Thursday, May 18, 2017

there are only ten workouts

I've been sitting here for a while. Alternating between staring at the blinking cursor and tabbing over to answer emails, adjust schedules, other normal work tasks. Because when so much time has passed without diving into this space, it's hard to know where to begin.

The remainder of my trip to New Zealand was amazing.  It's easy to reflect on how hard I raced by measuring how many days pass before I get the itch to move again. Ironman was Saturday and by Tuesday night I was ready to jog a local 5K with my friend which answered that question: not hard at all.  I found a 33-meter pool nearby and swam a bit between consuming mass quantities of chocolate and coffee and before too long, it was time to return home.
My first stop in the US was a doctor's office, where I had a very minor medical procedure done that left me with sixteen stitches, a slew of inappropriate jokes and nearly a month off the bike when all was said and done.  That turned out to be a good thing as United Airlines managed to crack my frame flying it back from New Zealand, so my time was pretty well occupied with jumping through their hoops attempting to file a claim (spoiler: don't bother), as well as the normal nonsense of life: coaching, puppies, training, selfies, skiing and being snippy on twitter (and most recently, this instagram story thing).  
I sat down here to draw a line from New Zealand to racing in Santa Rosa last weekend, because race reports are the ones I almost never skip, the ones that I want to remember.  But instead of talking about training (it was not much!  then it was more!  then my hamstring hurt!  then it stopped!  then I crashed my bike and someone tried to kill Amanda and I with a pickup truck so I rode in my basement for a month and I swam really fast but also not that fast and I took some selfies and I tried to lose some weight but I really love potato chips so I didn't!), I realize now how much I've been ruminating on the coaching part of my life over the last few months.
First, to be fair, I try not to talk too much here about my work, and that's for a lot of reasons, most of which don't matter to anyone else.  One is because I want to allow myself room to go through my own process as an athlete, despite all (ALL) the times when my coach brain is yelling, yo jackass seriously you know better here.  The process is honest, it's authentic, and the whole reason I have a coach of my own is usually to be able to hand off some of the responsibility of babysitting me to make sure I don't fall down a set of triathlon stairs backwards in the dark.  Often when I am struggling, a well-meaning friend will ask, well, what would you say to one of your athletes right now?  This happened so frequently this past spring that eventually I lost the plot and snapped at someone (sorry), don't fucking ask me what I would say to one of my athletes I am not my own fucking coach I am a coached athlete and I have the right to make mistakes and be frustrated and pissed off and struggle just like anyone else without having to nurture myself through the whole fucking process too.  It would be exhausting, another good reason why coaches almost always have coaches; the endless cycle of questioning and second-guessing yourself would eventually, and quite frankly, drive you mad.
However, there are many times in the last five years where the distinction has become blurred.  When my knowledge as a coach is enriched by my experience as an athlete, or my dedication as an athlete is inspired by those that I coach.  I think it would be impossible to separate them completely, I've seen that over the last few months as some of my athletes have gone through periods of struggle but with others I've been lucky enough to be along for the ride to some incredible breakthroughs.  That's the easy part of coaching, is it not?  As a coach, it's not difficult to support an athlete when everything is going well, when all cylinders are firing and the body is at full throttle.  When the job is as uncomplicated as reviewing the successfully completed workouts and then writing a plan that continues the trajectory, that's when it's simple and straight-forward.  That's when anyone can do it.  
However, when an athlete struggles, that is where I believe we separate the wheat from the chaff.  Sure, coaches spend a tremendous amount of time studying the science, the physiology, the programming, bettering ourselves in the professional field; I was recently mentoring someone and I told him repeatedly, at least of 50% coaching is reading until your eyes bleed.  (At least 2% is bike selfies).  But an athlete is not a robot, and coaching is not as simple as firing up the TrainingPeaks account and cashing the paycheck.  I think of a friend of mine who often comments, there are only ten workouts.  The magic is not in the workout - sorry, none of you invented big gear strength work on the bike or the fifty minute aerobic run - the magic is in the delivery, the experience as an entity.  And all athletes will go through periods of struggle.  We get injured, or get divorced, we get unexpectedly pregnant, sick, we fight with out mothers, someone passes away.  We have insomnia, we crash our bikes, can't get pregnant, get laid off, get promoted, or any one of our deeper struggles with inadequacy, anxiety, fear, failure.  We grieve.  We walk the goddamned marathon.  As coaches, we can say, call me when your shit is straight, or we can be supportive, a sounding board, dare I say - a friend - someone on the other end of the post-workout notifications box who is listening when you need to shriek your life into a void.  There are plenty of coaches out there who may be successful in remaining stoic and detached from their athletes, and certainly there is no one right way to do this, but I'm not sure that I personally would be fulfilled by that experience.  Some of my greatest days in this job have been when an athlete that has gone through hell finally finds their own version of success, the finish line they have been desperately chasing, and I am there to be one of the closest spectators to their success, a tiny chapter in their tale.
Michelle wrote a few weeks ago, I think that a lot of athletes these days are craving the coach/athlete relationship where they know that their coach truly cares, and that bonged the biggest deepest chime, YES.  When athletes come to me, I always ask them why they left their previous coach.  Not all of these reasons are negative, sometimes athletes simply need a change and there is nothing wrong with that when it is handled with maturity, but the answer that I hear over and over is, because I felt like my coach didn't give a shit about me.  I know how awful that feels, how it eats away at you every day, little teeth nibbling away at the heart of your passion; I have experienced trying to salvage a relationship where the only message that is communicated clearly and consistently is, you are not good enough, you are not fast enough, you do not matter, you are worthless, worthless, worthless.

