Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Tahoe: Not a Race, but a Lesson

Jeff Marrifield after the announcement that he would not be competing in his first Ironman on September 21st, 2014
If you've been reading my blog (even for a little while) you probably know that this year is a big milestone for me in and of itself; or, rather, that every race I undertake this year has a deeper meaning to it than the search for another PR or place. Instead, it has to do with overcoming ghosts and self-imposed demons; it is my way of telling myself that no matter what I will be OK. If I can swim and ride and run-- well, I can overcome hardship on my own.

Tahoe was its own creature, however; and in a way, I can hardly believe I was on the starting line of that race. But then again, I can't believe I didn't finish it, either, which leaves me existing in this strange in-between land like the Catholic idea of purgatory. Or, it reminds me of what sitting on the darkened stairwell of a house my family had when I was younger. I liked to sit there-- for hours, sometimes, reading--because it was a non-place, a place I could disappear.

And I know that sounds overly dramatic, but that's sort of how I feel after this weekend: erased. I'm neither here nor there. Will I be OK in life? I think I know the answer is "yes." And yet, there is this lingering doubt. After all, I didn't conquer the Tahoe Ironman.


For the inaugural event last year, I spent the day painting my deck with my partner. The paint looked pink but dried red in the heavy winds which brought the snow which made the event so remarkably difficult. I remember getting spotches of it on my jeans (which felt tight around my non-athletic body) and I remember, distinctly, thinking that I would never do an event like the Lake Tahoe Ironman.

I thought a lot of crazy things then, though. Things like my life as an athlete was over. Things like my partner really loved me. Things that all turned out not to be true. And so, in a way, I guess that's where this all comes from. I am still an athlete. And I am going to be OK. And therefore, I was going to race in the Tahoe 70.3 Ironman. Not the full, I know, but I am building my volume slowly and I wanted to slay half of my old demons, anyway.

But fate had another plan in store for me. I'm still trying to figure out what that is, exactly, but it does not, apparently, include me competing in any Lake Tahoe Ironman this year.


The day before the race was perfect. I mean, perfect so I didn't argue when a friend of mine said you have to race this. You can't NOT. I picked up my race packet, set up my transitions, did my priming work for the swim, the bike and the run. I met my parents for lunch in Squaw Valley and we reviewed the course and they picked out the spots they wanted to watch me from.

They wanted to watch me kick ass. 

And I really thought I was going to. You know that feeling when you weigh hardly anything and every stroke or step is just effortless? That was me the day before the race. And who knows, really? It might have been an illusion. But maybe not.

After my parents went home, I drove down the west shore of the lake to the foot of Blackwood Canyon to read a few pages of a novel I've been working my way through. It was surreal: one moment the air was crisp and clear like mountain air and the next I was surrounded in a tidal wave of smoke. It literally swallowed me and my shadow turned red.

I guess I really should have known the race wouldn't happen... but I was hopeful. Like the race officials were hopeful, I suppose. I think every single person affiliated with this race was hopeful and maybe that's why its cancellation is so particularly sad.

Race morning: 3:30 am. I was staying with dear friends who allowed me use of a lovely bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. I remember the chime of my phone at o'dark-thirty and I'm awake, but not groggy. I'm on auto-pilot: tri-suit on, pj's off. Nutrition in one bag, non-essentials in the other.  My mind speaks in the litany of athletic gear not unlike the song the 12 days of Christmas: 12 salt tabs, 11 cut up green bars, 10 sport gels, 9 rubs of "glide", 8 squirts of sunscreen, 7 times to pee, 6 laces laced, 5 CUPS OF COFFEE, 4 items of clothing (shorts, top, socks, bra); 3 water bottles, 2 Garmin devices, and one freaking awesome bike.

OK maybe not quite like that, but close.

I worried I would be mauled by a bear on the way out. Apparently that is a problem up in these elevations. Luckily, I wasn't.

I couldn't see the smoke on the drive in, but I could smell it.  Like a campfire you can't back away from. I kept telling myself it was localized in Squaw and that a shift in the winds would carry the smoke away by the time I'd be running there. Oh, hopeful me. 

