Thursday, April 10, 2014

Letting Go: A Necessary Training (and Personal) Progression

I've decided this is the year I let everything go. 

I admit, when this thought came to me, it wasn't the happiest moment: I was staring at the shadows flickering on my bedroom ceiling and I was remembering all the things my ex had said about me. And all the things coaches had said about me, too. And the random words that random people happen to say-- without realizing they are saying them-- about me, too. About my body (its size and shape); about my ability to perform (as an athlete, as a runner, a swimmer, a cyclist; as a lover, as a writer, as a teacher, as a friend, as a colleague); or about the capacity of my heart and mind (too limited, too narrow; too large; too uncomfortable no matter its size or shape.)

In sort, the flickering shadows told me that no matter whom I have known, I've turned out a failure (for them.)

But as I stared at those flickering shadows, something unexpected happened. I didn't consider that any of these voices-- no matter who said them-- were right. I simply watched a branch as it painted abstract lines across the plaster and realized, for the first time, that none of those voices have known my journey-- none of them know my meters and miles the way I know them.  They are, after all, my moments, my miles, my meters, my seconds.

None of them, in fact, knew the abstract musings of a branch under moonlight just like none of them know what lies within the meters-miles-moments.

And so I've decided to let them all go. 

Someone-- an elite triathlete-- one told me that if I truly wanted to train for an Ironman, I'd have to let go of several "comforts" in my life such as my membership to a master's swim team (even if I loved every person on the team and seeing them made the rest of my life bearable); the need to feel "rested" before a workout and most certainly social situations that involve any sense of a "weekend" or a "vacation." I thought he was talking about solitude: about having to train my body for a specific sport and having to address the needs of the event, etc.

But I think I misunderstood him.

"You find out things about yourself when you train for events like this," he'd said, once, when we were discussing the possibility of him coaching me for an Ironman distance tri. It never happened, of course: I had already decided I couldn't and I loved my master's swim team in a way I can't get too mad at myself for. After all, they were my only friends.

But now that I'm training for a half-ironman and I'm on my own, I know: he was right.

You find out things about yourself you couldn't ever know or expect. 

For me, here are a few examples: I hate being cold. I hate running in the pre-dawn dark or at night when I can't see where my feet will fall. I dislike having to run at lunch when I don't have time to shower before I do the rest of the things I must do the rest of the day. I hate soda, but drink it because it really does make me cycle better. I hate (really, really or more than most things) swimming at night because that means I have to get wet not once or twice or even three times in one day: when I swim at night, my day is bookended in a saturated wetness. And puffy eyes. Ick, right??

But training this much strips away the things that really don't matter. It's mostly a matter of time: fitting in your hours or minutes. It's no longer about meeting some new "fastest" time, but just making a certain time again and again and again. Or, being able to maintain a pace no matter how awful you might feel after work and that meeting in which you wanted to cry. The class where none of your students read and you must improvise and they just look at you blankly.

Here's what I found: no matter how awful my day was, I could wake up and swim/cycle/run or get off work and swim/cycle/run and meet the interval times given to me. I was not fast, no, but there was this space inside myself where I could reside, the most-true-me, the me I don't show off or write with; the me who is quiet and patient; who observes and says, quietly "go" when it's time.

She's been there for me when those other voices fall away. When an ex decides I'm no longer interesting or beautiful or thin (who derided me for SEVEN YEARS that I was not a runner, that running was bad, that I was bad because I was a runner and who NOW dates a runner, loves a runner, who says this runner is so much better than I am) .... or when a prospective coach decides I am not worth the effort because my life-- as an athlete/writer-- is complicated.

That little voice-- my voice-- tells me I'm worthy of my own belief that I am going to succeed. 

It's not an exciting idea or even an original one: but when I train I love the quiet space inside my body. It's beyond my body: a place where I can forget all those other voices. Where I can be the most-myself I can be. I hardly care, mid-swim, where I am beside all the bodies of the world. In that moment, it's just me.  Breathing, turning, stroking, timing.  All those present participles of the body: those are the actions I do.

 *

I'm not sure I can accurately describe what it feels like to let go of a person or an idea. If you want to know the truth, I'm not sure I have.

It's more like this: I retreat into my body and in-between the very base requirements (breathing),  I find myself.  The thing which pushes, which pushes against.

It is a private space; my space.

I kick, stroke, breathe, cycle, run, swim.... I say: "keep going."

I let go of all those voices. Those people. Those memories.

And, I do.

Kick. Stroke. Breathe.

And, believe.

One day.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Rock Bottom

Like most of us, I'm not immune to a bad day... but is it me or are there more bad days than there used to be? (I'd hate to say that there are more bad days than good ones especially considering I rode my bike outside for 91 miles in aerobars for the first time this past weekend, or that I ran for 17 miles the next morning feeling like a million dollars. No, there are still more good days than bad.) But today was not a bad day. It was the worst day I've had in a long, long while.

*

A bit of background: I am a writer. This means that I have to work a lot of different jobs to support the thing I do which, so far, pays me nothing.  Maybe this is why I'm an athlete: I understand what it means to put a lot of love and time into something intangible that may (will?) never give me anything back.  Since August, I have been what is called "adjunct faculty" at a University. This means I only hired on a semester-to-semester, and on an as-needed basis. In August, the university had a spike in enrollment and I found myself facing over 80 English 101 students. Considering the hours, the pay wasn't great-- but I was able to afford rent and groceries-- luxuries, I've come to find. And, really, I didn't mind too much. I like teaching-- especially when I can teach writing in a workshop setting, which is what I ended up doing for the latter half of the semester.

