Friday, March 27, 2015

Solvang Double Century: Sharing the Miles


Maybe it’s because it’s Spring or maybe it’s because I’m headed into a new racing season but possibility—and the possibility of change—have been on my mind lately.  Greenery, new blossoms on trees, new things to plant in my garden and new challenges are waiting in the next few months as the days grow longer and warmer.

I had kind of a rough go of my first few attempts at Double Centuries and Ironman-distance events last year. I fared well in the Davis Double but really tanked in the Alta-Alpina 8-Pass Challenge (or, really tanked on summit 7 of 8) where I really went into some dark places. And then I was pretty depressed after a fire resulted in the cancellation of the Lake Tahoe Ironman where I was registered for the 70.3… and hoping for a strong performance, finally.

It wasn’t my time, apparently.

So I’ve spent the winter developing my fitness base and strength in the hope that I will have a more successful go at Double Centuries and Ironman Triathlons. I would be lying if I said I was 100% confident that I will do well in either of these—especially the Ironman since the time I spend with each discipline is much less than I would spend on any single one of them when I was "just a swimmer" or "just a runner".  

Yet, I’m in a better space than last year, too.  And, I am beginning to wonder if this year is the beginning of my time to do well in endurance events.
 
The scenery for the entire ride was (mostly) like this: green hills, oak trees and blue skies.
To say I had a really wonderful time in Solvang (and environs) on the Double Century would be putting it mildly.  It was, simply, beautiful there—so so so green (the hills are that vibrant green right now) and everything in bloom and baby animals galore.

We—Jami, Jeni, Dave, Rich and I—left Reno Friday morning and arrived in Solvang Friday night (it was about an 8-hour drive). We didn’t have time to explore much—just dinner and bed before the big ride. The highlight of the night was Rich’s deadpan delivery of the question every food server dreads these days: “Are those gluten free?” (After ordering two plates of pretzel rolls. The waiter’s smile literally melted and pooled on the floor. I’m glad Rich let him know he was joking because that’s where our food might have ended up before it was served up to us later.)
The town of Solvang itself is like this Pocket O'Dutch in the middle of California.

It was an early night for all of us since we wanted to start the ride at 6:30 the following morning. Jami and Jenni were close the start line—Rich, Dave and I had booked a room about four miles away. At dark o’clock the next morning, we woke to a cacophony of iphone alarms and left the hotel at 5:30 am the next morning which was difficult because the fog was so thick, it was like riding through a stagnant misty rain. Droplets formed on my helmet and dripped down my face as we rode in the dark-damp.

We waited for the rest of our group to show up before starting at the deserted start line. There was literally NO ONE THERE. No water or coffee or officials to say “Have a great ride!” We did find out that a Starbucks up in the lobby opened at 6am, so we had coffee and a bit of pumpkin bread Rich has stuffed in his jersey pocket before the ride to the start.  

When Jami and Jeni arrived, we were also joined by a guy who has raced with Rich in the long events (the 308 and 508) who lives in Santa Clara and whose racing totem is “Sanguine Octopus” [so for the purposes of this post, he will be henceforth named “Sanguine”. ] Right away he had trouble keeping up with us as we rode back toward Solvang in the fog—it turns out his brake pad was stuck on the rear wheel and could hardly do 17mph.

Once Sanguine figured out that he’d opted for extra resistance training, he stuck with us through the first segment of the ride. Or, actually, he and I slowly rode away from the others on the first climb of the day at about mile 20, up and out of the fog and onto a beautiful green hill with scattered scrub oak trees. We rode together for the next ten miles until Rich led the pack (the others who had finally warmed up) and pace line passed us like a freight train. Sanguine and I fell behind them and let Rich carry us at lightning speed us to the first aid station at mile 40. (Good thing, too- I was starting to get hungry.)  

There wasn’t much there—water, porta-potties and energy bars which I ate as quickly as I could waiting in the line for the restroom. I was suspicious of myself-- I was feeling pretty good—and typically I don’t feel good on these long efforts because of how many miles I know I have in front of me. But today, for whatever reason, I just felt full of energy and happy and ready to get back on the road. So, I filled my bottles and ate two bars and was off again.

This time Rich tried to pace line everyone to the next stop but we ended up breaking apart at the next little climb. Once again, it was Sanguine and I trading the lead, Dave back somewhere with another ride group and Rich rode with Jeni and Jami (who had the misfortune of having stomach issues that day.)  

Sanguine and I held a steady pace, passing other riders. One woman rode with us for a while who told us she is trying to do fifty of these 200 mile rides this year. Yikes! She was something of a nutcase (this coming from someone who is also a nutcase) but said she quit her job so that she could have time to devote her entire life to cycling. She was there with another group of male riders, though, who passed Sanguine and I two miles from the next stop. She nearly killed me cutting diagonally across our pace line to join the guys which rode past us.

Don't cut in front of other riders without warning, or you might get a reaction like this. 

[Side note: the next ride stop was at MILE 82. My bottles were empty and I had used up those energy bars about twenty miles ago. I have never been on a ride in which the stops were at least 40 miles apart.]

