Monday, April 22, 2013

I learned I was not FAST... and LOVED IT

A big reason why I write this blog is because I believe there is a connection between writing and all the crazy things I do which I will group under the term "athletics". Maybe it's not an obvious one: as an athlete, you move and as a writer, you do the best work when your ass is in the chair. But the mentality:  the sticking with it even when it sucks, the loneliness of being "in your own head", the temptation to "not try so hard" those things-- the writing and the athletics share.   

So I guess that's where I start today, on the near 103-mile ride that would sneak up on Saturday after a challenging week at work and, as rides like this do, bite me where it hurts in all the wrong moments. And on Sunday, I'd head to Lodi for a stroke clinic and learn how wrong I've been all this time on how I do freestyle and back (with an emphasis on my creative interpretation of back.)


But how I needed to learn I am not fast or as strong as I thought. And how happy I am I went and knew: I could survive and learn and still-- even as old as I am-- become better. 

The group on Danville Blvd headed out to Sunol and the Reservoir.  Notice I'm not wearing arm-warmers!! For the first time in months I DIDN'T HAVE TO!!
The 9:00 AM start today was glorious. I didn't even need my arm-warmers and they immediately became an ornament on my handlebars, like a flag.  We had a large group, starting out and we rode, peloton-style, along the flat of Danville Boulevard and I took my turn pulling early, eager for the miles, I guess, but also to forget the other life I lead when my ass is in a chair and not a bike saddle. 

I wasn't sure I wanted to do the bonus miles, even from the start: I kept worrying about the swim clinic on Sunday and I didn't want to blow my legs out for that; but HOT DAMN it was nice out and there was no wind (for the first time in AGES) and I thought: will there ever-ever be another day like this? So I signed myself on for the bonus miles at about mile 10, regardless of how I did. Strong. Shitty. Not matter: I was going long because the sun was out and the poppies are blooming orange and because I CAN. 

So: the ride out past Dublin to Sunol is mostly unremarkable. I kept up in the pace line, but when it broke, I fell behind at first, before I was able to get my legs going and catch up and pass riders, one by one. One person rode to the far left which made passing treacherous (I don't want to have a face-on collision with a car) and when I'd shout out to him, he wouldn't move over. Grrr....) But that was probably a good thing since he would be turning back early due to a bad spoke and bald tires around mile 60 or so. 

*


Cisco Dave and Chris in front of the Steam Train.



The first stop at Sunol: there was an ACTUAL STEAM TRAIN THERE and I got all nostalgic: my grandfather had a particular fascination with the trains and spent is spare hours building meticulous models by hand of the old steam engines in scale-- so meticulous that the miniature boilers fed by coal would would actually run.  He made every rivet, and every bolt by hand; and I still remember those mini-trains. They remind me of home, oddly. 



It was interesting to learn a lot of the other riders had family members who had- in some way-- worked or had some connection with trains. This almost over-sahdowed the browning SaniHut that hadn't been cleaned since 1/31/13. ALMOST because a bathroom with no attention shouts with its own distinctive-- and hardly ignorable--voice.  



From there, we could climb into Calaveras Reservoir: a mostly up, but sometimes down and curvy, affair. Franco-- a newer member of our group-- shot out in front after I'd alternated the lead of the pace line with Chris-- and I just assumed I was slow and he was annoyed. Jay, however, came up to my rear wheel and assured me we'd catch him in the hills. 




Too soon, it's ALL A-WARD! With Ward (right) and me as we continue the ride to the reservoir.





*



I can't say we worked together on this one... it was more like a race to the top! The road would turn, climb, descend, turn a bit over 90-degrees and climb again before repeating that pattern. It took a while for me to get the pattern of the changing undulations and soon Ward, Jay and I were trading leads, pushing hard, not wanting to be left behind. Cisco Dave, Jose and Franco were so far in front of us that I could no longer see them; but I-- being a cautious downhiller-- wasn't really looking out in front too far. I was more worried about the terrain immediately in front of my wheel.


Early in the climb, Jay surged ahead of me and took this shot with what-- at the time-- seemed mere inches from my face. I thought it would be awful. But in fact, it's my favorite cycling pic yet. I look so happy; you'd have no idea how awful I felt climbing that hill!