I parked the car and grabbed my transition bags, rushing into the line of waiting athletes. Most of them were doing the 140.6, but oh well. I wanted to be at the start, be ready. I was ready. Ready to race. At last. I played a song on repeat that had no words but a beat sort of like the hope hanging in my heart that I could turn out a strong performance.

The kind that says: I'm here. And I'm not going anywhere. 


I could only see the reflection of my face in the bus windows en route to the start line. I tried to ignore my face and look past into the landscape but that was nearly impossible.

The song I love-- the song without words, the song with only a heartbeat-- played in my ears. And I wondered if today was the day I'd do something extraordinary and I'd become something more than Rebecca.

Maybe, my face told me.

Maybe, the darkness repeated.


What I remember of the transition:the flux of bodies. The feel of permanent marker on my skin. The sharp cold of pre-dawn mountain morning. Finding my bike. Pacing from my transition bag to the bike and back again. All 57 trips to the SaniHut. And then, the lovely sight of familiar faces: my friends and training partners.

Suddenly, we were in this together. This dark-cold. This expectation. This despite-the-smoke.  Team "Reno" I remember we posed for a video camera and a woman asked where we were from. "Reno!" one-- or all-- of us said.  And another: "We're Team Smoke!" It was meant as a joke, of course: "Team Smoke." The smoke we'd beat or race in despite itself.

We had no idea that the conditions were so bad the event would have to be canceled. This is Ironman after all: aren't we supposed to be strong? Unbreakable? The year before, athletes had faced snow and wind and cold. A large percentage of the field got hyperthermia after the swim. What is smoke, compared to that?

Team Smoke: Martine, Tim, Meghan, Dave, Jeff (x 2), and Winnie: Team Smoke from Reno, Nevada. How would we know it wouldn't be funny?

Smokey conditions en route back to Squaw Valley.

Imagine this: a year of your life. A year when you give up: late nights, social outings, most of your friends, family picnics, most of your family, vacations, romantic relationships, fried food, weekends, nights after 10 pm, attractive feet, special moments, sex, nice-looking hair, stylish shoes with heels, life, life, life. You're in a wetsuit in a mountain lake at 6am on a Sunday in September and this is the Ironman you trained for.

We regret to announce. 

Your heart drops. You throw up in your mouth a little. The hours replay in your mind.

There is a pause in the air and you hear the words: Attention Ironman athletes.... and you stop swimming. The dawn is redder than usual, spectacularly beautiful. And it can't be, but it is.

Despite all you know, all you have done: there is no way in the world you will be an Ironman today.


I wasn't in the water when I heard the race was canceled.

I was sitting on a concrete curb after peeing for the 57th time with fellow Renoite, Meghan when a woman walked by in a wetsuit crying. It was just barely dawn-- or not even barely-- and we thought, for whatever reason, she had dropped out of the race already.

But suddenly, a woman in a white and red racing kit stood above us and, tracing her finger across her smart phone, she said, flatline: "Didn't you hear, the race was canceled."

From there, I remember chaos.

Athletes not knowing what to do or where to go. Bodies walking back and forth and back and forth. Some take off their wetsuits, wet from the lake. Others don't. Or at least, not right away.

I don't stand. I'm still seated when a woman strips her wetsuit and says to me: I have to get on my bike today. I moved heaven and earth to be here. I just have to ride. Something, anything. 

Meghan offers her suggestions-- good ones-- ride over Mt. Rose. Ride Geiger Grade. Ride Spooner Summit.

The place-names don't register; this is not a local. And I am still sitting, still in something like shock when I say: Do you want a guide? 

Bodies flux around us: everyone is going somewhere, placing that race energy onto the road, their bike, a coffee house. Anywhere but where it ended before it began.

I don't expect she'll want me along. But then, I'm surprised again. This stranger-- who will become my friend-- says Yes.

And in the flux of bodies, I have a purpose: I will guide someone through the places I know and love so well. Carson City. Virginia City. Geiger Grade. The vast beauty; my home.

