Saturday, May 31, 2014

Seven Days until [half]Ironman Boise

It's probably redundant and not very interesting to begin a blog with the lines: "I can't believe it" and "where has the time gone?" Time does only one thing (progress) and training for an event you didn't think (quite) you could do has the expected outcome of proving yourself resoundingly wrong merely by finishing (hey, look I didn't die!) or resoundingly right (I guess I know myself better than most people.)

When I signed up for Boise last winter, I was in a bad place. Or, more accurately, a sad place. Broken-up, broken-hearted and just plain broke.  Not only had I my seven-year relationship ended, I'd lost the LOA (Letter of Appointment for those of you who are curious) position at the university-- I had no job and really, nothing to keep me from the street. I cried into my cat's fur at night with the thought that I was unable to support myself-- to support them (creatures that need little more than water, food that is like hard-tack for sailors and a box to shit in) -- and what did that say about me? And it was about that time of the winter solstice when I decided to ask my parents to sponsor me for this race-- because, really, what else did I have to be proud of, to look forward to, in a time like that? (And they did, because it was my birthday and because I had asked in a really, really desperate way and they probably felt sorry for me.)

And now I'm a week away and it isn't what I thought, exactly.

It is more and it is less.

I thought this race would help me pick up the broken pieces and parts of my life; that the miles and yards and hours and days would sift out all the broken stuff and make "me" whole again. I thought, at first, I'd "win" him back (back when that was what I wanted). I thought I would be thin and lithe like a feather. I would have thick skin which would be impenetrable, like iron (without rusting, of course.) In other words, I thought I would regain what I'd lost: become who I had been, once, years ago.

That is not what happened.

I did not "become" some older self.  In training for this event, I've literally become someone else, physiologically, mentally and emotionally. I did not "win" him  back. This person-- this body which can swim and ride and run-- didn't need to, in the end.  What the the training brought me to was not a resolution, but a starting point: here I am and I am enough, the miles and yards and hours say. And my athlete-brain is ready to believe them.

Give me a distance and I will cover it.
Give me a time, and I will meet it.
Give me your hand, and I will take that, too-- (this journey has been unexpectedly focused on relationships.)

And maybe that's why I wanted to write this blog today. It isn't about me or even the  Boise Half Ironman.

Instead, I am able to do this one because of the people I have met along the way. The people who have changed my life-- changed me, in fact--- the people to whom I owe not only this race, but quite probably my life.

People like Steve Gehrke-- such an accomplished scholar, writer and poet-- who has taken the time to read my work, to help me through the revision and submission process and who listens to my battle-stories from the road. Who listens and reads. Who knows the dark writer-moments. And despite knowing all that, who loves me, inexplicably.

To Rich of Great Basin Bicycles-- my sponsor- who's (literally) taught me how to ride a bike. To ride a bike in aerobars. To ride to the point of puking and crying and laughing and jumping up and down. To ride knowing someone has your back and that, in life, a person is never completely alone or lost or helpless. There is always hope. There is, I guess, always a bike.

To Tanna of the UNR Tri Club. The kind of athlete I wish I was! Dedicated-- but always smiling. Every run and ride and swim is better with Tanna there. Whether she's singing the part of a song I'll get stuck in my head or saying the thing I want to say but don't (someone else smells or really sucks) she's there, saying it. We rode 200 miles together in the Davis Double and I couldn't have chosen a better teammate to stick with me through the miles. Someone to be there. To care if I was there. Someone to talk me through the tough spots.

And maybe that's what is so surprising at the (near) end of this journey. It wasn't about me, at all. I am who I am (I guess that hasn't changed!) and I can't say that I have firm grasp on life. What I have now, however, are friends-- the kind who want to stick around a while (come way may); the kind who've only offered me encouraging advice for Boise.

The kind who look beyond Boise to the rides, the runs, the swims and years to come. No matter what I do: no matter how the light narrows in a swim, how focused I become or how far I am from first place-- I've found the people who accept me just as I am.

People I love dearly.

And maybe that's what I will find at that finish line: that none of this time or distance is about me, exactly. It's about becoming. Or, being. It's about all that matters and all that doesn't. It is the fear of not-knowing but doing anyway.

It's about faith and life and love.

And all those little details like breathing, drinking water and eating now and then.

But mostly I think it's about love.

And cats (my two monsters told me I had to mention them.)