The poet says all the time, as is our tendency to overanalyze life, that when it comes down to it, what I want to do in this world is to help people make their lives better.  To me, that is the essence of my work, not just telling people to ride their bikes kinda hard for a while or as hard as they can for not a while.  We aren't electricians or filling up cereal boxes, we shouldn't be rubber-stamping an assembly line of athletes out the door as quickly as possible so we can get back to refreshing instagram.

Not many talk about coaching, not openly, not really.  I've seen plenty of people flood the field because they love the idea of riding their bikes all day on a Wednesday (sometimes I do this) but swiftly exit stage left once they realize it's much more working around the clock to stay on top of the research and the science and updating the website and answering emails and posting on social media and who has a cold and who tripped over the coffee table and who needs a race chat and who just maybe needs a virtual hug (much more often I do this).  It seems taboo to admit that it can also be hard at times; there is an unspoken agreement among us that we will constantly blast the world with how much we truly love our jobs!  And most of us do, trust me, there is not a lot of money in coaching and if we wanted to be billionaires we would all go back to our engineering/technology/project management/executive positions, but that doesn't mean it is a charmed life.  Coaching is not a job for the selfish.  I am fortunate to know many great coaches, each one works harder than the last and they do so because they are passionate about the success of every single one of their athletes, no matter how fast they can run.
And that brings me back to my own experience.  When I think of great coaches I have known, what stands out are not the ones who wrote the most complicated workouts or the most aggressive send-offs or scheduled me to run the hardest on the tiredest legs.  Instead, I think of the coach who patiently rode with me despite the enormous gap in our abilities, as I wobbled down the street and fell over at stop signs (fucking clip-in bike shoes) and finished the Wednesday night hill ride with me, fifteen minutes behind everyone else.  The one who, after I went blazing off the front of the group, chased me down to find me cowering in anticipation of being told off and instead hollered, good girl!  The one who did not sigh heavily when my fat-out-of-shape-ass called up to ask about oh hey there's this ironman in four weeks but instead said, well, let's just see what we can do.  I think about all of my athletes who have also been my coaches, who have taught me more about myself than any other "job" I have ever had.  And the coach who, despite not coaching me for some time, reached out after New Zealand to talk, who probably had no idea that the hour on the phone vomiting general exasperation with my entire existence was a crucial step to shoehorning me out of my rut of self-loathing and back into the gentle rhythm of life.
Santa Rosa.  I've said to a few people, it wasn't great, but it was good, and I think it's as simple as that.  This is not a ridiculous social media cliffhanger, I'll probably come back and yap through the day or I might be too lazy and busy and let it go, it doesn't really matter.  It's been almost two years since I raced this distance.  I know I can go faster, I have gone faster, I probably should have gone faster this weekend according to my maximum heart rate of 152.  My splits are unremarkable, my kit doesn't quite fit (fucking potato chips), my bike isn't right yet, I was startled by the shortness of each leg, but nothing went catastrophically wrong and that was the step forward I needed.  

Feeling like someone believes in a dream you are chasing - it is a rare and powerful thing.  My best races have been the ones where I know there is someone on my side, equally invested in my success, when I know that they are madly refreshing the total crap tracking system or texting me repeatedly even though my phone is stuffed in a bag somewhere, channeling perseverance and strength and don't you dare fucking give up now through hundreds of miles directly into my brain, feeling as if my journey matters even if I never finish any better than 172nd in the field.  But it's also okay, some days, to move quietly through what you love, knowing that the only person who always believes in it, is you.