Thursday, July 23, 2015

Training Notes: "Can't" is a Four Letter Word

“It matters not how strait the gate,
 How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.”
William Ernest Henley

My daughter is a budding actress.  She loves to sing and dance and act.  Who would have ever thought my shy little girl would love the limelight?  The night before a recent audition, she said to me, “Mama, I’m nervous—I want a real part, not just a member of the ensemble.”  So I launched into the 10 year old watered-down version of the “you have to believe in yourself” pep talk and the power of “I am…” affirmations.  We came up with some statements she could tell herself if she started to get nervous during her audition.  “I am a good singer, I am a good actress, I am a good dancer.”  I told her about Mohammad Ali and his signature, “I’m gonna show you how great I am!!”  “I am….such a simple statement….

It took me back to this winter.  After IMMD, my body just fell apart.  I was in the best shape of my life and the worst shape of my life. Because of the volume of training, I neglected the basics—core, hip and back stability and strength.  It was a grave error.  About a week after the race, my piriformis went into a major spasm.  Translated: I had an enormous pain in the ass…and up into my back and down my leg.  My foot dropped and I couldn’t flex my toes. In my last blog I mentioned that the doc I saw for this told me it was irreversible nerve damage.  He also told me, and I quote, “stop being a fucking idiot and stop triathlons-your body can’t do this.” Did he just say what I think he said?  “You can’t do this.”  Normally, those words
would mean a challenge to me.  But maybe he was right? I’ve had shoulder surgeries and painful rehabs, but the pain paled in comparison to this pain.  There was no escape.  If I laid down, I couldn’t roll or move.  Sitting was torturous…which does not bode well for a psychotherapist who sits most of the day. I couldn’t even swim because evidently that uses your ass muscles too.  I would walk to physical therapy from my office—a 5 minute walk if that, and it would take me 20 minutes.  It was like a knife in my heart when my daughter asked me, “Mama, are you turning into an old lady?”  My swim-bike- run schedule turned into a physical therapy-chiropractor-acupuncture-massage-orthopedist schedule.  One time my physical therapist asked if it was ok to do dry needling in the main gym instead of off in a private room and I said, “Why sure—just about everyone else in the state has seen my ass over the course of the past couple of months.”  At least I had some semblance of a sense of humor.  But I became depressed.  I cried every night.  I lost my athlete identity. Things continued to deteriorate.  I watched my muscles atrophy, and kept losing weight—unintentionally.   I walked with a limp that I couldn’t correct and I kept losing my balance. And then sometime in November, one side of my face started to droop.  I went for my annual physical and my PCP took a look at me, listened to my symptoms and promptly ordered an MRI.  I stopped listening at that point and just heard blah blah brain lesion blah blah stroke blah blah MS blah blah perhaps dormant til now.  So I did exactly what one shouldn’t do—internet research.  If you ever want to convince yourself you have something very very wrong with you, just look it up on line.  I remembered reading a book about a neuroscientist who trained his dog to sit in an MRI scanner while it took images of his doggie brain.  It was a pretty complex procedure, but first he had to train the dog to sit with this cage-like apparatus around his head.  I thought, well, if the dog can do it and not freak out, so can I.  At that point I was too numb to even feel nervous, afraid, sad, or anything.  At the same time, my family surprised me and registered me for another IM.  I cried, in part because I was so touched that they believed in me, but in part because it felt like something more out of reach than ever.

You must be reading this posting thinking, “Wow, thanks for the inspirational message, Debbie Downer.”  But now the story takes a turn, because why would I start out my post with “I am…” affirmations? Thankfully, the results of my MRI were negative. I thought to myself since I didn’t have any brain deterioration taking me down for the count, then I could get better.  I began to think about what this all meant?  What was the lesson? What could I take from this? Was I not attune enough to people’s pain? I thought I was, but maybe I needed a reminder of what it was like to feel vulnerable, numb, and even hopeless at times. 

I finally reached a point in PT where I could ride the stationary bike. My physical therapist would set it for 5 min.  The first time I rode it, 5 minutes seemed like an eternity.  I remembered a time in the not so distant past where I rode 112 miles.  How could that have been?  There was such a disconnect between my triathlete self and this person who folded inward.  I could only reconcile this discrepancy by reminding myself that I was the same person…I am the same person….I am a triathlete.  I’m not quite an ironman, but I visualize myself as one.  I would ride the stationary bike, but hunch over as if I were in the aero position on my tri bike, close my eyes, and visualize riding outside, strong, free, feeling the elements, and repeat over and over, “I am strong…I am a triathlete…I am an ironman."

I’d go to the Y and ride the recumbent bike and sit on the balance ball doing my balance 101 exercises—lift one leg, then the other.  I’d watch the runners on the treadmill longingly.  But it no longer took me 20 minutes to walk to PT.  We worked on getting rid of my limp and it was like learning the basics of walking again. I could finally flex my toes and my foot drop disappeared.  Permanent nerve damage huh?? I started working out with someone who was my trainer 10 years ago when I was at my heaviest and unhealthiest.  We began working on core and hip stability and balance.  I continued with PT, massage, and chiropractic work.  And then began a very light and conservative regiment of swimming and walking.  The bike trainer came out of the closet and into the living room, and I started riding my triathlon bike inside.  I took a 2.5 hr swim workshop (a story that I’ll save for another post-lol), and I was able to keep up (barely) for 2.5 hr.  My coach slowly increased my training volume and intensity.  In the early days of spring I still had some doubts about ever getting back to the level of fitness I was at last Fall.  I’m not even sure at what point the pain began to subside…and then dissolve, but it did.  Walking turned into running and I was surprised that I was actually not back at square one.  Swim, bike, run, stretch, foam roll, strengthen, rest, repeat….