When we finally reach Squaw, not a single person could argue with the decision to cancel the race. The smoke was thick as we left the shuttles to collect our run-gear bags.

It takes nearly two hours to gather my gear. To text my family and friends that Lake Tahoe IM is not happening. To find myself and my new friend on the road again. It's raining, slightly. The light is cloud-gray as we climb out of Kings Beach and Incline to Spooner Summit.

There is another event scheduled for that day, the Edible Pedal and I pedal that away; the smoke is so distant now, but I do not stray too far from this organized ride in case the winds shift; in case another unforeseen event happens.

Up and down Spooner.

As we ride past Nevada's capital buildings, my new ride partner asks me: "Are we riding in Nevada?"

When I tell her we are (not that we have been for a while) she says: "I've never ridden in Nevada before!" with a kind of enthusiasm that just makes me smile.

The world is a beautiful place.

Remarkable people populate it.

I know I can't be sad about today.

I can't, I can't.

Sage, Pine. Choose your vegetation; we ride nearly 80 miles until the smoke makes us stop.


And I wonder about the meaning of "Ironman": if, perhaps, I got my metaphors mixed. Maybe it wasn't the race itself that would prove I was, once again, a strong athlete-- a strong person. Maybe it is the ability to "endure" no matter what happens. To know this is not my last race, this is not a failure.

Instead, this is another beginning.

And I will try again and again, when it's time.
"Team Smoke" before they announced the race was canceled due to unsafe air quality.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

And the countdown begins...

There is always this moment before a big race when I turn into a nervous wreck. Usually it's about a week or so out when I'm in the process of tapering (so maybe it's a function of all that nervous energy?) which makes me not-such-a-great person to be around. I start wondering how on earth I will cover the distance I plan to race-- and the thought of doing it "fast" seems so incredibly impossible. This was especially true of me in my marathoning days-- when I would wonder (and maybe rightly) how I'd run a race that was farther than any training run I'd done in preparation for it. Of course, I always did run those races and I always exceeded my expectations-- even that last one when I missed the Olympic Trials.

So, what is up with me now?   Why am I still plagued with doubt?

I guess it has to do with self-confidence (or is it self-reliance?)-- something I continue to work on. I think it also comes with time. Even though I am SO NERVOUS for the Tahoe 70.3, I am not as nervous as I have been for other events in the past.

I know, for instance, that no matter what, I'll finish.

What I don't know is how well I will do.


I am doing my best, though, to prepare. I've been swimming in Donner Lake two nights a week after work (getting used to the wetsuit again, open water, sighting-- getting rid of my mental demons, in other words.) I was lucky enough this weekend to be invited to a training swim with UNR Tri Club teammate Winnie D., Martine M., Tim and an old friend I hadn't seen in years: Meghan! It was great to have company in Tahoe's waters. I always worry I am going to get run over by a boat when I swim alone. At least I'd have three witnesses if that happened.

Actually, though, Saturday morning was beautiful: calm and the air only carried a touch of Fall. Granted, that water felt mighty cold the first time we put our feet in, which prompted this shot (anything to delay the torture, we thought.)

Winnie, Me and Meghan before the swim.

But then Martine and Tim showed up and if there's one thing I value so much about them both is that there is no time for nonsense when it comes to training! So, into the water we went, which, actually, felt warmer the farther out from shore we were.

Probably one of the most beautiful shots of an open water swim ever taken (thank you, Martine!) The lake is so low this year we had to walk out pretty far before we could start swimming. Luckily-- for whatever reason-- the water felt warmer out there.

And yet, the roughest part of the swim wasn't getting in... it was getting out! THAT was cold and awful in a way that I am not fully prepared for-- and I'm not sure I ever will be. I couldn't feel my face, my hands or my feet. And even though I don't plan on changing clothes on race day (what's the point for a 70.3?) But on Saturday I didn't want to shiver on the bike, I didn't want that awful saddle-chafe that comes from wearing wet shorts. I already know about that; I know it will suck on race day. And I didn't want pre-race chafe wounds. I've got enough of those left over from the Alta Alpina Double Century.

So I changed and rode after Tim who said he would take me through the course so I would know what to expect race day.

