Sunday, April 26, 2015

Ride Report: 2015 Devil Mountain Double

It's funny how life comes back around in on itself sometimes, as though we construct moments not in a linear fashion (from beginning to end), but instead like a spiral, circling back on the people and places we knew that we thought were in the past. I've always hated the phrase that "things happen for a reason" (I don't believe they do)-- but I am learning the value of experience (and the rationale, perhaps, for embracing each moment in life fully); and also the immeasurable ways I have been blessed by having so many incredible people people my life.

This ride begins back in 2011 or 2012 when I met up with a ride group in the East Bay called the Diablo Cyclists. I was too injured to run and although I had joined a competitive master's swim team, too, I  missed being out on the roads and so I thought I'd do something uncharacteristic: try something new. I actually also wanted to see the bay by bike; I didn't know if would stick around after I finished the MFA program at Saint Mary's College (I was studying nonfiction).  A part of me feared I wouldn't due to the high cost of living there.
Riding with the Diablo Cyclists back in 2011 or 2012, learning the route to the DMD long before I'd actually ride it.

Enter: the Diablo Cyclists. I ended up spending my weekends riding with them, doing the longer rides on Saturdays (usually around 100 miles) with a crew of experienced riders and the more casual Sunday rides which usually around 50-60 miles or so. Looking back, I'm glad they put up with me: I was greener than green when it came to riding, but they taught me the basics of pace lining, fueling, not tackling every hill like it was the last thing you'd ever do, etc.  Jay-- who'd ridden countless doubles and always colored every ride with this anecdotal stories and photo-taking (later to be turned into either a video, a blog or both)-- nicknamed me "Rebecca-In-Motion".

I would listen to stories of Jay's latest double, of other riders' past double and century challenges; of windy rides, of mishaps, of proud moments. One ride, though, dominated our conversations back then. It was the "Devil Mountain Double", or "DMD"-- the end-all of rides. Several riders in the group trained for it and I tagged along.

So, going into the first stage of the Triple Crown Stage Race, I knew 80% of what I was getting into (I haven't climbed Sierra Road or Mt. Hamilton before.) I also knew I was facing a ride that challenged the strongest men I'd ridden with, years ago.  One of my many thoughts on race-morning was how funny to be back again, doing the one ride I thought I'd never do. 


 *

Life is also funny with the people you meet. Again, with the spirals.  Who would have thought I was capable of not only riding but racing a double century? (This year, I even had a coach--NOT RICH-- tell me I'd never be a cyclist. I guess that's what happens when you're petite and solidly built.)  But, when the possibility of riding a double came up last year, Rich said "do it." And when he rode another with a friend (the toughest Double Century, the Alta Alpina), he said I could do that one, too (and criticize me too harshly for going out too hard that day and missing the end by about 20 miles.)

So when I'd mentioned I'd like to try for the Stage Race this year, I had my colleagues from the Diablo Cyclists and Rich to encourage me. Rich said he would ride the miles with me and pull me to the end; one of my former Diablo teammates lived just miles from the start line and offered us a place to stay. And Jay (and another strong rider, Dave) offered me a plethora of advice that would come in handy on the ride (something like "don't be a hero up the climbs-- yes, thank you for that one.)


We left Friday night after work, which meant we didn't get into San Ramon until after 10 pm. This is pretty rough considering the 5 am start time which meant the 4:00 am wake up time (I'm usually an 8-hour sleeper), but I was simply thrilled to FINALLY RIDE THE DMD (this is exactly what I was thinking before the ride.) Driving down to the start revealed cloudy, moist conditions, I half-hoped it was the marine layer which sometimes settles in over the valley and that once we got past the junction on Mt. Diablo, we'd see blue skies.  However, that would not be the case.

At the start, I layered up: shorts and tights, jersey, a warm layer and a rain jacket, I believed I'd shed everything but shorts and jersey later, but I didn't want to freeze coming down from the summit of Mt. Diablo (I knew, from my many rides up that mountain, that the descent can be brutally freeze-your-hands-off cold, even in the midst of summer.)

The race director talked a bit too long (as they usually tend to do) before we started off.  Down the wide-shoulder boulevards in the dark and the rain. Rich pulled me to the front of the pack and we reached the foot of Mt. Diablo with the lead men. Climbing, I immediately felt myself begin to overheat. Sweat streamed down my face and body and the rain just wasn't cool enough to cut the heat. About a quarter mile up (so not quite to the junction which is 6 miles up) I just couldn't take it anymore. I felt awful about shedding layers so early (and watching several riders, including two or t three women) ride past me when I did. I was a stream of apologies to Rich: "I'm so sorry, I didn't meant to ruin the ride, I ruined the ride, I was so hot" etc, etc until he told me to knock it off.

After I was only in my jersey, I felt like I could breathe and suddenly it wasn't really a climb at all. I rested low in my aerobars and heard the chirp of birds in the oak trees around me (one sounded just like one of my new chicks, Biscuit, and I thought: how cute. She came down to cheer me on.) 

The climb up Diablo was (mostly) uneventful. Rich entertained the other riders we'd pass by picking up pinecones and rocks while riding and tossing them off the road without getting off the bike. I tried to talk him through the climb since there wasn't much to see (too much fog and rain) with statements like (this is usually a really beautiful lookout.) To which he would reply: "Wow. What a beautiful view."

Greyness and clouds (and cold) surrounded us, but for that first climb I didn't feel the cold. I worried about the last quarter mile, however, knowing that it's steep and you're on a walking path and not a road. I remember feeling as though I wanted to puke both heart and lungs at the end of it every time I'd climbed it before. Funny how so many miles and training hours later, some things don't change. That part of Diablo is still hard and I still wanted to puke my heart and lungs at the top.


Rich and I at the top of Mt. Diablo after the first climb of the DMD.


It was cold at the top. I refilled my water bottles, ate half pb&j and drank some orange juice (I hadn't eaten before the ride and I'd been starving since the junction.) Rich took a quick picture of us at the top before I put all my layers back on again for the descent.  And that was where Diablo gets its name, perhaps (OK, not really) : but the ride down was so cold, I wasn't sure I was going to make it.

Shivering, I lost sensation in my hands about a mile down. I called to Rich and we traded gloves so that I could at least attempt to use my brakes on the way down. The shivering, though made it hard to hold a line and there were several moments when I felt my vision narrow from the cold-- so much so that I worried if I even blinked I might fall asleep and wake up to find I'd wrecked.


Once we were off Diablo, the fog began to lift as we rode through the streets of Walnut Creek and out toward Clayton. We'd passed one of the girls on the way down and she hung with us for a while, actually, even to the top of Morgan.

I have always loved the Clayton-Morgan Territory ride. Clayton does its best to impersonate a "western" town and Morgan Territory is a winding road cut through pastures and ranches and then finally a narrow tree-canopied canyon, lush and green and all the things Nevada is not. I loved riding this stretch of road years ago because it is always sheltered from the wind and shaded-- so even on the worst hot, windy day, Morgan guarantees a long, steady climb without the added bonus of weather conditions.

Wild turkeys greeted our group of three (Rich, I and the other girl) as we began the staircase climb to the top. I didn't push the pace knowing the climb was long and the ride, longer. The woman who rode with us was a Biology professor from L.A. and was amused with my graduate degree in creative writing. Her lithe frame helped her considerably on that climb and she left Rich and I with about a half mile to go-- until we caught her in the step section right before the top, where we pulled into the second rest stop of the day.

This is where Rich would discover "crack"-- those little "cutie" oranges. He would carry a sack with him for the rest of the ride and when either one of us felt the cusp of bonking, out would come the cuties.