So, here we are in my peak of training—with about 3 months to go.  I can swim 2 miles 30 minutes faster than I could last year.  I can ride my bike and run at a faster pace than I could at the time of the race last year.  I don’t grumble and scowl at my coach’s training plan, even though our idea of a “recovery week” may differ.   I think back to those winter days and feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude for the healing, strength, and insight.  For the privilege to be able to resume something I love doing. Maybe that was the most profound lesson of all—that pain can come to an end.  And don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do something--how could I have forgotten that?  As I hunch in the aero position on my bike, what was once a visualization is now reality. I am that person in the vision.  I still whisper to myself, “I am strong…I am a triathlete...I am an ironman.”

Sunday, October 5, 2014


“Ah, but a man's reach should exceed his grasp,Or what's a heaven for?”   

Robert Browning

I have indeed disappeared off the face of cyberspace.  Actually, for the past several months I’ve taken on a voluntary, quasi-part time job called training for a full ironman.  About 20 hours a week has been dedicated to training, give or take a few hours. 

This past month, I participated in my first full iron distance race; Ironman Maryland.  You may be looking at the title of this post, and if you’re thinking, wait a minute, a full iron distance is 140.6 miles, not 132.4, you would be right. Well, I didn’t get to hear those words I so wanted to hear; to be called an ironman.  But this post is not about what I didn’t do, it’s about celebrating what I was able to do, and how grateful I am for the opportunity.

First, if I said I wasn’t somewhat disappointed at the time, I’d be lying.  But the disappointment was fleeting and only accounted for a very small part of what I felt.  Overall, I feel great about pushing myself way past all my limits.  I’ve never swam more than 2 miles, never biked more than 100 mi (and it was at a leisurely pace) and never ran over 15 miles separately, let alone together.

First some little facts and comments:  After all my whining and complaining about food restrictions set by Coach Mary this past winter, I’ve lost 30 lbs and weigh what I think I weighed when I was about 16.  Not that that was my goal—I’m at a racing weight which will increase to something more sustainable over the winter months-like a hibernating bear (well, maybe not that much).  According to my Garmin, this training season I’ve run at least 200 mi, rode about 1200 mi (I think more, not all sessions recorded), and swam around 40 mi.  I think that’s on the low end of training for most people.  Younger or stronger triathletes swim, bike and run probably twice that distance.  But this is a lot for me. 

Teal, Mary, and I, strategizing at Second Beach
We all know it kind of takes a village to get a triathlete to the start line.  Coach Mary has been the conductor of this train, keeping it chugging along even when it was out of steam, and about to derail J.  In addition to swim, bike, run, nutrition, there is family schedule
Color coordinatedFan Club!!
juggling, which is a discipline all of its own. I thank my family, Teal and our daughter for being behind me 100%.  My friends have been awesome in their support, as have been my “medical support team”.  And interestingly, when I first registered, I joined this FB group for IM MD athletes, expecting it to be more about pragmatic tips and such.  It turned out to be an amazing group of supportive, hilarious, motivating, quite generous people, who provided a sense of camaraderie—we were all in this together.  I hope the group stays intact and we stay in touch, but if not, I wish you all the very best.  And to my entire village—thank you all.

Jelly and other Curra(e)nts
Ah yes, then there was the race itself.  The swim was in the Choptank River, which I learned is a tidal river.  This means that the water doesn’t just flow in one direction like most rivers (in case I was hoping for a free downstream
ride), but the current can change with the tide.  I really wasn’t concerned about the chop since I trained in the ocean where I was pummeled by the waves many a time.  But my biggest fear in the whole triathlon was getting stung by swarms of jellyfish, notorious for living in the Choptank!  There have been, in fact, times where the Choptank was infested with jellys (i.e. last year’s race), but for some reason, I guess having to do with the temperature of the water, position of the moon, (all my praying to the god of the jellys), etc, their population decreased this year….but I knew they were still lurking.  Fortunately, the race that morning was deemed wetsuit legal, so by wearing my wetsuit, there was less surface area to be stung.  To be honest, once I was swimming, I totally forgot about the vermin.  I guess the odds of a jellyfish sting were actually much lower than getting inadvertently whacked  in the face by another swimmer.
Anyway, the swim course was 2 loops.  I seeded myself appropriately in the back of the
Me and 1499 other swim buds
pack as not to be swum over by 1499 other swimmers.  At almost the halfway point, I looked at my watch and it read 1:04, which meant I really had to haul it the second time around to make the 2:20 cutoff.  I jacked up my speed and as I was swimming the last 500 yds or so safety volunteers were starting to yell, “Ten minutes before the cutoff!!!!!!” Then right before the last red buoy (where you then turn into the home stretch), “YOU’VE GOT 10 SEC to make it to the buoy!!!!!”  I don’t know where I found the strength to swim at a faster pace at the end of 2.4 miles (although one of my mantras was “You will sprint the last 250 yds of the swim.”  Mantra or omen?)  Then I saw people on shore screaming, “COME ON, COME ON” waving their arms frantically as if Jaws was nipping at my heels and at any moment would devour me.  As I reached the shore, taking my last step out of the water, I felt as if my legs were injected with novocaine, or maybe I had been stung by so many jellyfish that their toxins had paralyzed my muscles.  My legs buckled and I engaged in what felt like a very dramatic slooow mo spread eagle fall, but in the last split second was swooped up on either side by those wonderful volunteers.  They picked me up and catapulted me toward the arch, and I was the last swimmer to make the cut-off.  As I was running (yes running) toward the changing tent I could hear the announcer telling those coming in, that they could give it try next year.  I felt kindred with them, knowing that easily could have been me. 

