Monday, December 29, 2014

Just keep swimming!

This year, the Winter Equinox brought not only darkness, but a cold that almost turned into a sinus infection. I'm still sniffling (but thankfully not as much) and slowly introducing swimming back into my training routine (at least on the bike and the run, I can blow my nose and throw all that junk away. The thought of leaving that nastiness to float around in the pool for my swim-mates to find was enough to keep me away until breathing felt normal again.)

As the calendar year draws to a close, however, I can't help but start thinking about my goals for the next year. In fact, for the past several days I've woken up with the question What's next? on my mind. And while the answer to that was rather simple (I've been talking about doing a full Ironman for a long time now... so,take a wild guess what one of my goals for 2015 will be) there is a part of that answer I wasn't ready to explore until now. 

You see, I'm the kind of athlete who worries about future events. To assuage my worry (or, more accurately, worries) I try to put in as much time and effort as I can in the training days, weeks, months (and maybe years would apply here, too) which precede the events I do. And, as you can imagine, sometimes this does help me when "the going gets tough" (or, how I can ask myself in a race how many times have I ridden this far? Swam for this long? Run at such-and-such a pace?) to have a go-to response of: you've done this a million times. Just do it once more. 

Yet, there's the other side of the equation, the part of me that worries that I'm never-good-enough-not-fast-enough-too-fat-dehydrated-too-hydrated-not-trying-hard-enough that makes the training, well, suck. How fun is it to always think you are in last place and the very worst out of everybody?

To all that, I say: thank God I'm not out there all alone because if I was, I would probably keep myself in that circle of insanity. Luckily for me, one of the great perks of doing endurance sports are all the incredible people you get to meet along the way. Whether it's swimming, cycling, running or the triathlon, it never ceases to amaze me how many stories I get to gather and how much courage I glean from the others who people the starting line (and who populate the various practices I attend.)

Enter: a friend of mine, Ethan V.


(NOTE: I'm sure he'll laugh when he reads this post because it is about swimming and of all the things I remember talking to Ethan about was his absolute DISLIKE of the sport. Or, DISLIKE is putting it mildly. Forgive me, Ethan.)

I met Ethan back in 2010 when I was training to break 2:46 in the marathon and living in the Bay Area. We toed the line at a small, grass roots 10k in Berkeley which used entry fees to combat world hunger. The course was mostly flat and wound its way around the Berkeley marina and out along a bike path. Ethan "befriended" me before the race and we ended up running warm-up miles together. His background was ultra-running and he was (then) training to run a fast marathon, too. He was also incredibly funny which kept my focus off my pre-race anxiety (something else I still struggle with.) 

Due to the wonders of social media, I still get updates from Ethan. from time to time even though it's been nearly five years since I've seen him in person. He paced another runner through the Western States this past year and has returned to the ultra-running scene.  But what is remarkable about Ethan is a facebook post I happened to see over the holiday when I was busy not-swimming and blowing my nose. 

He posted that this next year, his goal wasn't so much to break a certain time for a certain distance, but instead to find the joy in running. The idea made me pause for a moment because if there's one thing I do a lot of, it's train. 

How many times lately have I found the joy in the things I do, though? Swimming, even before I got sick, was probably anything but fun. I was so frustrated with how I just couldn't keep up with any of the men in my lane, how I didn't seem to be improving no matter how many times a week I swam or cross-trained. And then there is running, a sport I really loved once, but that I'm afraid to truly love anymore because of all the injuries I've faced and the constant disappointment that I am no longer, quite, fast. 

But Ethan's post got me thinking. What if I started looking for the joy in the things I do? What if I don't focus so much on pace or, even, getting in all my training hours each week? What if, instead, I show up to swim practice or CompuTrainer or, even, my runs, with the attitude that I want to feel good about the work I put in, the distances I cover?

So, I went to swim practice with only one goal in mind today: have fun. And you know what? I was not the "fastest" person in the pool (not by a long shot!) but something unexpected happened. Instead of "struggling" through the set, I fell into a rhythm and for the first time in months, the cadence of my breath and stroke and kick did not feel "forced."  

What I have also noticed is that the general anxiety surrounding my training is slowly diminishing. I don't like to miss days (I probably never will!) but I don't think that I have derailed my entire training regimen, either, when due to my physical or mental health I simply need a break! 

