Wednesday, July 9, 2014

What it's like to be hit by a car. . . .

I haven't blogging as much lately due to my schedule. Until last Sunday, I trained in the peripheral hours around my 8-5 job which left little time for much of anything aside from eating, sleeping and the occasional shower.  But then, well, life gave me an unexpected surprise and that's all different now. Now I cannot train so much and when I'm not training I tend to think a lot-- too much and too deeply maybe-- for long bouts of time, looking for the cracks and fissures in my personality, my body, my mind--- all the things that have led me to where I am, a place I'd rather not be.

Or, I'd rather not have been hit by a car on my ride this past Sunday. But there is a lot that went into that particular moment. The fact that I was riding alone, for instance. The fact that I didn't have my phone with me. The fact that, even if I had, I would have had no one to call because I have become not the nicest person and I think most people who know me dislike me on some fundamental level (understandably so.)  And I want to understand this process, these various steps that led to that incident on Donner Lake's west shore on Sunday. 

I also want to understand its aftermath. Why I feel so awful, so empty, so depressed. It isn't the worst injury in the world (really) to have bruised rib or two nor is my bike beyond repair. In fact, things are almost like they were before the accident: I have a bruise or two. The bike as an extra scratch. But on the whole, we're just like we were-- we always were.

Yet, me: inside, I'm the only one who has changed.

I decided to ride by myself on Sunday from Hirshdale to Cisco Grove and then up 89 to Tahoe City, to King's Beach and up and over 267 (Brockway) for two reasons: 1) I have signed up for the Tahoe 70.3 Ironman and I wanted to do 267 on tired legs and 2) I didn't want to look like a huge pussy on Strava so I decided some miles and elevation were what I needed to place myself with the other "hardcore" athletes (or not so far behind.)  That morning, I wasn't feeling great: I was somewhat tired and not really that motivated but I know myself well enough that if I drive someplace to run or to ride (or even swim) I'll do it. It's a shame to waste so much gas on laziness. 

So out and up the first hill on Glenshire drive, I pushed toward Truckee feeling really strong. Stable, even, like my upper body hardly moved. I didn't notice too many more cars on the road than usual and once I was on old 40, I was hardly passed at all has I rode up the 3-mile climb to Donner Summit and then the long descent to Cisco Grove. 

I saw (maybe) five other cyclists on the way down. The roads until Cisco Grove were surprisingly bare. When I got to the old wooden building, I pulled up on the covered porch, bought myself a water, a coke and some sort of bar and sat watching a parade of departing super-RVs leave the grounds in a mass-exodus. I thought I was lucky, missing that train of super-sized vehicles with boxes and streams of kids taking last-minute pit-stops in the bathrooms in the back of the wooden building. An old man dozed in a lawn chair beside me and there was something, oddly, peaceful about being outside of the chaotic scene, simply sitting and watching. Sipping my coke in the 11:00 am sun. Feeling lucky to have only my bike and the open road. No attachments. Not even my phone. 

I should back up here and explain that. My phone is not a smart phone or even a dumb phone. It's prehistoric in terms of its functionality and has, lately, been unable to hold a charge much longer than a day even though it is really only just a phone (not a camera, not a gps device and it will not even do the dishes after dinner...) so I have started bringing my phone charger with me to the office. If I have to sit there, I reasoned my phone could, too, and charge. Well-- I was in such a hurry to get out of the office for the holiday weekend, I left my phone charger beneath my desk. It wasn't an issue Friday or even Saturday. But Sunday, the day of this long ride, it was beyond dead.

So I left it at home-- not even in my car-- when I started this ride. You might not believe that I paused before heading out without it (I never do) but nothing has ever happened where I actually needed to call for help. Funny how things happen. 

As soon as I finished the coke, the RVs were gone and it was quiet again. I took my cue and mounted the bike, heading back toward Truckee where I'd planned to turn right up highway 89 to Tahoe City. What I remember of that long (gentle) ascent: I felt really strong. Or, my form felt solid, finally. No rocking or swaying: I was just, simply solid and I held a consistent (not fast, consistent) pace. It was beautiful out: the sun that lovely golden glow of summer. I couldn't have been happier, actually. 

Up and over Donner Summit again, I worked to push the downhill-- not beyond my control, but to feel the corners, not brake so much. To not fear the wind on my face. 

What do I remember at the foot of Donner? I remember pedestrians. Boats on trailers. I remember, minutes before the crash, watching a topless woman sun herself on one of those small docks that line Donner's west shore, face down, of course. But topless, still.  But that is where my clear memory ends and the rest is a bit blurry. 

I remember seeing the blue sedan in the on-coming traffic lane slow, but thinking nothing of it. And then the car is immediately there after a screeching U-turn and its hood in my way and I realize that I have to slow or stop or something bad will happen.  In the version I have told, I sit up, I hold both brakes until the rear tire skids in line with the front and I hit the car with the left side of my body and bike. This is confirmed by the condition of the bike after the fall (I didn't hit the car head-on; the front tire was not bent at all. In fact, the rear tire was more damaged than the front.) But honestly, I'm not sure this is what happened. I can't remember, quite, anymore. It is what I said to the first person who asked that day. And I have to believe there is some element of truth in this account although I would be a very stupid person if I said this is the "absolute" truth. That, I believe, is lost.

Anyway, I do I remember saying "Oh shit" before I slammed into the passenger side of the blue car and then there is a blank patch of what happened next. A flash of my wheel in the air above me. And then I am face down on the dirt (and pine needles) next to a manzanita bush on one side and the curb/pavement on the other and the thought "no, no, no" in my head, again and again because you don't walk away when a bike and car collide-- at least, if you're on the bike. 

I don't remember feeling anything in the way of pain. I didn't move for a second and the people in the car get out. Others, who had been on the docks, in the houses (other drivers) run toward me and someone keeps saying "Don't touch her! Don't touch her!" I breathe dirt and pine needles. My ipod is still playing some peppy pop song and more than anything, I want it to stop. 

I roll over, sit up and this guy who is telling everyone not to touch me is also the driver of the car. He tells me not to move. I do. I sit up and start brushing the dirt and pine needles off me. 

In my head, I tell him to go fuck himself but I'm pretty sure I said something more polite than that. 

He explains he is an EMT and then someone else pipes up that they are a doctor. And I am a specimen on display. Someone holds my wrist as if to feel my pulse. Another person tells me to breathe. 

I ask about the bike and someone says "fuck the bike" and I just want to leave. 

And then, because I'm pathetic and me, I almost start to cry. So to stop myself, I say to the driver "I'm sorry, I was riding, I didn't see..."

He latches onto this. "I was your fault," he replied. "But I understand. Thank God you had your helmet on." 

I begin to wonder what planet I'm on that I am at fault for an accident I'd done all I could to avoid and I was being praised-- as an athlete-- for wearing my helmet while riding my bike. I blink because I'm confused. I wonder how hard I hit my head and if I really just heart him say that the accident was my fault. 

The driver's wife begins to clean my elbow-- the only part of me that's bleeding-- and she asks if she can call anyone for me. If I have a phone. "Who can I call? You must want someone to know that you are OK." 

And that's the moment I totally break because there isn't a single person alive I could call, even if I'd had a working phone. I would just worry my parents. My ex would laugh or roll his eyes. And others? Everyone I know has families. Better friends than I could ever be-- so why would they care about me at all? 

In any case, I just want to disappear and for once I wished that car had run me over. My life is worthless. My writing isn't good. I'm not a great athlete. I have nothing to show for all 32 years of my life. And that flattens me. I'm done for good; done with the scene on the side of the road. I just want to go home and cry.

The woman still holds my bike. "I want my bike," I say. 

Her father, who has also (somehow) there offers to drive me wherever I want to go. My car, maybe. I tell them I'd rather ride the miles. That I will be fine. 

Then they look at me like I am from another planet. Fitting, I suppose. 

"At least ride it around here to make sure the gears work," the driver says. And  I do, I ride around, playing chords with my gears. When they are satisfied, I take off without a word. Yeah, I know: get the information of the people who hit you in a car. I should have. But all I could think of in that moment was how I have no one to call when this kind of thing happens. No one loves me like that. I am unworthy and awful. And now I'm broken so that there is no way I can prove to myself that I am worthy at all, too. 

And even though my ribs really hurt-- I mean, really hurt-- that realization hurt (and hurts) so much more.


So here I am three days after and my ribs really hurt. I am lucky, I know: my face is fine. The bike is fine. In time, I will be fine, too even though I can't shift the manual transition in my car and I called my boss in tears this morning: I couldn't muster the strength --- or get past the pain-- of getting my car into reverse so I could drive to work. That is embarrassing. But true. 

Don't comment on this post to say you would have answered your phone if I'd called. Or that I'm incredibly stupid. I don't want sympathy and I already know I'm stupid. But thanks for that.

The truth is:  I'm heartbroken.  But it's my fault I am here. That I ride long rides alone. That I have no family of my own.  That I will have to mend my own ribs. Even if I have to eat only celery and laxatives until I can train again.

It won't be easy, but I'll try.  And maybe I'll be an athlete again. Maybe. I hope so.