This semester, however. times have become extremely -- or, ridiculously-- lean. Enrollment dropped (as it tends to do in the spring) and I've been shuffled off to another department and so found myself teaching at a community college to help make ends meet-- which means more students, but I'm paid less for each class I teach. Granted, I love my students there, honestly: the folk who work and go to school in order to make their lives better. But the salary is much, much less. So much less that I've cut back from three to two to 1.5 meals a day; so much so that items like soap, deodorant and shaving cream, bread, chicken breasts and salads are no longer on the shopping list nor in my cupboards. And I guess it's been a good thing, learning to live without. I don't mind it, mostly.... who needs heat when you have blankets and two cats? A television when you have a book? Lights when there are stars?

I am like the Epicurean philosophers of the Hellenistic period perhaps, who practiced a denial of desires as a way to temper the disappointments of life. Only, I'm not sure I chose this path. Or, I did, not knowing the consequences of what it meant to be a writer and an athlete.

*

But today: today I woke up and listened to the wind through the branches of tree outside in the dark of pre-dawn ready to run my 2-mile repeats-- the thing I do on Wednesday mornings. I can't run with my team anymore because, for some reason, my body can't stand the cold (or, I'm always cold. But running in the cold is a sure way to get injured so I try and wait until the sun rises.) My running shoes-- long overdue for a replacement-- sat by the door.  As I sipped my coffee, I considered putting them on and trying to use them for just one more workout-- but instead, I decided that my racing flats would be better... although much less supportive, the wear pattern on them is more even. (Besides, that's what I wore on my 17-miler this weekend.)

So on go the Brooks "Green Silence" with the slim lime-green soles and I'm out pacing myself around Virginia Lake. My leg starts to hurt around mile 3.5 of my hard efforts. By mile 5 it feels like there's the devil's hand in my quad, raking fingernails through the muscle fibers in the wrong direction. I don't want to stop (clouds hanging low over the Sierra Nevada range in the distance and the silent-stillness of the lake was a scene I wanted my body to run through.) But it was the kind of pain you don't run through, if you're smart. The sharp-pain of "STOP" and for once in my life, I listened.

It's no mystery why this happened: it was cold out and (sigh) my shoes are worn out. And there's an easy enough fix: buy new shoes. But on my salary, I can't. And even with my new, third job (creating technical documentation for a software company) I can't until the first of the month. I hate to say it: but I cried. I've never felt so pathetic in my life; because even the simplest things (food! heat! shoes!) are beyond my reach.

I cried again later in the day when I returned from lecture en route to my "new job" to find I'd run over a nail and I had a flat tire on my car. Not usually a big deal (these things are fixable, you know?) the cost to repair the tire has left me with $5 until April 1st.

Needless to say, I cried this afternoon, too. The two rejection letters from literary journals-- stating my work is unsuitable for public consumption-- didn't help, either.

And I cried when I received the news of my positive review-- that I am a "talented" and "innovative" teacher. I cried at the pool after a 2-mile swim when I saw my coach and I had to explain to him that I can't possibly pay my remaining balance today (I have $5 to keep me alive) and he told me to buy new shoes.

And then, I had to explain that I can't even do that, now.

And I'm crying now because I feel so embarrassed and ashamed that my life has come to this. All because I wanted to write. To run and swim and bike and to be a positive force in the world. And, honestly, I probably should just cry and not taken the time to write a blog about how awful things are right now. But if I'm honest about my writing, these are the moments I have to write about and that I have to share.

Training is about making yourself better each and every day in order to, one day, do something extraordinary. But athletes are not our only heroes: with the anxiety and fear of each day, I've come to a new appreciation and understanding of other, more muted, heroes. The single parents, the unemployed, those who have disabilities which limit them in physical ways, perhaps, but never in the capacity to feel happiness or sorrow.

I read once (in a work by an 18th century French philosopher) that the human qualities we consider "essential" like "love" or "justice" or even, really, "faith" are dependent upon the more base needs (shelter, food, clothing) being met. In other words, you can't experience romantic love if you're starving; you can't contemplate the nature of the universe if your body is not capable of functioning in a more or less "comfortable" state. I never appreciated this, quite, until now.

I can't be an elite anything like this.

I can't write like this. I can't (literally) run like this.

*

But I am writing. And I know I'll run again. If anything time does, it moves on at a steady pace. And, according to another ancient philosopher (Heraclitus) change is the only constant in these lives of ours. I can't stop, I know.

I love my students too much to. And I love writing and training. And I want to be the best I can be in the Boise Half-Ironman, my first race of that distance. I can't stop trying.

But it was a hard day, admittedly. I cried a lot. I'm still crying. I feel so pathetic and awful.

I can't wait for this to pass.








Saturday, March 8, 2014

Life in Motion

It's strange that I'm not moving, or that's what I think now after a CompuTrainer session which began at 9:00 am this morning and ended around 2:30 pm with 104 miles logged with breaks only to manage hydration (in and out) as well as 2-minute and 30-second planks between 20-mile efforts (gotta get that six-pack, eventually. Even if it's a six-pack of chicken!) The world is moving... still. Even though I'm sitting here, on the edge of my office chair and on the cusp of rumination.