Today I renewed my USMS membership so 2015 will be filled with much more swimming. This is the first step in my goal of completing a full Ironman (more news on that very soon!) 

But the other half of my goal is not only the Ironman, but that other maybe-not-so-measurable achievement of finding joy in what I do. And you know, thanks to all the people I have met-- and keep meeting along the way--I can't help but smile, feel grateful and look forward to my next big adventure.

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

My Anthem

The pale sunrise dusted the low clouds just as I reached the top of the hill and I realize I'm a runner, still.  

My breath is visible and stars still in the darker half of the sky above me, I marveled at the very simple reality that, for the first time in years, I was doing hill sprints. And, unlike the runner I was four years (a lifetime?) ago, I could run them strongly and silently, fearlessly without being sorry


This past weekend in Sacramento, thousands of runners toed the line at the California International Marathon. It was a starting line I toed exactly four years ago in an attempt to qualify for the Olympic Trials (on the then B-standard qualifying time of two hours and forty-six minutes.) 

I didn’t watch the race this year (I’ve done that, too, in the past: staring at the Sacramento news feed showing runners passing through the inflatable “wall” at mile 20, knowing what it feels like to run 20 miles at race pace and even though it’s painful, watching and wishing I was there)-- but I felt the gun go off in my bones as I ran through the empty, cold streets of Reno on my “long” run Sunday morning.

After all, I had a teammate in the race: a fellow Pendola Project athlete who was (like I was long ago) hoping for an Olympic Trials qualifying time. He (also like me) didn’t make it. My teammate succumbed to a bad foot injury at mile 23 which forced him to DNF.  Although I finished my race, I know the frustration of running all that way and not reaching your goal is a hard reality to take, to breathe and to, (if you ever can) accept.

And so here I am, four years and countless miles distant and I can’t help but look back. I see it differently now, of course. No, I’m not an absolute failure (and how long I believed that I was!) but that race truly was a pivotal moment in my life not only as an athlete, but as a person. 


I began the 2010 CIM as an idealistic 28-year old who believed in big dreams, in words, in ideas, in fairy tales and true love and that nothing possibly can go wrong in life if you simply, always, work hard. 

I also began that race as a runner (my first name “Rebecca” and the word “runner” are an alliterative pair for a reason, I thought.) 

When I crossed the finish line, though, so much of what I knew about myself fell away. It would take years to recognize that, of course (and maybe I’m only now beginning to recognize it) but it did. There are no absolutes and no guarantees of anything: endings are only endings if you call them that. Life is not a narrative, really, but a series of moments that can be constructed into one, if you are lucky.  And I was not the heroine of a story, I was not a girlfriend, I was not a writer. I crossed the finish line and everything I had told myself about myself was no longer true. I was not a runner. I was not (or wouldn’t be for very long) that man’s girlfriend. Writing was not only a matter of hard work, but time and money and distance (like the running itself)-- a thing of attrition, of holding on, of loss and loneliness and doubt. What I had once thought of as “hard work” was not really “hard”-- but I’m getting ahead of myself.  

Earlier today (while drafting this blog) I wrote: “I began the race as a runner, someone’s young but mostly nameless girlfriend who meekly hoped for a better life and who finished that race to discover that despite all the miles and all the pages and hours I’d poured into who I believed I was, I still crossed the line and failed to transform into anything remarkable.” 

But with a few hours of reflection, my affirmation (my mantra, my anthem) these days interjected: Fearless, but not sorry

Truth is always something to fear.

 Maybe that’s why I do these endurance events (there’s truth in the time and the miles)-- and so here is my revision: “I began that race as simply a runner without knowing that an athlete-- and a person-- is always and ever so much more than one, single definition. We are multi-faceted, multi-cultural, multi-lingual selves which coalesce in these moments of pain, love and beauty. I crossed that finish line and some of the old me fell away, making room for someone new it would take nearly four years for me to come to know, to accept, to love.”

Four years ago, I ran a marathon in two hours and forty-seven minutes which is a full minute slower than the Olympic Trials qualifying B-standard at the time (since, the time has dropped to a 2:43 and I doubt that I will ever be able to run that fast.) 

I wrote about the race extensively in my thesis for the MFA at Saint Mary’s College which later became a nonfiction book manuscript which got me an agent and which is still being shopped around, sort of. I can’t say that I know the details of that race by heart, but what I haven’t really written about (much) is what came after. 