Monday, June 30, 2014

Alta Alpina: Black and White with a lot of Gray

Stacy, Me and Rich at the foot of Kingsbury!
I wanted to begin this post with "FUUUUCK" or "I'm sorry I wasn't faster" or, even, "What if I'm not able to...". But really, none quite capture the feeling of the Alta Alpina 8-Pass Challenge; or, rather, how I understand it in this very strange-- but lively-- time in my life.   A time when nothing follows a precise definition of itself; a time when I'm not quite an athlete-- but not quite not-one, either. A time when some of my writing is going to be published; but a time when most of it is not. A time when I find myself in a community of "strangers"-- like during an event like an Alta Alpina-- but an event which binds bodies together through the miles, especially the hard ones.

I signed up for this event because my friend/cycling coach, Rich, asked me if I wanted to do it with him and another man. Sure, I'd said-- this was back in April, I think-- when riding 200 miles over 8 passes was more of an abstract idea than reality. My focus, then, anyway was on the Boise Half IM and this was in those hazy gray weeks after the race. A time I hadn't thought much about.

Why not, then, say "sure?" and hope for the best. And I did.

The these things have a way of sneaking up on you. One day you're sitting in your office chair in the gray cubicle at work trading hilariously nasty skyppe messages with your female coworkers and the next you realize "Crap, tomorrow I'm riding 200 miles over 8 Sierra Passes." And if your'e me, you go to Raley's on your lunch break and stare at the aisles of food, wondering what to bring, what to make the magic happen, this time. (Not that the Davis Double OR Boise wasn't a success. It's just I've been struggling trying to find the right nutrition for me, especially in these longer efforts, to keep myself from cramping. But all I did was stare. I ended up with: gluten free bread, freshly ground peanut butter, raw almonds and grapes. Um. Not exactly what I needed, but oh well.

I'd wanted to finish all 8 passes. But this ride presented several unique challenges I can't say I'm particularly equipped to face: an extreme temperature fluctuation (when we began it was near freezing; however, on several climbs soon after, temperatures reached nearly 95 degrees F) and climbs which (despite being from the area) I had neither driven nor ridden.

I have also never not-slept in a bed before an event before. Rich, Stacy and I decided to car-camp at the foot of Monitor Pass-- the base of the final two climbs of the day. Stacy-- before he met me-- said: "I hope we won't have to wait for her!" when he found out I'd be joining the group. Even though he changed his mind after our first conversation, my lizard-brain held onto that counting down the hours at work Friday afternoon in my gray cubicle and also in my head as the Milky Way spiraled into infinite dots of stars above our heads at the base of Monitor Pass.

No waiting for me, I said, and that was the mantra that kept me tossing and turning in that state of near-dreaming.

*

The morning began at 3:00 am shuffling through the freezing dark. Rolling up the sleeping gear and forcing myself into cycling clothes, hoping I got it all on right and not backwards or inside out.

4:00 am: we arrive at the start/finish (Turtle Rock Park) where I sign in and retrieve my race number. I see, on the corner, that someone (a mystery to me at 4am) wrote: "AN SMC GRAD!" next to my name. I wonder at the smallness of worlds; how sometimes even in a sea of strangers, we can find an expected familiar face.  Another unexpected blessing: coffee. My God, coffee. I'd been worried how I would fare without it.

Then, the last minute details: affixing lights to the bike so we could be seen before the dawn.  Gloves, helmet, glasses. A down-feather jacket for the morning even though Turtle Rock Park felt relatively warm, considering the hour.

By 4:30 am, we were rolling. The blink of Rich's tail light in front of me; Stacy's headlamp like brights on a car, lighting the way. The first descent was mere feet but the temperature plunged. Immediately, I couldn't feel my hands, they were so cold. Then, down from the evergreens and into irrigated fields of alfalfa: my hands froze even more. The only way I knew they were still attached to my body was the fact that I could see them.

Shedding the down jackets en route to Luther Pass.

The sun crested the hills to the east as we reached Fredricksberg and there was hardly anyone on the road but us. A few cyclists here and there: but really, just the sound of early down. The smell of wet alfalfa fields and sage mingled with the damp, crisp air. And then a turn and it was the first climb: Kingsbury.

Too soon, I thought.  I wasn't even awake yet.

*

Rich told me to slow down on the climb. It was not the last time I'd hear that advice on this ride.

What I remember of Kingsbury: a long, even ascent whose cadence matched the speed of the sun rising. The down jackets were a bit too much on the way up: with each foot gained in elevation, it became warmer out. Soon, I was sweating and I told Rich, jokingly: "I think I'm going to have to buy you a new jacket."

I remember passing other riders. No one passed us. Up and corner: up and corner. Up and up: at the summit we reached the first aid station. "Queensbury" where a friendly and inviting (and very obviously gay) men greeted us with open arms. They were dressed as: queens, fairies, princesses... with wigs and shoes and all.  I remember being so hungry (I'm a breakfast person) that I ate a goopy peanut butter and jelly something and made the biggest mess. I remember hopping on my bike, trying to keep time with Rich and Stacy on the descent, but failing.

But mostly, I remember the cold. How all that speed down the hill made me freeze and how hard it was to start riding, after that.

I'm not trying to be a gigantic wimp: this was one of the unforeseen challenges of the ride. The change in temperatures wasn't something I'd planned on; it wasn't something I'd ever experienced before. In some ways, it is easy to ride when you know it will be "hot" or it will be "cold." That conditions will be black or white. But today, the distinctions blurred while remaining distinct: mountain tops were "warm" at first compared to the valleys; but then, it switched so that mountain tops were cold, valleys were warm. Nothing was stable and everything in question. And yet, to call the ride the area of gray would be misleading.

It was a day of extremes. Of absolute joy and suffering. And that brings me to the next three passes.

*

This was JOY:  Luther, Carson, Blue Lakes. A dance, if ever there was one, on a bike. Me, I played the part of the little train that could. And hot damn, I did. Up those hills keeping my cadence high. Passing so many bodies. Rich and Stacy fell behind me; my legs turned as if the motion was inevitable. No pain, no fatigue: I was all power and smile.

Me climbing out of Blue Lakes and feeling like a million bucks!


Dawn-time up Kingsbury, morning-time up Luther and Carson, smelling the wet damp of mountain meadows as I passed, wildflowers in bloom beneath the flickering aspen leaves. Alternating sun and shadow up to Blue Lakes, a narrow two-lane road my dad and I drove many times (he took me camping there every summer until I was six years old.) I remembered the road as I rode it; the way the engine of the old 1979 Ford Truck (painted a pale green with an evergreen-colored interior) how it revved and sighed up that hill. And the beautiful meadows filled wind ponds before Blue Lake itself. Memory came back to me with the miles.

And the riders: fit ones, ones with Alta Alpina 8-pass jerseys-- veterans of the event-- and I wondered if I should be passing them. I received compliments, mostly: one man at a rest stop said I looked so strong and wanted to know how many of these I've done. When I told him this was my second, he seemed a little shocked.

I also ran into a rider who'd also done the Davis Double. We chatted at the Blue Lakes rest stop while I waited for my friends. He was once a runner, too.  And in these little moments of recognition, I wonder at the size of the world. So many times we hear about how large it is, how over-populated. But the world of the double-century is small, intimate. It is a world relatively little people enter. After all, you don't know what you're going to find in the pursuit of 200 miles. You will find joy (of course) but there are other things-- parts of yourself, the weather conditions, destiny and/or fate-- that crop or tend to crop up for a distance so long.

How could they not? With all that time to fill, it's inevitable not everything will go as planned. And that brings me to Ebbetts Pass/Ebbetts Pass, Monitor Pass/Monitor Pass-- the most challenging-- and final four (or, for me, three)-- climbs of the day.

*

Down from Blue Lakes I would nearly get run off the road by a man in an orange jersey.

He wanted to pass us and when he couldn't, he wanted to cut in and take my spot in the paceline Rich, Stacy and I had formed. I am not a small girl, but I'm hardly large, either. I admit, I've had trouble with this on other rides, too: being forced to the side, pushed away, by men.

This is (normally) what it looks like to ride a Double Century with Rich.

Sometimes I wonder if it's a gender-thing: am I really that threatening to someone's masculinity at these speeds? And then I wonder if it's something more like cluelessness: maybe he just wanted to go fast and didn't realize he was riding like an asshole. Anyway, when we turned off highway 88 toward Turtle Rock Park, I tried my best to save myself from a bad situation: I sprinted up the hill into a swarming mass of locusts, colored golden by the sun.

Rich followed me, took the lead.

"I watch out for my girls," he said.

It's nice to have a wing-man.

Back at the car, lunch was: watermelon, nuts, grapes, an ensure and water. Rich didn't want to eat the catered lunch because last year he'd gotten severe food poisoning from it-- but had finished the double anyway. (Yeah, Rich is amazing that way.)

Even though it's a bit daunting to eat fruit and water and think: OK,  I've just ridden over 100 miles, now I'm going to ride 100 more," I felt good leaving the parking lot. My legs, not fresh exactly, but strong: the sun high and hot in the sky.

My mantra: just ride, just ride as we entered the canyon that would lead us to Ebbetts, to Monitor. I lost myself in the sound of the West Carson River and caught myself (more than once) looking off my right shoulder, thinking about wading into its cool current as the temperature continued to rise. It wasn't until a car passed me that I looked over my left shoulder to check for Rich and Stacy.