That's one thing I really love about Tim and Martine: they are so giving with their advice and past experience.  Tim advised not going out too hard on the bike (there are a few climbs before riders reach Tahoe City) and after riding the course with him, I can see how the "little" efforts can really eat your legs up before the big climb over 267 (Brockway) which is-- um, puke-ish.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The bike route involves this little detours off hwy 89 along Tahoe's North shore which take you back into the woods-- the first is an out-and-back in Carnelian Bay by the mini-golf place. The next "detour", I assume, was to keep riders out of Tahoe City: you turn right just before the Fat Cat Cafe and ride through the residential neighborhood before returning to the highway after the Save Mart.

Then it's down the Truckee River corridor: a road of wide shoulders which is (mostly) downhill. This is the time to gain speed. I didn't on Saturday, really. Tim was riding so strong and I couldn't find my rhythm, quite, so I worked on pedal stroke, imagining my legs making perfect circles as I covered the distance from Tahoe City to Truckee.

When we got to Truckee I had to wonder if the theme of the IM 70.3 bike course would be odd detours and horrific climbs. You think you'll ride down Commercial Row in downtown Truckee-- but no, you turn down a side street before that and then you're climbing this narrow road which turns into a bike path which feeds you into a parking lot and then you're in a neighborhood, turning up streets and-- once--turning directly into oncoming traffic! Yikes!

Then onto 267 (the bridge is horrific: the pavement is so uneven and rough; metal bars frame the actual bridge that might make supplies jump right out of your jersey pockets, if they aren't tied down.) Then Martis Valley with its perpetual headwind (I knew about that, too)-- and up Brockway Summit.

A climb that, simply, sucks. I've done it plenty of times the other way: climbing the lake side, coming down the Truckee side (most boats with trailers tend to head INTO the Tahoe Basin) but I was unprepared for how difficult this climb is-- and will be-- in the race.

It probably sucked more than it will on race day because of traffic. I am so glad I was riding this with friends. We could look out for each other. Drivers can be so incredibly inconsiderate. I mean, I get it: you're in a hurry, you need to get someplace. We've all been pressed for time at one point or another. But give me a break: is it worth running someone over to save five seconds? Is it so hard to move your steering wheel a few degrees to the left? Is it so hard to remember that this person on a bike who is in the shoulder of the road is a human being too? 

OK, I'm done ranting now but honestly the worst part about climbing Brockway was the number of times I almost died.

So much so that I kissed the ground in Kings Beach and decided to end my swim/bike brick there. To live another day, in other words.


Sunday I wanted to run. I have had so many challenges which what is, truly, my strongest discipline. I know I can rock the run. Yet, I've had so many injuries, though, that have kept me from the miles I need to make myself fast.

Even so, I have found a great coach in Matt Pendola who's basically rebuilt my stride-- and my strength-- over the summer. My actual mileage isn't strong, but I am-- or I feel "even" now, like every part of my body is working in congress with each other part.

So Sunday morning, I parked at Squaw Valley and ran the course, nose-breathing for the first 30 minutes and then doing 4-minutes "on" (at a hard effort) 2 minutes recovery until I ran 12.1 miles. I did this with my old racing flats and what are called "correct toes", Matt's latest torture device: my toes have been constricted from all those miles on the bike. These are supposed to spread them out again and make my feet stronger.

But what a beautiful morning. I miss running along the Truckee River in between Squaw and Tahoe City. I've been so busy with work-- and so injured-- I haven't done that much this summer at all. 

And I noticed, today, the leaves already have suggestions of gold in them. 

So soon, the summer is ending. But I ran those miles and I didn't feel anything like pain. Then on the bike for an easy 50 miles. 

Maybe I can do this? Maybe? 

I certainly hope so. 

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Lake Tahoe Triathlon: Race Report

I have come to believe that there are certain challenges we are meant to face in life. I'm not a determinist and I'm not saying that this is fate; but I do think there are aspects of our personalities-- especially those areas of curiosity or sometimes fear--which draw us back again and again to a similar challenge, as if to ask: are you ready now?