I would be lying if I said it wasn't a hard battle. Both Ward and Jay are incredible cyclists and the fact that I kept up at all amazes me, looking back. Retrospect also grants me the insight that I attacked at all the wrong moments-- just before a downhill when Ward's ability to fly down the hill, corner the turns, etc were an immediate disadvantage to me and Jay's steady climbing a virtue when I had no idea how far an ascent would go. I tried to bring it home, pulling up and pushing down on the pedals, my heartrate at 181, cornering sharper than I normally do, but I was no match for Ward who is simply--tactically-- a better cyclist than I am. Ward, after the ten mile of turns and climbs, the head of our pack followed by Jay and I. 



Then we did the silliest thing EVER: we rode DOWN A STEEP HILL, TURNED AROUND AT THE BOTTOM AND CLIMBED BACK UP AGAIN. I had no idea this was a part of the program; and after the lovely rest on my legs, was somewhat irked I had to climb up that damn thing again. "Whose f***ing idea was this?: I felt like saying, but didn't since I had to focus on the climb and trying to salvage my pride since I am not, my far, the fastest member of this cycling group. 


Climbing back up the ridiculousness that is THE WALL! I'm in the back since I didn't actually think we were climbing up that hill we just went down

Climbing up THE WALL and wondering why I was doing this, LOL! But it was a lovely place;  thank goodness it's warm again.



*



We re-grouped on some person's driveway in the shade of an oak tree. Chris, who should be careful of feeding me too much lest I start to depend on her generosity like a stray cat, gave me my favorite ride-treat: a PB n' J Bonk Bar. Along with the last of my water in the bottles, it was heavenly. I could have sat on that rock, savoring the bar, for another hour, probably. The team regrouped quickly, however, and after a few quips about Ward's leg-gash, and the result of Cisco Dave's hydration control on a road sign, we were off to go back and up (and down) to Sunol to continue our ride. 


Ward and I lounging in the shade of a driveway. Chris gave me a peanut-butter and jelly Bonk Bar (HEAVEN).




I rode with Cisco Dave most of the way down. I asked him about his upcoming event-- the Devil Mountain Double-- and if he felt ready for the 206 miles. After all, he'd be riding by here, too... but instead of having only ridden, say 50 miles, he will have done (perhaps) 100 more. I looked for Eagles, too, that apparently keep nests in the area. I don't believe I saw a single one, though there were a number of larger, darker birds that always circled high, as though searching for prey or carrion, below. 


The flats before Sunol again became a race. Franco, Chris I and I; then Cisco Dave shoots by with Ward and Jay behind him. I tried to close the gap sinking low in my drops to become as small as I could, but even at 27 mph, I couldn't (quite) do it. 



*



Back to Sunol again our ride group parted ways.


Our group headed up Palomares. Here is Cisco Dave (left) and Ward (right). 


Those on the 80-mile loop would head back to Walnut Creek, turning right. The rest of us would turn left and climb Palomares Canyon. I love this side of the climb: the other is shorter but significantly steeper so that you might contemplate killing yourself to end the pain once or twice on the way up especially if you have some miles on your legs already. This side, however, is longer and the climb more gradual. Also: you get to move at a slower pace and see the scenery which is both beautiful and slightly strange: the large ranches, the odd piece of furniture (thrown?) into the creek, the dappled light of trees, the winery in the middle of nowhere (with an open tasting room?) an estate sale, a peacock. I sometimes wonder if I'd even blink if an alien walked up to me on some of these lonely roads or if I'd simply nod and keep pedaling, assuming it was a part of the landscape. 



I really tried to keep pace with Cisco Dave but I'm not that strong or fit anymore. He pulled ahead of me and I did my best, on my own, to keep moving. I would get to the top after Dave, though and wait beneath the shade of an oak tree before we all descended back to Dublin and back home.






On the ride home, I would see the group leave me and be saved by a red light; I just don't have the sprinting legs for the flats. On hills, I'm fantastic. On level ground, I am a lazy cyclist: doing only what I want and not what I can. How I loved those red lights coming back down the boulevard. They meant I would not be left behind.



We ran into a woman on the way back-- in a full racing kit. She would end up riding with me, home. I learned her name was L* and she started racing two years ago because her husband, who had been racing for years, suggested she try it out. She told me she was-- after the first race-- hooked.






She was what my spirit feels like after a good ride or run or swim: bleeding optimism, happiness and a thirst for more. I admit my legs were having trouble keeping up with her pace, but I didn't mind, listening to her stories of racing: of victories and crashes, of long training hours, and of wanting to pursue the sport for the sheer joy of it and purposefully not engaging in the drama of a large all-woman team. I wish I was fitter; I'd have signed on right there; but I'm not. And I let her ride on when I reached my street.