But behind me was nothing but the open road. Just like the image before me. For the first time that day, I was completely alone. I thought about stopping, waiting.  But I'd just eaten lunch. I wanted to get this climb over with-- and the next and the next-- so that I could finish before dark. And so, feeling guilty and selfish, I kept on, pedaling alone through the metal gate they shut because Ebbetts-- a part of Highway 4-- is so narrow and winding (and steep) that it isn't safe to drive for a good part of the year. Not in summer, of course. But still: I remember driving this way with an old boyfriend (J.) and his explanation of "Cadillac Corner": a man in a cadillac hadn't respected the speed limit after he had his heart broken by a girlfriend. Up and over the side: the cadillac he drove sat poised on the hill for years. A monument of sorts to the kinds of extremes we drive ourselves to in the face of absolute loss.

I don't think the car is there anymore. But then again, on this ride, I didn't (couldn't) look.

*

I saw a lot these pass-signs on the Alta Alpina. I wish I'd seen one more!
Up. And up. Make a corner and it's a wall of pavement in front of you. No sitting down: out of the saddle because if you don't, you're walking the bike up the hill. That's Ebbetts-- the first time. I saw the man in the orange jersey who'd tried to run me off the road. He was in a group of men I passed early. I remember wondering if he would come after me, be angry with me, say something mean. But nothing: so perhaps my second theory was right. He wasn't mean, just clueless.

Up and up. I wondered how long this climb could be; and how many steep pitches I'd have to negotiate. About 3/4 to the summit, I'd see a familiar face (or, jersey): a Diablo Cyclist-- the ride group I'd latched onto in the East Bay. "Go Diablo Cyclist!" I yelled, because I couldn't make out the rider's face.

It turned out to be Dr. Dave-- not only a friend but a "colleague" at Saint Mary's College where I'd gotten my MFA back in 2012. Next came Jay and I shouted him words of encouragement, too. It made my legs lighter, to see familiar faces. And it explained a lot: on my number for the event, someone had written "An SMC grad in black pen" and I had wondered who that had been. Now I knew (or, I'd figure that out later, when the blood returned to my brain from my legs.)

Up and up. I pass rider after rider. Another, a kind man named George I'd met in Davis and who joined our group near the end of that double century cheered me on.  That encouragement meant the world to me, then, when I felt very alone and unsure of where (and how) I was going.

Up and up. I came up to another rider. Matt P. Another Diablo Cyclist. We chatted. Another boost to my spirt. We rode by a lake. I believed the summit was near. It was; but not as near as I wanted it to be.

I did make it, though, and did my usual at the rest stop: eat, drink, pee, eat more. Wait. When my half-finished Coke was in my hand, Rich appeared, sans Stacy. It was just us two now, for the final three climbs. Fuel up: head down.

Down into Hermit Valley. A narrow 1.5 lane road on the side of a mountain. I stay behind Rich and listen to the sound of his brakes behind the cars. We reach the aid station at the bottom of the hill and it occurs to me it might be nice to stay there for a while. Like, in the ground. Like I'm dead. Because, by this point, I think I am.

Rich is not in good shape, either. We set an easy pace back up the hill-- back to Ebbetts Pass. I try singing songs, telling jokes, but there comes a point in that long, hot climb when I just don't think I'm breathing anymore. And I tell Rich this and he tells me to ride slower. But I can't. I'm in my easiest gear. And we go back and forth for a while before falling into silence.

The moment is what it is.  Rich encouraged every rider we passed by name. I was hanging onto my sanity by a thread: but I admired those women I saw out there so much. Strong bodies, strong minds. How much I wished I was as strong as they were. I was near my breaking point: moving, yes, but feeling as though my bike would fall over and I wouldn't have the strength to pick myself off of the hot, black pavement.

The aid station: I nearly cry, but don't. Rich and I huddle in the shade of a mosquito-infested grass, not-eating, not-drinking. He tells me we will make it. We will go slow.

I nod. I want to believe him. But I know I have reached the point where I don't want to eat or drink. I really don't want to do anything. I don't want anymore peanut butter on stale bread that has air-crust all over it. I don't want watermelon or banana or melon at all. I don't want nuts with salt, pickles or cookies. I especially don't want any more soda or electrolyte drink. My stomach churns in the sea of sugar I've eaten.

I want nothing but to finish. And that can either be a good or a bad thing.

*

Down Ebbetts. I don't want to fall. I follow Rich's line precisely. He falls behind me when he hit the rolling flats. Later, he'll tell me he was falling asleep on the bike and he was trying not to lose consciousness as we made our way back down the canyon to the foot of Monitor Pass.

I am trying not to think. Or, not to think about the climbs. The miles. The time.

There is an aid station before we go up and Rich and I stop there in the full-hot sun. It is nearly 100-degrees out and I feel the sun baking me beneath the black bike shorts. A friend of Rich's is being carried to a hospital for a fractured collar bone-- a nasty fall-- on Ebbetts. Stacy, our lost member, joins us here and has a car with a cooler; he'll crew for us, he says.

By this point, I just want to stop. I am feeling dizzy and I know I have a saddle-sore that would make a popular youtube video. Rich slumps in the frame of Stacy's minivan, falling asleep with his helmeted head resting on the frame of Stacy's car.

I don't want to, I don't want to, I don't want to: but there is something wrong with me because I shake Rich and say: "Let's go."

And, we do. Up Monitor. Going slow. Ass burning in the sun like hot, dead, iron. But we are moving.

*

I decide, heading up Monitor Pass, that I know what Hell (if there is such a place) would be like. It's not a fire-pit. It's not your worst nightmare. No, Hell is beautiful. Hell is where you love.

Or, let me be more clear:

Hell is so beautiful you want to gasp every time you blink.

Hell is the struggle between survival and courage.

Hell is the vista: the heights, the depths.

Riding up Monitor Pass was Hell. Such beautiful country. Such pain. Rich 's shoulders slumped and I know we're fucked. I've got my waves of cramps: they start in the arches of my feet and circulate up my calves, my hips, my deltoids until they find the space behind my knee caps and stay, pulsing.

800 feet from the summit, I take my bottle filled with electrolytes in my hand and take a sip every two pedal strokes, hoping to stop the cramps. The summit takes so much longer than I want it to. In the last stretch, I'm near-crying: I just want to make it, I don't want to quit. I can't see Rich (he's behind me). I talk to myself and I have no idea where any one else is: I just talk nonsense words, I just sip and I try to keep myself from crying.

Go, you go. Think of flowers. How wind is a messenger. Fluid air we swim through. Cliffs were once sea-shores and this will pass, too. Breathe and breathe.  And breathe. And breathe.

I wanted to finish this double so badly. But the wave of cramps-- that pain-- tells me I won't. I won't let myself cry in the saddle, though. However, when we pull into the aid station, I lose it. I sit down in the dirt and the gravel with the wind sweeping over me and I cry- no, I sob. Embarrassing. But I do. I made it. But I won't make it anymore.

*

They feed me V-8. Pickles. Pickle-juice. It's 6:00 pm and the light is low. One woman in the med-tent with me tells me it is her birthday. Rich is alseep on the cot, not moving. I feel-- what do I feel?-- I can hardly tell. Can I ride? Yes. Do I want to? Not anymore, not really. We are at the top of Monitor Pass and the sun is still out, but low in the sky. Stacy sits in his car, waiting for my verdict.

And it's all up to me: whether we go or we stop. The wind cut across my face as I stood from the chair where the volunteers placed me. Riders; they stopped, They ate. They stared again.

I am not strong. I am not amazing.

I decide not to do any more.  No more miles.

No more climbs. I am done; Rich is done.  Stacy and I load him into the car, first, before we load the bikes. I want to cry but can't: conversation keeps me from my thoughts.

Down Monitor Pass. Down to Turtle Rock Park with the wind from the open window through my hair and I tell myself again and again that 170 miles is enough. That I am enough.

I'm not, I know. I never am.

At the close of night, I pray: maybe one day.

*

At Turtle Rock Park the mystery of the note on my number is solved: en route to the Sani-hut I run into Jay and Dr. Dave-- my Diablo Cyclist friends from the bay. We trade war stories, catch up on the time we haven't ridden. It's so nice to see them, it almost makes up for not finishing the ride. We pose for what Jay will label as the "SMC Cycling Team" shot before we part ways, going back into our separate lives in the world again.

Me and Dr. Dave, after the ride.


But there will be other Double Centuries, I know. I'm not finished yet.







Monday, June 9, 2014

Race Report: Boise Half Ironman

I'm not sure I'm ready to write this. My skin is tingling, still, from the water, sun and wind. My electrolytes still aren't (quite) at the levels they ought to be. And walking-- well-- it's become an art rather than a science.  But despite all of that I had to write to say that I was wrong: this race has changed me. Or, maybe not just the race itself, but the months leading up to it. In a way, it's like writing: the final draft is never (quite) what you envisioned. More precise in some ways, but the finished product of a long period of revision (necessarily) contains elements of the unexpected. So too, with this journey: when I finished a draft of my memoir three years ago, I thought I'd never run again and that my life as an athlete was over. I know that's definitely not true; but I also know that I am a stronger person than I have given myself credit for; but I am not strong only because of my body. 