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

The (Half) Ironman: A metaphor

I've already written about how I'm a creature of metaphor and that the Boise Half-Ironman is more than just a race. It's a way for me to prove to myself that I am strong "like Iron" (or, half-iron anyway), that I can swim and bike and run and keep going for a pretty long time. But until yesterday I didn't realize how this metaphor has worked its way into other-- unrelated, even-- parts of my life.  The Ironman isn't just training and it isn't just a race; instead, it's presence in my life is like a complicated root system drawing nutrients from every aspect of my life: my home, my cats, my relationships, my body, my words.


Yesterday, the Sanchilla went missing. ("The Sanchilla" is Sanchia, my four-year old rescue cat who's only ever known the indoor world and whose previous owner died and left her homeless. She became mine when we were both going through rough times to put it mildly. I should also mention she is small enough to be a kitten, fluffy and unbelievably timid-- although not as timid as Jacques.)

"Going missing" isn't exactly accurate, however. I had spent most of the day gardening (after my bike/run adventure) and I'd met my mom for lunch in Carson City. I hadn't seen her for a while and we talked about just about everything, even CATS! And that's when my mom suggested the Sanchilla might like to see the garden herself: to roll in the dirt, to feel the sun on her coat, the wind on her little nose and keep me company when I work out there-- something I want to do more of this season.

(In other words, my mom doesn't want me to be lonely.)

"She's not as scared as Jacques," my mom said and I thought, there's something to that. 


But she's NOT an outdoor cat. And I should have known... (you need to know yourself, your competition, the landscape in order to be an athlete. You need to know your cat to be a great cat owner ...) And so, after a long day, I carried her outside with me to feel the sun and wind and soil, wrapped in my arms. "Safe", I thought.

That's when she got away.

It's like a nightmare, remembering it: her furry body slipping out of my hands, through the deck railing and onto the roof below me, and another roof, another roof and then... slip-- gone. A flash of her across California Avenue and I thought-- as a reflex-- she'd been hit.


Shoeless, I ran along the walkways of the little complex in which I live, calling into the afternoon wind, barefoot and crying: "Sanchia! Sanchia P! Sanchilla!" Two hours of that: of me walking along the sidewalk, shaking the treat bag, of me crawling under or climbing over fences, looking for her little furry body. Sometimes-- at the top of the hill, especially-- I'd hear her, that muted sassy (but now scared) "mew."  But for all the swaying tree limbs in the wind, for all the underbrush and shadows, I saw nothing. It was like I imagined she had existed.

And, most times I called all I heard was the wind answering me, empty.

And after two hours of that, what do you do?

If you're me, after two hours (120 minutes, much longer than it takes me to run 13.1 miles) you panic. You feel awful and guilty. It hits you when the window sill upon which The Sanchilla perched and gazed out on to the world is empty. Your heart goes cold when you put her bed outside, hoping the smell will draw her home.

I'm not casting you out, little one. Just come home, just come home. A prayer. A litany. I'd sell my soul, if I had one left, to get her back. And still, the silence. The waiting.

And the guilt! That window sill. That food bowl. That bed.

No more Sanchia: the Sachilla at dawn stomping on my chest, destructing sleep. Purring. Loving--however unlikely-- me. 


I remembered a night not long after I'd adopted her-- a December night before TMCC told me I could teach for them and before UNR confirmed, too--when I wondered if I'd have a home at all because I had no job and I had pennies in my bank account. I held that little cat in my arms and promised her we'd be OK, no matter what. I wouldn't let her go hungry or starve. I would learn how to be enough.

I'm going to fix this, I said to her one night as if she could understand: I will not let you fail, little one. You will have food and water and a home. Always. With me. I promise.

So that's why I pulled all the sheets and blankets off my bed and onto the deck. That's why, at dusk on a Sunday, I was laying on wood as still as the boards themselves. I wanted "the Sanchilla" back, yes, but also all that she represented.



11pm. Jacques trills his "it's a kitty!" noise. I wake and see her little body flitter in the shadows of night cast by the CVS marquee across the street from me. By this time, she'd been gone seven hours.

She is wild: untamed and almost a shadow herself.  I feign sleep until she runs across my body and I do the ultimate football catch knowing it might be--could be-- my last change to get her inside.

And I do: we cry. (Or, I cry: holding her too-tight on the couch and she cries to let me know I'm holding her too tight.)