But I don't think I'll forget that attitude: you ride because you love it. And I do: I love all the sports I do, otherwise I wouldn't wake up so early each morning to make them a part of my day. Or wake up the next day for a swim clinic, either. 



But it's all in the hope I can be better. And you know, if I keep it up, one day I might be.








Sunday, April 14, 2013

To the Lighthouse.... Ride Report on the Point Reyes Lighthouse 102-mile Ride/Epic Adventure





:

Point Reyes: A Treacherous Obstacle to Mariners [and cyclists]:
"Point Reyes is the windiest place on the Pacific Coast and the second foggiest place on the North American continent." 

Posted on the Lighthouse grounds and its website.

I'VE GOT TO LEARN TO SEPARATE my idea of what something will be like and the reality of it. Case in point: the ride to the Point Reyes Lighthouse. The Diablo Cyclists had this on their schedule two weeks ago when weather reports predicted rain (ironically, rain that never fell) and so the ride was cancelled. I was heartbroken because ever since I joined up with this incredible crew of cyclists, I've really WANTED TO DO THIS RIDE. Obsessively, almost.

Why?


I somehow imagined the ride would be Woolfesque: masterful, beautifully crafted and with a unique compression of time. Alas, that was not the case.

For silly reasons, mostly (but I'll begin with the least silly and move, rather quickly, into the ridiculous.) 


  1. I grew up in a desert. Visits to the ocean were a treat and the fact that there had to be people living in outposts who basically-- for a job-- produced light fascinated me as a kid. 
  2. My grandmother's best friend was obsessed with lighthouses (I have no idea why, actually) but perhaps some subliminal thing happened for all those visits I attended when I'd be surrounded my miniature lighthouses. (why not?) 
  3. I lived in the Sierra Nevada for a number of years. Those who manned the now unmanned fire lookouts were also a kind of lighthouse keeper. I learned a particular kinship with them in my early 20s. 
  4. I'm a writer. Metaphorically, one can argue writers are like lighthouse keepers: solitary folk that do thankless work but who can, from time to time (if rarely) illuminate what otherwise cannot be seen. 
  5. I became obsessed with Virginia Woolf's work To the Lighthouse the first year in the MFA program at Saint Mary's College. Her use-- and compression/extension-- of time is unmatched. Can I help it if the craft I aspire to as a writer used a lighthouse (an object that is really only discussed briefly and never fully described) but that nonetheless sticks in my mind?


So, when the DC's asked, do you want to ride To the Lighthouse it was like they were asking me if I wanted live the story written in that work (not really, but OK, maybe a little bit. The odd vicarious creature that I am.)  So when Ward warned of high winds the night before in an email, I didn't reply with reason: Whoa, maybe we should do this another day. Or even ask someone who might know better, Um, what do you think would be wise? I just said: SUPER-DUPER! Yay! and ran out to buy five Clif Bars.

And so began our epic ride.



Cisco Dave (left) taking pictures of us (right) on the first climb of the day by a big rock.
Me at the end of the first climb of the day, excited to see the Lighthouse. Sigh.
*

IT WAS WINDY WHEN WE STARTED THE RIDE at 9:00 am in San Rafael. Someone-- maybe it was Cisco Dave-- said:  It's going to be windy as f*** today."  A not-so-subtle warning: I nonetheless charged forward, excited to see this lighthouse I'd never seen before... I was riding TO THE LIGHTHOUSE!! Plus, it was so green out-- what I'd call Ireland-green-- and I hadn't seen Marin like that before.

Much of the early ride was unremarkable: the climb up the road with the 23-turns, the descent in which we were passed by a guy in zebra-print lycra (you have to have BALLS to wear that sort of thing in public, even if you're on a bike); the road by the reservoir, the Cheese Factory with the no-swimming sign (AS IF anyone would swim in a pond of muck). At about 30 miles in, we'd ride up Marshall Wall and that was when I began to wonder about this strange optimism of mine that this was a ride I REALLY WANTED TO DO: we were climbing in a head-wind-- the sort that makes you believe you aren't breathing.



Here I am, in a place I have gleaned from emails is called "Hicks Valley." I think this is just past our first stop at the Cheesecake Factory in Nicasio. Aside from the climb to the big rock, we hadn't been hampered too much by the windy conditions. That would, of course, change.

I put my head into the wind and just did my best to keep moving forward. The others were behind me, but I didn't know how far or even if they were coming to help me battle the gusts. This was my own particular battle. So, I closed my eyes and asked the sky-- the Almighty or really, anyone-- for advice. At just that moment, I heard a very clear, very male voice say: RIDE ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE ROAD. And, I wondered, really, for a moment if God hadn't spoken to me. Right? Morally right? Or literal right? Well, it turned out to be the latter and "God" the Sheriff of Marin County had wanted to get his cruiser around me.