Because, in the end, that is not what did so well in the race-- or, in life, actually. 

*
What got me through was something else. A combination of what I've learned through (oddly) writing and from all the incredible people I've met--and regained-- in the past six months (and that were with me, yesterday, in the race.)  I guess this involves a bit of ancient history: when I signed up for the race last winter I was basically unemployed-- the university had opted not to renew my teaching contract-- and my seven-year relationship had ended. It was the holidays and I was home with my parents trying to remember who I was before my life fell completely apart. And it was a quiet, January morning when I'd woken up at dawn in the room that had been my childhood bedroom with the idea that maybe I could convince myself I was extraordinary if I did something extraordinary (and not a loser, like I thought I was). After all, it wasn't the first time I'd try-- my first marathon back in 2007 had been started by a similar impulse. And so on that cold January day, I'd put on my running shoes and done a seven-mile run in the cold flats of Washoe Valley and thought to myself, again and again, I want to be an Ironman. 

Several teammates had mentioned Boise-- a half-Ironman-- and that seemed like a great place to start. And so, I'd gone home that day and asked my stepmom, tentatively, if she thought I could one day be an Ironman.  Do Kona. Not win, just compete. 

She knows the island well: born and raised on Lanai, she knows the place much better than I: it's mysteries, its challenges. I expected hesitation, a cautionary tale. Instead, she said: "Of course," and after (not) much discussion, I received my birthday present a few days early: my entry fee to the Boise Half Ironman. 

But it turned out to be not just a race, but a new life. 

A life which began with a new teaching job at a local community college and later, a steady, full-time writing job. And, an incredible intellectual and poet who noticed my words on the page and then, well, noticed me! :-) And my athletic life: slowly, day by day and practice by practice (and how much I needed those practices just to keep myself from the dark sadness. The early AM swims, the CompuTrainer sessions: I owe my teammates and cycling friends a HUGE debt of gratitude)... they got me to where I needed to go; kept me focused. Kept me me. 

In any case, I have to say this has been the most amazing [birthday] gift I've ever been given. 

I got my life back. But better.

*

Of course, there was Scott Young and the UNR Tri Club-- those morning workouts were the only thing that kept me going this winter. Thank you, all, for your friendship and guidance. To Rich Stalely and the whole crew at Great Basin Bicycles: for the countless CompuTrainer classes, the laughs, the miles. To Steve G. and lovely Chloe: for your belief in my words and spirit and to you both for your loud cheers I could hear all the way from Gettysburg. To my wonderful parents both near and far: to mom who watched the race from Smith, Nevada and who said I make her proud. To my dad and stepmom who made the journey to Boise with me to see me cross that finish line. There are more -- so many more-- and I'm grateful for you all. I wouldn't have finished without knowing you wanted me to. 

That and the fact that I finally found that I wanted me to. Not for anybody else. Instead, this was the first race of my life I did--truly-- for me.

*

The Boise Half Ironman is unusual in that it starts at noon. Every race I've ever done (excluding my "first and only" college cross country meet-, the UNR "Twilight Race- I was 28 and a volunteer coach, running unattached--started at 6 pm or something crazy but it was only a 4k) along with the four marathons, the three half marathons, the other (two) triathlons were all early-morning starts. Usually ridiculously-early, requiring me to wake at 4am so the competition could start by dawn. 

In many ways a race like that is easier than starting later. Sure, you can "sleep in" and "relax" (maybe) before a noon start, there's something to be said for the simplicity of waking, eating and settling straight into competition-mode. At our pre-race dinner, several of my teammates joked that it did not matter what we ate. "You could even wake up with a mild hangover and still do the event," someone joked. I'm not quite sure that's true (knowing how my race went) but the large stretch of time before the race was a challenge in itself. 

*

Even though my parents came to see me race, I decided it would be best to stay with my teammates Tim and Martine the night before the race. This is, in part, because they invited me and the idea of being around other competitors-- and more experienced ones-- seemed to be a good idea to me. Also: I didn't want to stress my parents out with what are normal pre-race jitters.  They were with me when I got my number (lucky 1001!!) but the rest-- the sorting and packing and re-sorting and re-packing-- the babble of race plans, etc-- that's best reserved for athletes who either do the same thing or don't mind you doing it so much.

Tim and Martine kept me on-track: we would take our transition bags to the correct spot, meeting deadlines I might have (from nerves or whatever) missed on my own. I was able to sleep--motionless, even-- on the extra mattress on the floor of their room because I knew between the three of us and our combined pre-race jitters there was no way we would wake up late and miss the shuttle to the start line. 

But, as we rolled out of bed at 6:00 am, the question du jour presented itself: what do I eat? Do I eat breakfast? How much? My plan had been to eat a normal morning meal and then something snackish around 10:30 am (my start time was 12:39). As I looked around the lobby, filled with triathletes, I noticed no one else-- especially the women-- were eating much. It was a bit hard not to feel guilty about my bowl of eggs, my fruit, my toast, my coffee and I wondered if I was eating too much. I grabbed a banana on the way out for my 10:30 snack (I'd pair that with a bar). 

There wasn't much time: we went to the room, I put on my race suit and made sure my morning bag and bike transition bag  had all my gear in it. I brushed my teeth and peed for the millionth time.  Then the click of the hotel door and Tim led Martine and I to the park where we could catch the shuttle to the start line. Even though the race didn't start until noon, shuttles to the reservoir began at 9:00 am. We arrived at the park just in time for one of the first shuttles-- a school bus-- and we crammed ourselves into the full seats. Looking back, I'm not sure if it was a smart idea or not to go so early. 

The extra time allowed for me to get my transition set-up "right." However, three hours in the sun and heat before a race is definitely not the ideal way to start an endurance event. Or, at least not when you are me and you tend to sweat-- a lot.


In a way, the wait before the start was like a refugee camp. Tim and I huddled behind a dumpster for shade once we'd set our cycling shoes, socks and helmet on the bike. (It was a "clean" transition, meaning NOTHING could touch the ground.) Tim recounted experiences from other races  he'd done laced with tidbits of advice.  The muffled voice of the announcer floated over to our narrow shade every now and then but it was hard to hear exactly what he was saying. Other athletes, too, found our spot and soon we were all huddled close together, trying to get out of the sun. 

10:00 am turned to 11:00 am; 11:00 am to 11:15. The final call for the morning bags floated our way (the morning bag would contain everything we'd worn that morning that we would not need for racing as well as all the things we would want with us at the finish line. I'd used it to carry my wetsuit and cap and goggles. I stood and took off my UNR hoodie that had kept my arms covered from the sun, my Ironman visor my stepmom had bought for me the day before and ... my shoes. 

Did I mention that the transition area was the reservoir parking lot which was a very-black asphalt? The kind that soaks up the sun and burns the bottoms of your feet off? "I can't have my shoes?" I asked no one in particular. 

"Not unless you leave them here," Tracy, my teammate answered me, and she explained that she buys cheap flip-flops just for that purpose. 

So, into the bag my shoes went and the refugee metaphor continues. For the next 45 minutes, I'd walk around barefoot (the area behind the dumpster was rocky and overtaken by other athletes as soon as I'd taken my bag to the truck.)  What also happened: I lost my team in the sudden surge of bodies: we scattered like seeds and in the chaos of triathletes, it was hard to tell who was who. In fact, there were so many of us so close together, I could no longer feel the breeze that had started (that would come up later on the bike). 

30 minutes before the start I'd run into Tim again, half in his wetsuit. He told me to stretch, to keep loose, to do push-ups to get the blood in my arms. "Just don't stand around," he said. So, for the next thirty minutes, this was me: half wet-suited doing quad stretches, hip flexor stretches and five full push-ups over and over and over again.  My legs crying sweat droplets which would slither down my ankles. So much so that competitor #1002 accused me of peeing my wetsuit as we stood in the staging area waiting to be led to the water. 

(Competitor 1002: a blonde with a racing suit the same color-- but not type-- as mine: black with pink and white stripes. She had an aero-helmet and sort of brushed me off when I'd asked how she was setting her transition area up.) 

They would start the race in "waves" according to age group. The pros, of course, were first (the men and then, four minutes later, the women) followed by the 50+ women, 50+ men.... I was in wave 11. This would make the swim... interesting. Or, what kept me out of open water for a lot of years: The fear of being pulled under, unable to breathe. Swimming over and under bodies into the chop of cold water (the water, so cold on my face after being so hot. I panicked on the swim to the start line and I wondered, briefly, if that was the end of my race.)

What do I remember of the swim? The green murk of water and the way a foot or a torso would appear suddenly; the brightness of the sky compared to the dark below me. The way I almost missed the first turn (there she goes, swimming out to blue yonder) the way I passed so many bodies from previous waves before me. The man in the yellow cap breast-stroking. Someone with an orange cap, doing the back stroke. The way one girl who started at the same time I did swam the entire distance at my side. How, every time I felt an arm on my leg how I'd stopped kicking so hard (I didn't want to hurt anyone) and how I only wished those bodies around me the very best. 