For Sanchia: it was a day of adventure!

For me: I can't sleep that night. Every fifteen minutes or so, I wake and pet her. I stand and check the windows. The front door. I expect to learn I have lost everything.

But no matter the hour, there she is, Sanchia: small and furry and there. My cat. My life.

Both: still there.


I thought I'd lost her.

After all, we are the most comfortable with experience... what we know.

I don't know if I can swim in open water. I don't know how to bridge the worlds of my cat's indoor and outdoor worlds. I don't know if I can survive on my own, but I'm starting to believe I can.

And within those parameters, I guess, all we can do is our best.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

The Long Way Home: My First Double-Century (The Davis Double)

I think of my sports as imprints on my body: the time spent out in the elements with the sun or rain or wind or snow literally tanning, thrashing or nipping at my skin. But the experience of an endurance athlete is more than skin-deep, too. It imprints itself into the heart and soul of me. Or, at times, sheds light onto this strange creature I am-- this person who wakes and swims or runs or rides without thinking-- falling into the mindlessness of motion. 

I once rode with an Ironman Triathlete. You know the type: the repeat offender. He once told me about training for Ironman Saint George and how his body fat percentage fell so low that he couldn’t swim in a heated pool without a wetsuit. He also coached athletes for the distance and, in trying to encourage me to sign up and try my hand at the event, said words that have imprinted themselves in my mind because I found them so incomprehensible-- and strange: You learn things about yourself when you train for something like that. 

Maybe that doesn’t seem incomprehensible or strange: but at the time (and until yesterday’s ride) I wondered what there is left about me to discover. I know I can’t run a marathon anymore. I know my weight. I know I can’t eat shellfish, that I like to go to bed early and get up and train. I know I’m afraid of open water and wearing a wetsuit. I know I love to write, and will do so even though no one (likely) will publish my work. I know that I will never be thin enough to be beautiful. I know I look awful in polka dots.

But as it turns out, there are several dark reasons each of us holds inside of us for the reasons we do what we do in the world. Most times, those reasons are covered over by the habitual actions of the every day we hardly think about because we are not forced to feel them. Swim 3000 yards? Ride 40 miles? Run an easy 10? These are not things I necessarily feel. I can lose myself in those distances, become a mindless shell of a person. 

But when you ride 200 miles (or, for 12 hours) there comes a point in time when you can’t hide anymore. The barrier between yourself and the world narrows-- or so it did for me-- and the reasons why I push myself the way I do bubbled to the surface, resting on my skin like the sun, the wind. 

The phone rang mid-dream at 4am. I’d been dreaming about an aid station I might see on the ride that day which forced me to wait in a long line for coffee. In the dream I put the cup down and lost it. Distraught at the possibility of all that waiting, I woke up to a dark morning. 

Out on the road by 5am: I can’t say I’ve ever ridden my bike that early-- or done any athletic event that early. I think the earliest race I’ve done before was the San Francisco Half Marathon back in 2008-- we started at 5:30 am for that one. I still remember the dark and the slap of the bare feet of the man next to me on San Francisco’s paved streets. 

It wasn’t cold, but rather, moist and dark. A criss-crossing of darkened streets in Davis I hardly remember and suddenly the openness of a service road next to I-80 and the barest glimmer of dawn. It wasn’t long into the 200 mile ride when something akin to the humming of a hive came over our group of six. The “peloton”  lead by a handful of tandem bicycles whizzed by at something like 25 mph. Rich easily sucked himself into their draft. I struggled not to be left behind. 

Soon, I was in a sea of cyclist-bodies. The humming sound-- coming from our wheels and cranks-- filled the air. Men at my right and left shoulders; there was a type of frenzy in trying to hold that fast pace, but to be on the edge of awareness to every change in speed, knowing the proximity of the wheel in front and back of you, Knowing one false move would mean the pavement and road rash-- a crash-- feeling the responsibility of several lives (including my own). I only caught glimpses of my teammates: Rich and Brian far ahead. Tanna, too, at one point and I rounded the group and sprinted to keep up-- or, at least to keep them in sight. The sound of a dog barking, once, made my hand leap to the brake (who’s braking so fast? I wondered.) But it turned out to be a dog in a fenced yard among the open fields growing slowly lighter as the smell of wet alfalfa filled the air. 