Or this is what I thought when I woke up at 3:00 am this morning to drive to Sugar Pine Point State Park on the West shore of Lake Tahoe for an Olympic Distance Triathlon. It's not really my distance, but I wanted to see how my ribs would feel since it's been about a month since I was hit by a car while training... and also, really, I need more racing experience. I'm pretty green, as far as competitors go.

It was dark when I woke. And dark when I was driving. And I couldn't help but remember myself, about ten years ago, when I lived on the West shore of Tahoe (in a town not so far from Sugar Pine Point State Park called Tahoma) when I had just graduated from college. I lived in a small A-frame cabin on 7th avenue (the town is set up like a grid) and I was steps from the boundary of Sugar Pine Point State Park. I had a job working as a Research Assistant at the Tahoe Maritime Museum in Homewood (the next town North)-- it was my first "big girl job"--  and life was not the struggle it had been in college. I had pots with flowers in them. I had books I could read on my own time and a novel of my own I worked on every night. For the first time in my life, I had time. 

But I'll never forget how much I wanted to ride my bike down to the Ehrman Mansion in Sugar Pine Point State park (an estate built by a wealthy newspaper owner in the 19th century)-- how much I wanted to ride my old bike down the wooden dock and watch the sun rise over the Eastern side of the Basin, across the lake. It would be beautiful. It would be elemental. That sight would change me, I thought.

But I never did ride down to the wooden dock in Sugar Pine Point State Park when I was 22 and living in Tahoma.  I could just say I ran out of time, but that isn't true. The Board of Directors terminated my position in September. I'd had an entire summer to do it. But I hadn't, in part, because of my fear, a similar fear that kept me from training and competing for over ten years. What if there is a bear? What if I can't see? What if I'm cold? What if, for some stupid reason, I can't ride my bike that far? What if I'm too fat? 

That was me, in my twenties. Afraid of everything. I wish I could relive those years. But then, life does this funny thing sometimes: it circles back. And I found myself at the age of 32, watching the dawn on that same old wooden pier, knowing that within 90 minutes, I'd be racing. 

I racked the bike. I peed a million times which is really annoying when you're in a one-piece tri-suit. I ran around (nose-breathing only) to get warm because, well, especially before the sun rose, it was really cold! I had on my green down jacket and sweatpants and a ton of snot running out of my nose. (A real fashion statement, right?!) I checked my bike again and moved it to a better position in the transition area. Then I went to see where the swim began and ended.

My heart fell a little when I saw the swim exit. Rocky as heck and then a nice (steep) climb up a hill to the transition area. I tried to think of how to use this to my advantage and I decided I'd regain my "land legs" while stepping on the shoreline rocks, strip the top half of my wetsuit on the (short) but relatively flat paved path before the longish grassy climb to the transition area. It would not be ideal (other athletes left shoes at the swim transition to get over those rocks) but I had nothing but my running shoes and, well, what's a few seconds of pain? :-)

The swim exit-- beautiful-- if a bit rocky.

Back at the transition, I find the Kaia girls. 

These are the woman who have ridden with me in CompuTrainer sessions at insane-dark o'clock Tuesday and Thursday mornings. I hope they don't mind my company so much; but I have to say, I really love them. They so inspire me; up so early every day ( I guess I am, too) but they are always so vibrant and friendly. And their stories are so amazing. And you know, anyone who gets up that early to train is incredible.

Me with some of the Kaia ladies who keep me company during 5 am and 6 am CompuTrainer classes at Great Basin Bicycles.

They pose for a photo with me and I feel like I'm a part of something. Again, that's amazing. 

Then the announcer calls us down to the water. It's time. 

So soon? But I'm ready. 

Come what may, right? 

I think I got into the water too early; about 15 minutes too early, to be exact. I have the idea in my mind that all Olympic Triathletes will start at the same time after the first two waves of 70.3'rs. And so I swim and feel OK but really cold. And then I'm told I've got another 15 minutes or so and my teeth start to chatter.

But WTF, the water feels warmer than the air so I stay in it and watch the other athletes go and swim, so I go and swim.  But then I wade and (mostly) chatter. 