The terrain was mostly agricultural—vineyards at first, which gave way to strawberries, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, orange (or lemon?) trees. Sanguine and I made a game out of trying to guess what it was we were riding by on the side of the road. There wasn’t much at that next rest stop, either AT MILE 82.  More water, more energy bars. Pop tarts. Cookies. (This was one of the worst supported rides I have ever done.) but again, I filled up my water and felt pretty good.

Just as Sanguine and I were going to leave, Rich arrived with Jami and Jeni. They headed immediately for the shade and Rich grabbed food and water as I squirted water on his leg from my water bottle (I’m nice like that).

 I was anxious to go, but we all waited for a while to see if Dave would show up—but he didn’t. (It turned out the group he joined decided to forgo the next stop so he rode something more like 80 miles before stopping for provisions.)  

After everyone filled their bottles and had enough to eat, we all started out again. There was a slight climb before we entered some small town in the direction of Morro Bay. When Sanguine and I turned around after the first little climb, Rich, Jami and Jeni had already fallen behind us. 

We rode as a pack of two until we picked up another rider who who has done Double Centuries since 1979. He made me laugh, saying that these sorts of things aren’t the same now that people have GPS devices, electrolytes and energy drinks. To which Sanguine replied: “You haven’t named any of my favorite things about riding Double Centuries.” And to which I laughed to myself—aside from the Garmin (to track my progress, not plot it), I had only had water to drink and a few bars to eat so far that day. And yet, I was feeling fantastic.

We ended up dropping him, too, until it was Sanguine and I again, riding out toward the ocean at Morro Bay. The headwind was cool and strong, but it was really beautiful with the hills all green like that. We rode past an archery field and I worried about stray arrows finding my torso along that stretch of 101. Luckily, none did. But as we traded the lead, I realized how nice it was to ride with someone, since I probably would have ridden by myself otherwise.

We left the shoulder of the 101 (thank God) and rode onto a two-line road which carried us away from the ocean. It was undulating terrain, mostly, to the lunch stop at mile 108 or so.  My stomach screamed LUNCH and I was more than ready for something other than an energy bar.  When I saw they had subway sandwiches, I ate an entire one along with a cold Coke (oh sweet cold soda on a ride) and more water and an Oreo (I haven’t had one in forever). I’m so happy to eat that I’m giddy, nearly shaking.

Me at the lunch stop with that sweet, sweet soda. Feeling fantastic. 


In between bites, across the parking lot I spotted a blue jersey… which turned out to be DAVE! Sanguine and I waved him over.  And as Dave joined us,  Rich, Jami and Jeni rolled up and I was suddenly very tempted to eat another sandwich—but I didn't.

They roll over to the tables behind a fence (I’d been so ready to eat, I just sat down on the pavement next to the aid station.) Rich joined us, sandwich and coke in hand.   I filled my water bottles again and Rich told Sanguine, David and I to go on ahead—that he and Jeni and Jami would catch us later. So we departed for the second half of the ride, joined by the guy who’s been riding these things since 1979.

He was funny—as soon as we were rolling again, he said: “I haven’t pulled [ridden up front] since mile 70!” I was still feeling pretty strong, so I took the lead and pulled us out of town and back into a narrow canyon which would lead us back inland toward the fruit and vegetables and, eventually, vineyards.

So, I did what I always do when I am feeling pretty good on the bike and there’s no one in front of me: I zone out. I just kept peddling and lay low in my aerobars and soon we were in Prismo Beach and I turned around and everyone else was gone—aside from Sanguine. We traded the lead for a while as we went through the busy beach town and into some rolling terrain. At about mile 130, we were stopped at an intersection and Sanguine looked at me and said “Only 60 miles left, and you’re crushing it!”

I thought of how crazy it was that 60 miles sounded “short” to me at the time.

So up another climb past succulents with vibrant violet-colored flowers—and down another hill and we were back into the agricultural section again with a strong cross wind. I couldn’t hear anything but the wind, so I was short of shocked when I turned around and discovered that I was completely alone.


Alone on this ride wasn't a bad thing. No matter where we were, it was always beautiful. 

For a while now, I’ve been worrying about the Ironman I signed up for because, in part, it is so long. It’s been a while since I’ve swam 2.4 miles (in a pool or in open water) and although I ride 100-120 miles every Saturday, it’s one thing to do it inside on a trainer as practice than it is to do so in a race. And, most importantly, I haven’t run a marathon since 2010... I’ve been too injured since to attempt that distance in a race since I injured my Achilles, my Lisfranc joint and a plethora of other pieces and parts of my lower legs.  It’s only natural that a lot of doubt rests over my decision to do this race (a race I’ve wanted to do for some time) this summer. 

For a while, I tried to assuage my doubt by overwriting it with the belief other people had in me. Coaches, friends and family-- I tried replacing my feelings with their words. But you know, that only works for so long before the doubt comes back and I wonder why on earth anyone would think those things about me. That’s why, in part, I decided to train myself for this Ironman... no coach deserves the whiplash of my optimism-to-doubt. 