I also discovered (while worrying about this woman passing me) that I really shouldn't worry at all-- although I want to compete, I also just wanted to finish this ride and have fun (as they say, "a bad day on the bike is better than a good day at work.")  As I filled my bottle with more water, I turned to Rich and said "I took my FuckItAll pill and I feel fantastic."

And so, I'd keep a steady supply of those "FuckItAll pills" in my back pocket-- a reminder to enjoy life and not take everything so seriously. Another pb&j, some fruit, a pitstop in the PortAPotty. Life was very beautiful, indeed.

"Bundle up," one of the volunteers said as we departed. We would definitely need the warmth although, looking back, we hadn't shed a single layer.

Down the narrow one-lane road through more ranches and en route to Patterson, I fell behind Rich and we pace-lined quickly in the wind. Rich is one of the strongest athletes I know, but his true strength reveals itself when he can find a steady pace and hold it. My strength, at least for now, is being able to hold on.

We caught up to another girl (one who, I think? was in the lead) and she asked me at a red light if we were triathletes.  I said: "well, I am..." but before I could get any more words out, the light turned and Rich was off. I did my best to catch him, fall into his draft and, again, hold on.

This is what I did for the flat or flattish, even sections of road: hang on!


Out the Altamont Speedway, we had the wind at our backs and cruised along at a considerable speed. I've never been able to hold my own in sections like this--- I'm not a powerhouse and the wind tends to push me around too much, but behind Rich, we made good time. At the traffic porkchop, we made a break away from this other girl (a very strong rider) and she couldn't hold on. I didn't know any of this, however; I only looked ahead, to what waited for us.

PATTERSON PASS HATES ME.

Every time we rode this with the Diablo Cyclists-- or, every time I came along, it was horribly windy and cold. Today was really no exception. We had a strong headwind and the windmills were turning. Granted, I'd felt harder headwinds in the past, but on those days I hadn't also climbed Diablo and Morgan already.

I explained to Rich about the false summit and he took the news well. We climbed together to the mini-aid station where the volunteers let me know I was "the first of the female kind they'd seen here." I wondered a bit at how that was stated-- but I downed a V-8 and grabbed--but not eaten-- a single package of fig bars (my "Patterson Cookie" as they would henceforth be called) and started out again.

** I should note this is when my Diablo Cyclist-friend Matt, who offered his home to Rich and I for the night before, arrived. Matt had opted for the 6am, not 5am start, and so made some impressive time! In fact, he would ride strong all day and finish about an hour ahead of Rich and I. 

The summit of Patterson was a wall of considerable elevation gain and a headwind, as usual. Down the other side, Matt and a bunch of the faster men caught us. However, Rich did what he does best and found a pace and we all formed a paceline behind him for ten miles until the Mines Road rest stop. I'd begun to fall off (I was hungry, again!)  By this time, they had potatoes (OMG my favorite on rides) and more fruit, water and juice. Once I felt human again, we were off (and once again, we hadn't taken off any clothing.)

*

Mines Road was one of my favorite rides, years ago. From Livermore, it's a gentle climb out to the junction which could take you (and would take us) to Mount Hamilton. On fresh legs, you can really push the climbs and feel strong. In the cold, the wind and on legs that were definitely not fresh, Mines Road presented the challenge of patience. It seemed to take FOREVER.

I remember, years ago, thinking this stretch of road had reminded me of Nevada (when I had been away from home for years.) Riding it, and feeling just plain drained, I told Rich I must be crazy-- this looked nothing like Nevada at all! Scrub oak, pastures, greenery-- there was not a single trace of sagebrush. I wondered at the marvel of perception, and how funny it is that these things change.

Halfway up the last final climb on Mines Road, I started to feel hungry and tired again-- as if I wanted to crawl into a ball onto the shoulder of the road and sleep. I wondered if this was really fatigue or if it was something else. To test my theory, I opened my package of fig cookies I'd gotten up at Patterson and ate a fig bar. I felt immediately better.  A minute later, Rich offered me his cutie-crack and I was better, still.

It was also on this stretch of road that I stopped being able to shift from my front derailleur. I could go from big to small, but not the other way. It would be an annoyance the entire way (after lunch, I would have to get off my bike and have Rich shift the bike for me. How embarrassing.)

The lunch stop was held at "the junction"-- a biker-bar turned "cyclist-biker bar." I guess they have changed ownership in recent years because "pulled chicken sandwich" and "salad" were unheard of before. I remember the menu featuring hot dogs and fries and burgers as the main fare with the hilarious addition of a $4 pb&j. Today, the owner ran food out to the picnic tables, taking orders eagerly. I ate 3/4 of sandwich, salad, watermelon and a sparkling water. Rich had nearly the same thing.  I hate to say that (because most people would say the last thing I need is a sandwich) but I needed that sandwich. Nothing could have tasted better after those cold, windy 115 miles.

Lunch, though, would be where I discovered the worst-bad news of the day: the stitching in my shorts had come out so the chamois had bunched itself up on one side and had rubbed me to the point of bleeding. It would be a discomfort-- and a major obstacle-- later in the day, and it was the least-fun moment of the day, always, when getting back in the saddle and the five or so minutes after.


After lunch, the next climb was Mt. Hamilton-- and that's something I've never done before. For some reason, I always pictured Hamilton as this moon-scape, barren, dry, steep mountain you wouldn't climb for all the money in the world. And now, I was going to climb it.

We made good time on the way there, passing several single male riders on the way who were in various degrees of cramping. Once we finally began the ascent, I can't say it was horrible. It was, matching the theme of the day, long. And hard. It was beautiful, too-- not brown and barren at all, but tree-covered and green. And did I mention, cold?

Although I can't remember much from climbing Mt. Hamilton, here I am climbing Mt. Hamilton. This is about 1/4 mile from the top. 


I can't really remember much from the climb. I remember that I told Rich it didn't seem like we were climbing at all-- instead, it was like we were riding really slowly with two flat tires apiece to which he replied: "No, we are definitely climbing."  Mt. Hamilton, like Patterson, too had a false summit and I admit, I was taken in by it. I wanted to be done climbing, to be given some "free" (downhill) miles.  Shouldn't I be strong by now? Shouldn't I know better-- that in in toughest moments, sometimes the only thing life can do is get tougher (at least for a little longer)?

We did make it to the top where we stopped between the two space observatories and ate some of Rich's "crack" (cutie orange sections) while he slipped me from the small to big ring on my front derailleur.

The descent down Hamilton was brutal. The corners aren't angled right, Rich said, so you can easily find yourself in oncoming traffic, which kept our (or, let's be honest, my) speed low. By that time in the day, my shoulders and arms ached from gripping the brakes so hard and this descent was brutal on my upper body. It was also unbearably cold.

At the bottom, we re-grouped and paced ourselves across the rolling terrain to the next rest stop located at someone's house (odd). The house was up a climb and the driveway a steep downhill, which meant, basically, it was a rest stop you had to climb in and out of.

They had a billboard-sized elevation map above the garage I studied as I ate my cup of hot ramen soup, three potato chips and a fig bar.  One of the ride volunteers told me the delights (horrors) of Sierra Road, the next climb we faced. 3.9 miles and nearly 3,000 feet of gain. At that point in the day, that did not sound fun.

What was I going to do about it, though? Quit. Heck, no! My FuckItAll pill was still working and I was still going to finish this ride. I was already 130 miles or so into it and even if I had to crawl with my bike strapped to my back, I'd finish.