The announcer says: turn right at all the yellow buoys except the last one  and I remember that, too. And I really do feel good which is why I'm so mad at myself for what happens next. I feel so good. Ready to roll. Arms are loose. Snot's cleared from my nose. I have peed in the lake so much I've raised the average water temperature by a good two degrees. 

And the man says "go" and I do. I go. I swim. Stroke, stroke, stroke.  And I'm OK for the first five minutes. But then I get into the wake of a jetski and the sun's in my eyes and I can't see where I'm going. I remember it gets dark and I can't breathe and I'm going to do my impression of Jimi Hendrix in his final hours and I'm going to strange myself in my own vomit-- so I stop and breast-stroke, head out of water. 

I breast-stroke old-lady style and watch my heat move ahead of me. I try to swim, but I'm hyperventilating and every time I put my face in the water, I can't, I can't I can't.

I know I can't give up. I can't stop. I breast-stroke until the wheezing stops.  I swim freestyle with my head out of water until I reach that first buoy. 

When I make that turn, I put my head in the water. 

I swim. I am alone at first. Then I see pink swim caps. Then red and yellow and green. I am passing so many athletes.

I know, somehow, the rest of this race will consist of me trying to make up all that lost time. 

My transition area before most of the other competitors are there.

Out of the water, across the field of rocks, up the bike path and then a stretch of grass hill that most athletes walked. I ran. I was so far behind. 

I had to try and catch up. 

Never give up, never surrender, a favorite movie of mine says. 

I will not give up. I won't surrender. I just hope I can make up lost time on the bike and run. 

I am dripping wet and on the bike and all I think is: don't give up, you. 

I wonder if I'll be able to run after this and a part of me doesn't care. I want to try, I don't want to let my coaches down and I feel so embarrassed about my swim. But I know I can't focus on that. I have to keep going, keep trying, I can't abandon my plan to push hard on the hills in the first half, knowing the climbs on the way back are shorter. 

It's the most beautiful morning in the world for this. No wind. No clouds. The most perfect morning. Of course, I don't notice this on the ride. I notice hardly anything at all but the sound of my heart (how hard it's echoing in my head) but I keep pushing. I pass women. I pass men. 

I keep hoping i haven't fucked my entire race by being a pussy in the swim. I try to make myself make perfect circles with my legs: I push hard, wheezing. I do not stop at the turn around/aid station. The great thing about an out-and-back is that you can see the competitors in front of you. I counted them; seen them.  Then, one by one, passed them; the last two not until mere miles (or less) to the transition. 

Strong women. And I don't believe that I passed them, actually, when I do. 

I rack the bike. I take off the helmet, the gloves, the shoes. 

Too soon, I"m running. Down the trail and I feel like I've forgotten something. Running down concrete trails. Running through sand trails marked by pinecones. I know I'm too slow. I take water at every station. 

I see hardly anyone around me and I worry that I've taken a wrong turn somewhere. 

But I haven't.  But that's my thought for the whole run: am I moving in the wrong direction? 

But I am not slow and I am not wrong.  I run and I keep expecting to see someone in front of me, but there is no one but me and the forest. I don't know what place I am; I just keep pushing, hoping to catch one more body no matter how many I've caught before.

I run. 

No one tells me my place, my position. I worry I am last.

Most of the final mile is downhill, I focus on my arm-swing. I try not to imagine how I have failed. 

There's no words for the emotion in my head-- my heart-- which explodes when the announcer tells me I am first, that I have crushed the field. I want to cry, I want to laugh but all I can think of is that I'm so grateful that I gave myself a chance to try. 

Me at the finish line right before the announcer revealed that I was the first woman to cross the line. 

After all these years I finally watched the dawn from the pier at Sugar Pine State Park. And after all these years, I don't stop swimming even in the midst of a panic attack. Maybe it's not quite bravery; but something close. Something I've yet to fully master.  

Yay! My award!

Me posing with my trophy-- a klean kanteen bottle (I will be hydrated!)

...and my age group "award"-- a glass and a metal glass. I will be so hydrated! And, obviously, thrilled with my performance!