The downhill from Marshall Wall is usually fun and fast. Today it was like the climb: hard and slow. Once in Tomales Bay the crushed shells of oysters on the shoulder were less curious now; I just wanted to get on with the ride. I think the others felt the same way because the next miles to Point Reyes Station were screaming-fast with a tail-wind on our backs. It was a double-edged advantage, however: if you have that kind of natural assistance on the way out, you know that the way back is going to SUCK just as much.

But enter my optimism: the Bovine Bakery in Point Reyes Station and that best-ever-coffee and muffin made the day look up. It wasn't that windy, right? So, back on the road again: Inverness and then, the climb into the canyon and that would be the last of the mild winds for the day. 



More fun and games before the windiest portion of the ride:  a pile-up of four DC'ers at Toby's playground slide in honor of our absent member, Toby. 
*

IF YOU HAVEN'T BEEN TO THE POINT REYES National Seashore, you really are missing something. It's a beautifully pristine area of rolling hills, rugged coastlines and green grasses peopled only by ranches that were established roughly 1850s-1870s prior to the area's naming as a national nature reserve. But there's also a unique energy about the place, too; a quietness, a lovely solitude and an expanse of ocean as though you're at the edge of the world. 

As I was riding into the considerable gusts, watching birds cease their forward motion but hover in one spot, I wondered what Sir. Francis Drake must have thought in 1579 when he landed here. Did he have any idea of the place-- or premonition of what would become California? Likely not, I know: but how odd it is that a European explorer saw this place so long ago; and that he was not the first person to have stepped across this expansive place, to have felt these sorts of winds. 

The sound the wind made through the power lines which lined the road was really something: eerie and hollow, even. It was almost like a low-pitched wail that kept me company on the way toward the lighthouse.  As you can (hear) the wind didn't decrease; instead, it's still going strong. 67-mph gusts-strong we would later learn when we reached our destination. 


video

Perhaps the best example of the force of the wind, however, would be Christine's ponytail in the shot below. Always a great meteorological predictor of wind, rain and calm conditions, the ponytail never lies. 


Animation courtesy of Jay of Gruppo Pumpkincycle fame.
It's an understatement to say that the ride would be more difficult than I-- or any of us-- had planned. And the worst was yet to come: the road out to the lighthouse is a two-laned affair and traffic on a Saturday was surprisingly heavy.  I'm not sure about the whale-watching season (rumor has it you can spot whales from the lighthouse when it's not quite so windy or foggy like it usually is) but I guess that's a part of the draw-- the hope to see a whale or a seal or something out there at the end of this windy expanse of land. 

But what made this ride so difficult was not only the wind and not only the traffic, but the condition of the road itself. Potholes and gravel, old cattle guards that looked like they'd eat your tires-- all of this combined made this ride one of the most harrowing I've ever done. Looking back, it's a miracle I didn't pop--or lose-- a tire, get run over or fall of a cliff when the gusts would surge, sending sandblasts into my face. 


Even though there were considerable challenges, you can't argue with the beauty of this ride. I *may* even do this ride again-- even though I seem to bring the wind along with me-- to chance a better day.
Like Virginia Woolf's To the Lighthouse, the expectation of the lighthouse is the only thing that kept me going. There's a final hill before you get there-- and I was in my easiest gear and barely able to turn my legs over anymore, thinking "I'm not going to make it." Luckily, Cisco Dave was there to give me a kind shove and I did make it. 


*

THE LIGHTHOUSE WAS NOT WHAT I HAD EXPECTED. I suppose that's almost expected after all we went through to get there. But there wasn't much to see or do on that cold, windy edge of earth. There were tourists milling around everywhere and Dr. Dave and I arrived first. We walked around the rock formation to discover the stairs which lead to the actual lighthouse-- down a cliff-- were closed due to the high wind velocity. 

I could see the lighthouse, down in the distance and the terrible ferocity of waves of the Pacific which crashed around it. In the distance, a large ship's hull crashed into the waves as well. And the wind-- that strong wind-- so cold, cutting through cycling jersey and vest, made me instantly frozen. 


The oddly beautiful rock formation you have to walk around to glimpse the lighthouse.
Our shack: Ward braves the outdoor elements, waiting for the others to arrive while I (barely visible) stay inside to keep warm.