It was heartbreaking to see that hill, though. We rode through town, hitting stoplight after stoplight. It was mostly flat, save for the mountains to our right. And then, I saw the road sign "Sierra Road" and my heart dropped a little. When we made the turn, it dropped a lot more.

IT WAS A WALL, NOT A ROAD.

I think my FuckItAll Pill wore off at that moment.

What can I say of Sierra Road? Ouch, ouch, why, why? It may be the slowest I've climbed anything. I wanted to walk at several points, but the happy Filipino people who came out to cheer (everyone? or particular riders?) with their drums and sweet-smelling food made me feel guilty for wanting to walk. They came to see a show, I might as well give it to them? Rich told me to hold my pace slow and steady and I definitely did-- the slow part, I mean. At the near-top (maybe a mile from the real top. What is it with these climbs and false summits?) we saw a Golden Eagle which circled above our heads and which swooped down to "buzz" me twice.

"What is it with you and eagles?" Rich asked me and the only reply-- which I didn't have the breath to say at the moment-- was that an eagle was a much better omen than the vultures we'd seen before.

Sierra Road might have done me in. I'd been pretty good about not cramping and I admit, my legs still felt strong at this point. It was the other parts of my body which suffered-- my triceps (for some odd reason) were on the verge of cramping, my lower back was unbelievably tight and my shorts had done even more damage to my crotch (I asked Rich to take me to the hospital when we were done riding while climbing Sierra Road.)

When we reached the next aid station, I drank more water, refilled my bottles, drank a sip of Rich's Coke and was about to leave when the nice lady offered me chocolate. Like really nice chocolate. What I didn't know is that she laced the chocolate in "FuckItAll" so after that aid station, I would be more or less back. Granted, we still had Calavaras, Sunol, Palamaras and Norris Canyon before the finish line, but I knew I could do it.

We put our jackets back on (shivering. We had never completely dried off from that morning and now, with the sun dipping low, it was starting to get truly cold out. The good news, I guess, is that the wind had died down.)  We ripped the undulating, but mostly downhill, terrain. I sat low in my aerobars behind Rich and kept pressure on both my pedals so that I wasn't sitting, exactly, in the saddle.

*

When we reached Sunol, it was a bit after 7pm and the sun had nearly set. The aid station workers were drinking beer and I hated them, slightly, for that. Not that I wanted a beer, exactly. At that point, I didn't really want anything (to eat or drink) at all. I just wanted to be done with this ride. I'd been wet, cold, tired, hungry, thirsty and chafed to death for 14 hours. Enough is enough.

I even asked Rich if I could call it a day. Looking back, I'm glad he mostly ignored me. I was only 20 miles from the finish. One CompuTrainer class. I could run that (technically) if I had to.  I won't lie, though, that the final PortAPotty stop made me cry. I've never had that kind of issue before. I tried to ease my discomfort by applying a chamois cream which set my raw, bleeding skin on fire. Clipping my feet into the pedals and sitting back on the saddle brought involuntary tears to my eyes. I can't even describe that pain.

Soon, it became apparent: I had to pick my pain. I could stand up for 20 miles or sit down. Once I picked my position, the fabric of my shorts would stick to my bleeding skin and changing that position was enough to make me almost fall over. So, as the sun faded in front of us as we headed down a canyon toward Palamaras, I chose to sit and let myself cry behind Rich until that part of me became too numb to feel anymore, and I could continue riding.

Up Palamaras, Rich practiced his Peacock calls and I tried not to run over Salamanders as the light faded to near-dark. We reached the top sooner than I thought we would and the downhill, in the near-dark, was terrifying. We hadn't stopped to turn our lights on, only for Rich to put me back in the big ring again. I prayed to not hit a pothole. Luckily, there weren't any or someone likes Rich and I, in the great beyond.

At the bottom of Palamaras, we turned our lights on and made our way back to Norris Canyon. It was completely dark and silent (except for the odd car which would pass, the sound of frogs and crickets) and our pedaling. I thought about completing this race, how it was such an accomplishment (ME? Ride the DMD?) but also a let down (I was going to have a very, very slow finishing time.) I can't say I wanted to stop or to go; by that point, I was operating solely on a mechanical level, pushing and pulling the pedals around and around, but not clinging to any single thought or emotion.

Norris, in the dark, seemed to last forever. So did the downhill. Rich asked me if I wanted him to shift me into my big ring for the ride down and I replied "no." I didn't want to stop; I wanted to stop at the finish line and call it a day.  So, down we went and for a while, I struggled to keep him in sight.  Then, for whatever reason, I felt a click on my feet and my chain switched over to my big ring. I used my motivation to finish to catch up to Rich and we held a fast pace to the finish line at the San Ramon Marriot.

My finish was not impressive as Rich's, though: he rode his bike down the stairs while still in the aerobars to the room where the officials took our numbers to record finishing times. Since I was a runner, and a triathlete, I unclipped, but my bike on my back and ran down the stairs to say that #80 had made it, finally.

At the finish in the San Ramon Marriot. I think I have to work on riding my bike down concrete stairs in my aerobars if I'm ever going to place against this guy. :-)  Seriously, what a great day and I had the best company in the world.



It's funny, though: back in 2011, who would have thought that I'd ride a double century? That I would become a triathlete? That I would, in four years, ride the DMD and finish in the top of the field?

It is funny how events, places and times circle back in life, gaining meaning as we move through the years. I'm so grateful for the people and places I've been.

And, I can't wait for where I'm going.






Thursday, April 23, 2015

Escape from Prison Hill Half Marathon: An Unexpected Victory

It's taken me a while to digest this past weekend and the fact that I won a half-marathon.  I didn't sign up for this race thinking I could win or, really, take any of the spots on the podium. Granted, I'm not sure how many people wake up and say to themselves: Ah man, I really want to run up and down and around and up and up and up this random hill which sits over the prison in Carson City, Nevada which can be really sandy and hot because, you know, deep down I love pain. I really, really love it. Almost as much as I love running with sand in my shoes.

Instead, I signed up because running a really hard 13.1 miles right now is just as good as an "easy" 16. I'm not injured yet (knock on wood) and have had a really solid base of running miles. The last thing I want to do is to go out too hard or too long and end up with tendonitis.  So, a trail race that would force me to go "hard" (but still "slow") seemed like the perfect solution.

Plus, I miss having fun. Which makes me wonder about myself-- maybe I am the person who says: Ah man, I really want to run up and down and around and up and up and up this random hill which sits over the prison in Carson City, Nevada which can be really sandy and hot because, you know, deep down I love pain. I really, really love it. Almost as much as I love running with sand in my shoes.



Nevada, for me, is a place with layers (like sedimentary rock.)  I'm starting to realize every place I go is a place I've been before and I'm constantly comparing who I was to who I am. Sometimes I'm proud of who I've become. But, there are other times when a specific spot is a landmark in my life, a crossroads, and coming back again forces me to question the choices I've made and the person I've become.

The Escape from Prison Hill Half Marathon is no exception.  This was the first half marathon I ever ran, back when I didn't think of myself as a runner or an athlete at all. It was my second semester as an MA Candidate in the French department and I was 25 years old an I'd lost my "real" job, my house and in a desperate attempt to patch my life back together, I pursued an MA in French. Not because I wanted one, really, but because what they paid me to teach was more than what they paid me at the ski shop where I worked and that would allow me to leave the basement of the professors where I lived because they were kind, and had let me stay with them without charging rent.

So I was an MA Candidate in the French Department who lived in a 250 square foot "shit hole" near the railroad tracks and I'd signed up for this race because running was the one thing I had, then, to console me that life really was going to work itself out, that I was going to become a writer, that I would not always eke through life.  I wanted to know that I was strong, that I could have a goal and reach it.

