Monday, March 19, 2018

whether or not I should

In life right now, everything is being measured in tiny increments.  I recently passed four months post-surgery.  I've been exercising again for eleven weeks.  My long run has gotten five to ten minutes longer each week, last Tuesday I graduated from the pink 2-pound dumbbell to the blue 3-pound dumbbell in PT-prescribed bicep curls.  My shoulder can tolerate fifteen more minutes on the trainer, I can unload the dishwasher, chop cucumbers (but not sweet potatoes), open windows, walk two dogs.  To be in this place actually feels quite sweet; I have a phenomenal amount of appreciation for the small wins.  I'm not thinking about when I can next race an ironman, I'm thinking about whether or not I can run ten miles next Sunday and how fucking happy I'll be to see that final mile flip over on the watch.
After almost every huge race I've done, I've taken some time off.  What that has meant in the past is a few days or maybe weeks spent noshing on the oh-so-trite cupcakes of the world, dropping any training to an hour a day or less, gaining four or five pounds and then all too soon, jumping back into the fast lane (or the slowest) in the pool and getting ready for yet another round of smashfests.  When I got injured in 2016, I took some time off, but actually really not that much, because I was unable to resist constantly testing the waters, and then as soon as my body gave me the green light I signed up to do an ironman five weeks later.  It took me over a month to dig myself out of that hole.  Showing a rare glimpse of good sense, I decided not to do IMAZ two months later and instead registered for IMNZ, which was, but is hopefully not, my last ironman.  
In retrospect, I see it clearly.  I was an athlete with an incredible work ethic that had never raced even close to my hopeful-potential.  I never skipped sessions, I never admitted that I was tired, there was always another reserve I could find in order to not let whoever was unlucky enough to be coaching me at the moment, down.  Digging deep was not a problem I had.  And as a coach, I would also likely struggle to hold back an athlete who appeared healthy & strong & was so constantly nipping at the reins to be set free.

The flip side was that I never raced well.  Not really, not even close to what regularly showed up in training sessions.  At some point, as a coach and athlete both, we need to ask why.  Certainly I attributed a great deal of it to my mental weaknesses over the years, and worked hard to strengthen those muscles as well.  But I also gravitated towards coaches that I knew would let me run on a loose leash, dole out the high volume and the Twitter-worthy smashfests that I bitched about with no small amount of pride at what my body could do.  What you seek is seeking you - right?
At some point last spring, I noticed that I wasn't sleeping.  I couldn't fall asleep because my heart was pounding, or I'd wake up at 3am to toss and turn, so I added a bunch of natural crap into my late-evening routine that was enough to let me drop off and most of the time, stay there.  I remember fretting at my husband that I was going to end up in rehab, concerned that valerian tea and melatonin were a slippery slope (as we OCD type-A worrywarts do).  Night sweats showed up, bad ones, enough that we were running the air conditioning when it was 40 degrees out and I'd sleepwalk into a dry tee-shirt in the middle of the night.  My hair started falling out, but I was swimming a lot more and it was easy to attribute that to latex swim caps, ponytail holders, my ever-increasing age.  I gained a few pounds - not many - but with how "well" I was eating and how much I was training, the scale really should have been going the other direction.  My anxiety shot through the roof; I distinctly remember climbing out of the pool mid-session one Tuesday morning to go sit in a stall in the locker room and sob as quietly as I could into a gym towel, I can't I can't I can't.  And then composing myself, calmly tossing the towel into the bin, walking down the stairs and slipping back into the water.  I managed somehow to swing between emotionally volatile (which should have been the biggest warning sign) and completely shut down.  I couldn't put into words what was wrong.  As injuries started to pop up I lost my coping mechanisms in training, which only kept the spiral going until finally, at the end of June, I crashed.  Everything let go at once; instant free fall, the sudden stop.