That is what is so magical and wonderful about mile 140. For the first time, the doubt fell away and there was only the miles in front of me and the miles behind. Open stretches of road where it’s up to me whether I keep going or stop, believe or not believe. 

And isn’t that transformative magic the reason why most of us do these long rides, these long races, these challenges we don’t think we are capable of doing? 

I suppose all these thoughts make me slightly crazy (I told you I am a nutcase) but it was so nice to pass my miles with all the people who have said these things to me at one point or another. I kept my cadence steady and passed a few riders, but no one kept up with me across the flats to the next town—and next stop which was at a part right next to a (smelly) cattle lot.

Once again, there wasn’t really much to eat—the same energy bars as the morning and water. In a few minutes, Sanguine showed up again and I was glad he was there. He said he wasn’t feeling well—too much energy drink—and so wanted to wait for a moment. I was tired of energy bars, but I knew that if my blood sugar dropped too low, so does my mood and my body follows quickly. So down the hatch went another energy bar and water.

The sun dipped behind the clouds and the wind picked up—I remember being extremely cold. But I waited while he gathered himself together, dumped the energy drink out of his bottle and filled it with plain water.

Then, Dave showed up, complaining of an aching wrist and shoulder and while I sent him off to re-hydrate as Jami, Jeni and Rich arrived.  Jami’s stomach was still not cooperating, so I rode with Rich to the nearest gas station to pick up soda and Gatorade (hard to imagine the ride didn’t even offer this at their FOURTH AID STATION ON A 200 MILE RIDE AT MILE 140 OR SO, BUT THEY DIDN’T) so off we went to Chevron for provisions which we brought back to the group.

It took us a while to regroup and get going again. By that time, I was freezing and so it was hard to get back on the bike. We did get rolling, though, riding through the little town and back out into fields and fields of various crops.

Once again, it was Sanguine and I on our own. After a long, gradual climb, we both had to stop and take off the layers we’d put on at the rest stop because we’d finally warmed back up again. After we stripped off our outer layer, we kept going forward.

The most difficult part of the ride happened right before the next rest stop at (about mile 170 or so.) I started to feel an ache in the front of my shoulders from being in the aero-position that long and I was just generally sore across my entire- um—female saddle . Luckily, though, I could sit up and stand up at little intervals to relieve the discomfort for the five miles before the final rest stop. …where they had hot ramen soup.

I DON’T THINK I’VE TASTED ANYTHING AS DELICIOUS AS THAT RAMEN SOUP. Or the red licorice they had afterward. I didn’t mind waiting so long for the others at this stop—the soup was so good and it just hit the spot! And so did the countless number of licorice vines I ate. Rich, when he got there, told me not to wait for them there, but to stay at the finish line so that we could ride back to the hotel together. So Sanguine and I set off again (for the last time) toward the finish line.

No one had much spunk in them. The riders I passed looked droopy and some were weaving all over the road. Before we got back on the main drag, we had to take a frontage road along the 101 which was practically a dirt road. It was a bit precarious because there were these huge potholes around a blind corner—I’m sure someone crashed because of them at one point because they weren’t marked!

When we got back to the vineyards, though, I kept trying to find my pace, but I couldn't. My legs just felt “slow”. Sanguine—who does this ride every year—told me that there were two climbs left—one 400 foot climb and a 1,000 foot climb. I wondered how I was going to make it up them since I was already moving so slow! So I kept pushing and tried to get my legs to move and pretty soon, it became quiet and peaceful out—there were crickets chirping and the low light of sunset (it was almost golden) was just so beautiful. So, once again, I turned around and I couldn’t see Sanguine (who was only 100 feet or so behind me.) So I just set a steady pace and told myself I could do it, just so long as I didn't make any wrong turns.

The first hill wasn’t too bad—it was a great reason to stand up and get out of the saddle and stretch my legs, and so I did. There was a little valley in between that and the next hill where I passed a rider who was weaving wildly from one side of the road to the other and who tried to ride behind me at my pace, but who immediately fell back .  I noticed him in my shadow and around another corner, he was gone.

Sanguine and I rode the final miles at dusk together. The sound of crickets chirped in the distance. The sounds, smells and overall "feel" of the moment brought on this incredible feeling of calm... and happiness.


Then up a 1,000 foot climb and I thought about all the challenges one has in life and how most of them aren’t glamorous and wouldn’t lend themselves to good literature, but they are important to who we are how we understand the world. As I climbed, I tried to push the discomfort out of my legs, focusing instead on maintaining a steady pedal stroke and breathing pattern. 

Once I was at the top, I settled low in the aerobars and glided down a winding road for miles as the sunset turned from golden to pink to purple. Sanguine caught up with me on that downhill and we rode into the finish line together at the very end of twilight. Our ride time was a bit over 10 hours—including stops it was something more like 13 hours—but riding, we averaged 19 mph. Not bad!
                                                                                       
I ended up waiting for the others what seemed like a while (or enough for the sun to set and for me to feel wet and cold) at the finish line. Sanguine was really nice and waited with me. . In the end,  I didn’t see my friends cross the line because I really, really had to use the restroom and I was cold and so the moment I went inside was when they arrived.  (Leave it to me to have the worst timing in the world.)