For some reason, I'm obsessed with origins lately-- both mine and others'. Why things are the way they are and how people come to be the people we meet. What are the moments which form a person-- and are they always the same moments? Or, is who we are dependent upon our interpretation of the past, our shifting lens which changes as we change and our understanding of our past-- and of ourselves-- is never the same, but rather a function of the present moment and who we think we are within it.  This is why I love to ask other athletes: "Were you always an athlete?" Often-- mostly-- the answer is no, but what follows is an explanation of personal evolution, of finding one's self (literally) within the physicality demanded by the sport. Of course, my results are skewed because I asked other athletes-- other endurance athletes -- and I can't claim that, say, a painter or a musician would have a similar response.

But who's to say they wouldn't?

The pattern seems to be something like: some general sense of feeling lost and not-a-part-of. Then, a marriage of solitude with the sport itself ("I decided to swim in my free time because I didn't fit in with the other kids my age" or "I started running every afternoon because I couldn't connect with the other people my age and I didn't want to sit at home...") And the reliance on that activity to fill the empty hours (the empty soul?), let loose of companionship and finding solace in the time when time doesn't seem to exist because you are moving through it, or past it with the wind or water cutting across your face.

Then there's always that first race-- or workout-- that moment when all that solitude meets community; when one body is placed against several. The unexpected "win" (this, I gather, is key. This validation that all that time spent alone was not wasted. That there was, instead, something gained by hours of uncomfortable training in the pursuit of.... what? Does the person even know? They won't say they do, but deep-down they do, even it if it's so deep, it's beyond admitting. The desire to win, to be a part-of; to counter the very thing that made the love of the training begin....)

For me, it was running: I'd been rejected from twelve MFA programs when all I wanted to be was a writer. I was in a graduate program (French) I wasn't really passionate about and I was the only graduate student in the program at the time. I was an outsider in every respect. It's not surprising (to me, now) that, at 26 years old, I decided to do a lot of long, slow runs on my own. To think about my life, I suppose, but also to feel like I had some control over it; that I could choose to see the dawn from the top of some lonely sage hill or run through a storm if I wanted.  Through the running, I ran into a solitary, safe place of elemental things: arroyos and rock-faces; trails and clouds; sun and rain and all of it again, and again and again. Morning after morning; nothing filled my mornings but running. No one to make me stop or go but me.

It was the most incredible sense of freedom I've ever felt when I was 26 (nearly 27) and running without limits--- without, even, a race in mind. Just running because I loved it, or I loved how strong it made me feel when every other aspect of my life made me feel weak and pathetic (no teaching prospects, no publications) ; like there was nothing left.

It's no wonder, then, that when I won the Lake Tahoe Marathon, my athlete-life became my life. Or, I think I understand myself the best when I am in motion.  After all, those are the times when I feel I'm pitted against the rest of the world (its people, its ideologies, the reasons why or why not, beauty vs. its opposite, etc.)-- the times in which I shine. Me: Ms. Unexpected. Ms. You-Look-Fat-But-OMG-You're-Strong. Or, when I am more than my body: when I think I can't but, do: out-powering the limits I set for myself.

These are the stories athletes have: it's about how you come better than yourself, or better than you thought you could be. A personal best, yes; but it's more than that. It's about how some of us (the outcasts, the weirdos, the awkward-speakers) enter the world, again. How we learn to speak and stand on our own two feet (or how we kick, stride or circle them); how we learn the cadence of our lives. How we learn to love again and do, with an efficient heart, a good heart, a heart which-- due to the miles and miles, the self-questioning and testing, has come into a knowledge of itself-- a wise heart.

So maybe we endurance athletes feel like we are always moving-- but somehow, I am starting to believe, we are the ones who most know what it's like to be stable. Or, what it means to be truly standing still. Even when we're moving.



Friday, February 21, 2014

The Origins of (my)Self

Sometimes I use this blog as a way to write my way through ideas. Which isn't what blogs are for, I know: blogs are for complete thoughts, for recording life (however it is) the ups and downs, the daily experience. And I admit, in that respect I'm a shitty blogger: when the semester starts, I just don't have the time to record the little things, the daily stuff, the throwing-up-after-this, the I-kicked-ass-in-this. But because I'm also an essayist, I do write when I'm not blogging and I've found that the blog is the foundation, sometimes, for the more complicated ideas I pursue in my essays and longer writing projects.

One such project is the story of one of my ancestors who was a prizefighter. I've wanted to write about him for a long time but I don't know how. The problem, in part, is due to the fact I never met him: my mother's grandfather: he died when she was eight years old and so all my information about him comes second-hand at best, sometimes third-hand ( stories about stories.) But how do you write about a person you've never known? You don't know gestures, the way the man formed a sentence, a thought; the way he occupied a room or moved; trying to piece together a person from a few documents and photographs is the work of a fiction writer-- and I've learned (over the years) I'm not a fiction writer. Fiction writers construct a (probable) reality but offer readers an absolute truth; nonfiction writers use absolute truth to offer readers several probable realities. It's deductive vs. inductive reasoning and I've always loved exploring ideas rather than excluding them.

And so I wonder: why do I want to be an athlete? It's not an easy life and I'm not necessarily suited for that lifestyle. But this desire-- this drive-- is the thing that gets me out of bed at 5am most days, that makes me eat things that end in words like "gel" and "fuel"and that makes me turn down invitations to dinner (both because they are too late and because I can't afford them) and if I had to choose, I'd take a new pair of running shoes before a pair of stylish pumps.

I didn't grow up in a house filled with athletes. I didn't have a parent who ran or rode or swam. And so I wonder: where did this come from-- this desire to swim, to ride, to run until I outlast the competition? Is it some inherited memory from my prize-fighting great-grandfather (are memories things we inherit like eye color, height, or skin tone)--am I a fighter, too? Or, is it something else? Some result of the way I was raised? Some desire to prove myself, again and again, that I was not only OK but exceptional?