I still remember that my mom had driven me to the race and had waited for me from start to finish. My dad and stepmom came to see me finish, too. My mom had spotted me first, pointing to the hill, saying, "that's her. I know it's her." My dad and stepmom hadn't believed I would do so well-- but they watched me win my age group and I think we all cried that day.  Looking back, it was evidence that (come what may) I was going to survive.

So, it's funny coming back to the big, sandy hill almost ten years later. I'm still here, surviving. I'm still an athlete and still a writer. I don't have the M.A. program to hang onto (or any academic program); now I'm a writer who does technical writing and who writes essays in her spare time and I manage a reading series-- an unexpected blessing. I am also an athlete. No matter how many times I have been told I will never be a runner, here I am at the starting line of another race.

The world narrows and there is really only a few things-- and people--which matter. One stands before me, just slightly to the left. As the race begins, knowing he is there makes all the difference as I match the pace of the lead runner.

*

This is a brutal race. Aside from the first 75 meters, the first three miles are uphill on a single track and sandy (although there will be gradations of "sandy" throughout this race. This is not "super sandy"-- the sand that sucks you down to the Earth's core. This is merely "annoying sandy" but still, it sucks.) I'm out in front and wondering how I can be so slow, but I am pulling away from the pack behind me. There are a handful of men, running, in front of me and I watch them to know what to expect from the terrain. I haven't seen another woman yet, but I wait for them to pass me. They are all leaner than I am-- most taller, too-- and I have been conservative with my running miles leading up to this race. (Again, I don't expect to win.)

For that first three-mile climb through "Old Truck Canyon" I think of the running coach I'd had who stopped  believing in me and I imagine he wants me to fail. I think of the tough things, because that is where my mind goes, at first, when I first encounter race-pain. It takes a minute or so to settle in, and I repeat to myself that this isn't a sprint, that I have to find a pace, a rhythm and let what happens, happen.  I do, and I crest the first climb with a nuclear fire in my calves, but still no woman has passes me.

I nearly trip on rocks which dot the single-track and I tell myself that if I eat shit, the race is over. This is another mantra I pick up which seems to help. Don't eat shit. Don't eat shit.  I pick up my feet higher than I normally would and cruise the downhills, not gaining as much speed as I'd like, but I definitely do not eat shit. 

*

The landscape is stark, but beautiful. Life is not always what we expect it will be, or how. This race is not what I expected it to be. I expected to be last because I am all things I have told myself for years. I was injured, so I'm not a runner anymore. I was injured, so I'm slow. I am not thin, which means I'm fat which means, again, I'm slow. I could parse all of these for you and trace each back to its origin but at this point, it's neither interesting nor useful. Let's just say I started this race thinking I was fat and slow and washed up and somewhat embarrassed that a person I love is watching me race-- or, is watching me start and will watch me finish.

But, even as soon as 75 meters in, I surprise myself. I am not fat, I am not slow, I am not injured. I'm sticking with the lead pack and I haven't heard or seen another woman.

Rich catches us before the single track turns up the canyon and I can see he's taking a picture of me, running. And how strange-- but wonderful-- it is that someone is taking a picture of me, running, in a race. Fat me, discarded me. Old me. Me who didn't qualify for the Olympic Trials after all. Me whose book didn't sell. Me who was unworthy of love, a year ago.

I could cry, really, but I don't. I keep climbing. I run my own race. Oh, but how I want to finish first because I know what waits for me at the finish line.

*

Up and down; I can't find a pace, but must adjust to the terrain. I don't run trails like this often; I can't, in fact, because of my work schedule. I run at lunch, which means sidewalk and this race is the opposite of concrete curbing. Up a canyon, across a ridge, down a narrow arroyo onto a playa and I see a hawk circling high above.

There are times I hardly see the trail and I feel as though I'm wandering through the desert, alone. I reach a steep incline, so steep I'm on my hands and knees, my feet not quite catching traction up the scree.

I remember the thing someone told me once, that he couldn't stand to wait for me to become. I am clawing at the desert floor, my knee is bleeding and I know I am becoming. You're not worth waiting for and I know so many of my coaches have thought the same thing.

I might cry, but I can't. Anymore.

Now, in this race, I can only say to myself, again and again: I am worth it, I am worth it, I am, I am-- that's me, panting, grappling and grabbing the earth by handfuls. I'm not ready to fail or fall back. Especially not now. I have to keep going.

*

There is a mile-long climb around mile 8 or so. I can't run it this year because the sand is so deep. I run and then, every now and then, I have to walk. So do the men in front of me.  We keep an equal distance from each other as we climb and climb and climb.

The aid station at the top of the hill is populated by men and women from a local running club and they all tell me I am the first female, that I am strong, that I have to keep going.

There are two men who leave the aid station with me and they, too, want me to finish strong. We run down a long, sandy hill and then the true test begins.

Up and down: steep in both respects. I handle the first of these extreme undulations the best I can: not eating shit on the downhill, digging deep up the ascent. I out-pace the men for the downhill efforts, but on the second steep ascent, I lose my balance and I fall into the earth. I try to crawl my way back up, but the sand gives way to the granite beneath it.

One of the men puts both hands on my butt and pushes me up, saying "Go, go, go!"

Without a word, I feel hands on my backside and the nearest runner gives me a tough shove. It's enough to get me up and I crest the hill.  I leave the two of them behind on the downhill and I don't see him until the end of the race. When I do, he smiles sheepishly and apologies for the "push."

"Don't," I reply. "I wouldn't have made it without it."


*

I met Rich over a year ago. His CompuTrainer classes saved my life because there was, literally, nothing else I had to look forward to. My partner of seven years left me for another person and the university (where I taught) did not renew my contract. While I scrambled for jobs-- and while I scrambled for myself-- I always had Rich's classes where I could ride my bike and my efforts matched my results. It was not like writing, where I could receive countless rejections for my work with really no justification. It was also not like love-- (which, too, can end instantly.)

Instead, riding was a constant, a guarantee. I could put hours in and see a tangible result.  Rich quickly became my friend. We rode together. He transformed an unsure rider into an endurance cyclist. It was the thing that got me through those hard months of learning to live on my own, of learning to trust myself. I'm not sure I'll ever repay that.

But I think of those months, last year, and how lonely I was. I think of that when I climb another sandy hill I don't think I can but do.


*

There's one final hill at about mile 12 in the sand that I really don't think I can run, but I do.  I keep thinking of Rich, at the finish line and my mom who said she'd be there, too. It isn't a big race or anything I can really point to in terms of accolades, but since this was my first half marathon it holds a special meaning for me. I love that I am in first and even though my legs are fatigues and I'm dirty and I just want to be done, I pick up the pace and float across the finish line. My mom stands to the right and I reach out to give her a high-five.

She hugs me when I've caught my breath and one runner I passed miles before stops to say: "You are a runner."

A part of me wants to hold onto that an all it could mean. Another marathon, maybe? Another shot at being, truly "fast"?

The feeling fades, though, and it's more important to me that I had the courage to come back and run this race, that I had the courage to finish and that I was able to share that moment with two people who mean so much to me.





Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Definitions & Chickens: Random Thoughts

I realized this morning that I haven’t blogged—or written much, really—lately and that is terribly depressing.  I get this feeling more and more these days, this sense that a part of my life is gone (a part which was very important to me) the part in which I swam through words and not a chlorinated pool. But, I wonder: how do you find the time for something like writing (which is a practice in and of itself) when you’re “grown up” and working an actual job-job (which borders on being truly the most awful thing you've ever done) and you (unwisely, perhaps) have decided to complete an Ironman triathlon?