WE HUDDLED IN A SHACK waiting for the others to arrive. When they did, Ward had us pose together for a team shot with the ocean-- and that wind-- at our backs. Usually this a ritual-- the team photo-- something we all look forward to. But today, there was no remaining in that cold spot. We were all ready to go back the way we came before it got worse. 

Because it would. That's the nature of the wind out here. It gets stronger as the day progresses. I stopped by the restrooms before we left the lighthouse... and you know the weather is not the best for riding when you'd rather sit in a public restroom-- the waterless kind-- than be out on your bike.


Yup: it's official. It was windy.

To say it was more difficult on the on the way back would also be putting it mildly. We were all nearly blown off our bikes and even off the road. I felt like my bike was tilted at a constant 65-degrees to the road instead of the usual--and comforting--upright 90. I'm amazed I didn't have to stop; that I didn't crash. I kept talking to myself like a crazy person to keep myself from freaking out or from thinking about the situation too much. I knew that if I made it back to the canyon, the wind would be less fierce and the ride to Inverness-- to Point Reyes Station and San Rafael-- would be cake. 

On the almost-final stretch home.


One more stop at the Bovine Bakery and then the ride home: back by the reservoir, Nicasio, the climb through the trees to the big rock. I tried to keep pace with Cisco Dave but at about mile 90-- a few turns from the top-- I hit my wall and I was, simply, finished. Jay had ridden behind me and shot out in front, ready to race. When I didn't respond he turned and asked if I had anything left. 

I said, "no." 

23-turns down the hill and Cisco Dave was waiting at the bottom. Ready to be done with the ride, I rested low in the drops and started to pedal with what I had left. Cisco Dave said: "Take us home, Rebecca" and that's what I planned to do. After a while, we switched positions, and our speed crept up from 27 mph to 29. The ride back to the car along that final stretch seemed longer than it did in the morning. 

*

I'VE NEVER BEEN SO HAPPY TO SEE MY CAR. My legs, arms, shoulders and back were a mess and I was TIRED... but also pleased. I'd ridden to the lighthouse and looking back on it all, it didn't seem that bad. I guess maybe perspective can crunch time like Virginia Woolf did in her novel. But I'm not sure I'm ready to head out there again until I hear the wind's died down and there will be-- at the very least-- one whale.

Photo credits: Jay of Gruppo Pumpkincycle and Cisco Dave

Friday, April 5, 2013

The Long, the Short and the Dirty: Race Report on the 2013 Short Course Championships



Today was unlike any race experience I had before: I slept so soundly I hardly moved; I woke up with a smile wider than my face and the lyrics to the new Michael Franti song "I'm Alive (Life Sounds Like)" (a song about being "your strange self" with the chorus line, a lovely repeated line, in exultation that: "I'm Alive, I'm Alive, I'm Alive.") How alive I felt today. 

In this body. In this life.  And the rest. What can I say? Two PRs and a ribbon-- who would have thought? The DQ (alas, not a stop at the local Dairy Queen) hardly seems to matter now. But here's a breakdown of this amazing day. 

And in case you didn't catch it, I'm so happy to be alive.  

*

THE PRE-RACE RITUAL went without a hitch: I packed my "athletic bag" rather quickly (although I worried about the massive volume of nutrition I had on hand-- was I really going to eat all that? Luckily, I wouldn't have to.) I went through the checklist several times before leaving home to make sure I didn't forget anything. Swimsuit-- check (I was wearing-- wait? Was I? Double-check. Yes.); Cap + goggles-- check. Plus an extra of each in case of major equipment failure. Sandals + socks (this is a new level of fashion-faux pas for me; but I was NOT going to have frozen feet today)-- check. Three towels, sweats, IBUProfen in case something breaks, sunscreen, shampoo/conditioner and all the usual suspects of a shower-bag; cell phone, digital camera and the S.O., S.


The contents of my feed-bag: I probably wasn't going to get hungry today.

As I stepped out into the pre-race morning, I was slightly dismayed to find it gray and rainy. Darn. That meant being wet before, after and during my events. But then that Michael Franti song resounded in my head again and I thought: well, better rain than snow... or not swimming at all. 

I was excited to see what I could do in the pool today.


A new level of fashion-faux pas... and even (probably) an entirely new meaning to "wearing socks with sandals." Oh well.


*


Me with my favorite book-- the book that inspires me to be a writer, and that I aspire to: The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yukanvitch.