His life was tragic (he regretted one night in the ring for his entire life) and so I wonder if I've inherited that, too: will attention on all this training exclude other aspects of my life? My ability to marry a person, to have a family, to have a "career"? Or, is this the thing that will make me better at all of them?

I wish I had the answers. But in nonfiction, we get to ask questions, to ponder; but ultimately, the goal is rumination not certainty.  (I wish I was a fiction writer, sometimes. Or, now.)

Am I?

I don't know.

What I do know: I'm working as hard as I can to cross a finish line first. And perhaps that is the most important thing, for now.

Friday, January 31, 2014

Bumps in the Road: On BONKING in Training

WARNING: There are moments of TMI in this post.


BONKING: when your body "hits the wall" or otherwise stops when you want more than anything to keep moving, to finish, to win. I'm not really familiar with bonking in races; if anything, I over-fuel in my events and I have yet to compete in a race I am unable to finish. Even the 2008 Boston Marathon (a race preceded by several injuries which kept me from all the necessary miles marathon training requires) was less of a bonk than it was a slog of pain from a bad case of "runners knee" caused by a tight IT band, a relic of my hip bursitis I'd developed the marathon before.

I am not immune, however, to the BONK. It hits me especially hard in training when fueling, hydration and rest are of the utmost importance because, unlike a race, it isn't just one day or even one single session per day that I need to complete: rather, it's several days within which I have morning, mid-day and evening training sessions which need to reach certain intensity levels and/or pace (in terms of interval times) I have to meet. And I don't like to quit; I don't want to be that person who can't do it because they are weak and fat I want to be strong and fit-- I want to have a shot at winning-- so I train as much as I can (forgoing rest, which is a big no-no, I know, but I feel so guilty when I don't train) and the inevitable happens: I BONK and I BONK hard.

Like today: the tempo run down by the river in the cold, dark dawn. I lost the feeling in my legs early, yet I held a steady, solid pace. My stomach, however, did not want to hold anything and so what was supposed to be 35-minutes in one direction turned into 37 because I sprinted to the nearest bathroom. My stomach was a mess; I'd hardly eaten before the run but dinner meshed with breakfast in a dangerous (combustable, apparently) combination and I was sweating in those moments of awful repose.

I was able to gather myself together enough to increase my pace on the way back; I caught sight of the other Tri team members with (about) two miles left to go. My final time revealed I'd shaved 90 seconds from my average pace even though the trip back was mostly uphill. But my unhappy stomach rebelled again, expelling whatever was left in it (water, mostly) before I tried to re-group enough to complete my weight/resistance/core training session.

I was scheduled to swim at noon; but when I got home at 10:00 am, I lay down and every joint in my body hurt. Ached, almost, and I was so cold (I couldn't stop shivering) I put on my down jacket and wrapped all the blankets I owned around me and fell into a motionless, dreamless sleep. I must have needed it: I stayed like that for over three hours. Needless to say, I missed the swim (and abandoned my teammate, which made me feel awful.)

At that point, I should have canned the two-hour CompuTrainer session I'd planned (two hours on my bike, trying to ride at or above my threshold pace with a handful of very strong, very experienced cyclists.) This is probably why I have lost so many coaches: the first rule of training for an event is to listen to your body. To acknowledge you're a biological creature and not a machine. This isn't to say you're supposed to wimp out during a hard workout (you're supposed to push through those and put aside the very natural and human impulse to want to be comfortable); but you should do those sorts of workouts on days your body feels like itself and acts like itself, i.e.: not expelling everything you put in it instantly, like my body acted today.

So I deserved everything that happened in the CompuTrainer session tonight. All the moments I wanted to cry, to give up, feeling pathetic and awful at my inability to make my legs work the way they normally do on a bike (or, to work at all!) It was a challenge to push away all the negative thoughts I (somewhat) expected: looking at myself in the mirror and the comparison to the other female cyclists. I'm the fattest, the largest, so of course I can't keep up. I've been eating too much, not training enough hours, not keeping myself to a strict enough schedule. I have failed despite going to practice -- despite training for at least two hours-- every day. 

And for the second hour-- what's called "Fast Friday" a tempo ride and chase of sorts: I didn't-- couldn't "pull" (ride in the front position and therefore taking the wind which increases the difficulty of riding) at all.  Instead, all I could do was "survive" by barely holding on to the draft of other riders, my legs ignoring the commands from my mind. I told my legs: push, pull, sweep, harder, harder! and in response, they did nothing.  My heart rate was at a comfortable 150. NOTHING I could do would make it budge from that number. Not a faster cadence. Not a harder gear. (Yet another indication that I was, by that time, simply done.)

At the end of the two hours, I had the fastest transition time to the bathroom: I think it took all of five seconds for me to unclip from my pedals , run from the bike, down the stairs before my stomach once again released whatever was left in there. Shaking (and crying-- which is embarrassing) I really felt like I'd failed. I'd failed the people I ride with, I failed my teammate, I failed myself.  The numbers on the CompuTrainer screen flicker and change and become pounds, calories I've eaten that I shouldn't have, the width of my waist, the abundance of my chest-- all the measures of my failure.

Enter sanity: no one was upset with me. Not any of the riders, or the wives and friends of the riders who came to watch us finish the ride. They only said I was amazing. Rich told me our "group" averaged the fastest speed and it was something to hang on to that-- even in the draft-- when you feel like absolute shit (or the thing your body expels, again and again, after these bouts of effort.)

