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. 


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 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.