I remember crossing the line, seeing my time and then understanding my time. I tried to cry and stumbled while volunteers removed the timing chip from my shoe. I was alone for a while there, and I wandered around, hoping to see a familiar face. 

I remember Steve finding me, of him explaining how hard it was to navigate Sacramento’s surface streets. I remember calling my coach, his surprise at how well I’d done and how it was so hard to hear what he said because of the sound of cheering (welcoming other runners to the finish line) around me. 

I remember the steam from the shower I took in the hotel room and how it filled the entire space like a sauna because I was in there so long. The silence and the water and how I didn’t know what to say or how to act or what to do. (I had failed, I thought.) I talked myself out of crying. 

Then, my memory jumps and I’m out of the shower and the thing I say, again and again is: “A 2:47 isn’t bad, is it?” I ask this a million times to nearly everyone I know or see or talk to-- and, until very recently, I still asked myself this question. It’s as though I’m asking: did I or did I not fail to accomplish a goal in December of 2010 when I was 28 and young enough to still shoot for something that crazy? 

What a mantra-- or, anthem-- to have! Did I just fail? Those were the words which led me back into my life as a graduate student, a girlfriend, an unpublished writer (arguably all containing some trace of “failure.”) My life, I thought, slipped from potentially extraordinary to, simply, ordinary. 

I finished out the semester in my graduate program (and the following three semesters) by attending all my classes, writing papers and reading responses, attending lectures and readings, reading voraciously. I kept running (too much, probably) and injured my Achilles during a track workout so much so that I could hardly walk for three months. And so my former life slipped away: no longer an elite runner, no longer elite anything, no longer even a casual runner, the adjectives slid off my skin and ran down into the watershed of the heavy rains in the bay area that winter until I was left, only (frighteningly) with Rebecca. 

But I look back now and see that I hadn’t lost everything, yet. I didn’t know all a person could lose (but you can.) I envision our lives as nets held up by the definitions we have out ourselves and how we relate (and how important we are to other people around us.) 

When I am 31 and not a runner and back in Reno and unemployed and single, the net breaks and I fall and fall and fall with the snow, with the cold when my ceiling breaks loose last January and then I truly believe life is over. 

But on one of the many nights I’m alone, then, I remember the finish line at CIM in 2010 and that is when I begin to revise that question, my question: Did I fail?

I begin to consider that maybe crossing that line was not the end. Maybe it was my beginning.

It’s been four years since I’ve ran a marathon. I don’t know if I ever will again. 

But I text my teammate that I believe he will do better, he is so strong and he will not only finish a race, but exceed every expectation he has for himself and I believe my own words.

My words as they echo in my mind. My new anthem. Fearless. Not Sorry. 


I am awake before dawn these days, most days (every day.) Today, I am running at 5:00 am across Reno’s dark streets to a hill I knew and ran when I was a “runner” and when I had big dreams of being an Olympic Trials qualifier in the marathon. 

There are stars above me. 

I run through the darkness and the cold. 

I set my watch and stretch and work through my movement prep alone in the cold silence of a December morning. 

In the instant before I begin the hill sprints, I wonder if time is a funny thing: the light from stars takes so long to travel here, I wonder if the stars could see me, looking back? This was my hill four years ago, this is where I began my big-dreams. Do the stars see me four years ago, struggling up the hill, coughing out my lungs, slamming my feet hard into the pavement, driving up?

Or do they see me in time-lapse?

I wish they could see me now. 

I am not fast. 

I am not thin. 

But I am strong and silent. I set my watch and go: I can hardly hear my foot-falls up the hill. I feel the effort rising in my chest and my instinct is to back away from it. But I remember my affirmation, my anthem: Fearless.

I push into it, myself long before the timex beeps. 

I wish I could be a runner again. But I know that life-- that time-- has passed. 


I am not thin. 
I am not a runner.
I am not elite.

I am not any of the things I was when I ran CIM in 2010 and dreamed big dreams. 


Yet, I wonder. 

I am strong. 
I am graceful.
I am an athlete.
I am surrounded by other athletes who believe, who train and who have "anthems" of their own. 

And, yes, even after all these years, I am still the sort of dreamer who runs beneath the stars.