I think everyone must have a "bad day." I also think I've got to take some time off to recover. I want to win, I want to be the best, I want to push myself, I don't want to give up or succumb to the laziness to which every one is prone: (who in in the world doesn't want to be comfortable?) but I'm home now and all I want is to sleep. I'm not hungry and I don't want to shower or change; I want to undo today when I failed so completely.

But I think I'm going to have to rest first... and to be OK that I, too, can have a bad BONK day.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Strange Condition

I wasn't sure what to name this post, so I went with a song title. "Strange Condition" is a song by Pete Yorn I've loved for too long, probably, but that always gets me with its familiar beat and the way that life does become a strange condition whether or not you're in a literal prison (like the speaker in the song) or you're in one you've made yourself, which is the case for most of us. This week I've been sick-- I got the lung-crud that settles in and makes breathing a chore. I'm mostly out of it now, but it was the PITS since I've been trying to up my mileage in all three sports and I had TWO READINGS to read for this week: Literary Arts & Wine in Truckee which I organized (wow, right?) and The Salon, in Reno.

And in the midst of all of this is cycling. Which makes no sense, except to say: cycling! My unknown foe and uncharted territory. Here I was: ready to hammer and then (if I'm going to believe the commercials on TV) some really awful musical band of mucus-guys decided to play on a while in my lower lungs (and boy, are they heavy on the tuba) and changed my plans for me. In a way, though, it wasn't as bad as I thought: I got an extra day of rest and came back strong for a 40-mile effort on Friday and a 60-mile effort on Saturday.

But that's not what I want to write about. Or, it is what I want to write about, in part: but it's also how every time I've hopped in my car this week, I've heard a song whose chorus tells me: "Your awful, lonely life/ your awful, lonely life now..." (the actual lyrics are: "You're holding on for life/You're holding on for life now....") and how I wondered about how the world can sometimes seem so full of people and things to do and at other times, feel so empty.  I remember, long ago (or, years ago) when I was running much more that I accepted that part of my life would always be lonely. It feels different now, though: now that I'm not such a great athlete; or now that I got used to having another person in my life.  Mornings and dusk are by far the hardest times: the times I had someone to talk to about my day, about the miles or, even, about nothing at all.

What else is hard, too, is finding my place in these new training groups. I'm not out in front in any of them. I'm in the middle at best, or most times, dragging behind. Part of that is being sick, I know; but part of it, too, is the discovery of my own abilities; can I push harder than I think I can? Should I hold back?  It's always easier to err on the conservative side, but that is also the most boring.  And what fun is anything if it's boring? 

Friday wasn't boring, though. I came into the cycling gym minutes before the class, changed in record time and hopped on my bike with my bling-bling earrings in place and enough juice in my legs to run an entire city (an actual city like New York or Paris.) My hair blew back from my face from the fan and no one could keep my legs from turning.  I more or less felt the same in the second hour when I teamed with Rich and Jay against three of the other guys to lead a pursuit-type tempo ride.  I averaged 217 watts for that first hour; 198 the second and felt as though I hadn't done anything. HOWEVER: I should admit: this is NOT AT ALL how I felt this morning (stairs hurt.)

But whatever: my "lonely, awful life" song took me to the cycling gym again at 9:00 am (better to be in physical than emotional pain!) and I rode and rode and rode until I didn't want to ride anymore and Rich told me to keep my bike on the stands and ride; I didn't want to-- but he and this monster with a scorpion on his jersey named Steve were there and if they didn't quit, I couldn't quit, either: ride, ride, ride. Low watts: whatever. Ride.  Suck on someone's wheel and be no help at all until I just can't stand it anymore and I'd rush out in front and pull and pull, die a little bit (feel those mitochondria slipping into the great abyss) before slugging another gulp of water, another attempt at not-being "another lonely life" if only by hanging on by the numbers on a digital display of a screen.

The athletic life is exhilarating and it's sad: it's about community, but a transitory one filled with bodies who'd hardly know me as myself...  but also other bodies-- my friends and family-- who cannot know the hours of swimming, riding, running; who do not see the dawns I see or feel the pull of a particular finish line as thought that matters more than, say, changing the oil in my car.

I'm not sad; but unfortunately, I'm also (not) a pragmatist: I'm a romantic and those quiet moments  are defining ones; alone in the body, there are vistas to overcome.  Ideas and emotions I can't always articulate (no wonder I'm alone); how much I wish I didn't have an "awful, lonely life"-- this "strange condition" I've made of hours and races and goals I believe in (I believe in me) but which endear me to no one on the face of the earth.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Cats, Bicycles and Abysses....

Sanchilla, before the pounce.


About seven or eight years ago after I decided to go back to graduate school an instructor gave me Rick Bass's "Cats, Bubbles and Abysses", a short story about, well, several things, but mostly about a young writer who had "promise" or "talent" or whatever it is you have when you, as an instructor, see a student who can actually write. (A way with words? A je ne sais quoi-- but no, there is a "quoi"-- the way to string a sentence along its expected frame, but to give life to it. To write but also to think. To think and to want to think. Or, not only to think but to go beyond mere thought to produce something. Art, perhaps.)

Bass describes this as a "bubble." That, for most of us, the best sort of writing we can do is to accept our limitations and work within them. Or, to work within the bubble, as he says: "....most of us get used to the bubble [and] finally, just ignore it, and quit bouncing against it, cease to hurl ourselves recklessly against the thing, and settle for moving around cautiously within its limits as best we can."  What, I suppose, made this story stand out at the time-- and come to mind so many years later-- is the final lines in which we learn the young writer is, alas stuck in a bubble, too-- mistaking his lack of air (or, suffocation) for actual breathing.  