Onward to the bike…First, I must say that the bike course provided beautiful scenery….and was pancake flat.  My first loop was ok, but my bike computer was not matching up with the mile markers, so I was going slower than I thought.  Our strategy was to push a steady uncomfortable pace and the last 10-20 miles to push an even more uncomfortable pace J.  The second loop was pretty lonely, and a headwind started to kick up.  I had moments of feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of another 56 miles, so I tried to stay present and focus on the next mile.  Even though I’m an unreligious heathen, I asked my mother to help push me along.  Toward the end of the second loop, before the ride back into town, I came upon a small deer in the road.  I slowed down because I wasn’t quite sure what it was going to do. We kind of looked at each other, and I said very softly, “Good baby, you just stay right there and don’t jump in front of me.” It was so close, I could have reached out and touched it.  I wanted to so bad, but I didn’t want to scare it. It was a remarkable moment to witness a creature of such beauty, innocence and grace.

Admittedly, there were a few dark moments when I wanted to quit and thought there was no way I would make cutoff time or did I even want to.  But  I would mentally slap myself on the wrist, tell myself to stop sniveling , and  remind myself that this was pain I had complete control over and that I signed up for.  I thought about those in my life who truly suffer through no choice of their own; those who have fought or are fighting either a physical or emotional battle every single day with little reprieve or refuge… and yet persevere.  You know who you are; you are my inspiration.

Hello Kitty survives the ride
The last 7 miles there was a volunteer, bless his heart, who followed behind me in a motorized cart. He was yelling things like, “Come on baby, push it, make this the fastest 5 miles you’ve ever ridden!!” and “If you can see my shadow, you’re not pedaling fast enough.”  and “You’re gonna hate me right now, but you gotta reach!!” This man, and I wish I knew his name so I could thank him, pushed me to indeed reach deeply for something I never knew was there.  My last 5 miles were the fastest of the entire 112. I knew that this would completely fry my legs for the run, but I decided if I didn’t go for the deep fry, there would be no run period. As I dismounted I thought, phew, but then was told I had to sprint to the T2 and be out on the run by 5:30.  Somehow my legs carried me through the arch, in and out of the changing tent and onto the run. Dodged another bullet. Yes!!

The run course was 3 laps out and back to the finish line in one direction, then out and back to the finish line in another direction.  Basically you have1500 people running past each other in opposite directions and could be on any one of 3 laps.  It looks a little chaotic, but
And she's out of the gate...
it’s up to each person to keep track of where they are and to not bump into any oncoming fellow runners. There were again cutoff times which were marked by an electronic tracking system so any given runner’s location on the course could be tracked…sort of.  I got out on the run course and of course my legs felt like concrete slabs, but I knew from past experience that my legs would perk up after awhile.  I followed my 4min run/1 min walk plan to preserve my legs.  I didn’t let myself think, “Holy shit you have to run a marathon now!!!!” My goal was to make it to the next mile and the next and the next.  The scenery, again, was beautiful…I would either be running along the shore, or through the cobblestone downtown streets with Saturday evening revelers cheering with gusto, or in residential areas where the people of Cambridge graciously sat out on their lawns, offering encouragement and water sprays, keeping bonfires going, and allowing the mayhem to take over their small town for a weekend.  I made the first cutoff, but was not running at my training pace.  I couldn’t seem to get the motor neurons to my legs to get on board with the program.  At about mile 13 I started doing the calculations, and it became quite apparent that I would need to be running significantly faster to make the next cutoff.  I was an hour behind, but miraculously at the next cutoff point, I expected to be stopped, but no one stopped me and so I just trotted on by.  I knew it would be a matter of time before they pulled me, but my goal at that point was to soak in and enjoy this beautiful night and run as far as I could before I got swept.  I wanted to run farther than I’ve ever run before. One of the hardest aspects was running toward the finish line knowing I still had another lap, but no one else knew this and so were screaming, “YOU GOT THIS!!!” and “CONGRATULATIONS!!!”  Well, not exactly, but I appreciated their unwavering enthusiasm.  And then, there they were, my fan club