I never talked about the Coeur d'Alene 70.3 because it was immediately lost in a sea of MRIs and neurologists and stress fractures, but I was there.  I completed the distance, barely, I'm not even sure how or definitely not why I finished.  I had raced Santa Rosa in early May, a few days after my neck locked up for the very first time.  It didn't go that well.  I had a decent swim but a rough crash shortly prior to the race has me skittish and riding like a weenie even before my aerobars collapsed and then I ran as hard as I could for an underwhelming result.  I was puzzled by it.  I thought that I was fit to race a lot better than I had, but I couldn't get my heart rate or pace up on the run.  I chalked it up to cobwebs and early season and maybe a little bit of a fueling issue and let it go.  
Training was a mess between the two races.  Some days I could swim just fine, more days I'd stomp back into the locker room after 800 yards with a buzzing, vibrating, numb arm and hand, a spasming neck, a frozen shoulder.  I was struggling with a really horrific saddle sore situation which meant I was trapped in saddle-testing hell and often needed to take 4-5 days away from the bike simply to let the bleeding stop.  Running was just okay.  Not great, not horrible, a lot slower than I had been running through the winter but it was something I could do.  And in between training sessions I was beginning the every-other-day-another-doctor trend that filled up the rest of 2017.  I was frustrated and angry that there was no fix - simple or otherwise - to the pile of injuries I was carting around, but I refused to give up and shut it all down.  I was beyond stubborn, I was trying to prove that I was tough enough.  It's the death of most of us.
I had quite a few athletes racing in Coeur d'Alene and seeing them was very definitely the best thing that could have happened.  It was balm on my ragged little soul to be out of Boulder, in a place where the air felt clean and clear, to be around people that I cared about & actually cared for me, and by the time the race started, I thought I was okay.  
I knew the swim would be slow because of how cautiously I was moving through the water, trying to protect whatever was going on in my shoulder.  I rode by feel as my training hadn't been anywhere near what I needed to support a strong effort, and I made it until about 25 miles into the bike before I completely fucking gave up.  I don't care.  I don't care.  I don't care.  It's all that was going through my head, alone out on that damn highway as I pedaled along, pushing maybe as many as 80 watts at times.  All I could think about was that my stupid triathlon heart was broken, my spirit was broken, and I couldn't bring myself to give a single shit about the sport, not anymore.  I planned to get off my bike at the turnaround and beg SAG to bring me back to town but no one was there.

I never actually decided to start the run.  I felt completely detached from what was happening around me, on some sort of crazy auto-pilot.  I walked most of it, convincing myself at every turn that I only needed to make it to the next aid station and then I would stop, and if the race hadn't been full of my much-tougher-than-me athletes busting ass, I'm sure I would not have finished.  My post-race notes say: emotional rock bottom today.  I don't want to experience this ever again.

Hindsight, of course, is everything.  Any armchair triathlon coach certified by creating their own instagram account can see what had happened; the 10,000 foot view makes it easy.  I was tired, too tired, deeply tired, all the time, and it destroyed me.  And if I've said it once I've said it a thousand times (clearly I'm ready for motherhood here)(no that was not a hint), the universe throws pillows and then it throws rocks and then it drops a motherfucking piano on your head.  STOP IT.  Stop what you are doing, right now.  I don't blame anyone but myself.  I can see my own potential in the data, coaches see it and get excited by it, and then I feel motivated by their feedback and focus, and both of us push together as hard as we can.  More than once now, we've been so focused on whether or not I could, that neither of us paused for a second and asked if really, I should.  
The next nine months of my personal life as an athlete had nothing to do with training, fitness, triathlon, racing, strength, watts, pace, none of it.  People have asked a few times if it's torture to be coaching while I am so injured, but the opposite is true.  It has been healing.  And going through this experience has most certainly made me a better coach, not just in the math and the data and the science, but in considering the whole athlete, in evaluating how everyone has limits in a different place and making sure that we are careful to only approach them in a controlled way and at the appropriate times.  That might sound boring, but in a world right now where social media presents an ever-increasing scroll of athletes run out of sport by burnout - often fueled by a coach greedy to authenticate themselves with the swift results borne of overtraining - I think that patience is how we create not only longevity but also joy.  That's why we're here, correct?  I know that's why I am here, and why I hope to return.  Because of moments like this.  
When I started exercising again at the beginning of January - and I am careful here to say exercising, not training - I started out at literally the smallest of small.  I got on the elliptical (ugh, but it was a helpful bridge), my first run was 20 minutes of walking and running mixed together, and I did my PT exercises every day.  Very little of it involved actual sweating, and all of it felt hard.  Heavy.  My body has changed a lot over the last year, and it feels unfamiliar to me to be moving it around, and I am ashamed about what it has become.  I had - and still have - a ton of restrictions on what I was allowed to do.  Tolerances, pain levels, discomfort during and after, and it meant that any sort of schedule was dictated 100% by how I was healing.  I think I "ran" a grand total of 10 miles that first week, and it's likely that at least half of it was walking.
At some point last fall, I joined the Strava situation, and I let all my runs go into it as I started to build this new house of mine in fitness.  Not because I want to brag about my easy pace or because I want a collection of little yellow crowns or because I give a flying fuck what anyone else thinks about my exercise, but because I wanted a place to be public and real about my process.  I was running 12 and 13 minute miles, I was doing a lot of walking to keep my heart rate low, and it requires the absence of ego, especially when you can't short-circuit the process with a shitload of bike volume.  I tell new athletes that it usually takes 4-6 weeks to start seeing the work of heart rate training; I'm starting week 12 and I just saw the first little budge two days ago.  Yeah.  That was one hell of a hole I was in.