Even as I write that, though, it’s not entirely true. I am beyond thrilled to finally do an Ironman and the hours I spend in the pool, on the saddle or on the road are ones that I not only enjoy, but live for. I don’t want to get rid of them or make myself have less of them, really.  

And yet, I can’t help but feel like a part of my life is gone. After all, I spent two years getting an MFA degree in creative writing, which essentially boils down to focusing on nothing other than writing for two solid years. When I was there, I wrote, thought about writing, revised, thought about writing some more and somehow, ended up with a book-length manuscript which has been a life-long dream for me. 

Maybe that time (in the MFA, writing like a crazy person) ruined me for the vigors of daily life—maybe it was an extravagance to write and re-write and to think deeply about something like language instead of doing the things most adults do: earn a living, buy a house, raise a family, etc, etc.

That, perhaps, is what I am feeling the loss of—or, I am feeling the loss of one kind of life or another. 

These days, I exist in limbo where I am not (quite) a writer, but not (quite) an athlete, either.  “Real” writers go to AWP Conferences and write every day and think deeply about words, about human consciousness and action (or, sometimes inaction). “Real” athletes are a part of teams who travel and compete and who win competitions. I’m not really doing either of those things right now. I’m not really even doing the “adult” thing very well: I don’t own a home or have a spouse or children. 

I do, however,  have chickens (the latest addition to my life) and I wonder if they, too, are a part of my attempt to define my life in this strange in-between place for which I don’t have a name. (And I have to admit: I love my chickens. Or, chicks, since they are still young and chirping. I love them enough to pile them into a box I put next to the sink so they can keep me company while I do the dishes; or they are my writing-partners, perching on my shoulders as I work on the Literary Arts & Wine website or, even, writing this blog. Biscuit, the little yellow chick, is chirping in my ear as I type and I can't help but smile at that.)

I wonder about these definitions, though. Are we ONLY what we do? It’s not like I don’t train and don’t compete; I try to swim, cycle and run my miles every week and I do have two events this month. But as I catch glimpses of myself in the mirror in locker rooms and in the restroom at work, I can’t help but notice I don’t have the physique of someone who is active. Healthy, yes, but I am not “chiseled”—and in a way, this makes me sad. In another way, though, I’ve gotten tired of being sad about it. Is this what it means to grow up? Is it reconciling sadness with acceptance?

I find myself less compelled to write, too; if I had a mirror at my desk at home, I might look at my own face and see something similar lacking in the expression starting back at me as I type words which appear on the blank, white screen.

 What does it mean to produce an essay—and why record the details of a life that are neither here nor there? A thirty-something woman who works a desk job, who loves two cats and three chickens, who dreams of warmer weather so that I can garden, who is sometimes too messy and who has a cluttered desk—really, is this the stuff of great storytelling?  I’m not even sure I know what that is, anymore.

I try to re-adjust my life—to look for ways to fit more into my days so that I can be both an athlete and writer. Run at my lunch breaks at work, devote Tuesday evenings to my work. But somehow these efforts—all of them—seem half-hearted and I want, desperately, to know that I am one thing or another.  Am I a cyclist, I wonder, as I sign up for another Double Century ride and hope to complete several this summer? Am I truly an Ironman? Could I become a runner again, I wonder, as I run my slow miles (but consistent miles) week after week?  And even if I was: what could I bring to the world in order to make it better?

What about my life has held any sort of meaning?

Facebook has this awful time-hop thing in which it resurrects one’s posts from year’s past. Day after day, I’m offered up my own banality—the repetitive “I ran such-and-such miles in such-and-such time” as if that was anything meaningful (or, it had been to myself, at the time. But now, with the years and all that has happened, I can’t help but shake my head at myself and my narrow definition of what it had meant to be happy.)  Posts outlining my various injuries, posts about my hope to return, to compete. I am an endless, mindless record of lost dreams, it seems.

And now there is this: the recognition that I am neither here nor there—not quite a writer, but not quite not-one, either. Do our actions define us, or was Sartre wrong about the existence preceding essence? Is one an athlete simply by acting like one? Is one a writer simply because one writes?
I wonder if there will come a day when my own image won’t be so painful, so vapid and vain. And I wonder, at that time, if I will finally have a definition in addition to my bike, my running shoes, my garden, my cats, and my chickens.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Solvang Double Century: Sharing the Miles


Maybe it’s because it’s Spring or maybe it’s because I’m headed into a new racing season but possibility—and the possibility of change—have been on my mind lately.  Greenery, new blossoms on trees, new things to plant in my garden and new challenges are waiting in the next few months as the days grow longer and warmer.

I had kind of a rough go of my first few attempts at Double Centuries and Ironman-distance events last year. I fared well in the Davis Double but really tanked in the Alta-Alpina 8-Pass Challenge (or, really tanked on summit 7 of 8) where I really went into some dark places. And then I was pretty depressed after a fire resulted in the cancellation of the Lake Tahoe Ironman where I was registered for the 70.3… and hoping for a strong performance, finally.

It wasn’t my time, apparently.

So I’ve spent the winter developing my fitness base and strength in the hope that I will have a more successful go at Double Centuries and Ironman Triathlons. I would be lying if I said I was 100% confident that I will do well in either of these—especially the Ironman since the time I spend with each discipline is much less than I would spend on any single one of them when I was "just a swimmer" or "just a runner".  

Yet, I’m in a better space than last year, too.  And, I am beginning to wonder if this year is the beginning of my time to do well in endurance events.
 
The scenery for the entire ride was (mostly) like this: green hills, oak trees and blue skies.
To say I had a really wonderful time in Solvang (and environs) on the Double Century would be putting it mildly.  It was, simply, beautiful there—so so so green (the hills are that vibrant green right now) and everything in bloom and baby animals galore.

We—Jami, Jeni, Dave, Rich and I—left Reno Friday morning and arrived in Solvang Friday night (it was about an 8-hour drive). We didn’t have time to explore much—just dinner and bed before the big ride. The highlight of the night was Rich’s deadpan delivery of the question every food server dreads these days: “Are those gluten free?” (After ordering two plates of pretzel rolls. The waiter’s smile literally melted and pooled on the floor. I’m glad Rich let him know he was joking because that’s where our food might have ended up before it was served up to us later.)
The town of Solvang itself is like this Pocket O'Dutch in the middle of California.

It was an early night for all of us since we wanted to start the ride at 6:30 the following morning. Jami and Jenni were close the start line—Rich, Dave and I had booked a room about four miles away. At dark o’clock the next morning, we woke to a cacophony of iphone alarms and left the hotel at 5:30 am the next morning which was difficult because the fog was so thick, it was like riding through a stagnant misty rain. Droplets formed on my helmet and dripped down my face as we rode in the dark-damp.

We waited for the rest of our group to show up before starting at the deserted start line. There was literally NO ONE THERE. No water or coffee or officials to say “Have a great ride!” We did find out that a Starbucks up in the lobby opened at 6am, so we had coffee and a bit of pumpkin bread Rich has stuffed in his jersey pocket before the ride to the start.  

When Jami and Jeni arrived, we were also joined by a guy who has raced with Rich in the long events (the 308 and 508) who lives in Santa Clara and whose racing totem is “Sanguine Octopus” [so for the purposes of this post, he will be henceforth named “Sanguine”. ] Right away he had trouble keeping up with us as we rode back toward Solvang in the fog—it turns out his brake pad was stuck on the rear wheel and could hardly do 17mph.