As we entered the finishing channel for the swim, the sea of bodies became thick. My underwater view was all feet and bodies and profiles of goggled faces. When my hands touched the concrete boat ramp, I stood and began to run to shore, up the ramp. Goggles off my face and the quick unzip the wetsuit, taking it off my arms as I ran up the  hill to the transition area. At the top, they had "wetsuit strippers" (which was wonderful. I lay down and the man ripped the suit right off me. No wiggling,  no falling. Lovely.) And then running to my bike on the races (in a sea of bikes), stuffing my wetsuit cap and goggles in the transition bag; putting the helmet on my head, the socks and shoes on my feet and running with my bike, running to the place where we were allowed to ride. 

Clipping in. Sipping water: I had a sport gel immediately ("Razz" flavored. One down, two to go following the plan outlined by my coach.)

Drying off on the descent and in the wind which would be a factor later in the race. 


When I think of the bike portion of the race, I think of two things: feeling strong in my aero-position, focusing on pedal stroke and the wind. You can't draft in a triathlon, so you have to keep 4 bike lengths between you and the person in front of you. For the first half of the ride, I was constantly calling out "on your left!" I felt like a human torpedo: all strength and fast and yeeehah!

Three sips into my endure bottle and half a water bottle down: at mile ten I overtake competitor #1002. Driving with her quads, the sleek angles of the silver aero helmet reveal an inefficient pedal stroke with too much lateral motion. I worry she will sprint to catch me, but I hold my pace. 

She doesn't.

Up and down some moderate hills, all with a headwind. Nothing to get worried about. I keep drinking the water, looking for the aid station at mile 15. 

*

My nutrition plan for this race was to "eat" as much as I could on the bike, making sure I'd have enough in me at the end for the run. To that end, I had emptied two bottles of ensure in a regular bike-bottle filled with ice (to make it cold, yes, but to cut the mixture with water), and a bottle of water I would switch out at every aid station. I also had three goo packets-- according to what my coach said, that would be enough. 

My coach had said that was more than enough. 

But maybe "enough" is not a concrete and immutable thing; "enough" is dependent upon conditions. Between the wind and the heat (or, relative heat.  Upper 70s-80s is not too bad. But, I'm not much of a "heat" athlete since I tend to sweat a lot of salt when it gets warm out) I think my biggest mistake was not having any additional electrolytes on the ride at all. I took in lots of water, lots of calories, but essentially, no salt. But I digress. Right now, I'm still riding strong. Kicking ass, even. I want to revel in that moment. 


The bike course was "rolling" and I can't say anything we covered was a "climb" per se. There was (maybe) one on the way out, something Strava calls "Micron: Can Only do in the 70.3" where I passed just about everybody, feeling like superman carrying Lois Lane from danger. Athletes with those solid-carbon wheels and aero-helmets in their lowest gears. (I felt a special thrill passing souped-up bikes.) I just felt a cadence in my legs-- like the beat of my heart- and stuck with it. (I've been told that's what I'm good at.) I saw a former teammate-- Kara LaPoint-- who is an incredible pro athlete now at the crest of the hill and she looked so strong, so fit-- and I thought maybe one day that will be me. But for that part of the ride, I just tried to be as small as possible (into the wind), to pull up with my hamstrings, to drink water every five minutes or so. 

I will say there was a bottle problem. And maybe I need one of those fancy-bottle things that mount on the bike with a straw, but they had those crappy plastic bottles at the aid stations that were annoyingly loose in my bottle cage: how was I supposed to fit those in there? I had nearly 3 lost bottles on the ride that day-- suicide bottles, I'd call them, wanting to end their usefulness early. 

I caught up to my teammate, Tracy, at about mile 30. "Go, go, go!" she said and I certainly tried. 


So many cycling bodies. Men. Women. The woman at the hotel who'd been eating steak and salad with her non-athletic boyfriend from Vancouver. She was doing the Tahoe full Ironman next year. Her confidence had annoyed me when she said: "I can do whatever. Just throw the bike on a CompuTrainer." And I wondered why I had been annoyed. I wondered, too, when I passed her at mile 40 why that confidence bothered me. 

Maybe I wish I was that confident? I've never said: "OH I can do that" to anything in my life. I have to think about it first. Write about it. Worry about it. Puke about it (OK, not really.)  And I thought as I passed the Canadian in the white, gray and green: maybe I wish I was more like that. More confident. Maybe this race isn't about better, it's about finding you. Your pace, your cadence, your breath. 

Long lonely stretches that didn't look much different than areas around Reno: not a spectator in sight. Just breathe and pedal stroke and drink endure, drink water.  Goo-time. Water time. Time to turn. Don't get too close to the guy in front of you. Drink ensure. Drink water. 

Hope. Don't remember. Remember. Drink. Breathe. Pedal. Forget.

Remember. 

Breathe. Drink. Stroke. Forget.


A dive-bar set back from the road with three men seated in metal folding chairs behind a bland particle board table on the side of the road at about mile 50.

A pack of male competitors, in front of me, riding strong. 

I happen to pass the riding men in front of the drinking men seated at their table. 

The drinking men pound fists on their makeshift table and they make a thump-thump-thump and yell at 3 pm on a random Saturday afternoon: "Go, little Blonde, Go!"   

It's silly: but I remember them and I think: wow, maybe I am something remarkable, sometimes.

At about six miles from the transition from the bike to the run, I'm passed by a petite girl in a white, turquoise and black racing kit. She's wearing an aero-helmet (silver) but of all the people who chose to don that unfortunate cone-head, she's the only one who looks legitimately fast-- and capable-- enough to wear it.  I keep her in my sights and even pass her, once, but once we're into the headwind, she catches me again. 

My bottles are completely empty and I've eaten all my goos. As I turn into the transition area and dismount the bike I immediately think: I'm thirsty. And then I think: what is wrong with my legs? Wobbly, heavy: my body has literally turned to rubber cement. This is made worse by the fact that I know all I have at the next transition are my shoes and race number.  Click-clacking my way to my spot at the racks, I just tell myself again and again that I can do this. In the very least, I can do this. 

Shoes and race belt on: I start my run out of the transition as fast as I can, my legs out of rhythm with my breath, but running. I fall into a pace as I turn onto the busy lane and I’m told by a man on a motorcycle that the number 2 elite man is just behind me. I don’t turn to see who or how fast. This is my race to win, to lose, to finish. 


And then it happens: one mile into the run on a slight downhill: my left quad stops working and rolls itself into a hard little ball.  It happens so sharp and so fast I nearly fall.  A moment of panic: I can’t run, I can’t run, I can’t run. To make the moment worse, the girl in the white, turquoise and black passes me again and I think: there it goes, my race.  I wonder what I should do-- if I should take myself back to the finish line, admit it’s over with. If I should lay down right here, in the warm grass and cry. But before that thought settles in, I know I can’t give up. 

In an instant, the race becomes less about winning than it becomes about something larger. Its not about first place or any place at all. About “winning” or “losing”. This race is about me and all those lonely months and miles when I told myself, again and again, that if I could be strong enough to do this race, I could be strong enough in other aspects of my life, too. I could mend my broken heart enough to love again. I could forgive and forget all the hurt in my life. I could learn a new kind of happiness that is not contingent upon performance, but that settles solidly in the knowledge that this life as it is, is enough. 

I couldn’t let any of that go. I didn’t want to let any of that go. There was too much waiting for me at the finish line: my parents, my teammates, my love, my life. And so, I started limping slowly, telling myself it was only a mile or so to the next aid station. And when I was there, I’d drink and eat as much as I could and limp to the next one. And the next. I would use the aid stations like stepping stones, no matter how slow. 

I was going to finish. I wasn’t going to let myself fail. 

I want this life, I thought. 

It felt so slow, like I was barely moving, but I put one foot in front of the other, thinking about my form, moving smoothly between muscle groups so that my quad wouldn’t spasm and cramp again. And soon, there it was: the orange shirts the race volunteers wore and their lovely cries of: “Water!” “Gatorade!” “Potato chips!” Yes and yes and all of it went down, heavy swallows, nearly choking. My legs felt better, though, and I felt like I moved into a jog. 

In reality, I was going at about 7:00-7:10 pace. Around a corner and the spectators cheered me on-- “You are so fast!” Looking strong!” they said. “Go, Rebecca, go!” One woman shouted (my name was printed on my race bib.) I focused on reaching the next aid station. It came quicker than I’d thought it would. Once again I ate and drank everything they had. Once again, I focused on my legs, landing smoothly. Not going fast: just going. 

All I want to do is finish, I thought. 

Across the bridge at mile 5.5; a race official who looked like one of my students smiled and said: “Damn girl, you are fast.” My heart leapt a little, my feet became lighter. Down the path, I met my teammate Tim at about mile 6 or 7. He wished me well as I passed him, running on. I wondered at how many people I was passing even though I felt so out-of-my-body and on the verge of total shutdown. I lived for those paper cups of Gatorate/Poweraid/Coke.  Stuffing potato chips down my throat as I ran (that’s a skill I admit I haven’t mastered--at all.) 

Soon, I was back where the run started for my second time around. My parents there, clapping, cheering: “Go, Becs, GO!” I knew the terrain I had to cover: nothing hard, nothing I can’t do. I just have to keep going. 