THE SODA AQUATIC CENTER was a mere five minutes from home. I stashed my bag in the room provided for the athletes and found my S.O. by the pool for a photo-shoot I'd asked his help with before. A friend of a friend is applying for a job with kickstarter and part of her application is a slide show of author's photos with their favorite books.  I knew right away that I wanted my picture-- dressed like a swimmer-- with Lidia Yuknavitch's The Chronology of Water which is, perhaps, one of the most beautiful, poetic and kick-ass books I've ever read that is-- as much as it is not-- about swimming. 


The Soda Aquatic Center: the blocks, the timing tents, the beginning and ending of every journey I had today. 

And you know-- as soon as all this craziness was over-- the memoir was put away and I was ready to warm up for the 1650 Free, the sun found its way through the clouds and the gray mist parted into the lovely color of morning. The water of the diving well-- where you would warm up before events-- was about the clearest blue I'd seen and just the right balance between crisp and luke warm.


In the diving tank, warming up. I'm not doing flip turns, but conserving breath and energy for the races, to come.

Time slipped away in those early laps-- easy laps-- effortless laps and the next thing I remember, I was standing by my starting block in lane 8 looking West to the other 7 bodies beside me realizing that my ambitious seed time of 23:00 might have been a bad idea. I didn't have a speed suit (not that, at this particular moment, it would have helped) and every other person in that heat had a sub-23 seed time.  


As would prove the theme of the day, I didn't have much time to think about it. ON THE BLOCKS someone said and I was there, goggles pressed to my face with all they had, my hands gripping the front and the toes on my right foot dangling over the front ledge while I stuck my hips high in the air so that my center of gravity was already lurching forward. 


Horn. Airborne. Consumed by pool. 


I kept my body drawn out, long and lean like a dart while I undulated forward, using the force of my dive as long as I could. When I broke the surface, something in my heart clicked and said: there's no fucking way you're coming in last today. 
And so began my 66-lap journey. 


*


Swimming the 1650 Free. I'm the one on the left, in lane 8, the "slow" lane.
THE 1650 FREE is an endurance race of sorts. Everyone I spoke to leading up to this meet told me to start conservative. To start slow, even.  I didn't do that.  I'm no great judge of pace in the world of the pool where what I see most of is the bottom and the tiled lines, passing back and forth. My teammate, Chris, who timed for me said that my pace began at 1:18 per hundred -- two seconds faster than my projected 1:20. 
And that would be the pace I'd hold, until the end when I managed to swim even faster. 


To me, swimming, the race felt something like this: the first 33 laps were a challenging, but manageable clip. When the numbers flicked to 35, though, I discovered I really wasn't feeling so great: my shoulders were starting to tingle and my breathing-- the steady 3 strokes then breathe-- which had before been as comfortable as a couch-- was now, well, not so comfortable. Around lap 41, I started to think that I really wanted to puke. It's not like I had to-- but maybe I wanted to as a sort of distraction from the back and forth... and the (now sad) fact I had over 20 laps to go.


Still in Lane 8, still swimming (66 laps is a long way!) 



To distract myself, I said: Just swim to fifty. Fifty laps is all you have to do. And then you can puke. 


But my fifty, the odd feeling in my stomach was joined by a burning in my shoulders, my legs, and the will I'd had not to come in last was chipping away to a hilarious compromise: just keep moving. Don't stop. And then you can puke when you're done. 


I was surprised to see 55, then soon, 60 on those turns and soon Chris was wagging the numbers up and down-- my signal to swim faster (that I had fallen off pace.) I could hear her-- not her words- but the sound of her voice and I knew she was yelling for me.  And I don't know, maybe I'm a very simple creature, but I thought: if she's going to yell for me, I can't just give up. So what if I'm the human piƱata today? No one can say I didn't try. 


61 to 63 to 65. The two red squares that signal the end of the race. I heard the bell and used those running legs to do what they once did best, skipping a breath here and there for the sake of speed. 


I finished in 21:41-- nearly a 2 minute personal record in the mile. No, I wasn't last. And-- thank God-- I didn't puke.  Chris later said she and another counter were impressed I held a six-beat kick for the entire mile. 


*

THE BEST NEWS OF THE DAY came when one of the Coaches informed me my relay team scratched since two of the four of us weren't around. I no longer had to worry about swimming a fast 200 yards which isn't really my focus anyway. I could focus on the event that's had me worried for weeks: the 400 IM. 


Looking back, I think the mistake was I didn't begin my warm-up early enough. On the schedule, check in was supposed to end for the 400 IM at noon. And the officials told that that would still be the case. I wasn't prepared, at 12:05 to be on the blocks. If I had, who knows? 


But life is not about what-ifs. Only what-ares.