Place overall : 6 
Place female overall: 1
Time: 2:44

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Wish me LUCK! 513 is a lucky number...

Well, tomorrow I will race for the first time since my accident. I feel strong and confident-- and maybe a little bit nervous (I always am before races.) The morning will start early (3:30 am or so)-- but wish me luck!

But more than that I really wanted to write about how grateful I am for all the people who are helping me become a real athlete. I wouldn't even be racing if it wasn't for Rich Staley and the entire crew at Great Basin Bicycles-- those guys (and gals!!) have not only been my inspiration, but have become my friends.  Everything from the CompuTrainer classes to the rides up Geiger-- I really owe them all a limb or an organ or something important like that to these men and women who make me ride hard and who make me remember to breathe... and to smile. :-) 

And then there's Matt Pendola and the Pendola Project folk. I only started working with the Pendola group in the middle of the summer, but I feel as though I've fallen into a group of the best kind of people you can hope to meet. That you can aspire to be like, actually.

And then there's my family: my mom who follows this crazy journey of mine and who tells me I am a joy in her life. My dad and stepmom who sponsor me to do these races; who watched me in Boise and cheered me on. And that meant so so so much. 

There are my colleagues at the office (you know who you are) who remind me every day about grace, humility and, especially, humor. :-) 

I write all of this not because it takes so much more than workouts to produce a great athlete. It takes much more; it takes a lot of heart (and not from one source) and I'm, simply, amazed, that so many remarkable people are a part of my daily life.

Thank you. 

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Moving Forward: Healed Ribs and New Races

As I turn to breathe the low sun sparkles through the evergreen trees, turning the water to a prism in the palm of my hand. I can’t help but call this happiness.

It’s been about six weeks since my accident and I did my first open water swim in Donner Lake since—oddly—I was hit by a car not too far from where I swim. There’s hardly anyone in the lake tonight—just me and my teammate, Martine.  No boats or jetskis to usher in the quiet end of day; just the sound of my breath, the rush of water and the quiet-loud of my thoughts.

It hasn’t been an easy six weeks but I wonder, in a way, if they have made me stronger. Or, not stronger, but filled with a new feeling of gratitude for the hours I’m able to put in and the ability I have to participate in these endurance events at all. Perhaps this is the softening that comes with age; an acceptance of the body and its specific limitations. Or perhaps I have learned, finally, the fine art of patience.  Miracles are not immediate things in the world of endurance sports, but rather, the product of years of training and dedicated routine.

Years of moments like this: quiet swims, quiet rides, quiet runs; nothing really remarkable that I can point to and say to you, my reader, as if to indicate I am a champion.  Instead, it’s a quiet belief (quiet like my heart—you can’t hear that, either—but I can certainly feel it) those dark track workouts at 4:45 am beneath the constellations that are turning toward an autumn sky (Orion, the warrior, returns in full view) around and around a track and not nearly as fast as the high school runners. But steady—again, like my beating heart—and the belief that I will cross many finish lines in the years to come.

The next finish line will be this weekend, Sunday, at Sugar Pine Point State Park on the West shore of Lake Tahoe in the Lake Tahoe Triathlon. It’s very much an impromptu race—an Olympic Distance Tri—but I just want to see where I am after all the changes that have happened in the past six weeks. My healed ribs, my running technique which was stripped down to its bare bones and rebuilt by my new coach, Matt Pendola of Pendola Training. My revised cycling form (no longer a masher am I; I actually pedal in circles now) and the swim, the sport I couldn’t do due to the pain in my ribs until two weeks ago—well, I know I have lost some of my speed. I just hope I haven’t lost all of it.

But it’s funny: in Donner Lake at dusk I don’t feel as though I have. And at no point does it occur to me to panic (something I used to do all the time in open water.) Instead, I feel at peace in my body as it cuts across the lake, knowing that I’ll get where I’m going.

The doubt that I’m unable to finish what I start isn’t something which haunts me much anymore. Instead, it’s been replaced by the quiet knowledge that I can. 

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.


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. 



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

Placement/Overall: 11