My quad began to throb and tighten; my knee like a ticking time-bomb that might just explode any moment. I was at a near-limp again. This time the aid station seemed impossibly far even though I knew it wasn’t. Keep on going, you, keep on, you can you can. 

I worried I was letting everyone down, running so slow. And then, the thin band of muscle on the inner side of my knee nearly snapped-- a small cramp-- and for the first time in my life, I prayed mid-race, mid-stride: Please God just let me finish. I need to finish this journey. I’m so close. Please let me finish.  I believe.

It was strange what happened next: clouds gathered and covered the sun and the temperature dropped a few degrees. I rounded another corner and the spectators who had seen me run by the first time cheered even louder when they saw me again. They called my name-- they said I looked strong. Me, incredibly; just when I thought I was broken. 

I counted down the final four miles with the old mantra: how many times in your life have you run four miles? Three miles? Two miles? And finally: how fast can you run this final mile? Up and around a turn, I attacked the rest of the distance with everything I had, passing a guy in the final half mile of the race. The announcer even commented on my speed at the end “...what a great finishing kick from Rebecca Eckland from Reno, Nevada!” and I crossed the line. 

I didn’t cry but I could have: I finished. 


I have never been so grateful for anything in my life (especially anything so uncomfortable.) Looking back, it was a stupid mistake not to have salt tablets with me.  But I am, in a way, grateful I didn’t have them: I was forced to look tragedy and probable failure in the eye and recognize that I had a choice. I could give up, or I could find a way to cross the finish line. 

In this race, I got to see the stuff I’m made of. I didn’t give up. I didn’t despair. I didn’t even cry. I simply came up with a plan and did the very best I could, given the circumstances. 

And maybe that’s what we are in search of, those of us who toe the starting line of these incredible races. We need to go the distance to find our depths. 

Perhaps.


Stats


Finish Time: 4:49
Placement/Age Group: 1

Placement/Overall: 11






Friday, June 6, 2014

The Drive Before the Race

Boise Half Ironman: Part I (To the starting line) 

To travel to the starting line of my first 70.3 I had to travel back in time-- turning East on I-80, a thick ribbon of pavement which leads out of Reno-- a stretch of road I haven’t driven for nearly fifteen years.  Call me crazy, but it’s hard not to get nostaglic-- or to remember, anyway-- all those trips back and forth between Reno and Spring Creek, back when I was an athlete, back when I was young. 

I think part of the reason all this comes to mind is my parent’s presence: half the reason I made the trip so often was to visit my dad and stepmom who have always (at least in terms of my lifetime) lived in Reno. That they are coming to Boise with me to cheer me on is something like coming home again; or becoming home, if that makes any sense. 

I used to know this stretch of I-80 well: Wadworth to Fernley to Lovelock (past the prison) then Imlay, the exit to Unionville and Winnemucca.  It’s vast and empty-- not that I didn’t remember it that way-- but seeing is something different than memory, it has less shadows, perhaps. 

These were the final legs of my journey if I was driving alone and on my way to see my dad for the weekend when I was fifteen or sixteen years old. Or, they were the stops we always took on the yellow school bus (no matter what the sport team: we always stopped at the Flying J in Winnemucca where the”treasures” you could buy in the truck-stop convenience store mesmerized us after all those hours spent on the dark expanses of east I-80 before or after a game/race/event.)

As we pulled into Winnemucca yesterday, I heard our old commentary: the reason why we never stopped at the Burger King at the top of the hill (next to the largest cemetery in the middle of a town I’ve ever seen. Apparently, a lot of people come to Winnemucca to die): “where else would they get their meat?” 

Today, I repeat those old jokes to my dad and stepmom, and we, too, avoid the Burger King (not that we are Burger King people.) Instead we stop at the cafe in the Model T-- the mini-casino across from the cemetery-- for lunch. A bit over 300 miles to go: I didn’t realize how far it was to Boise. 

And maybe that statement is telling: Look how far I’ve come -- and how far I have to go. 

*

I’ve said I haven’t changed-- days (a day) from the race, I don’t think that’s true. I think I have changed in one very important way: I’m not afraid anymore. This doesn’t mean I’ll jump in front of cars or left heavy objects from people trapped beneath them: but I will put a wetsuit on and swim in open water because it is something I do, something there’s no reason to be afraid of anymore. 

I will also invite and cherish these moments I share with my family. So what if I don’t do so well? It isn’t about that, necessarily: I don’t fear my own failure, wondering what every one will think of me. Instead, this is a race that is ABOUT me but also OUTSIDE of me. A mile-mark to measure eight months of solid training, yes. But it cannot possibly represent all those hours and days. I carry those with me, moving forward to the next event. 

Because there will not only be one, but many. 

I am an athlete, after all. And I've already started envisioning myself crossing other lines, bigger lines, longer lines. Again and again. 

*

We survive Oregon. The route to Boise-- highway 95, cuts across Oregon’s lower right corner (a.k.a. the “bowel” of the state.) Or, so it seemed when the speed limit dropped to 55 on that narrow two-lane highway and the landscape was (if this is possible) more bland than the sort you see en route to Winnemucca. 

We literally cheered at the Idaho border (who thought I’d ever do that?) when the road widened and the world turned a friendlier shade of green. Undulating terrain, canyons and farmland replaced the brown, flat monotony. And it was hard not to be excited with less than an hour of driving to go. 

*

I haven’t picked my race packet up yet; that’s the first thing we’ll do today (Friday). Instead, we spent the night telling both old and new stories: stores from generations back but we end the night by looking at the story that’s left to unfold (this race) prompted by my bike, propped by my bed looking something like a promise.

The entire race is only a bit over 70 miles, I keep telling myself. A distance I’ve ridden many times; the swim a bit over a mile (less than practice!) and the run, two 6.6 mile laps where my goal is to complete the second faster than the first, with an old-Rebecca style finishing kick (a sprint) decorated with a smile ("I'm back," I can finally say.)  

Nervous isn’t the word: what I feel now is something more like excitement. Happiness. Or, maybe not quite yet. One thing I do know: I'm certainly not afraid.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

Seven Days until [half]Ironman Boise

It's probably redundant and not very interesting to begin a blog with the lines: "I can't believe it" and "where has the time gone?" Time does only one thing (progress) and training for an event you didn't think (quite) you could do has the expected outcome of proving yourself resoundingly wrong merely by finishing (hey, look I didn't die!) or resoundingly right (I guess I know myself better than most people.)

When I signed up for Boise last winter, I was in a bad place. Or, more accurately, a sad place. Broken-up, broken-hearted and just plain broke.  Not only had I my seven-year relationship ended, I'd lost the LOA (Letter of Appointment for those of you who are curious) position at the university-- I had no job and really, nothing to keep me from the street. I cried into my cat's fur at night with the thought that I was unable to support myself-- to support them (creatures that need little more than water, food that is like hard-tack for sailors and a box to shit in) -- and what did that say about me? And it was about that time of the winter solstice when I decided to ask my parents to sponsor me for this race-- because, really, what else did I have to be proud of, to look forward to, in a time like that? (And they did, because it was my birthday and because I had asked in a really, really desperate way and they probably felt sorry for me.)

And now I'm a week away and it isn't what I thought, exactly.

It is more and it is less.

I thought this race would help me pick up the broken pieces and parts of my life; that the miles and yards and hours and days would sift out all the broken stuff and make "me" whole again. I thought, at first, I'd "win" him back (back when that was what I wanted). I thought I would be thin and lithe like a feather. I would have thick skin which would be impenetrable, like iron (without rusting, of course.) In other words, I thought I would regain what I'd lost: become who I had been, once, years ago.

That is not what happened.

I did not "become" some older self.  In training for this event, I've literally become someone else, physiologically, mentally and emotionally. I did not "win" him  back. This person-- this body which can swim and ride and run-- didn't need to, in the end.  What the the training brought me to was not a resolution, but a starting point: here I am and I am enough, the miles and yards and hours say. And my athlete-brain is ready to believe them.

Give me a distance and I will cover it.
Give me a time, and I will meet it.
Give me your hand, and I will take that, too-- (this journey has been unexpectedly focused on relationships.)

And maybe that's why I wanted to write this blog today. It isn't about me or even the  Boise Half Ironman.

Instead, I am able to do this one because of the people I have met along the way. The people who have changed my life-- changed me, in fact--- the people to whom I owe not only this race, but quite probably my life.

People like Steve Gehrke-- such an accomplished scholar, writer and poet-- who has taken the time to read my work, to help me through the revision and submission process and who listens to my battle-stories from the road. Who listens and reads. Who knows the dark writer-moments. And despite knowing all that, who loves me, inexplicably.

To Rich of Great Basin Bicycles-- my sponsor- who's (literally) taught me how to ride a bike. To ride a bike in aerobars. To ride to the point of puking and crying and laughing and jumping up and down. To ride knowing someone has your back and that, in life, a person is never completely alone or lost or helpless. There is always hope. There is, I guess, always a bike.