*

I BEGAN MY WARM-UP FOR THE 400 IM with a warning from an official that I was not to dive from the side of the pool. I had wanted to check to see if my goggles would stay on (it's a big problem for me) and they did, but filled with water. After the official spoke to me, though, I somehow "forgot" to fix them (felt bad-- I'm not really the sort of person who breaks the rules and that old child-guilt surfaced) but, anyway, I continued with my warm up, working on those back-to-back turns that are really hard for me (I think it has something to do with not seeing where you're going.) 


So, after maybe ten minutes of working on my strokes, I got out, went to the locker room one last time to make sure all was in order and found Dr. Dave of the Diablo Cyclists there-- to cheer me on! He said he would be right back-- he had to grab something from the car-- and that's when I heard it: EVERYONE IN HEAT 2 FOR THE WOMENS 400 IM, ON THE BLOCKS. 


I wondered, for a dumb second: Wow, that sounds like my race. That's funny? And then I realized lane 3 was empty because-- DUH-- that was where I WAS SUPPOSED TO BE. 


So I threw my blanket down from around my shoulders and nearly climbed the blocks with my sandals on and my goggles off. Three seconds to start and all I could think was: get those mo-fos on your head!


On and down to grab the blocks with both hands and the horn and jumping and the plunge, the wet and then I thought: why are my eyes wet? Where on earth is the wall? 


*

MY GOGGLES DIDN'T WANT TO SWIM THE 400 IM WITH ME and tried to ditch me back at the start. I stopped, for a breath and looked around me: what on earth do you do in a race when your goggles fall off? I guess it's like life in that there always the two essential options: you deal with it and keep going or you don't and stop. 


So, I decided to keep going. At the wall, I put those goggles back on, turned and was determined to do my best in the fly to make up for lost time. Up and around, undulating my hips in the down, not too much knees, breathing every other stroke. I felt strong-- solid and the  4 laps went by faster than I thought it would. Too soon, I was on my back, looking up at blue sky and dreading each turn, not knowing if I'd get it right. I hit the lane line once, and my S.O., S. later described my backstroke as only slightly better than my ability to kayak: meaning it would be a miracle if I could ever move in a straight line.  But for me, it was a journey that ended three strokes after the flags when I'd look, turn and flip around and pop back up again for another 25-yards. 

Then came breast. Funny (for me) how much easier goals are to achieve when you can see them. I had a few bodies in front of me and I was going to do my best to catch them. Pull hard, glide straight and fast. And again. And again. And you know, I gained lost ground. 100 yards later, it was a flip-turn into free and I gave it all I had: arms and legs, breathing the least I could. Burning. Hard. Arms and legs and lungs and the whole of me. 

I told myself to push-- do it-- not coming in last. Not going to not-try. 


Give it my heart, my all: my life. I'm Alive. I'm Alive. I'm Alive.


Coming in fast. Ready to be done with the race.


I touched the wall. I'd come in 2nd in the heat with the unexpected time of 6:16. (My seed time for this event was 6:50 and I had only wanted to break seven minutes.) I left the water and S and Dr. Dave were there to congratulate me when one of many officials came up to me to tell me I had been disqualified


Is it just me or does this look like a traffic ticket of some sort? 

I thought it was for the goggle-drama and she handed me a yellow sheet that looks something like a traffic citation. "Your shoulders passed the plane on the back-to-breast transition," she said. And then, after a pause, she said: "Did you see your seed time?" and pointed to the 6:50 on a sheet pinned to the clipboard. I nodded in response. "And here is what you did, today," and pointed, again to the 6:16, written in pencil. "I'm so sorry," she said. 


The women who timed me said my butterfly was impressive. That I was strong. Maybe they were trying to make me feel better-- and maybe I needed it. I did feel like crap. I wouldn't earn more points for my team. And it's not like I hadn't tried--- or, worse, that I had tried to cheat. This was a new feeling of disappointment. 


When I spoke to the coaches, they only laughed. Now we know you can do it. And they said: now you will never do that again. 


I have to think about what really matters: I didn't cheat. I thought that was how you were supposed to transition from back to breast. And now that I know that's it's not-- I will work on that turn in practice and come back, try again. Do better, I hope.


More importantly, though: I swam a race I didn't know I could swim. And after I jumped in, I had an immediate disadvantage-- my GOGGLES FELL OFF. But I kept going and pulled myself from last to 2nd place in the heat. 


As I've said: there are always beginnings. And maybe today is mine: I'm not the best, but-- to borrow the words of my very first Cross Country coach-- you have a lot of heart. 