But they didn’t seem to mind. Dave, Rich and I rode our bonus miles back to the hotel, cleaned up (I almost fell asleep—a combination of low blood sugar, fatigue, a warm shower and an empty bed are hard to resist after a Double Century) but I’m glad Rich talked me into joining them all for dinner where we harassed the same waiter about the gluten-free pretzels and traded our war-stories from our 200 mile journeys around Solvang.  Even though Ironman is a solo event (one in which I have to learn to depend and believe in myself) it is nice to have ride-mates with which to share the miles getting there.

 
Downtown Solvang at dusk. 

Monday, March 2, 2015

...And we're back (spirit, soul and sweat)

I guess there's something to be said about the speed at which you complete things: 

some people run 400 meter races (once around a track) because they can do it well under a minute. And then there are people like me who can also run 400 meters but who must do it not once, not twice or even ten times, but probably something more like a million maybe, if I'm to do anything impressive with that distance at all.
  1. (A memory comes to mind: years ago, my then-boyfriend and I were watching the talent portion of the Miss America contest, curled on his living room couch. And as these model-esque figures sang and tap-danced and played instruments and I said to him: you know, I do have a talent but I'd have to be like-- OK judges, I'm going to do this amazing thing. Sit tight-- and forget that awful thing I did in the swimsuit competition-- I'll be back in three hours and will have run more than a marathon.
  2. (Another memory: one of my first professors in graduate school told a class of us in his "Literary-theory-critical-thought-hazing-class that the greatest merit we'd get out of pursuing our education was to do nothing hasty. I guess I picked up on that lesson and mastered it.) 


Point being, I am not quick, anymore, at anything. I am training for an Ironman, after all-- a race that will take from dawn to dusk (if not more), and I am a writer-- a career which (mostly) requires the slow evolution of thought and art and the extreme patience of those around me.

So, it's no wonder that I took my sweet time in digesting my last post, what I meant by it and what I had been hoping to find in my time away from the keyboard.  In part, I want to explain myself because my mom called me after my last post went live, concerned, asking if I'd dropped out of training for the Ironman, if I was no longer going to write, and if I needed to seek professional help.

No, no and no: I'm fine and better than before, actually. It just takes me time to realize it.

*

For a very long time, I've wanted to complete an Ironman and for just about as long, I didn't think it was possible (for me.) There are several reasons for this, but most of it comes down to a healthy dollop of self-doubt with a side of body image issues.  I can't blame any one for this, it's just the way I'm built, I guess, and something that becoming a runner helped me to face. When my running career ended, though, it was harder to face because all the self-worth and confidence I had built were all basically premised on miles.. miles I couldn't-- and can't, or at least not in the same way-- run anymore.

But I am signed up for Coeur d'Alene this summer (June 28th) and I have decided I am going to do my very best to finish the race. I'd love to qualify for Kona, I'd love to win-- but in this time of slow-thinking, I discovered I really just want to finish, no matter what. I want to swim 2.4 miles, ride 112 miles on the bike and run a marathon (yes, finally, I will run one again after swimming and riding) and feel wonderful and smile at the finish line and wave to my parents who have stuck by me and who want to watch me do this crazy thing.

And that is what brings me to the rest-- what I meant to say weeks ago and didn't, quite, say. And maybe this is the magic of Ironman (oh, metaphor, how I love you)-- I realized a month ago, when I was "working so hard", "training so hard", etc, etc, etc, I wasn't doing it for the right reason. I was the beauty-queen on stage who dances for the sake of a prize (and all that that entails) and not for the beauty of the music. Or, the girl who runs a marathon just to hear the roar of the crowd and not because she needed or wanted to.

*

I admit, this past month was really hard.

I had been a part of an elite running/training group which is coached by this elite athlete and generally-all-around impressive person. I was--and am-- really inspired by this group of people who wake and train (run their morning miles, do their mobility drills) and who are, truly, runners. I was a part of their strength/mobility and sometimes running sessions-- rarely, because I have an 8-5 job which literally requires my ass in the chair from 8-5.

So when I slightly injured my Achilles, things came crashing down-- I went to practice and the coach didn't even acknowledge I was there. No "hello", not even the hazing I'd expect for having missed the previous training session.

I was crushed.

I had needed that coach to believe in me in order to complete this Ironman, I thought. And so began the list, the heavy list I just couldn't hold up (which is why I needed some time away): I can't live without my coach and the group, without belief from the running people that I am a strong runner, belief from the cycling people that I am a strong cyclist, from the swimming people that I am a strong swimmer, I can't survive without the approval of the MFA program (writing) I attended to tell me I am a good writer, the approving nods of readers who happen to glance at my work, the approval of my friends and family to negate the doubt that I am not, actually, an awful human being.

It was-- and is-- too much for anyone to need so much.

So I let my coach go and all those hard-bodied, beautiful, strong runners.

I do worry, from time, that that was a huge mistake.

But, nothing is without a context.