Once Sanguine figured out that he’d opted for extra resistance training, he stuck with us through the first segment of the ride. Or, actually, he and I slowly rode away from the others on the first climb of the day at about mile 20, up and out of the fog and onto a beautiful green hill with scattered scrub oak trees. We rode together for the next ten miles until Rich led the pack (the others who had finally warmed up) and pace line passed us like a freight train. Sanguine and I fell behind them and let Rich carry us at lightning speed us to the first aid station at mile 40. (Good thing, too- I was starting to get hungry.)  

There wasn’t much there—water, porta-potties and energy bars which I ate as quickly as I could waiting in the line for the restroom. I was suspicious of myself-- I was feeling pretty good—and typically I don’t feel good on these long efforts because of how many miles I know I have in front of me. But today, for whatever reason, I just felt full of energy and happy and ready to get back on the road. So, I filled my bottles and ate two bars and was off again.

This time Rich tried to pace line everyone to the next stop but we ended up breaking apart at the next little climb. Once again, it was Sanguine and I trading the lead, Dave back somewhere with another ride group and Rich rode with Jeni and Jami (who had the misfortune of having stomach issues that day.)  

Sanguine and I held a steady pace, passing other riders. One woman rode with us for a while who told us she is trying to do fifty of these 200 mile rides this year. Yikes! She was something of a nutcase (this coming from someone who is also a nutcase) but said she quit her job so that she could have time to devote her entire life to cycling. She was there with another group of male riders, though, who passed Sanguine and I two miles from the next stop. She nearly killed me cutting diagonally across our pace line to join the guys which rode past us.

Don't cut in front of other riders without warning, or you might get a reaction like this. 

[Side note: the next ride stop was at MILE 82. My bottles were empty and I had used up those energy bars about twenty miles ago. I have never been on a ride in which the stops were at least 40 miles apart.]

The terrain was mostly agricultural—vineyards at first, which gave way to strawberries, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, orange (or lemon?) trees. Sanguine and I made a game out of trying to guess what it was we were riding by on the side of the road. There wasn’t much at that next rest stop, either AT MILE 82.  More water, more energy bars. Pop tarts. Cookies. (This was one of the worst supported rides I have ever done.) but again, I filled up my water and felt pretty good.

Just as Sanguine and I were going to leave, Rich arrived with Jami and Jeni. They headed immediately for the shade and Rich grabbed food and water as I squirted water on his leg from my water bottle (I’m nice like that).

 I was anxious to go, but we all waited for a while to see if Dave would show up—but he didn’t. (It turned out the group he joined decided to forgo the next stop so he rode something more like 80 miles before stopping for provisions.)  

After everyone filled their bottles and had enough to eat, we all started out again. There was a slight climb before we entered some small town in the direction of Morro Bay. When Sanguine and I turned around after the first little climb, Rich, Jami and Jeni had already fallen behind us. 

We rode as a pack of two until we picked up another rider who who has done Double Centuries since 1979. He made me laugh, saying that these sorts of things aren’t the same now that people have GPS devices, electrolytes and energy drinks. To which Sanguine replied: “You haven’t named any of my favorite things about riding Double Centuries.” And to which I laughed to myself—aside from the Garmin (to track my progress, not plot it), I had only had water to drink and a few bars to eat so far that day. And yet, I was feeling fantastic.

We ended up dropping him, too, until it was Sanguine and I again, riding out toward the ocean at Morro Bay. The headwind was cool and strong, but it was really beautiful with the hills all green like that. We rode past an archery field and I worried about stray arrows finding my torso along that stretch of 101. Luckily, none did. But as we traded the lead, I realized how nice it was to ride with someone, since I probably would have ridden by myself otherwise.

We left the shoulder of the 101 (thank God) and rode onto a two-line road which carried us away from the ocean. It was undulating terrain, mostly, to the lunch stop at mile 108 or so.  My stomach screamed LUNCH and I was more than ready for something other than an energy bar.  When I saw they had subway sandwiches, I ate an entire one along with a cold Coke (oh sweet cold soda on a ride) and more water and an Oreo (I haven’t had one in forever). I’m so happy to eat that I’m giddy, nearly shaking.

Me at the lunch stop with that sweet, sweet soda. Feeling fantastic. 


In between bites, across the parking lot I spotted a blue jersey… which turned out to be DAVE! Sanguine and I waved him over.  And as Dave joined us,  Rich, Jami and Jeni rolled up and I was suddenly very tempted to eat another sandwich—but I didn't.

They roll over to the tables behind a fence (I’d been so ready to eat, I just sat down on the pavement next to the aid station.) Rich joined us, sandwich and coke in hand.   I filled my water bottles again and Rich told Sanguine, David and I to go on ahead—that he and Jeni and Jami would catch us later. So we departed for the second half of the ride, joined by the guy who’s been riding these things since 1979.

He was funny—as soon as we were rolling again, he said: “I haven’t pulled [ridden up front] since mile 70!” I was still feeling pretty strong, so I took the lead and pulled us out of town and back into a narrow canyon which would lead us back inland toward the fruit and vegetables and, eventually, vineyards.

So, I did what I always do when I am feeling pretty good on the bike and there’s no one in front of me: I zone out. I just kept peddling and lay low in my aerobars and soon we were in Prismo Beach and I turned around and everyone else was gone—aside from Sanguine. We traded the lead for a while as we went through the busy beach town and into some rolling terrain. At about mile 130, we were stopped at an intersection and Sanguine looked at me and said “Only 60 miles left, and you’re crushing it!”

I thought of how crazy it was that 60 miles sounded “short” to me at the time.

So up another climb past succulents with vibrant violet-colored flowers—and down another hill and we were back into the agricultural section again with a strong cross wind. I couldn’t hear anything but the wind, so I was short of shocked when I turned around and discovered that I was completely alone.


Alone on this ride wasn't a bad thing. No matter where we were, it was always beautiful. 

For a while now, I’ve been worrying about the Ironman I signed up for because, in part, it is so long. It’s been a while since I’ve swam 2.4 miles (in a pool or in open water) and although I ride 100-120 miles every Saturday, it’s one thing to do it inside on a trainer as practice than it is to do so in a race. And, most importantly, I haven’t run a marathon since 2010... I’ve been too injured since to attempt that distance in a race since I injured my Achilles, my Lisfranc joint and a plethora of other pieces and parts of my lower legs.  It’s only natural that a lot of doubt rests over my decision to do this race (a race I’ve wanted to do for some time) this summer. 

For a while, I tried to assuage my doubt by overwriting it with the belief other people had in me. Coaches, friends and family-- I tried replacing my feelings with their words. But you know, that only works for so long before the doubt comes back and I wonder why on earth anyone would think those things about me. That’s why, in part, I decided to train myself for this Ironman... no coach deserves the whiplash of my optimism-to-doubt. 

That is what is so magical and wonderful about mile 140. For the first time, the doubt fell away and there was only the miles in front of me and the miles behind. Open stretches of road where it’s up to me whether I keep going or stop, believe or not believe. 

And isn’t that transformative magic the reason why most of us do these long rides, these long races, these challenges we don’t think we are capable of doing? 

I suppose all these thoughts make me slightly crazy (I told you I am a nutcase) but it was so nice to pass my miles with all the people who have said these things to me at one point or another. I kept my cadence steady and passed a few riders, but no one kept up with me across the flats to the next town—and next stop which was at a part right next to a (smelly) cattle lot.