comprised of my fam!!!! They had made signs that lit up!  It gave me such a lift.  As I continued running my last lap people kept telling me I was running in the wrong direction and I should be running toward the finish line.  I would try to tell them I still had another lap to go, and I’d have to show them my Garmin to prove I wasn’t delirious.  As I ran alone in the dark, I could see the reflection of the moon and lights on the river—absolutely gorgeous and I kept thinking to myself what a great night it was to be alive.  At mile 18….only 8 miles from the finish (9/10 of the race completed), the sweeper cometh and very apologetically told me I needed to stop.  I didn’t put up a stink at all; there have to be cutoffs.  The amazing part for me though, was knowing I didn’t stop because I was hurting, I stopped because I was told I had  to.  I ran 18 miles—who would have thought?  As we rode back to the hotel I said, “This is it, I can cross this off my bucket list.  It’s been great, but I’m done.”  Teal looked at me, smiled, and humored me by saying, “Of course honey.”  

 I bought a ticket for an adventure, and boy, did I get my money’s worth. I found this experience to be one of exhilaration, empowerment, and hope, not failure.  It would be the equivalent of going to Disney for an amazing vacation and complaining that the trip sucked because you didn’t get to ride every single ride.  When we woke up the next morning, Teal looked at me and we could read each others’ mind.  She said, “So….which one are we doing next?”  I had a revelation---this was within reach.  If left to my own devices, I would have finished at 1—an hour after the midnight deadline. But again, rules are rules, and I have to work within that ironman midnight boundry, kind of like Cinderella. But wow, only 60 minutes behind schedule.  That’s the equivalent of riding the bike 1-2 mph faster over 112 miles, getting stronger running off the bike, and swimming more efficiently as to not have such a high drama finish.  Now I know the gestalt, and it now feels do-able instead of being a big black box.  So yup, I would like to do another. But not because I have anything to prove.  Because it’s fun and exciting, and as I’ve said many times before, when it stops being just that, that’s when the journey will take me down a different road.  For now I have my usual off-season to-do list: home improvement projects, catch up on reading, tend to some nagging injuries, spend more time with family and friends, and last,( a quote by Robert Brault,) “Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.” 

Til next time, Sports Fans.  Happy Fall.

P.S. Five days later.  I wish I could land the plan with this post, but one more thing to add.  I went to a doctor yesterday because of some recurrent back pain and a more recent “injury”; I apparently did indeed fry some nerve in my foot during the biking portion that has caused drop foot—my toes refuse to flex.  So after he gives me the news that this partial paralysis may be irreversible (which I think is a bit melodramatic), he then launches into a lecture on how maybe my body just isn’t made to do ironman distances (translated you’re too old, so don’t be an idiot).  Excuse me?? Then he asked why I have to do this to my body and I answered, “because I love doing it”).    As one of my friends says, “If you have to ask why, you’ll never understand.” Call me an idiot, but I will not accept this.  I’ve heard too many inspirational stories of people with far greater injuries who have come back.  And I will be back.  OK,I'm landing the plane now, typos and all J

Thursday, January 30, 2014

The Ring

"He guessed as well as he could, and crawled along for a good way, till suddenly his hand met what felt like a tiny ring of cold metal lying on the floor of the tunnel. It was a turning point but he did not know it. He put the ring in his pocket almost without thinking; certainly it did not seem of any particular use at the moment." 
- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

Wassup everyone out there in reader-land?  Happy New Year!  I hope everyone is happily starting up or engaging in their new training plan for the season.  Time to get the metabolism rolling and start dreaming about this year’s goals.  Speaking of dreams….

 My daughter told me a fascinating dream she had a few weeks ago on our drive in to school.  She is studying geography and her dream was about one of her teachers narrating a story, whose words were magically projected in a way that the kids could actually see the story unfolding in front of them.  It was about a guy who owned a beautiful, magical gold ring
that he left on top of a cliff.  A cliff over the ocean, with crashing waves.  A villain climbed the cliff and stole the ring and disappeared with it.  When the owner of the ring returned, he was terribly distraught to learn that it had disappeared.  He searched high and low for the ring and just when he thought there was nowhere else to look and was ready to give up his search, he happened to reach in his pocket and there was the ring—it had been there all along. 

 Of course, Mama the shrink found this dream to be fascinating, but I spared her a dream analysis discussion and just let her be excited about the dream at face value.  The best part for her was the live projection from the teacher’s mere words. But I couldn’t help thinking afterwards about the symbolism in the dream and how it could apply to us all.  We all have those villains and demons, the ones who steal our magic gold ring.  For some it can be an external source of discouragement, listening to what others tell them they can or can’t do.  For many of us, it’s that internal voice who steals the ring.  The voice that says for example (since this is a triathlon blog), “Are you out of your mind training for a full iron distance?”   Well, I might be out of my mind, but at the same time, I am in training.  My goal has been to do a full iron by 55 and time is a tickin’.  Only 11 months left to meet that goal. Yes, there are times when I lose the gold ring; where the villainous voice in my head after about 30 minutes on the treadmill, says loud and clear, “You--26 miles—HAHAHAHAHAHAHA--are you kidding me?”  Or when I’m in the pool with my lower body dragging like an anchor that could weigh down the Titanic, pondering 2.4 miles in the open water.  But eventually, I remember the gold ring.  It’s way too early to sink into the quicksand of self-doubt. How many times have we been through this “are you kidding me?” mentality only to cross the finish line when it’s time.