The first aid station came unbelievably quick. The tandem crowd didn’t stop and I found my group easily. I also found that I am not good with the kind of stops required by a Double Century. The idea, I guess, is to stuff as much food and drink in yourself as you can, manage your hydration (in and out, I mean) and then leave. I’m used to chewing, pausing, thinking. This would be an issue later in the day. 

But for that part of the morning: I just remember a quick stop before we became creatures of the road again. The humming gone, we watched the sun rise through the linear lines of orchards, my legs trying to make perfect circles. 

The hills would be my favorite parts of the day. I am remarkably good at hills (funny: as a runner I really suck at them. But put me on a bike and watch me go.) The first ascent to Lake Berryessa was by far my favorite part of the day. The atmosphere was still somewhat moist and misty; the trees shaded the road and something blooming smelled sweet like summertime. There was a slight headwind before we entered the Putah Creek canyon (who comes up with these names?? Putah Creek? Sheez... later we’d also ride by “Pleasure Cove”, a campground, which sounded, um, sort of dirty!) 

I remember rolling terrain and regretting not making use of the porta-potty at the first stop (I think my thoughts between miles 30-59 were something along the lines of:  please don’t pee your shorts, please don’t pee your shorts...) 

Luckily, just when I thought the great deluge had arrived, so did the second stop. Over 50 miles and it was still morning. Maybe I could do this, I thought, standing in line, eating as much fruit, peanut butter & jelly and water as I could. Eat-eat-eat, drink-drink-drink, pee-pee: the dance of the double-century rider when you’re not riding. 

Then up and out again. We saw a pony on a small farm not far from there who stood, blinking as we went by. A horse in miniature; my spirit-animal, perhaps-- I am not (quite) an athlete. And so begins my descent into the darkness. 

To know where and how fast and how far you are: these are the measures of my sport. It shouldn’t be: but I have to admit my sense of worth is balanced precariously on these things: where and how fast and how far. But those things make no sense unless you have some point of reference. And what do you do when you are surrounded by other people? If you are me and in need of these measures, you compare yourself to all of them. 

So many people in front of us: incredibly fit bodies and not-so-fit ones. Here is where I’d find that I am not so strong in a paceline or on the downhill stretches. I have gotten better, true, but Rich and Tanna would leave me multiple times because of this weakness-- something I found again and again was deeply embarrassing. Of course, I’d sprint, catch up, hang on Tanna’s wheel only to fall off again. And again. 

(The dance of a bad cyclist.) 

This was where we would meet the orange-jerseyed cyclist on a fixie. “That guy’s an animal,” said Brian and I had to admit, there was something chiseled and raw about the physique on that single-speed. He was like those mountain men who subsisted on berries and bear, his toughness a roughness, too. His wife would follow us in a white SUV and snap pictures of his crossing. He was raising money for something. I’d asked him, much later, for what, but I couldn’t hear him due to the wind in my ears from the speed we were riding.

And then another climb. This is where I’d meet a rider named George (a man of amazing calves) with a white jersey. He would climb with me that day and say that his ride partner had fallen apart trying to keep my pace up the hill. I’ll learn this about 40 miles from the end; when I met George (not knowing his name) he was another of several passing figures in my field of vision (Rich had fallen back to help Brian up the climb.) 

The terrain: beautiful. The mist had lifted to a deep blue summer sky. Vineyards and ponds, posh country developments, a winding paved and open road. Tanna and I fell behind the wheel of a nice young guy named “Scott” who would pull us into the third rest stop at an unbelievable clip. Funny: it turns out Scott would be a friend of a friend-- a fact we’d find out at the finish line. The cycling world-- like the writing world-- is both very large and small. Cutthroat (there always has to be someone who is fastest) but kind-- the balance camaraderie and competition resting upon the edge of a blade.

There was a four-mile stretch of unpaved road. This, I was not prepared for. I have to admit: all the times I’ve found myself on my road bike in the dirt it’s been the result of some poorly considered choice on my part and I nearly (always) end up on the ground, dusty, bruised and bleeding. To say my anxiety level was high during this part of the ride would be putting it mildly. I felt like I was out of control and on the verge of crashing. Tanna and Rich navigated the dirt easily and soon slipped out of view. Oh God. Now I’m going to ride the rest of these miles alone, I thought. And then: I’m not good enough to be here. 