Perspective, I suppose, is key. Sometimes we think the world is great because it appears that way from our  little fold-out seat in the grand theatre of "me"; or sometimes things seem worse than they really are like you're not only in a bubble, but in a gigantic hole in the ground with no possible means of escape. Both might be true, given the wide scope--and power- of perspective. But more (and most!) likely, there are bubbles in the world, but with membranes that are, if you try hard enough, permeable. 

Sometimes. 


So, this week I snapped into the CompuTrainer "Fast Friday" class for the first time in my life. For those of you who don't know, a Compu-Trainer is a device which allows you to ride your bike inside (like a treadmill, but for a bike) but that is also connected to a computer--and a program-- which monitors  the amount of energy you produce (watts), your heart rate, and (probable) speed along a changing, synthetic course. Usually sessions are at tempo efforts, but I was told Fast Friday was something else entirely that required a trashcan by your bike so that you could puke in it from time to time. Which may sound dramatic, but if you've never ridden a bike inside-- let me just say that it sucks. Really. It sucks worse than the worst class you've ever sat through even if that class was three hours long without a break and in a foreign language you don't understand. And how can I draw this comparison? Because I lived abroad and I know what it's like to sit for hours on end and have no idea what anyone is saying. Which is a lot like a stationary bike-- I have no idea what my body's doing-- am I moving quickly or not? I'm not moving! Ack!!) The benefit of a Compu-Trainer session (as opposed to the standard LifeCycle stationary bike at the gym) is that you're 1) on your bike 2)actually shifting gears as though you were riding and 3)the colored dot on the screen is supposed to be "you" with all your data strung down below it, like a dangling mathematical earring.

Which gets me back to the bubble. It's a metaphor for expectations and limitations-- how sometimes our expectations are limitations, or (more likely) our expectations surpass what we're capable thereby becoming a type of limitation ("if I can't get published/run this fast, or this person doesn't love me, etc. then there must be something wrong with me.") That is a bubble; and I'm coming to appreciate we all have them. 

Maybe everything we do-- as writers, as athletes, as people-- is an effort to make the pain of existence bearable-- or (less dramatically) to make what is uncomfortable not quite as noticeable.  As you know from previous posts, my long-time relationship ended which means there's a bit hole in my life. However, at about the time we parted ways, I found a little cat I couldn't NOT adopt. She wasn't the one I noticed, at first, in the cages lined up in PetCo that November Day.. I wasn't drawn to the little six-month old who had a lion-face (the broad nose--already!-- and the wide paws indicating he'd grow to be BIG)-- no, it was the quiet, shy tortoise-shell tabby girl (with one eye surrounded by orange, another by gray) which I, after a minute, couldn't NOT look at. 

Sanchia. That was what I'd name her. 

*

She is a three-year old cat who looks like six-month year old kitten who'd been the companion of an elderly woman who passed away.  After that, a neighbor had taken her in but also, unfortunately, passed away.  I didn't know all that when I first "met" her.  I'd only pet her with my fingers stuck through the cage. Yet: aside from the warnings from the volunteer that she had "issues"-- how could I not?

Anyway, I did. 

Things weren't "perfect" at first. She was scared of the vaulted ceilings, of me (until I talked softly to her), and of J.-- my Maine Coon-- who is endlessly fascinated with what goes on the cat box when he's not in there.

Over time, though, she's gotten braver. So much so that I call her "Sanchilla": after Godzilla in the way she pursues my affection (persistent, stomping, violent-- almost) and also a reference to the softness of her fur, comparable to a Chinchilla-- soft and fine with the bones beneath, delicate and fragile. 

*

So what is my "bubble"? I have many; maybe too many and it's time to let some of them go. The notion I'll never be loved again, for instance (not true since Sanchilla's around);  the idea I'm not a good athlete (also not true. I'm only one of three women in Reno who have done "Fast Friday" and who did not fail, did not get off the bike, did not cry or puke, but who rode and rode well....); the fear I'll never be published (another rejection arrived today for my book but rejections mean I'm still in the game, still trying, not giving up;) the idea that the sky is falling (Ha! It already did! What could possibly happen now?)

There are too many of these.

I think it's time to focus beyond the bubble; beyond my limitations-- because maybe, just maybe at 32 years old, I haven't quite discovered them yet.





Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Efficiency


Efficiency is not how fast or how strong but how little you put yourself into whatever you're doing in order to achieve the maximum result.

Mondays are usually my rest days but I found myself on my bike on a CompuTrainer  at Great Basin Bicycles around noon to “spin scan” myself which is a fancy way of saying I was trying to discover where my faults are, in terms of cycling, and how I can become a more powerful rider without really trying harder (per se) but riding smarter. I was feeling pretty crispy that morning already: for some reason my long run the day before really knocked me out and I felt like I could have slept another 12 hours. My legs hurt and my left foot (with some sort of tendonitis) throbbed. The space behind my eyes hurt. My right shoulder was on fire.  But I'd already renewed my driver's license at the DMV at 8 am and applied for two jobs and so what could harm could a spin scan do? 

Well, harm isn't the right word, exactly. Let me try to explain.