So I just focus on my training plan one week at a time, really right now building a base and foundation.  This includes 2 swims, 2-3 runs, 2-3 bike sessions (on the trainer—ack!). always followed by stretching and foam rolling.  Also, one day of yoga, 2 strength-training/crossfit sessions. Not full-fledged crossfit—I give those crossfitters out there a lot of credit.  I do crossfit lite for wimps.  No tractor tire-throwing or box jump ups (those are asking for a face plant to happen), or unassisted pull ups (yeah, my last real pull up was when I was 11, I think).   I know it sounds like I’m training 5 hours a day, but they’re all actually short and sweet (or sometimes not so sweet) 45 min workouts.  And then there has
been the total revamping of nutrition.  At first, I whined and protested when Vegan Coach Mary took away my morning bagel.   And then my Zone bars…..and for that matter, most processed foods.   That definitely puts a damper on what I consider my 4 major food groups:  chocolate, wine, pizza, and Fritos. ******Sigh****** I think pomegranate-mango cosmos are still ok, because of the known anti-oxidant properties of pomegranate.   Mango provides Vitamin-A and flavonoids, and vodka is made from different grains AND is distilled J.  I’ve added such foreign entities to my food repertoire like tofu (which I must say I love), Kefir (said with an accent on the FIR), turmeric and other spicy herbal teas, homemade kale chips (which at first taste like crispy seaweed) and protein shakes/smoothies (where you can get quite creative with the ingredients).  And guess what?  For all my wimpering about bagel-less mornings, the weight is coming off and I feel pretty energized.   

 During these winter months after we’ve taken some time to recover from the prior season, it’s often a shock to recognize the loss of fitness in a short period of time.  But as we all know, we have to lose fitness to build it back up again.  It’s easy to make comparisons and think about what we can’t do.  (“OMG, I can’t believe I was doing 6 hr bike rides last fall, and now my legs are toast after an hour on the trainer!”)  During these times, reach down and feel the gold ring--you may have misplaced it, but it always ends up back in your pocket.  I’m excited for the new year and the new adventures it will bring.  Happy Training.

Monday, October 21, 2013

You Are Almost There

“There will be a day when I can no longer do this.  Today is not that day.”  (I looked high and low to properly cite this, but the author is unknown)

Christmas Day 2012, one week post shoulder surgery.   I sat on the couch in somewhat of a stupor, trying to be present while my daughter opened the gifts that Santa had brought her.  I needed help opening mine because my arm was still strapped to my side and, well I’m not very adept at single-handed activities. But anyway, inside was the picture you see above—a paid registration for a triathlon to be held October 2013. At that time, it was 284 days away.  And not just any little ole triathlon that would help ease me back into training, but a 100 mile one.  The Great Lakes 100 Mile Triathlon, where they advertise it as “100 miles of torturous bliss.”   I hadn’t been able to really swim for months even before the surgery, even running hurt, and as I was wallowing, I went back to my old comfort of using food.  My partner Teal knows something is very wrong when I totally lose interest in triathlon….when I don’t want to read any triathlon or running magazines that usually carpet the floor.  Or ask for any new gear for Christmas. Or start planning for the next season. Time for an intervention.  “I hope I’m not pushing you,” she said when she saw the look on my face as I eyed the gift. “No, no, that’s great,” I said trying not to appear horrified and mortified.  It was hard to imagine that I would ever be able to lift my arm again, let alone swim a mile in one of the gnarly great lakes.  But she knows me well, and knew I needed something to reach for.

The first part of this year involved shoulder rehab as I’ve chronicled in prior posts, and then around May, I was ready to finally train. The past 5 months I swam, biked, and ran more than I ever had, in order to bring me up to speed for this longer distance.  Coach Mary put an evil twist on training, in that in addition to a hell of a lot of swim/bike/run, there were crossfit workouts 2x a week.  I learned crossfit lingo like “AMRAP,” “WOD,” “CFWU,” and “FS”.  I learned moves such as “air squats, “sumo deadlift high pulls,” “Russian twists,” and the dreaded “hollow rock,”. Despite the fact that I felt like the most inept crossfitter ever, I felt stronger.  I could run for 3 hours without stopping to walk.  I could climb hills on my bike without feeling like I was going to keel over.  I could swim without the unrelenting stabbing pain in my rotator cuff.  My body was able to recover faster, and my joints, ligaments and tendons were all behaving.  Granted, I move at a snail’s pace compared to most other triathletes, but I guess slow forward motion is better than no motion at all.