And for me, I do have to consider mine. No one will toe the line with me in Coeur d'Alene. No one swims by my side-- no one will share those cycling miles or running miles (no matter how fast or slow)... just like I must live the life of a writer inside my head, mostly, alone.

In the race, it will be only me. There will be no one at the margins of the road, no one but whom I choose to populate the space behind my eyes, some projection of myself, dressed up as the people I love the very most.

Or, to articulate this more clearly: it's 6pm and I am riding in a CompuTrainer class and I am push-pulling those bike pedals in circles, circles, circles, as sweat droplets fall from my forehead, across my eyes and to the floor and I can hardly keep up.

If I can only go harder because of the expressions on the faces reflected back to me in the mirror, I'm lost. It is only when-- to quote the great Ironman Mark Allen-- that I settle in, look in, and find a calm-- that I can finish and ride with them.

This Ironman-- it may not be my best race-- but it's teaching me that I need, more than anything, myself. 

*

If I'm going to complete a 140.6 mile race across three disciplines, I have to believe in myself. I have to be mentally-tough, I have to work through the difficult moments, I have find the calm.

But to do all of that, well, I am learning I'm no beauty queen.

I have to do it for me. 

Riding tonight, I did not finish first of anyone in that CompuTrainer class. I didn't break any speed-records on my 6 mile lunch-run. I didn't lap anyone in the pool at 5:30 am swim. But you know-- I'm doing it and I'm learning, stroke and stride at a time, learning, finally, to do something without an audience-- to do it, simply, because I can.


Tuesday, February 17, 2015

The Placement of Things

I have been putting this blog together, taking it apart, restructuring it and re-working it again and again over the past few days. Granted, the landscape might have helped with this: I spent Sunday night and most of Monday honoring American Presidents by sleeping, walking, bathing, hiking, photographing and all sorts of other verb-ing in the Desatoya Range in Eastern(ish) Nevada. It's a beautiful place, but if you are into things like trees and lush greenery, I think you might be in shock, feeling naked maybe, the first time you go. But there is something about an empty landscape, though, that opens up and that (for me, at least) allows my thoughts to breathe.

The large spaces invite the intrusion of thought.


And my thoughts, such as they are, are many. 


I don't know if I have written about this much (or as much as I'd usually do) but I've finally done it: I signed up for a full Ironman race. I'll be doing Coeur d'Alene this year-- a venue I'm excited about, actually-- and my goal, this time, is simply to have fun and to finish. But being who I am, I want to do well, too, and I think that's where this blog post actually begins. Because for me "having fun" translates into "doing well" and "doing well" means actually placing and once you place, it might as well be first, right? And what good is winning your age group compared to actually all-out-winning and so goes my slippery slope until it's Wednesday of last week and I strain my Achilles on a silly mobility run during my lunch break.

No biggie, right?

Well, then I come back to a meeting that I am supposed to head and no one has read the document I created and no one knows what to say and I know that my boss thinks that I have failed-- and that is when the sharp pangs begin. Pain in my back and ribs so horrible I can't even begin to describe it. I can only say that it was not possible to sit up straight in my chair in the conference room any longer and it was all I could do to breathe.

My co-workers threatened to take me to the nearest Urgent Care so much that I ended up taking myself.  


The nurse was had a blonde-chin length bob with her hair held back from her face with a gigantic red and white polka dot bow. But she nearly made me cry with her questions.

If I was happy. 

If I have to train so much. 

If I have anyone to talk to. 

"Your eyes are so sad," she said.

Who knew mini lilly pads grow in the Desatoya Range beneath Aspen Trees?


And I do what I usually do in that situation: I mumble something polite and offer a half smile as if to say oh gosh, silly me. It's just my Achilles again. 

But I knew-- and know-- it wasn't and isn't. 


Which brings me to Sunday, the night of the Literary Arts & Wine reading-- the reading series I started after I was newly single and terrified of not-writing any more. It wasn't the best-thought-out plan I'd ever had, but somehow I thought if I had least had to show up somewhere once a month having written something, life would somehow continue and I wouldn't simply curl into a round, dead thing in the center of my living room floor.

I read a piece I have been working on for a long time. 


I wrote the first draft back in 2010 but took it up again this winter when I realized the things I was saying about the nature of time and the placement of emotions and meaning in our lives shift as we age. Of course, I used my running as an example of this-- how there was a time in my life that running meant more than any other thing and sometimes when I go for a run, that old feeling creeps back up and I get excited about the sport again. But no matter how often I feel that tug, there is the ever-present realization that I am not a teenager anymore, than I am not a runner in any sense of the word, that my life has moved beyond that time, in part, because I was able to live it when I did.

Aspen trees-- bare of leaves-- imagery I used to mark the passage of time in the essay I read that was a really big flop.

It's not a very complicated thought, granted-- it was a piece about getting older, I guess-- but I had hoped for more out of myself.  A better reading, a clearer articulation of my words, a better outfit that didn't make me look like I weigh 500 pounds and, honestly, as I read to a room of strangers, I really just wished that there was another writer there to connect with, who could appreciate my work and look beyond the fact that it's just "sports crap."