Once again, there wasn’t really much to eat—the same energy bars as the morning and water. In a few minutes, Sanguine showed up again and I was glad he was there. He said he wasn’t feeling well—too much energy drink—and so wanted to wait for a moment. I was tired of energy bars, but I knew that if my blood sugar dropped too low, so does my mood and my body follows quickly. So down the hatch went another energy bar and water.

The sun dipped behind the clouds and the wind picked up—I remember being extremely cold. But I waited while he gathered himself together, dumped the energy drink out of his bottle and filled it with plain water.

Then, Dave showed up, complaining of an aching wrist and shoulder and while I sent him off to re-hydrate as Jami, Jeni and Rich arrived.  Jami’s stomach was still not cooperating, so I rode with Rich to the nearest gas station to pick up soda and Gatorade (hard to imagine the ride didn’t even offer this at their FOURTH AID STATION ON A 200 MILE RIDE AT MILE 140 OR SO, BUT THEY DIDN’T) so off we went to Chevron for provisions which we brought back to the group.

It took us a while to regroup and get going again. By that time, I was freezing and so it was hard to get back on the bike. We did get rolling, though, riding through the little town and back out into fields and fields of various crops.

Once again, it was Sanguine and I on our own. After a long, gradual climb, we both had to stop and take off the layers we’d put on at the rest stop because we’d finally warmed back up again. After we stripped off our outer layer, we kept going forward.

The most difficult part of the ride happened right before the next rest stop at (about mile 170 or so.) I started to feel an ache in the front of my shoulders from being in the aero-position that long and I was just generally sore across my entire- um—female saddle . Luckily, though, I could sit up and stand up at little intervals to relieve the discomfort for the five miles before the final rest stop. …where they had hot ramen soup.

I DON’T THINK I’VE TASTED ANYTHING AS DELICIOUS AS THAT RAMEN SOUP. Or the red licorice they had afterward. I didn’t mind waiting so long for the others at this stop—the soup was so good and it just hit the spot! And so did the countless number of licorice vines I ate. Rich, when he got there, told me not to wait for them there, but to stay at the finish line so that we could ride back to the hotel together. So Sanguine and I set off again (for the last time) toward the finish line.

No one had much spunk in them. The riders I passed looked droopy and some were weaving all over the road. Before we got back on the main drag, we had to take a frontage road along the 101 which was practically a dirt road. It was a bit precarious because there were these huge potholes around a blind corner—I’m sure someone crashed because of them at one point because they weren’t marked!

When we got back to the vineyards, though, I kept trying to find my pace, but I couldn't. My legs just felt “slow”. Sanguine—who does this ride every year—told me that there were two climbs left—one 400 foot climb and a 1,000 foot climb. I wondered how I was going to make it up them since I was already moving so slow! So I kept pushing and tried to get my legs to move and pretty soon, it became quiet and peaceful out—there were crickets chirping and the low light of sunset (it was almost golden) was just so beautiful. So, once again, I turned around and I couldn’t see Sanguine (who was only 100 feet or so behind me.) So I just set a steady pace and told myself I could do it, just so long as I didn't make any wrong turns.

The first hill wasn’t too bad—it was a great reason to stand up and get out of the saddle and stretch my legs, and so I did. There was a little valley in between that and the next hill where I passed a rider who was weaving wildly from one side of the road to the other and who tried to ride behind me at my pace, but who immediately fell back .  I noticed him in my shadow and around another corner, he was gone.

Sanguine and I rode the final miles at dusk together. The sound of crickets chirped in the distance. The sounds, smells and overall "feel" of the moment brought on this incredible feeling of calm... and happiness.


Then up a 1,000 foot climb and I thought about all the challenges one has in life and how most of them aren’t glamorous and wouldn’t lend themselves to good literature, but they are important to who we are how we understand the world. As I climbed, I tried to push the discomfort out of my legs, focusing instead on maintaining a steady pedal stroke and breathing pattern. 

Once I was at the top, I settled low in the aerobars and glided down a winding road for miles as the sunset turned from golden to pink to purple. Sanguine caught up with me on that downhill and we rode into the finish line together at the very end of twilight. Our ride time was a bit over 10 hours—including stops it was something more like 13 hours—but riding, we averaged 19 mph. Not bad!
                                                                                       
I ended up waiting for the others what seemed like a while (or enough for the sun to set and for me to feel wet and cold) at the finish line. Sanguine was really nice and waited with me. . In the end,  I didn’t see my friends cross the line because I really, really had to use the restroom and I was cold and so the moment I went inside was when they arrived.  (Leave it to me to have the worst timing in the world.)

But they didn’t seem to mind. Dave, Rich and I rode our bonus miles back to the hotel, cleaned up (I almost fell asleep—a combination of low blood sugar, fatigue, a warm shower and an empty bed are hard to resist after a Double Century) but I’m glad Rich talked me into joining them all for dinner where we harassed the same waiter about the gluten-free pretzels and traded our war-stories from our 200 mile journeys around Solvang.  Even though Ironman is a solo event (one in which I have to learn to depend and believe in myself) it is nice to have ride-mates with which to share the miles getting there.

 
Downtown Solvang at dusk. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

...And we're back (spirit, soul and sweat)

I guess there's something to be said about the speed at which you complete things: 

some people run 400 meter races (once around a track) because they can do it well under a minute. And then there are people like me who can also run 400 meters but who must do it not once, not twice or even ten times, but probably something more like a million maybe, if I'm to do anything impressive with that distance at all.
  1. (A memory comes to mind: years ago, my then-boyfriend and I were watching the talent portion of the Miss America contest, curled on his living room couch. And as these model-esque figures sang and tap-danced and played instruments and I said to him: you know, I do have a talent but I'd have to be like-- OK judges, I'm going to do this amazing thing. Sit tight-- and forget that awful thing I did in the swimsuit competition-- I'll be back in three hours and will have run more than a marathon.
  2. (Another memory: one of my first professors in graduate school told a class of us in his "Literary-theory-critical-thought-hazing-class that the greatest merit we'd get out of pursuing our education was to do nothing hasty. I guess I picked up on that lesson and mastered it.) 


Point being, I am not quick, anymore, at anything. I am training for an Ironman, after all-- a race that will take from dawn to dusk (if not more), and I am a writer-- a career which (mostly) requires the slow evolution of thought and art and the extreme patience of those around me.

So, it's no wonder that I took my sweet time in digesting my last post, what I meant by it and what I had been hoping to find in my time away from the keyboard.  In part, I want to explain myself because my mom called me after my last post went live, concerned, asking if I'd dropped out of training for the Ironman, if I was no longer going to write, and if I needed to seek professional help.

No, no and no: I'm fine and better than before, actually. It just takes me time to realize it.

*

For a very long time, I've wanted to complete an Ironman and for just about as long, I didn't think it was possible (for me.) There are several reasons for this, but most of it comes down to a healthy dollop of self-doubt with a side of body image issues.  I can't blame any one for this, it's just the way I'm built, I guess, and something that becoming a runner helped me to face. When my running career ended, though, it was harder to face because all the self-worth and confidence I had built were all basically premised on miles.. miles I couldn't-- and can't, or at least not in the same way-- run anymore.

But I am signed up for Coeur d'Alene this summer (June 28th) and I have decided I am going to do my very best to finish the race. I'd love to qualify for Kona, I'd love to win-- but in this time of slow-thinking, I discovered I really just want to finish, no matter what. I want to swim 2.4 miles, ride 112 miles on the bike and run a marathon (yes, finally, I will run one again after swimming and riding) and feel wonderful and smile at the finish line and wave to my parents who have stuck by me and who want to watch me do this crazy thing.