Five weeks into exercising, I ran a 5K, but it was mega cheating as I flew to sea level to support athletes racing a marathon and it appears that the course was maybe a tiny bit short.  It took me two weeks to recover from it and/or the flu so I am yet again about five weeks into consistency.  My weight hasn't yet budged, which is pretty frustrating but also is crossed with the knowledge that there have been a few too many potato chip comfort afternoons & beer tasting evenings with friends.  And also, that my body is still healing months and maybe even years of damage, and now is not the time to stress it out with restriction.  So I wear the same two or three pairs of crops, I bought a new sports bra, I'm eating plenty of food that makes me feel strong and healthy, and I'm trying as hard as I can to just let it roll (to the delight of my husband, who does not mind the boob situation).  

The path has not been, will never be, smooth.  It never is - not for anyone, unless you are a 22-year-old invincible superhero made of rubber.  All my nerve crap flared up in January as soon as I tried to move, and then for a while I was locked in this spiral of insanity where my scapula didn't know how to behave so my rotator cuffs and my traps traded off days of ridiculous spasm, and then my neck freaked out, and then my SI joints decided to hop in the party and slip, slip, slip.  The first month was the hardest, when every day felt like something else was hurting, like goddammit I just want to be healthy and all I'm doing is walking and swooshing the elliptical why won't my fucking body calm down.  But I managed to wait it out, and the ups and downs have gotten a bit flatter.  As I've been able to start developing some actual strength in the gym, I can see and feel my system relaxing.  I know how to build this, I know how to get an athlete out of this place, I've done it many times over the years, and all it takes is patience and time.  I'm finally old enough or maybe just tired enough of being broken to attend to both of those things and if I'm going to make any mistakes here, it's likely that they will be by slowing my own progress due to an overly-cautious approach.  I'm okay with that, right now.
I ran ten miles yesterday.  One of my closest friends and training partners turned out to be rebuilding out of a break that matched my timeline, so we've been running together on Sunday mornings and it fills up my heart that we are together in this right now.  We ran one of my favorite routes, we stopped a dozen times so I could pee and curse at my heart rate monitor and eat snacks when I realized I wanted to throw things.  The last few miles were hard but not in the way that means you are pushing beyond your limits, instead the way that means, your limits are quietly moving forward at this moment so be gentle and be strong.  My heart rate was controlled when it wasn't showing 293 on the watch, my body felt solid and balanced.  Not collapsing, not falling apart, not a mess.  I probably couldn't tally up the number of times in my life that I've unremarkably run ten miles but yesterday was remarkable.  It feels like the sun is shining again, like I'm on the right path, and I have no idea where it's going but I'm happy to be on it.  And that, right now, is enough.