But then again, maybe "sports crap" is all I write and all I have written for years. 


So, out there in Eastern Nevada as my eyes found new landscapes, new mountains, new aspen groves and new qualities of light, I began to wonder if it isn't time to put my athletics in a different place than at the center of my life. Even in my life as a writer.

I still want to find a way to write about endurance events and I hope for my own sake, one day, I do. For now, though, I think it's best that I take a hiatus from the attempt so I'll be away from this blog for a while.

Thank you for reading, if you have. Your attention and time means more to me than I can possibly express.

Maybe I'll be back?

I have a feeling I will be when I discover the proper placement of things.

The world viewed from a busted-up-wreck-of-a-building. The light is all wrong, but the idea behind it is why I post this picture. Maybe, when it's time, the image in the window will be in focus. 


Saturday, February 7, 2015

The Nature of Influence

For some reason, I'm really struggling with the third day of this five day Art Challenge to basically create, post, ruminate, and reflect on all things artistic. Maybe a part of the a struggle is that my blood is still in my legs from today's long ride on the CompuTrainer or the fact that (as I mentioned in the past from yesterday) that I am not producing work to display, explain, reflect and pontificate about at length. 

So... what to do?

For whatever reason (and I'm not even going to attempt to explain the strange inner workings of my brain) I fell onto the subject of influence because what would art be-- or what would anything be, really-- if not for inspiration, interaction and the product that is a result of those two things? 


*

Poet T.S. Eliot and critic Harold Bloom both wrote extensively about the importance-- or, necessity-- of influence in the literary arts. It is unarguably equally important to the visual and musical arts as well. But as I sit here at my desk after a long ride (and struggling to find the right words and references in this dusty frame of mind) I can't help but wonder if we aren't always creatures of influence in nearly every facet of our lives.  

Americans, typically, prefer to inhabit the discourse of individualism, the "self-made-man", the working up from your bootstraps and all of that-- which is fine, of course. But I think there is a certain element of our beings that is always social-- that is always gleaning information from past or present "outside sources"-- that leads me to believe you can't ever be fully separate from others no matter how hard you try. Even to be a hermit, one delves into the idea of a hermit which recalls a body of literature, a history, a psychological and/or sociological "type", a set of moral, ethical and (perhaps) spiritual values... I think you get the point. 

Despite the connections made more easy with technology (social media outlets, smart phones) I still think there is something necessarily "connected" about existence. You are never without the things you've seen and read; never without the inspiration (or angst) that comes from knowing others have come before you, performed or lived a certain way, thought certain things, described a landscape in one way or another, fought and died on a battlefield and how not only the ground is hallow but the meaning of the memory and the way in which a culture subscribes to the value of those past actions, is. 

Enter: Art.  


Even though I have artistic people in my life-- in my family, even-- if you were to ask me which artist has influenced me the most, I would answer: Chuck Close.  I don't know him personally and have only seen one of his works in person and yet  his work speaks to me on an aesthetic as well as a philosophic level. 

For those of you who don't know his work, I would urge you to look him up. Read his bio. Watch the evolution of the production of his hands. I can only say that the evolution from photorealist to-- well, postmodern cubist? (I'm trying to use my own limited terminology here and not borrow that of art critics so forgive me) is inspiring. 

When his body began to fail, he could no longer create the large format realistic portraits that had formed the foundation of his careers as an artist. While this might seem like a real impediment to most people, Close decided to change his work to fit his physical condition. And in so doing, he created a new kind of "portraiture"-- one that, ultimately, contains a more authentic feel and a more intimate understanding of shadow, light and color. 

His work is now composed of squares. From a considerable distance, it appears as though he is still panting portraits. 



Chuck Close's work from afar...
Up close,  though, it is patterns, lines, squares. 


And this is what it looks like "up close" so to speak. 


As an athlete, I admire his ability to find a solution in a situation where most people would simply give up and do something else. As a writer, I am fascinated by the solution he found: one in which a handicap was not a handicap but instead a method to produce something new and interesting. 

*

And what has this to do with me? 


Sometimes (or, a lot of the time, especially recently) training for the Ironman feels like a journey of discovering my weak spots-- my faults. There are days I am sore and tired; there are days I don't want to swim at 5:30 am or run during my lunch break at work or ride my bike indoors. But those are the most important days: I watch the "masters' of this sport and I am inspired, constantly, by their dedication. I am inspired by the people I train with (in the pool, on the bike, in the gym, on the road) and I'm not sure I would be able to put in the volume I do without them. 

They are the squares which form the self-portrait of me, writ. Ironman.  Come June 28th in Coeur d'Alene, I really hope I will be able to express how grateful I am to each and every one of them.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Where does the ART come from?

This blog post is inspired by a facebook post which was inspired by a writer I'm beyond lucky to call my friend, Kelsay Myers. Kelsay and I were colleagues in the MFA program at Saint Mary's College where we both received degrees in Nonficton Writing in 2012. Kelsay went on to receive a second MFA with a focus on poetry while I ventured into the "real" world where I worked a series of extremely odd jobs, learned how to swim and started dreaming Ironman dreams.

