyone: from the world, from pain, from themselves.  I am fiercely loyal to the friendships and relationships in my life, I may fail to return your 87 phone calls but when you need help chopping up the body into tiny pieces and distributing it amongst the dumpsters of southern Alabama, I will be on the first fucking flight and will spend the entire time yelling at the pilot to go faster.  I might curse like a sailor but in your worst moments, I will still see you with my most generous eyes, I will sit beside you, I will not judge and I will treat you with exquisite gentleness.  With grace.  I believe in people when they do not believe in themselves, I can see the best deep inside their shell, under the bluster and the cool cat and the bullshit, and I have made an entire career out of excavating the brilliance of an individual, loosely disguised by swim bike run.  No one will ever fight harder for you that I will, I will be the captain of your corner and when you try and thank me I will blow it off with a no big deal but that isn't true, it is the biggest fucking deal there is.  I am determined, I refuse to accept that the universe will not always bend to my desire, I will throw myself fully and completely off of any passionate ledge, I will remind you that your heart is no good to you in perfect and pristine condition, rip it out and whip it at the sky and let it be used, damaged, stomped on.  Because it will heal if you let it, I am living proof of that.  It will.
This year, and who ever knew that I would grow into this person.  I have loved my journey through sport, but maybe I can find a way to appreciate that my journey has continued on even without it.  There was so little triathlon in my life, and for a while, I allowed that to devastate me.  To rob me.  I raced not at all; I participated a few times, once for a very good reason, but I did not accomplish any of the things on my post-it note of scribbled goals, hopes, ideas.  That's how life goes sometimes.  Right now, it is October.  My favorite month of the year, when the backdrop to my riding changes radically day to day; the nights cool off and the dark beers come back along with the blasting wind, the hoodies come out and I shiver in my running shorts collection until I simply can't take it anymore.  There is a sense of change vibrating in the air, there is celebration, there are many birthdays scattered across October, including my own.  And this year, I will celebrate.  The last few weeks have brought a return to my foolish life accompanied by an overwhelming sense of relief.  Selfies, green boxes, puppies, poorly timed out-and-backs because my run is still decoupling in a ridiculous fashion, peppermint creamer in my coffee, bitching on twitter about the 4:45am alarm for masters, the clothes that don't fit and farting from cheese and how fucking good it feels to bend deep, inhale, and pull the bar up off of the ground again.  
Back to Elizabeth, who also said, We can see the world as grim or grand.  It's up to each of us to decide.  This year I do feel older.  Hesitant, as I take small steps back into my life, or rather forward into whatever the future will bring, but also cautious of not being paralyzed by fear.  And the older I get, the better I understand that perspective is everything about the world I am moving through.  It's up to each of us to decide.  I choose to see the world as grand.  To not play the victim but rather each day to be aware that I am making decisions about how to move through my universe and react to it.  Ideally, I would be wiser along with older but I'd hate to claim anything on the internet that is not true, so instead I will say, free.  That moment, the best one of my life, when I press off the deck into the air and hang for a fraction of a second before the water envelops me?  I am free.  This year has set me free.

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2015 birthday post

2014 birthday post
2013 birthday post
2012 birthday post
2011 birthday post
2010 birthday post