Tuesday, June 13, 2017

the universe in ecstatic motion

It's been nearly two years since I stomped a marathon in Boulder.

I haven't set foot on the vast majority of the run course since.  Maybe (probably) I'm overly superstitious, but it's been easy to avoid.  There are squillions of places to run in Colorado where I don't have to face my ghosts.  Because that's truly how it has felt since then.  Haunted, by grief and failure both.
The month after Santa Rosa brought another one of those little stormy seasons in training, the kind that only lasts a few weeks but when you're in it, feels eternal.  The crick in my neck flared out angrily in every direction until I ended up parked in bed with my laptop, working between muscle relaxers and people diagnosing me with too much stress.  I am fortunate to not have had too many of these train-screeching-to-a-halt injuries in the last six years but this one came all too soon on the heels of a rough 2016.  It took a while to sort out the root cause, then a few more days before it actually started calming down, yet another day or two before I stopped eating like a jackass and living in my pajama pants and suddenly it was the day before ironman.  I had signed up to volunteer throughout, supporting the swim and the run and the finish line.  I ended up having to bail on swim support thanks to the still-crabby neck/back/shoulder nerve situation but was grateful that I felt healed enough to sit on my mountain bike, mostly coasting, for three-plus hours as an escort on the run course.  

I got up early on Sunday and went for a run; it's the first time in about a month that the miles came as freely and easily as they did that morning.  I thought about my athlete racing, her first marathon and ironman both, and winged good mental mojo her way as I chugged along on deserted roads.  I got out to the bike course and caught her on the first lap, happy, smiling, working, then headed down to Boulder to wait for the pros to come into T2.
I'll be honest, when I signed up for this job, I wanted to escort the first place female.  Who wouldn't?  There was a pretty decent chance that it would be one of my swim teammates, i.e. someone who swims in the lane next to me but obviously in a completely different zip code along with most of the rest of the pool.  I'm a dork with a huge heart and that seemed like it would be pretty much the coolest (or likely the most annoying thing ever, for her).  But when the little cards got handed out, I ended up with fifth, so I started trying to sort out via the internet who that would be.  Ironman athlete tracking hit a new level of incompetence this weekend, meaning that from my phone I was unable to even pull up the list of athletes racing as the tracker produced nothing but a blank page.  

So I noodled around while I waited, mainly being a pain in the ass on twitter.  I was panicked that I would have to pee while escorting and be forced to choose between exploding or abandoning my person for 90 seconds, which led me to make 800 trips to a portapotty plus one sorta behind a bush on the creek path after telling the guy sitting there, I'm just going to duck behind your tree, don't mind my butt cheeks I hope none of this is poison ivy?  That turned out to be the husband of the athlete I ended up riding with for the first 16-17 miles, as these things happen.  The pro men came flying through, then the first two women, then a few age groupers blasting the front of the race, then women 3-4-5, little ducks in a row, off we went.
I told my athlete, hi, I'm Katie, you don't have to talk to me, I'm just going to ride right here behind you.  She asked what place she was in, I told her, and then for a while it was so quiet on the path that my squeaky rear brake made me cringe in the silence.

She worked her way steadily through the course; random spectators kept throwing out wildly inconsistent splits or helpful commentary of the eye-rolling variety akin to, she's right up there go get her!  (Great idea, let's try that!)  My natural inclination is to chatter like a monkey but I know that when I am hurting, any stimulus makes me want to screech with rage so I mentally stapled my mouth shut and simply tried to not run her over with my bike.

I can't think of a time in my life where I have been so close to another human being suffering at that level, and it was indescribable (but bloggers lead their lives using seven thousand words where none would do, so let us crack on).  It felt sacred, holy, to bear witness to a fight of that magnitude.  Her suffering is not my story to tell, but I know suffering when I see it, the empty scent of pain, the devastating wrench of grief.  And from my own experience I do know that sometimes there is nothing better to be said or done other than to silently be present and hope to lift the isolation that surrounds.

I've been fortunate to spend the last several months seeing what triathlon looks like when it is approached as a job, not simply a passion.  A great deal of that has been really good for me, it has been a positive practice.  But the danger here, I've realized, is that it may become water on the fire of what drives me, dousing the spark into damp ashes instead of letting it burst into flame.  It's possible I'm making that mistake now, attributing so much importance to what was simply another day at work for someone.  Ironman for me is an emotional swan dive into all the crap that I hide under a rock, so that's what I saw on Sunday; one of Frankl's three sources of meaning in life, courage during difficult times.  He believed that suffering is without purpose until we give it meaning by how we respond.  I think of my own experiences with this distance, and the races that stand out are not the ones where I ran the fastest but the ones where my suffering meant the most.  Coeur d'Alene last year, done on a body slack with physical fitness but in memoriam of what I had lost.  Arizona, the first time I believed in myself.  And yes, Boulder, one of the worst days of my racing life but a catalyst for change that has propelled me forward and brought so much good into the groove I am wearing around the sun ever since.  What is to give light must endure burning.
I believe in a lot of bullshit that I'm confident makes a lot of people roll a lot of their eyes into a lot of their heads.  But this was too clearly a gift from the universe to consider it any kind of coincidence.  Where I was not given what I wanted but instead what I had no idea that I desperately needed.  The grit, the fight I saw in the exact moments that left me crumbling two years earlier, the raw courage that I was privileged enough to brush up against on Sunday afternoon - that will stay with me for the rest of my life.  

A couple of weeks before Santa Rosa, I remember swimming one morning and having the very clear thought, I don't want to do this anymore.  Not like this.  Tears in the googles, Amanda Beard's memoir, not like this.  And don't ever try and fucking tell me that the body can't hear what the mind spits out, because served up promptly a few weeks later, BAM, injury, exactly what I had asked for on a silver platter, nuclear shutdown, no swimming, then no training, then nothing at all except pain, blinding and white.  I was frustrated, I was stamping it small and shoveling rocks on top, and if I should have learned anything in 36 years it's that your body does not take that shit, can not, will not.  Suppression is simply delayed explosion.  I asked myself back in February, what is inside you?  What are you born to do?  And in the months after ironman, I lost that drive, trying to navigate life without all the awkwardness that is part of what makes me, me, trying to be perfect, not make waves, scrunch down, stay quiet, be seen but not heard.  That's the baggage I carry.  But I don't want that to be my experience, your playing small does not serve the world, I want to be the fucking universe in ecstatic motion.
I rode back out on the run course late in the day, the look of the race quite different in the hours that had passed.  But instead of haunted, it felt like the morning after hard rain, as if the water had washed everything clean.  Athletes, silent and stoic, each fighting their own personal battles on a field gone quiet.  I wanted to say to every one, but didn't, I am here with you.  You are not alone.  I spent more time volunteering at the finish line, the best moments of the day, when the suffering is over and the junkfood drunkfest can begin.  
I was confident after New Zealand that I needed to walk away from ironman for a while. It wasn't a negative decision, it was simply wanting to cast light in a different direction, dance on a different playground.  But god, it's my heart.  I don't quite know yet where, or when, or how soon (other than, not soon), all I know right now is that it will be.  A spark, bursting into flame.