And that is what brings me to the rest-- what I meant to say weeks ago and didn't, quite, say. And maybe this is the magic of Ironman (oh, metaphor, how I love you)-- I realized a month ago, when I was "working so hard", "training so hard", etc, etc, etc, I wasn't doing it for the right reason. I was the beauty-queen on stage who dances for the sake of a prize (and all that that entails) and not for the beauty of the music. Or, the girl who runs a marathon just to hear the roar of the crowd and not because she needed or wanted to.

*

I admit, this past month was really hard.

I had been a part of an elite running/training group which is coached by this elite athlete and generally-all-around impressive person. I was--and am-- really inspired by this group of people who wake and train (run their morning miles, do their mobility drills) and who are, truly, runners. I was a part of their strength/mobility and sometimes running sessions-- rarely, because I have an 8-5 job which literally requires my ass in the chair from 8-5.

So when I slightly injured my Achilles, things came crashing down-- I went to practice and the coach didn't even acknowledge I was there. No "hello", not even the hazing I'd expect for having missed the previous training session.

I was crushed.

I had needed that coach to believe in me in order to complete this Ironman, I thought. And so began the list, the heavy list I just couldn't hold up (which is why I needed some time away): I can't live without my coach and the group, without belief from the running people that I am a strong runner, belief from the cycling people that I am a strong cyclist, from the swimming people that I am a strong swimmer, I can't survive without the approval of the MFA program (writing) I attended to tell me I am a good writer, the approving nods of readers who happen to glance at my work, the approval of my friends and family to negate the doubt that I am not, actually, an awful human being.

It was-- and is-- too much for anyone to need so much.

So I let my coach go and all those hard-bodied, beautiful, strong runners.

I do worry, from time, that that was a huge mistake.

But, nothing is without a context.

And for me, I do have to consider mine. No one will toe the line with me in Coeur d'Alene. No one swims by my side-- no one will share those cycling miles or running miles (no matter how fast or slow)... just like I must live the life of a writer inside my head, mostly, alone.

In the race, it will be only me. There will be no one at the margins of the road, no one but whom I choose to populate the space behind my eyes, some projection of myself, dressed up as the people I love the very most.

Or, to articulate this more clearly: it's 6pm and I am riding in a CompuTrainer class and I am push-pulling those bike pedals in circles, circles, circles, as sweat droplets fall from my forehead, across my eyes and to the floor and I can hardly keep up.

If I can only go harder because of the expressions on the faces reflected back to me in the mirror, I'm lost. It is only when-- to quote the great Ironman Mark Allen-- that I settle in, look in, and find a calm-- that I can finish and ride with them.

This Ironman-- it may not be my best race-- but it's teaching me that I need, more than anything, myself. 

*

If I'm going to complete a 140.6 mile race across three disciplines, I have to believe in myself. I have to be mentally-tough, I have to work through the difficult moments, I have find the calm.

But to do all of that, well, I am learning I'm no beauty queen.

I have to do it for me. 

Riding tonight, I did not finish first of anyone in that CompuTrainer class. I didn't break any speed-records on my 6 mile lunch-run. I didn't lap anyone in the pool at 5:30 am swim. But you know-- I'm doing it and I'm learning, stroke and stride at a time, learning, finally, to do something without an audience-- to do it, simply, because I can.


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Placement of Things

I have been putting this blog together, taking it apart, restructuring it and re-working it again and again over the past few days. Granted, the landscape might have helped with this: I spent Sunday night and most of Monday honoring American Presidents by sleeping, walking, bathing, hiking, photographing and all sorts of other verb-ing in the Desatoya Range in Eastern(ish) Nevada. It's a beautiful place, but if you are into things like trees and lush greenery, I think you might be in shock, feeling naked maybe, the first time you go. But there is something about an empty landscape, though, that opens up and that (for me, at least) allows my thoughts to breathe.

The large spaces invite the intrusion of thought.


And my thoughts, such as they are, are many. 


I don't know if I have written about this much (or as much as I'd usually do) but I've finally done it: I signed up for a full Ironman race. I'll be doing Coeur d'Alene this year-- a venue I'm excited about, actually-- and my goal, this time, is simply to have fun and to finish. But being who I am, I want to do well, too, and I think that's where this blog post actually begins. Because for me "having fun" translates into "doing well" and "doing well" means actually placing and once you place, it might as well be first, right? And what good is winning your age group compared to actually all-out-winning and so goes my slippery slope until it's Wednesday of last week and I strain my Achilles on a silly mobility run during my lunch break.

No biggie, right?

Well, then I come back to a meeting that I am supposed to head and no one has read the document I created and no one knows what to say and I know that my boss thinks that I have failed-- and that is when the sharp pangs begin. Pain in my back and ribs so horrible I can't even begin to describe it. I can only say that it was not possible to sit up straight in my chair in the conference room any longer and it was all I could do to breathe.

My co-workers threatened to take me to the nearest Urgent Care so much that I ended up taking myself.  


The nurse was had a blonde-chin length bob with her hair held back from her face with a gigantic red and white polka dot bow. But she nearly made me cry with her questions.

If I was happy. 

If I have to train so much. 

If I have anyone to talk to. 

"Your eyes are so sad," she said.

Who knew mini lilly pads grow in the Desatoya Range beneath Aspen Trees?


And I do what I usually do in that situation: I mumble something polite and offer a half smile as if to say oh gosh, silly me. It's just my Achilles again. 

But I knew-- and know-- it wasn't and isn't. 


Which brings me to Sunday, the night of the Literary Arts & Wine reading-- the reading series I started after I was newly single and terrified of not-writing any more. It wasn't the best-thought-out plan I'd ever had, but somehow I thought if I had least had to show up somewhere once a month having written something, life would somehow continue and I wouldn't simply curl into a round, dead thing in the center of my living room floor.

I read a piece I have been working on for a long time. 


I wrote the first draft back in 2010 but took it up again this winter when I realized the things I was saying about the nature of time and the placement of emotions and meaning in our lives shift as we age. Of course, I used my running as an example of this-- how there was a time in my life that running meant more than any other thing and sometimes when I go for a run, that old feeling creeps back up and I get excited about the sport again. But no matter how often I feel that tug, there is the ever-present realization that I am not a teenager anymore, than I am not a runner in any sense of the word, that my life has moved beyond that time, in part, because I was able to live it when I did.

Aspen trees-- bare of leaves-- imagery I used to mark the passage of time in the essay I read that was a really big flop.

It's not a very complicated thought, granted-- it was a piece about getting older, I guess-- but I had hoped for more out of myself.  A better reading, a clearer articulation of my words, a better outfit that didn't make me look like I weigh 500 pounds and, honestly, as I read to a room of strangers, I really just wished that there was another writer there to connect with, who could appreciate my work and look beyond the fact that it's just "sports crap."

But then again, maybe "sports crap" is all I write and all I have written for years. 


So, out there in Eastern Nevada as my eyes found new landscapes, new mountains, new aspen groves and new qualities of light, I began to wonder if it isn't time to put my athletics in a different place than at the center of my life. Even in my life as a writer.

I still want to find a way to write about endurance events and I hope for my own sake, one day, I do. For now, though, I think it's best that I take a hiatus from the attempt so I'll be away from this blog for a while.

Thank you for reading, if you have. Your attention and time means more to me than I can possibly express.

Maybe I'll be back?

I have a feeling I will be when I discover the proper placement of things.

The world viewed from a busted-up-wreck-of-a-building. The light is all wrong, but the idea behind it is why I post this picture. Maybe, when it's time, the image in the window will be in focus.