Fast forward 283 days later, the day before the race. It seemed like just yesterday that I was
an inert, drooling, one-armed slug on the couch in my living room. But there we were in Barker, NY, a small town right on the shore of Lake Ontario, about 20 minutes from Niagara Falls.  As I looked at the lake and the foamy green waves, I was thinking I should have brought my hazmat suit.  But then again I’ve swum in Lincoln Woods and survived so how bad could it be?  Day 284-Race Day: I was up at 4am.  My family and I schlepped to the race site in the dark.  Good thing I brought my headlamp or I would have been fumbling in the dark in transition.  My daughter noted I looked like one of the 7 dwarfs going off to mine.  At about 6:45am, came the news that the swim might be cancelled because the current was so strong that they couldn’t get the rescue boats or buoys out where they needed to be.  They delayed the race as long as they could and made the call at 8am that the swim would indeed be cancelled.  No way, don’t cancel my favorite part!  But ok, no dwelling on that over which you have no control; time to move on and focus on the 1 mile trail run that replaced the swim.  The good news was that it was the fastest mile I’ve ever run (10 min.).  The funny part about that is that most people can run twice that fast and keep a 5 min mile pace for ½  and full marathons.

So with that little jaunt through the woods behind me, I jumped on my bike and hit the road.  My family saw me off and since I would be on the bike for several hours, they headed to Niagara Falls for some sight-seeing.  It was raining at that point and there was a nice hefty headwind blowing me (and everyone else) back.  I thought again,ok, you can’t control the weather, just pedal.  It was for the most part, a flat course, with one small hill coming into this town called “Gasport,” which I had shown my daughter on the map the day before.  Well, if you’re an 8 year old (or have an 8 year old sense of humor like I do), that is one pretty darn funny name for a town with big implications for a whole lot of flatulence humor.  So I couldn’t help but smile as I rode through there.  There was a really fun downhill descent that would have been even more fun if it hadn’t gone past a cemetery which reminded me of the slick road conditions.  The scenery was beautiful…corn fields, apple orchards, country stores, rivers, and of course, the Erie Canal. 

I often wonder what other people think about on long rides.  I was taking in the landscape, but boredom crept in and so I started singing.  To just sing random songs though would have gotten even more boring, so I played a game.  Every song I sang had to, in some way, have a connection to the prior song, either by some word in the title, the theme, etc.  For example….since it was raining, I started out with “Singing in the Rain.”  This was followed, by “In the Sunlight and the Rain.”  I don’t know if that’s the title, but it has to do with being a mother…and so the next song was “In My Daughter’s Eyes.” There is a line in there about “I realize what life is all about.”  This lead to “Oooh, life it’s bigger, it’s bigger than you and you are not me….” (from “Losing My Religion”).  You get the picture.  This went on until I hit the Erie Canal.  Now any child educated in NY state was subjected to learning the Erie Canal song.  If you didn’t grow up in NY, then you may have been subjected to hearing your parents sing it (like my poor kid).  And that damn song just stays in your head forever.  Of course it was already stuck in my head because the day prior, my tri buddy, Leslie, who also grew up in NY, wanted to share the earworm by sending a YouTube clip of the song so everyone could be singing it on their 8 hour car ride to Buffalo J.  By the time I exhausted my musical repertoire, it was on to the next stream of consciousness for several hours.  I was just taking it 10 miles at a time, but by mile 75, I had had it.  The last 10 miles seemed to go on forever.  I thought I was hallucinating, but somewhere during the last 10 miles, my partner and daughter returned from Niagara Falls and rode past me cheering me on.  And then finally, in the distance, I heard cheering and cowbells, as I rolled into T2.  I was an hour behind schedule.  Ugh.

I was momentarily demoralized as I noticed that as I was leaving T2, the winner was crossing the finish line.  I quickly remembered what this race was about---me vs. me.  If you’ve done an endurance event, you know that at some point, there comes a dark moment; a moment or moments where your mind, not your body, can bring you to your knees and take you down.  In this particular race, for me, it was miles 1-3 of the run.  It was one of those “what the hell were you thinking when you registered for this,” moments.  The same “what the hell were you thinking,” moment I had in the first 50 yds of the swim of my very first ever triathlon.  The same, “what the hell were you thinking,” moment before my first Oly distance, where the start of the race was delayed by several hours because of torrential downpours.  And the same, “what the hell were you thinking, you idiot?!” moment during the uphill climbs of my last half iron distance.  A large part of training is prepping for those dark places, and having a strategy in place for getting through the valley(s) of darkness. Mary and I had multiple discussions where she helped me challenge some of my fears.  I couldn’t allow myself to think that this torturefest was going to last another 15 miles, or 4 hours.  I told myself, what most people tell themselves, just make it to the mile 1 fuel station.  I reminded myself, I do this for fun, and that people make it through far more painful experiences, some of which are out of their control.  I stared at my “Gratitude” bracelet.  I thought about my daughter.  I looked at the good luck charm she had made for me to carry;
a little heart with arms and legs that said, “Go Mama!” I wanted her to know that when I talk about trying your best and not giving up, that these are not just theoretical concepts, but ideals that I uphold.  I also looked at the message taped to my Garmin.  A week or so before race day, I had lunch with my best bud, Leigh at our usual Chinese restaurant.  When she opened her fortune cookie, she smiled and said, “Uh, I think this is for you.”  I’m not superstitious, but I could hardly believe what it said: “You are almost there.” 

There were other strategies that helped me through.  My friend Stacey shared one of her running tips; to run 4 min, walk 1 min (or 3/2 if need be).  And although I meticulously set up my fuel belt, I abandoned the plan to wear it, and decided I would drink and eat the pre-calculated amounts at each fuel stations.  Not having to lug the belt and bottles was the right choice and so freeing.  Sure enough after mile 3, things started looking up.  My legs felt better, my back (which felt like it had locked up) relaxed, and I had no GI issues. 