To Tanna of the UNR Tri Club. The kind of athlete I wish I was! Dedicated-- but always smiling. Every run and ride and swim is better with Tanna there. Whether she's singing the part of a song I'll get stuck in my head or saying the thing I want to say but don't (someone else smells or really sucks) she's there, saying it. We rode 200 miles together in the Davis Double and I couldn't have chosen a better teammate to stick with me through the miles. Someone to be there. To care if I was there. Someone to talk me through the tough spots.

And maybe that's what is so surprising at the (near) end of this journey. It wasn't about me, at all. I am who I am (I guess that hasn't changed!) and I can't say that I have firm grasp on life. What I have now, however, are friends-- the kind who want to stick around a while (come way may); the kind who've only offered me encouraging advice for Boise.

The kind who look beyond Boise to the rides, the runs, the swims and years to come. No matter what I do: no matter how the light narrows in a swim, how focused I become or how far I am from first place-- I've found the people who accept me just as I am.

People I love dearly.

And maybe that's what I will find at that finish line: that none of this time or distance is about me, exactly. It's about becoming. Or, being. It's about all that matters and all that doesn't. It is the fear of not-knowing but doing anyway.

It's about faith and life and love.

And all those little details like breathing, drinking water and eating now and then.

But mostly I think it's about love.

And cats (my two monsters told me I had to mention them.)









Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The (Half) Ironman: A metaphor

I've already written about how I'm a creature of metaphor and that the Boise Half-Ironman is more than just a race. It's a way for me to prove to myself that I am strong "like Iron" (or, half-iron anyway), that I can swim and bike and run and keep going for a pretty long time. But until yesterday I didn't realize how this metaphor has worked its way into other-- unrelated, even-- parts of my life.  The Ironman isn't just training and it isn't just a race; instead, it's presence in my life is like a complicated root system drawing nutrients from every aspect of my life: my home, my cats, my relationships, my body, my words.

*

Yesterday, the Sanchilla went missing. ("The Sanchilla" is Sanchia, my four-year old rescue cat who's only ever known the indoor world and whose previous owner died and left her homeless. She became mine when we were both going through rough times to put it mildly. I should also mention she is small enough to be a kitten, fluffy and unbelievably timid-- although not as timid as Jacques.)

"Going missing" isn't exactly accurate, however. I had spent most of the day gardening (after my bike/run adventure) and I'd met my mom for lunch in Carson City. I hadn't seen her for a while and we talked about just about everything, even CATS! And that's when my mom suggested the Sanchilla might like to see the garden herself: to roll in the dirt, to feel the sun on her coat, the wind on her little nose and keep me company when I work out there-- something I want to do more of this season.

(In other words, my mom doesn't want me to be lonely.)

"She's not as scared as Jacques," my mom said and I thought, there's something to that. 

*

But she's NOT an outdoor cat. And I should have known... (you need to know yourself, your competition, the landscape in order to be an athlete. You need to know your cat to be a great cat owner ...) And so, after a long day, I carried her outside with me to feel the sun and wind and soil, wrapped in my arms. "Safe", I thought.

That's when she got away.

It's like a nightmare, remembering it: her furry body slipping out of my hands, through the deck railing and onto the roof below me, and another roof, another roof and then... slip-- gone. A flash of her across California Avenue and I thought-- as a reflex-- she'd been hit.

OMFG!

Shoeless, I ran along the walkways of the little complex in which I live, calling into the afternoon wind, barefoot and crying: "Sanchia! Sanchia P! Sanchilla!" Two hours of that: of me walking along the sidewalk, shaking the treat bag, of me crawling under or climbing over fences, looking for her little furry body. Sometimes-- at the top of the hill, especially-- I'd hear her, that muted sassy (but now scared) "mew."  But for all the swaying tree limbs in the wind, for all the underbrush and shadows, I saw nothing. It was like I imagined she had existed.

And, most times I called all I heard was the wind answering me, empty.

And after two hours of that, what do you do?

If you're me, after two hours (120 minutes, much longer than it takes me to run 13.1 miles) you panic. You feel awful and guilty. It hits you when the window sill upon which The Sanchilla perched and gazed out on to the world is empty. Your heart goes cold when you put her bed outside, hoping the smell will draw her home.

I'm not casting you out, little one. Just come home, just come home. A prayer. A litany. I'd sell my soul, if I had one left, to get her back. And still, the silence. The waiting.

And the guilt! That window sill. That food bowl. That bed.

No more Sanchia: the Sachilla at dawn stomping on my chest, destructing sleep. Purring. Loving--however unlikely-- me. 

*

I remembered a night not long after I'd adopted her-- a December night before TMCC told me I could teach for them and before UNR confirmed, too--when I wondered if I'd have a home at all because I had no job and I had pennies in my bank account. I held that little cat in my arms and promised her we'd be OK, no matter what. I wouldn't let her go hungry or starve. I would learn how to be enough.

I'm going to fix this, I said to her one night as if she could understand: I will not let you fail, little one. You will have food and water and a home. Always. With me. I promise.

*
So that's why I pulled all the sheets and blankets off my bed and onto the deck. That's why, at dusk on a Sunday, I was laying on wood as still as the boards themselves. I wanted "the Sanchilla" back, yes, but also all that she represented.

Self-sufficiency.
Strength.
Home.

*

11pm. Jacques trills his "it's a kitty!" noise. I wake and see her little body flitter in the shadows of night cast by the CVS marquee across the street from me. By this time, she'd been gone seven hours.

She is wild: untamed and almost a shadow herself.  I feign sleep until she runs across my body and I do the ultimate football catch knowing it might be--could be-- my last change to get her inside.

And I do: we cry. (Or, I cry: holding her too-tight on the couch and she cries to let me know I'm holding her too tight.)

For Sanchia: it was a day of adventure!

For me: I can't sleep that night. Every fifteen minutes or so, I wake and pet her. I stand and check the windows. The front door. I expect to learn I have lost everything.

But no matter the hour, there she is, Sanchia: small and furry and there. My cat. My life.

Both: still there.

*

I thought I'd lost her.

After all, we are the most comfortable with experience... what we know.

I don't know if I can swim in open water. I don't know how to bridge the worlds of my cat's indoor and outdoor worlds. I don't know if I can survive on my own, but I'm starting to believe I can.

And within those parameters, I guess, all we can do is our best.



Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Long Way Home: My First Double-Century (The Davis Double)



I think of my sports as imprints on my body: the time spent out in the elements with the sun or rain or wind or snow literally tanning, thrashing or nipping at my skin. But the experience of an endurance athlete is more than skin-deep, too. It imprints itself into the heart and soul of me. Or, at times, sheds light onto this strange creature I am-- this person who wakes and swims or runs or rides without thinking-- falling into the mindlessness of motion. 

I once rode with an Ironman Triathlete. You know the type: the repeat offender. He once told me about training for Ironman Saint George and how his body fat percentage fell so low that he couldn’t swim in a heated pool without a wetsuit. He also coached athletes for the distance and, in trying to encourage me to sign up and try my hand at the event, said words that have imprinted themselves in my mind because I found them so incomprehensible-- and strange: You learn things about yourself when you train for something like that. 

Maybe that doesn’t seem incomprehensible or strange: but at the time (and until yesterday’s ride) I wondered what there is left about me to discover. I know I can’t run a marathon anymore. I know my weight. I know I can’t eat shellfish, that I like to go to bed early and get up and train. I know I’m afraid of open water and wearing a wetsuit. I know I love to write, and will do so even though no one (likely) will publish my work. I know that I will never be thin enough to be beautiful. I know I look awful in polka dots.

But as it turns out, there are several dark reasons each of us holds inside of us for the reasons we do what we do in the world. Most times, those reasons are covered over by the habitual actions of the every day we hardly think about because we are not forced to feel them. Swim 3000 yards? Ride 40 miles? Run an easy 10? These are not things I necessarily feel. I can lose myself in those distances, become a mindless shell of a person. 

But when you ride 200 miles (or, for 12 hours) there comes a point in time when you can’t hide anymore. The barrier between yourself and the world narrows-- or so it did for me-- and the reasons why I push myself the way I do bubbled to the surface, resting on my skin like the sun, the wind. 


The phone rang mid-dream at 4am. I’d been dreaming about an aid station I might see on the ride that day which forced me to wait in a long line for coffee. In the dream I put the cup down and lost it. Distraught at the possibility of all that waiting, I woke up to a dark morning. 

Out on the road by 5am: I can’t say I’ve ever ridden my bike that early-- or done any athletic event that early. I think the earliest race I’ve done before was the San Francisco Half Marathon back in 2008-- we started at 5:30 am for that one. I still remember the dark and the slap of the bare feet of the man next to me on San Francisco’s paved streets. 

It wasn’t cold, but rather, moist and dark. A criss-crossing of darkened streets in Davis I hardly remember and suddenly the openness of a service road next to I-80 and the barest glimmer of dawn. It wasn’t long into the 200 mile ride when something akin to the humming of a hive came over our group of six. The “peloton”  lead by a handful of tandem bicycles whizzed by at something like 25 mph. Rich easily sucked himself into their draft. I struggled not to be left behind. 