In 2015 (now): Kelsay teaches writing courses in the bay and has taken part in several art installations and art shows around the San Francisco Area. I'm back in Reno and back (more or less) as an athlete as well. But our paths crossed recently (albeit electronically) a few days ago when Kelsay tagged me in something called the "5-Day Art Challenge" which basically asks participants to contemplate and post something artistic-- or, some artistic production-- every day for five days in a row.

"Blackwood in Blue", colored pencil, 2005


I don't know why I decided to follow this particular challenge (as a rule, I usually don't take part) but there was something about the nature of thinking about my life "artistically" that made me not only want to post that I was in for the challenge but that has also made me want to turn these into a series of blog entries as well.

I think part of it comes from the fact that art was a really important part of my life growing up and as the demands of Ironman (and of adult life) encroach on those moments of silent contemplation (otherwise known as doing nothing), I don't have time for the art anymore.  Maybe this feeds into my overall feeling of "blah" or the questioning I force onto those of you who read and follow me here.

What is our purpose but the very things we do, every day? Many times I've asked: can I be a runner if I don't run (due to injury)? Is an athlete only an athlete when they are performing or racing? So too, I often wonder, am I an artist still or aren't I?

Maybe identity is both fluid and solid. We are what we do, of course. But then there's the realm of memory, those childhood scenes we return to again and again, those moments we point to and say: this is why I am the way I am. We all have them. And for me, several of those moments literally involve art.


My grandmother was a painter. She had a studio and her work was displayed and sold in a gallery at the Kit Carson Lodge (my family's business long, long ago.)  She did a lot of landscapes, in part, because my dad was dabbling in photography and would take pictures of the surrounding landscape that he would develop and from which she would create her work (which was always oil on canvas.)

My earliest memories involve her studio and the smell of oil paints. The sharp afternoon sunlight through the sliding glass windows and onto the white carpet (how she used oil paints on white carpet without getting it all over the place, I'll never know.)

By that time, her compositions had evolved beyond the landscape and were, most often, depictions of female nudes and of Native American women--mothers-- from the southwest.  There wasn't really much for a kid to do in a studio and so I can't explain why I always went down there to sit in the middle of the room, gazing up at the walls, but I did. It felt like a sacred space to me, a place where magic happened. A place where a bare, white canvas came to life.

She came to stay with us in the wintertime when I was eleven years old. I remember this because she handed me a red Macy's bag on Christmas and I wondered why she hadn't wrapped my present as she had in previous years.  It was heavier than her presents had been-- this was not a dress or a jacket or socks or a lovely leather bag.

It didn't take long for me to realize what she'd given me. It was a painting.

My grandmother's painting.


My favorite of hers. The composition depicts a garden lined with trees and a fountain at its center. I had just read the book The Secret Garden and had was going through the childhood fantasies of finding a spot of my own to cultivate, to grow, to bring life to.  I was astounded, at the age of 11, that she had given one of her pieces to me.

She passed away the following spring. I only mention this because I had been working on a water color painting to give back to her depicting the ocean at sunset framed by trees. I never thought it was good enough to give her and so I worked and worked at it, until the phone call came to tell me she was gone. I put the painting in a drawer and in one of several moves around the American West, it was lost.


I made a promise to myself that I would be an artist.

Of course, when you're twelve you make all sorts of ridiculous promises to yourself. I was also going to be:


  • an athlete
  • a writer
  • a gardener
  • a pilot
  • a veterinarian
  • an Egyptologist
  • a marine biologist
  • a model named Skye


But I did always make sure to take an art class when I was in junior high and later, in high school. I took drawing courses, painting courses, pottery and ceramics courses (which I really sucked at) but the smell of oil paint still called me back, again and again, even if all I was ever allowed to use were acrylic paints.

I was the President of our high school Art Club and painted the storefront windows of small shops to earn enough money to travel to "Portfolio Shows" to show my work to Art Schools, hoping for a scholarship and the validation that I was, in fact, a "great" artist.  That, however, didn't happen. A man scouting for a school on the East Coast berated me and my work so much so that I spent most of the bus ride home from Seattle to Spring Creek, Nevada in tears.

I focused on my French studies after that. And then, as luck would have it, I would actually live in France for a half a year and due to several circumstances (far too many to delve in here) my mental health dwindled along with my vocabulary and my inability to fully articulate myself in a foreign country literally became the impetuous by which I simply wanted to erase myself by not eating a single thing.


Nude, done in the style of Chuck Close, 2005. 


In college, I clung to my art as my body did strange things. I couldn't recognize myself in the mirror so I turned my eye outward, painting and drawing everything I saw. As the years passed, though, my understanding of myself began to settle. Words took the place of images; or, I began to find that I did, in fact, have the words not only to express myself, but to paint an image, a time and a place.

I still painted and drew. I moved to a cabin in Tahoma one year without phone or internet or television to write my first novel. In the moments I couldn't write, I painted. That love was still there. It still is.