I ran down this endless road and then entered Golden Hill State Park. First I ran  alongside Lake Ontario and then I headed into the woods.  The trail run portion through the park was beautiful, but I was so paranoid that I was going to get bit by a tick or jumped by a lurking ax murderer, that I abandoned the 4/1 run strategy for awhile and booked it through the woods as fast as I could.  I was trying to take in nature, but was preoccupied, and before I knew it, I was at mile 5. At the mile 6 fuel station, all of my pains disappeared when I saw little cups of M&Ms!!  Not a mirage!  And then, YAY, the mile 7.5 marker and turn-around!  I had no doubt I could make it another 7.5 miles.  Around mile 10 one of the volunteers relayed a message that I was getting close to the cut-off time and I needed to basically do 10 min miles to make it back on time.  My plan was that if the SAG wagon came to get me, I would simply tell them that they could close down the course, pack up the finish line, have me sign a waiver that would release them from any responsibility, and just let me finish (or taser me to get me in the wagon).  Dusk descended, and my family (my beacon hope), found me.  They followed me and encouraged me (and made sure I didn’t become roadkill).  T read me texts of support and encouragement from friends and family which carried me through those last lonely miles in the dark. There were volunteers still out there, bless their hearts, cheering me on.  Bob, the race director came by in his truck, but instead of sweeping me off the course, he led me to the wooded path that would take me to the finish line.  He was surprised that I actually picked up my pace, but there was no stopping me now.  Another
rockin’ volunteer, Karen, guided me through the pitch black woods with her headlamp.  Along with Karen, my daughter ran with me the last half mile or so.  Through the woods, I could see the proverbial (and literal) light at the end of the tunnel and hear the cheers of some wonderful athletes and volunteers who were still partying, and dancing to the band, as I crossed the finish line.  Among the group of amazing athletes, was my tri-buddy Leslie (and her mom, also a triathlete!), who finished the race several hours before, but hung out to watch me finish. 

There is a phenomenon that occurs as one crosses the finish line.  There is no recollection of pain or discomfort; only the feeling of pure joy, elation, and gratitude.  The sensation of that blister that had developed at mile 10 that felt like a cheese grater against my raw skin, miraculously disappeared.  My back which had protested during the first 3 miles was now totally relaxed.  My knees which had been scolding me for forcing them to carry extra pressure per square inch (psi) for every lb I had put on, forgave me.  And my psyche who kept grilling me about what was I thinking when I set out to do this, recalled that what I was thinking, was that this would be fun. And it would provide me some important data regarding my next step.   And that it did. 

Within the next month or so, I’ll decide which full iron distance to pursue, bite the bullet and register. Psychologically, I finally feel like I can tackle a full.  And if I had all the time in the world, I’d feel even more confident.  But races have cut-off times, and so it will be the clock that I’ll be racing against.  I’ll be setting some split times to hit throughout the race to make the cut-offs and finish.  Instead of my goal being to mosey over the finish line, I don’t want to even have to wonder or worry about cut-off times. 

For now though, it’s time for some off-season maintenance--working on my swim stroke, do pilates, yoga, and/or cross-fit to maintain strength.  Even more important, time to do some projects around the house, clean up the garden, play mermaids with my daughter (who can now swim all 4 strokes better and faster than I could ever hope to), spend more time with Teal, rock climb, hike with Clemmie, maybe snowshoe this winter, and continue to feel ever so grateful that my body can do this crazy thing that I love to do. Next season will be 140.6 miles of craziness.  Yeah!!

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Dog Zen

"(S)he knows not where (s)he's going, 
For the ocean will decide,
It's not the destination,
It's the glory of the ride."  (Edward Monkton, Zen Dog)

 As with each summer, I’ve been remiss in my blog writing.  With a 100 mi triathlon now 1 month away (no way!) time to sit down and write a little update.   The next 3 weeks will be the heaviest volume of work, more than I’ve ever done before.  I look at my month’s training plan full of 70 mile bike rides, 15 mile runs, lots of swimming (still being on the conservative side with my shoulder), interspersed with cross-fit workouts.  These long-ass training sessions will surely test the limits of mindfulness.  So who better to turn to for some lessons in mindfulness, than my resident expert on mindfulness.  No, there are no Tibetan Monks living in the house, no Yogis, neither Tara Brach nor Jon Kabat-Zinn reside here. However, if you ever want to learn how to be in the moment and totally zen-like, just watch your dog. 