I would be lying if I said I took this stoically, sucked it up and just kept going. Instead, I nearly started crying and, in a desperate fit, sprinted up the gravel hill with all I had until I caught sight of Rich and Tanna again. Only, once I caught them, I kept going. I knew Rich would catch me (it’s sort of inevitable, like gravity or the fact that the earth will circle the sun again again or that toast, when dropped, always lands jam-side down). He did catch me, (and so did Tanna) but I said hardly nothing for the rest of the climb (the second of three), thinking they’d both had enough of me and my incompetence, by then. 

And the downhill to the “lunch” stop: I realized that if I do not finish Boise, if I do not do well in competition or practice, if I do not get over my fear of wetsuits and open water, it will no one’s fault but my own. Every fear and doubt I have are the product of my own imagination. Rich and Tanna weren’t leaving me: I’d made that up because I’m weird and have deep emotional issues, apparently.  

This realization would settle in when we did stop and I forgot to do the eat-eat-eat, drink-drink-drink, pee-pee dance. Instead, I’d stared at the sandwich I’d grabbed and sipped the coke distractedly. I am not an athlete nor do I have the heart of one, I thought and when Rich said, “Let’s go,” I realized I’d wasted my time staring at a sandwich. I threw (most of it) uneaten in the trash, my face on fire. 

You learn about yourself when do train for things like this, someone told me long ago. On mile 114 of a 200 mile ride, I learned that I had to want to finish regardless of anyone else around me. I had to decide I was enough to do this on my own. No more measures to the outside world. No more wondering if my ex would be proud of me (I’ll always be your biggest fan, he’d said, once-- a lie I’m finally ready to let go of); no more wondering what a coach might say or how his slap on the back might feel, no more (even) wondering about Rich and Tanna and their perceptions of who and what and how fast I am. 

In the world of a 200 mile ride, there is only yourself-- and what you are riding towards. My life: my writing, the students I teach, the distant finish line of Kona, my relationship with a talented poet who loves me. All these things-- intangible-- would be the flashing images I’d turn to in the final miles when all I wanted to do was not to feel the pain any longer. 

And so, I promised myself I’d make it, come what may. 


What would come was unexpected. In the end, it was my left shoulder that would ache unbelievably from my position in the aerobars that would make the final forty miles unbearable; not the pain in my butt or legs.  Little things caught my eye: the little critter face up in the middle of the road, legs splayed in rigor mortis, the body of a rattlesnake, flattened and imprinted with tire marks from bikes. Arrows on the road leading us to a mis-marked pit stop in a campground where a pot-bellied man with a beer in his hand would shout at us: “How long you guys been riding?” 

And Rich answered: “We’re at about 149 right now.” 

“Holy shit,” he’d said, nearly speechless. 

Back on the road. Tanna singing “On the Road Again”-- a ritual she’d started back around the second rest stop (mile 59) with Rich chiming in. The ache of gearing up and settling into the pace again. The rest stop, when it came, was nearly empty of bodies and food (later, we’d find out that we did the ride so fast we beat the support supplies. Other riders had grilled cheese sandwiches, hot soup-- real food, in other words. This compared to: fruit, some random assortment of bars, and slightly stale peanut butter & jellies that had been ferried from the rest stops that morning.) And that precious Ginger Ale. I’m not much of a soda-person: but Ginger Ale became the thing I dreamed of between each remaining stop. 

Well, that and a cold shower.

Rich popped the bones in my back at the second-to-last stop of the day to try and make my shoulder feel better. But when something hurts in the final 40 miles of a 200 mile ride, there’s really nothing much you can do about it but keep riding. 


And the end: the final 20 miles a brutal ordeal riding into a headwind. Rich out in front: I sprinted ahead of the mass of cyclists who stuck to him like lepers stuck to Jesus  in the New Testament (I teach Core Humanities) and tried to help him out. And I did, for a bit. 

I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy as I was when I saw the sign announcing we were in Davis, again. Elevation 52. Streets with wide shoulders for bikes and trees which blocked the wind, somewhat. Even though we hit nearly every stop light, there was a giddy joy in my stomach as I half-recognized the dark streets we’d ridden through 12 hours before. The manicured lawns, the houses, the piles of leaves someone unwisely placed in the bike lane: this was the land of civilization. I’d gone into the wilderness of my mind for a 12-hour ride and came home, again... not only knowing what and how fast and where I am, but another small clue as to the imprint of "who" I'm becoming in the miles I run, the meters I swim, the miles I ride.