Soon, I was in a sea of cyclist-bodies. The humming sound-- coming from our wheels and cranks-- filled the air. Men at my right and left shoulders; there was a type of frenzy in trying to hold that fast pace, but to be on the edge of awareness to every change in speed, knowing the proximity of the wheel in front and back of you, Knowing one false move would mean the pavement and road rash-- a crash-- feeling the responsibility of several lives (including my own). I only caught glimpses of my teammates: Rich and Brian far ahead. Tanna, too, at one point and I rounded the group and sprinted to keep up-- or, at least to keep them in sight. The sound of a dog barking, once, made my hand leap to the brake (who’s braking so fast? I wondered.) But it turned out to be a dog in a fenced yard among the open fields growing slowly lighter as the smell of wet alfalfa filled the air. 

The first aid station came unbelievably quick. The tandem crowd didn’t stop and I found my group easily. I also found that I am not good with the kind of stops required by a Double Century. The idea, I guess, is to stuff as much food and drink in yourself as you can, manage your hydration (in and out, I mean) and then leave. I’m used to chewing, pausing, thinking. This would be an issue later in the day. 

But for that part of the morning: I just remember a quick stop before we became creatures of the road again. The humming gone, we watched the sun rise through the linear lines of orchards, my legs trying to make perfect circles. 


The hills would be my favorite parts of the day. I am remarkably good at hills (funny: as a runner I really suck at them. But put me on a bike and watch me go.) The first ascent to Lake Berryessa was by far my favorite part of the day. The atmosphere was still somewhat moist and misty; the trees shaded the road and something blooming smelled sweet like summertime. There was a slight headwind before we entered the Putah Creek canyon (who comes up with these names?? Putah Creek? Sheez... later we’d also ride by “Pleasure Cove”, a campground, which sounded, um, sort of dirty!) 

I remember rolling terrain and regretting not making use of the porta-potty at the first stop (I think my thoughts between miles 30-59 were something along the lines of:  please don’t pee your shorts, please don’t pee your shorts...) 

Luckily, just when I thought the great deluge had arrived, so did the second stop. Over 50 miles and it was still morning. Maybe I could do this, I thought, standing in line, eating as much fruit, peanut butter & jelly and water as I could. Eat-eat-eat, drink-drink-drink, pee-pee: the dance of the double-century rider when you’re not riding. 

Then up and out again. We saw a pony on a small farm not far from there who stood, blinking as we went by. A horse in miniature; my spirit-animal, perhaps-- I am not (quite) an athlete. And so begins my descent into the darkness. 

*
To know where and how fast and how far you are: these are the measures of my sport. It shouldn’t be: but I have to admit my sense of worth is balanced precariously on these things: where and how fast and how far. But those things make no sense unless you have some point of reference. And what do you do when you are surrounded by other people? If you are me and in need of these measures, you compare yourself to all of them. 

So many people in front of us: incredibly fit bodies and not-so-fit ones. Here is where I’d find that I am not so strong in a paceline or on the downhill stretches. I have gotten better, true, but Rich and Tanna would leave me multiple times because of this weakness-- something I found again and again was deeply embarrassing. Of course, I’d sprint, catch up, hang on Tanna’s wheel only to fall off again. And again. 

(The dance of a bad cyclist.) 

This was where we would meet the orange-jerseyed cyclist on a fixie. “That guy’s an animal,” said Brian and I had to admit, there was something chiseled and raw about the physique on that single-speed. He was like those mountain men who subsisted on berries and bear, his toughness a roughness, too. His wife would follow us in a white SUV and snap pictures of his crossing. He was raising money for something. I’d asked him, much later, for what, but I couldn’t hear him due to the wind in my ears from the speed we were riding.

And then another climb. This is where I’d meet a rider named George (a man of amazing calves) with a white jersey. He would climb with me that day and say that his ride partner had fallen apart trying to keep my pace up the hill. I’ll learn this about 40 miles from the end; when I met George (not knowing his name) he was another of several passing figures in my field of vision (Rich had fallen back to help Brian up the climb.) 

The terrain: beautiful. The mist had lifted to a deep blue summer sky. Vineyards and ponds, posh country developments, a winding paved and open road. Tanna and I fell behind the wheel of a nice young guy named “Scott” who would pull us into the third rest stop at an unbelievable clip. Funny: it turns out Scott would be a friend of a friend-- a fact we’d find out at the finish line. The cycling world-- like the writing world-- is both very large and small. Cutthroat (there always has to be someone who is fastest) but kind-- the balance camaraderie and competition resting upon the edge of a blade.



There was a four-mile stretch of unpaved road. This, I was not prepared for. I have to admit: all the times I’ve found myself on my road bike in the dirt it’s been the result of some poorly considered choice on my part and I nearly (always) end up on the ground, dusty, bruised and bleeding. To say my anxiety level was high during this part of the ride would be putting it mildly. I felt like I was out of control and on the verge of crashing. Tanna and Rich navigated the dirt easily and soon slipped out of view. Oh God. Now I’m going to ride the rest of these miles alone, I thought. And then: I’m not good enough to be here. 

I would be lying if I said I took this stoically, sucked it up and just kept going. Instead, I nearly started crying and, in a desperate fit, sprinted up the gravel hill with all I had until I caught sight of Rich and Tanna again. Only, once I caught them, I kept going. I knew Rich would catch me (it’s sort of inevitable, like gravity or the fact that the earth will circle the sun again again or that toast, when dropped, always lands jam-side down). He did catch me, (and so did Tanna) but I said hardly nothing for the rest of the climb (the second of three), thinking they’d both had enough of me and my incompetence, by then. 

And the downhill to the “lunch” stop: I realized that if I do not finish Boise, if I do not do well in competition or practice, if I do not get over my fear of wetsuits and open water, it will no one’s fault but my own. Every fear and doubt I have are the product of my own imagination. Rich and Tanna weren’t leaving me: I’d made that up because I’m weird and have deep emotional issues, apparently.  

This realization would settle in when we did stop and I forgot to do the eat-eat-eat, drink-drink-drink, pee-pee dance. Instead, I’d stared at the sandwich I’d grabbed and sipped the coke distractedly. I am not an athlete nor do I have the heart of one, I thought and when Rich said, “Let’s go,” I realized I’d wasted my time staring at a sandwich. I threw (most of it) uneaten in the trash, my face on fire. 

You learn about yourself when do train for things like this, someone told me long ago. On mile 114 of a 200 mile ride, I learned that I had to want to finish regardless of anyone else around me. I had to decide I was enough to do this on my own. No more measures to the outside world. No more wondering if my ex would be proud of me (I’ll always be your biggest fan, he’d said, once-- a lie I’m finally ready to let go of); no more wondering what a coach might say or how his slap on the back might feel, no more (even) wondering about Rich and Tanna and their perceptions of who and what and how fast I am. 

In the world of a 200 mile ride, there is only yourself-- and what you are riding towards. My life: my writing, the students I teach, the distant finish line of Kona, my relationship with a talented poet who loves me. All these things-- intangible-- would be the flashing images I’d turn to in the final miles when all I wanted to do was not to feel the pain any longer. 

And so, I promised myself I’d make it, come what may. 

*

What would come was unexpected. In the end, it was my left shoulder that would ache unbelievably from my position in the aerobars that would make the final forty miles unbearable; not the pain in my butt or legs.  Little things caught my eye: the little critter face up in the middle of the road, legs splayed in rigor mortis, the body of a rattlesnake, flattened and imprinted with tire marks from bikes. Arrows on the road leading us to a mis-marked pit stop in a campground where a pot-bellied man with a beer in his hand would shout at us: “How long you guys been riding?” 

And Rich answered: “We’re at about 149 right now.” 

“Holy shit,” he’d said, nearly speechless. 

Back on the road. Tanna singing “On the Road Again”-- a ritual she’d started back around the second rest stop (mile 59) with Rich chiming in. The ache of gearing up and settling into the pace again. The rest stop, when it came, was nearly empty of bodies and food (later, we’d find out that we did the ride so fast we beat the support supplies. Other riders had grilled cheese sandwiches, hot soup-- real food, in other words. This compared to: fruit, some random assortment of bars, and slightly stale peanut butter & jellies that had been ferried from the rest stops that morning.) And that precious Ginger Ale. I’m not much of a soda-person: but Ginger Ale became the thing I dreamed of between each remaining stop. 

Well, that and a cold shower.

Rich popped the bones in my back at the second-to-last stop of the day to try and make my shoulder feel better. But when something hurts in the final 40 miles of a 200 mile ride, there’s really nothing much you can do about it but keep riding. 

*

And the end: the final 20 miles a brutal ordeal riding into a headwind. Rich out in front: I sprinted ahead of the mass of cyclists who stuck to him like lepers stuck to Jesus  in the New Testament (I teach Core Humanities) and tried to help him out. And I did, for a bit. 


I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy as I was when I saw the sign announcing we were in Davis, again. Elevation 52. Streets with wide shoulders for bikes and trees which blocked the wind, somewhat. Even though we hit nearly every stop light, there was a giddy joy in my stomach as I half-recognized the dark streets we’d ridden through 12 hours before. The manicured lawns, the houses, the piles of leaves someone unwisely placed in the bike lane: this was the land of civilization. I’d gone into the wilderness of my mind for a 12-hour ride and came home, again... not only knowing what and how fast and where I am, but another small clue as to the imprint of "who" I'm becoming in the miles I run, the meters I swim, the miles I ride.