There have been countless books written about integrating zen into different activities.  Books such as Zen and the Martial Arts, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Zen and the Art of Archery, Zen and the Art of Faking It (faking what I’m not sure), and countless others.   So this very light-hearted post could be entitled, Dog Zen and the Art of Triathlon.  Did you know that with the exception of the word, “Man”, there are more triathlons with “Dog” in the name than any other word—Mad Dog, Wild Dog, Wet Dog, Salty Dog, Black Dog, Dog House, Iron Dog, Devil Dog, Dog Daze, Hot Dog, Red Dog, Leaping Dog, and I’m sure many more.  Putting zen and triathlon aside, if the truth be known, I mostly wanted to kvell about my new puppy and show some pictures.  It’s my blog, so I guess no one’s the boss of me.  There are, however, a few lessons of dog zen that can be particularly useful:

Lesson 1: If you’re an underdog, be strategic—it’s not always muscle that gets you to the end game. After a watching our 12 y/o lab suffer, and finally making the difficult decision to have her put to sleep this winter, the house seemed so quiet.  Which wasn’t a bad thing, but I think I’ve gotten used to a certain baseline level of chaos.  So in late spring we started to dog hunt.   Since our last dog was around 8 or 9 when we adopted her from a shelter, we decided this time we would try a puppy.  We looked at various places, then found a farm up in the hills where I have, on many occasions, ridden my bike; in fact, it’s the area where I love to ride most. I found
it ironic, how many times I’d ridden past the very place where we would come to find this little creature who would bring so much joy to our home.  If you ever want your mood to soar off the charts, spend about 30 minutes in a pen full of 8 week old puppies.  These little blonde balls looked like popcorn as they jumped and bounced off the walls, climbing all over each other.  It reminded me of an Ironman mass swim start—complete mayhem.  Each of them trying so desperately to be in front so that they could make contact.   Except one.  One teeny not-so-blonde, but very orange one, that nosed her way to the front of the pen by crawling underneath all her brothers and sisters in stealth commando style, finally just curling up right next to us. That was her statement; subtle, yet effective. My daughter made her decision at that moment and picked this runt of the litter.  Our friend Kristin came up with the name Clementine-how perfect for a teeny orange ball.   

Lesson 2: Carpe Diem, baby: Soak in every moment of race day. During my endless hours of training, I can be an ingrate.  Boo hoo, I have a 5 hour ride.  Hey, how about being grateful that
(a) you have the time to do it, and (b) you have the health.  Watching Clemmie  run and play with abandon is a reminder to seize the day and soak in every moment of race day as well as long training sessions.  Every morning, she couldn’t be more excited about her day. If she had a voice, I could just hear her exuberance as she licks my hand to wake me up each morning: “OH MY GOSH!!!  OH MY GOSH!!!  GET UP, GET UP, GET UP!!!!  IT’S MORNING AND I GET TO EAT AND PLAY AND EAT AND PLAY AND OH MY GOSH, I’M SOOOOOO HAPPY!!!!!!!! I admit, on race mornings, I do feel that way as I jump out of bed.  Why can’t every day be like that?  

Lesson 3: Recovery is an integral part of training One thing that is difficult for many triathletes
is allowing time for rest and recovery.  Clemmie recently had surgery and what led her to be back on her feet so quickly, was allowing herself the proper time to rest….and remember, a little moaning is always ok.  

Lesson 4:  Loving and forgiving free up so much energy to put into other areas.  If you have a bad training day, or a bad any kind of day, let it go.  Our pets are a perfect reminder of unconditional love and forgiveness.  For example, if I slack off during a workout, Clemmie is right there, roaring in my ear to push me, but will also congratulate me for my hard work. 

Lesson 5 :  We accept the love we think we deserve (Stephen Chbosky).  Clemmie loves herself and that love is shown effusively to others.  Each time she greets me it’s as if she hasn’t seen me in years.  It was evident from day 1, that Clemmie was meant to be a therapy dog.  She is in the process of basic training.  (Actually, I’m also the one in training.)  She’ll need another 6 months of formal training and then will have to pass a series of exams to be a “certified” therapy dog, meaning she will be permitted  to come with me to nursing homes, disaster relief sites, and even my office.  But for now, even without any fancy schmancy certification, she is a people magnet.  I can’t even say how many people approach us to pet
Clemmie and inquire what type of dog she is (a goldendoodle).  I watch the smile that she brings to people’s faces, as she, in her clutzy, oafish way will offer someone her enormous mitt of a paw or give someone a big lick and dog smile, then roll over on her back for a belly rub.

Lesson 6.  Always carb-load before your event

Lesson 7:  Pets improve your health (a no-brainer).  Research shows that pet owners live
longer lives those without pets.  There is empirical evidence showing that spending just a few minutes with a pet significantly reduces levels of the stress hormone, cortisol, increases the neurotransmitter serotonin (associated with mood and feelings of well-being), and lowers blood pressure.  Some dogs can actually sense the onset of a seizure in those with epilepsy.  Others can sense decreasing blood glucose levels in diabetics.  Pet owners exercise more and are less likely to suffer a heart attack or stroke.  As for me, quite simply, I feel like my heart, like the Grinch’s, has grown twice in size since this fur ball has come into our lives.  

So back to triathlon….as I once again enter into murky waters…this time 100 miles, I am blessed to have so many people who inspire me.  And now I have another inspiration.  I think of my little runt (well, now is 45 lbs and still growing), who, despite being mauled by her littermates, kept slowly inching forward and never gave up.  She has an infectious enthusiasm for life.  She puts her heart into new endeavors, whether it be learning new commands, swimming for the first time, or exploring a new area.  As I travel those 100 miles, I’ll try to do so as she would; happily, with much gusto, and as if every moment is the only moment.