So here's the thing: I'm not known for my efficiency or even my constancy. Athletically speaking, I can do exceptionally well (running a 2:47 marathon, qualifying for Nationals in the 1650 free after only 18 months of swim training, climbing Patterson Pass without puking all over my front tire) but I am also capable of really downright shitty things, too: GI issues so prevalent at the track I can hardly sprint a 400 most days without worrying what will end up in my shorts; hyperventilating in the pool (at practice) when I allow myself to realize I'm surrounded by water; the inability to push my heart beyond 189 beats per minute-- even though I could, I know I could-- I let the digital monitor tell me I can't instead of trying anyway. This tendency extends beyond the physical: I've written a book (this is a good thing) but I doubt it will be published (pathetic); I paint portraits and landscapes (awesome) but never show them to anyone (shitty); I loved a man with all my heart (can you do any more than that?) but never believed I was pretty/smart/fit/successful enough for him (super-duper-shitty. You can't love a person like that) and I taught 75-minute writing courses I'd prepare days before--for hours at a time (what dedication!) only to undermine myself minutes before each class with panic attacks that I am not worthy, not good enough, not ever, ever, throwing my plans out the window (literally) and doing something lame and not thought-out like thesis-statement workshops. (Shitty.) 

Sigh. That's me. 

Efficiency, in other words, is not my strong suit. Extremes are. And so, there I was on the spin scan to see if my legs could learn a happy medium. And then (maybe maybe) the rest of me could learn it, too. And then there was the other thing: the fact that someone would talk to me about cycling for the time it took me to figure out my form. This means a lot: no one talks to me. Or not much, not anymore: it was going to be a conversation for as long as I could withstand the discomfort and for as long as I could keep learning or until my muscles gave out, which would be the case, actually. 

Riding a bike isn't as "easy" as it looks. It's not like what they say: it's a thing you do and you don't forget about it. Or maybe it is if you ride a cruiser bike once a year and you manage to not fall over or careen down a hill and hit the steel bumper of my boyfriend's truck like this woman did two years ago, smashing his right rear-light (and doing a bit of damage to her face in the process.)  I can ride a bike and not hit a parked car.  I have, especially since I've become an athlete (a runner) and I'm always injured. But the thing is: my form on the bike sucks. I push down with my quads too much and I never use my hamstrings (what are those, anyway?) and I like the hard gears because I'll just grind my way through anything. 

Which is all to say I'm no good on the bike which is why Great Basin Bicycles has been a godsend and why I keep going back to torture their staff who tell me tidbits as I ride and ride, my eyes focused on a screen which tells me what muscles are firing and when and how. Most people start of with a "peanut" shaped design which means the legs are working opposite each other. I skipped the peanut stage and moved right into potato ("She's a spud!" one of the guys commented and I had to laugh at that)-- which means I've half-got it. Contrary to what you'd think it's the pulling back and up which matters most; gravity takes care of the pushing down. And if I think about it enough, I can make a potato which means my legs are working equally hard-- front and back, left and right. 

It's not perfect, though, and perfect was what I wanted. Which is the only way I can explain that I was on the spin-scan thing for two hours when I hadn't planned to be there that long at all.  They asked me to: try turning my quads completely off, try only sweeping back, try removing your hands from the bars, folding them behind your back, leaning forward as far as you can and pull, pull, pull with those legs. I couldn't do any of the things they asked completely right.... I had to stop after two hours, though, because my legs were shaking and I could hardly stand at the end of it.

Ever since I started riding with the Diablo Cyclists (2012) I've wanted to know how to get better. Is it more miles? Is it intervals? Is it riding up hills like Mt. Diablo so hard you puke and collapse and wish you were dead, only to peel yourself off the pavement to do it again and again? Is it long rides and tempo rides? Is it, merely, always riding? Is it your bike, is it you, or is it the symbiosis of both, frame and frame, aligned and in perfect synchrony? 

I'm not so upset that my foot is in pain because it means I can swim and ride more. And ride more. I've always wanted to ride 200 miles without stopping, ride at the front of the pack as though I'm strong. Maybe I can, one day, when I learn to shy away from extremes and slide into efficiency



Thursday, January 2, 2014

When the sky starts to fall

Well, 2014 certainly started with something like a bang. To fully appreciate this, I'll have to explain a little bit about where I live (which has very little to do with my training and my journey toward becoming an Ironman, I know, but indulge me. For a few lines, anyway.) I live in an 80 + year old building that was once owned by one of Reno's first medical doctors. It's got all the original windows (single pane with thicker glass at the bottom than at the top) as well as all the original plaster on the walls. I didn't think much of the crack on the vaulted ceiling above my desk, or if I thought about it at all, I decided it gave the place character and should remain as-is. After all, my house is old and houses are like people: flaws become apparent as the years wear on.

So there I sat New Year's Eve working on an essay (writing) because that's what I do now that I'm single and when I'm not training. When I could work no more (and the thought of the person I had shared my life sharing midnight with another woman was, admittedly, a bit more than my heart could take) I decided to go to bed. Not more than five minutes later, I heard a crash in the front room--or, rather, a large thud. It sounded like the cats had knocked my dried grass arrangement over again (which is displayed in a heavy glass vase.) Since it was late and I was tired (and sad) I decided whatever it was could wait until morning.

So imagine how shocked I was at dawn when I woke up to write my morning pages to find my desk chair covered in shards of bone-colored plaster and a gigantic hole in my ceiling! The plaster was surprisingly thick-- and heavy-- and of course my first thought was something along the lines of HOLY F***. I thought 2014 was going to be my year! 


What could have fallen on me while I was writing New Year's Eve.

So I cleaned up my house and went for a run in the early morning light, trying to ward off the depression that no matter what I do, I'm flawed and unloveable and so unlucky that my own house is actively trying to kill me.