After all these years, I still do. 

I'm so thrilled I finished second in my age group in the 1650 free!



Monday, April 1, 2013

Beginnings, Redux

"Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end."
I felt it finally, again today: the feeling of running. The funny thing is, I wasn't running when I felt it; I was submerged in about four feet of chrorinated water as the rain fell from the gray clouds above me at 6:30 am. If I could describe it, I'd have to say that the feeling was something like happiness, but deeper and tied to the beat of my heart. It was also something I couldn't quite articulate or understand, then, in the middle of the set which required me to keep track of the yards as they accumulated in the laps which carried me back and forth and back again to where I'd started from. 

But I felt again after work today as I laced up the shoes and stepped outside into the lovely crepuscular light of flowering things and trees with birds chirping and the sky without a trace of the rain. And, this time I was, actually, running. I've started running again lately-- only 30 minutes a day-- but it feels good to be on my feet again. Or, rather, it feels right. And it struck me that this isn't about one sport over another; it's about beginnings. 


Ask anybody. Ask my partner, S. My mom. My boss. My coach. My friends. Those five people who read my blog. For the past two years, I have been having a hard and complicated struggle in my heart and it has something to do with swimming. I don’t mean the physical act of swimming: plunging into the pool at 6:30 am or the tug of the water and the breath to the left or right or straight and the way I sometimes imagine I’m really pulling myself along a thick and long rope in order to move my body poolside to poolside. 


Instead, it’s all the stuff that floats around the swimming:  my past life as an elite distance runner and the way there’s a few lanes between me and the “fast” swimmers and how I’ll never move laterally in the pool; only back and forth.  Other images: minuscule white bubbles that trail my fingertips or the flicker of feet of the person kicking in front of me in practice; the slight undulation of my body in the butterfly as it pulls itself along with the dramatic upsweep of both arms to a V; the endless sky of backstroke.


I’m not much of an open water swimmer, but there’s that, too, when I got over my fear of it. The lakes I’ve swam in and the way my partner S. would motor by my side in the dingy to make sure boats wouldn’t run me over as I swam from one shore to another. We’d go maybe a mile or two in Lake Tahoe right at dusk when the summer sun was low and golden, peeking through the evergreen boughs; sometimes the water would deepen, but since it was Tahoe, I could always see the bottom like Earth tinted blue. The absolute cold of the snow-melt water. The smell-- earthy, like a duck up close, and the fishy-slick of trout-- seeping into my hair and skin. 


Which leads me to the running; all those memories of running that pang in my heart and mind. The feel of my feet on earth and that odd weightlessness as though I was dancing with life itself. The trail dirt sticking to my calves; the sweat as evidence of the work of it. The "swimming" through the atmosphere and feeling it flow across the bridge of my nose as though I was some sort of warrior-woman; strong and vibrant. And that would take me back, farther, to that high school girl who became a state champion one season in the world framed by a round-ring 7-lanes wide and 400-meters long. The rubber smell of the tracks I ran on, around and around, and the way the coaches called me a "star." And then I became very ill and I thought my beginnings had ended only to start again, anew, ten years later when I was 26 years old and I ran-- and won-- my first marathon. As you can see, there are just so many layers bound up with too many parts and pieces of my life. It goes so far back; and yet, it’s recent. 


Two years ago, I started to believe that I'd never have another beginning in my life again. I'd never have another morning where I'd wake up and think "what if...?" and linger in the lovely possibility of a dream you feel with your entire body that you strive for, work for, want.

I'm so glad I've proven myself wrong. There are beginnings. There are always beginnings. Maybe it was the water itself that reminded me of this in the way that only water can: water which becomes cloud to become rain or snow only to fall back down to earth again as what it was, once. 

And so, I felt that beginning-ness again while standing on the white starting blocks at swim practice because I'm swimming in the Short Course Championships this coming Friday in the 1650 Free (the mile) and the 400 IM-- the latter, arguably the most difficult race in any swim meet and I have to work on my dives. How long has it been since I dove into the athletic life? Nearly two years. Two long years when I mourned the loss of my ability to run the way I did, once; two years when I believed all beginnings had, simply ended. 

But I have learned how to swim. To swim in all the ways one can.  I have joined a cycling club and seen the most beautiful areas of California by the power of my own legs. And, I am beginning to run again. Perhaps the lesson here-- after all that-- is simply beginnings do not end. To quote a song lyric from those long-ago high school days when I had "begun" my life: "All beginnings come from some other beginning's end." 

And here's to another one.