But then the world opened up to me with each footfall (as it tends to do when I'm running) as the pale January sky faded from night to day. It was a beautiful morning and I was happy to be a part of it. And as I climbed a series of switchbacks up a narrow canyon, my thoughts began to change, my perspective shifted and I realized I was very lucky indeed.

After all, I could have been sitting there at my desk deep in thought when all that plaster came down. I could have been severely injured. And if it was heavy enough and the ends sharp enough, I could have (OK this is unlikely, but it's still possible) been killed. The thing is, though: I wasn't sitting there when the weight became too much and the ceiling gave way. Instead, I was in bed, safe.... I'm still alive and healthy and well.

The other miracle was that the plaster missed my computer-- where all my writing is stored-- by mere inches. If I didn't believe in angels before-- or in a spiritual force that hovers in the molecules around us-- I do now. Someone-- or something-- in the universe has got my back and wants me to be OK... maybe because I deserve to be-- because I want to give back to the world with my words and my athletics. I'm meant to be on this earth for a while.

And the rest, well, break-ups are never fun but maybe it's a bit like the plaster coming down. In a way, it's a good thing. The ceiling will be repaired and it will be stronger. It also won't fall on my head when I'm writing any time soon.

The world is a beautiful, marvelous place and I'm honored to be a part of it; so maybe I'm not loved right now? I've got enough love in my heart to give to this new reading series I'm starting in Truckee, to a workshop I'm leading for women in a shelter in downtown Reno in February, love to give to my family and my friends and to those of you who read this crazy blog. And love to places like this: just outside Bridgeport, California in a meadow that stretches for miles and ends at the majestic Sierra Nevada Range. A place my mom and I went and she said, no matter what, she loves me.  I look at the light in that photo and I feel there's there's a force which calls to me, which says: "be strong and be well, Rebecca.  You have miles to go before you sleep."

This beautiful meadow-- and light-- captured on a day out with my mom, my biggest fan.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

New Year's Resolution (A List Essay)

1. Change and stay the same. All at the same time.

2.  Eat more kale.

3. Look in the mirror and say, at least twice a day no matter what the scale says or what my hair is doing: "Damn, you're lookin' good."

4. Pet the cats simultaneously. With both hands. Synchronized. They like that.

5. Write letters. Real ones. On cards that require things called stamps. To everyone and anyone who has a place in my heart. Which will require a lot of stamps.

6. Watch more sunrises.

7. Read less meaning into sunsets.

8. Ride with the Diablo Cyclists in the bay area if only to hear Jay's banter again. I've missed hearing about baseball, about music, about anything shouted into the wind at 18 mph while I'm breathless.

9. Stop obsessing about thinness and its relation to how people see me. I am more than my body. I am my soul.

10. Read my work in public more. Let my stories breathe. Let them piss people off, let them bore an audience, let them inspire. Let them live.

11. Go blonde. Natural blonde. Back to my roots, so to speak and ditch the chemical-head. I am OK just the way I am.

12. Learn to appreciate the things I hate: running on treadmills, instant oatmeal, skinny jeans, The Today Show. Somehow, these things (too) have meaning and value in the world.

13. Learn a good joke! All mine are pretty awful-- or, they are jokes I learned when I was in elementary school.

14. Sing karaoke with my dad. It's the best thing ever. I hardly do it enough.

15. Sing. Even if I'm not good at it. You don't always have to do the things you're good at. Sometimes it's important to do the things that make you happy.

16. Learn to cook one gourmet dish. The kind where you sauté things in wine and where the mushrooms must come from some obscure store. And make that meal for the most special people in my life and tell them, again and again, they are special to me. Because I hardly ever do that enough.

17. Generally, say how much I appreciate the people around me. Students, colleagues, friends and family. I've taken for granted how much I love--and need-- everyone in my life.

18. Build a community of writers. Since I moved back, all I've said is how much I miss the bay and my writer-friends there. Maybe this is my time to help writers in Reno-Tahoe come together and form a community of our own: fiction, poetry and nonfiction. Let's see what we can do.

19. Visit my bay-area writing friends. Why miss a person if you are so close?

20. Smile randomly. Even when I'm by myself. Because life is good.

21. Stop believing "I love you" is a sacred phrase. Love is not for rationing; love needs to be shared. Love is not always romantic (although it can be); love is appreciation and truth; love is the adhesive between friends and communities, between the hard stuff and ourselves. Sometimes saying "I love you" can make a bad moment OK even if you're the only one in the room and you've been crying.

22. Forgive. Forget. Move on.

23. Don't forget to dream big. You deserve it.

24. Dance around naked. With sticks. Be brave. Scream if you need to. Paint your face with mud. Life is for the living.

25. Three years ago I wrote: "My words are the arrows I lance from the fortress of my soul." (Make metaphors. Stand by them. Love them. Revise them. But never be ashamed for trying.)

26. Trust that you are enough.

27. Cry if you need to cry. Break down, wallow. Crawl on the floor. Write about it. One of the best parts of being alive is feeling it all: the highs and the lows. And if you can't feel the lows, who's to say you can appreciate the "highs"?

28. Never be that person at Starbucks with the five-minute drink order. Or, if you are, own it.

29. Plant a garden in summertime. Nothing says "happy" like a blooming flower you helped to grow.

30. Always glance back the past, but never dwell.  Life is like a long distance run/ride or swim. It's what you make of the discomfort/pleasure/pain. Make the most of every moment and treasure each and all in equal measure. Because life ends too soon and wisdom comes in the journey, not the destination.

31. Never stop believing in old dreams. Never believe you are unlovable or ugly. I'm NOT.

32. Accept that all of this will change and by next year, I may not believe any of this. And that is OK.