The last painting I did was in 2013 when I lived in a cottage on an old estate outside San Francisco. There were heavy rains that winter and I was too injured to run much. The easel called to me as the oak trees faded to dark silhouettes at night after work. It was nothing complicated, as far compositions go: an image of the reflection of bare branches and leaves floating atop a pond in wintertime. The feeling, suggesting, (I thought) waiting, or of hope.

Untitled, 2013. 


I think back on that moment now and realize that perhaps I am not as bad with images as I once believed.  Even though images are more immediately palpable to the audience than words, both carry meaning.

And perhaps, knowing the meaning is there, is enough to call one's self an artist-- an artist of not only images, media or words, but of life.





Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Get a Day Job!

Recently, I came across a professional job-search site, TheLadders (a comprehensive career source for emerging professionals.) I noticed they were looking for career professionals in their respective fields to discuss their "top tips for college grads entering the workforce."  


Now, if you have read my blog at all (or know me, which most of my readers do) you know how hilarious this request is. For one, I'm a writer which is one of the top three career options I would council sane people to avoid at all costs (the others being: adjunct university faculty especially in any of the humanities fields, an actor/actress who will "make it big", and a time-traveler. All options are equally detrimental to one's physical and mental wellbeing because of the type of money--i.e., none--you will make doing them and all three are, alas, equally short-sighted in the sense that they depend on a miracle in order for one to make any sort of "living" in the normal sense of the word.)

So, let's just say I didn't think I'd find myself writing a blog about how I came to discover my career after I pursued an undergraduate degree in English Literature with a minor in French and nearly enough Philosophy courses to qualify for a second (unlisted) minor as well when I was in my early twenties. Or, how I decided to go back to graduate school for not one, not two, but three advanced degrees in different fields which, alas, didn't really grant me a clear "career path," either.

In other words, it's completely ridiculous that I would be the sort of person to give career advice to anyone since I made such (poor?) choices.  


But after writing that, I have to pause.

After all, I am a writer since I am paid to produce text Monday through Fridays from 8:00 am to 5:00 pm Pacific Standard Time for a software company; I have also taught writing courses at four-year universities, community colleges and private colleges; I have started a literary reading series called Literary Arts & Wine; I have been a part of the Creative Writing Outreach Program in Reno, Nevada which teaches the craft of writing to those who populate its homeless shelters; my work (the mark of a good writer) has been published in newspapers, news weeklies, magazines, story and essay collections as well as literary journals. I have a Literary Agent. I have ghost-written a memoir. I have written a book manuscript which is in consideration with several publishing houses.

And so maybe it's not so ridiculous for me to write a blog about how I got to where I am, where I (think) I am going and what I've learned along the way.  There will be no bullet points, no step-by-step instructions nor will I quiz my readers at the end of the post.

What I can offer is (I hope) an honest answer to the question: "now what?" which can seem daunting when you face the world as yourself, alone. 


There are no exact market predictions for which college major is the most lucrative and no way, truly, to know what your degree is "worth" in terms of a salary. If you're reading this and still in school, for the love of all things natural and good, do NOT see your education as a dollar sign.  

What is the value of reading The Odyssey? What is the value of the Renaissance, Taoist Philosophy, knowing the transmission of disease and how those movements literally effected the flow of people, societies and history?  What is red-shift and blue-shift in regards to stars? What do I care if matter is immutable, if French auxiliary verbs must match in gender and number to the subject they modify?  

I have no idea what any of these bits of information-- or any other bits of information-- are "worth." What I DO know is that I have used EVERY class I have taken, EVERY text I have read in one way or another. Do I quote Homer directly as a technical writer? No.  Do I speak French with my clients? Do I need to know how to calculate the speed that a star is moving away from our planet? 

Of course, I don't need to know any of these things, literally, in order to do my job. But what they have given me-- and what employers appreciate-- are the mental muscles that have been developed as a result of knowing and thinking these things. 

Creativity, ingenuity, curiosity-- these are the unarticulated skills welcomed in any professional environment. I can't tell you what they are worth because they are priceless. 

Give yourself time. 

I wrote my first "novel" when I was twelve. I was hired to write for a museum after college (which was lucky, in retrospect) but between then and now I have been: jobless, more or less homeless, lost and, well, broke! Granted, I picked a really difficult career path but I bet each and every one has its own challenges. 

I think part of the reason I am an aspiring Ironman (yes, I am that, too) is that the sport requires a daily practice that isn't always rewarding or fun. There are days I feel awful and I cry because I worry that I am wasting my time on a pursuit that I will never be good at.  I train 18-20 hours most weeks and coupled with a 40-hour a week job as well as a writing career (I blog, write, revise, publish, promote my reading series as well), that's a lot. It doesn't leave much time for the other things in life a lot of us take for granted. Family, for instance. I see my parents when I can, but I don't have a husband or children of my own. 

I have a (small) garden but it's nothing much. I don't own a house (yet) and I don't have time for television, video games, painting my nails, curling my hair, going out to [insert non-writing or athletic event here] and I don't drive something fancy or something that (quite) works as it should. 

But I am a writer and my "career" is just getting started. So-- maybe you won't have everything at once. Maybe you might struggle for a while and not have everything you want. In fact, getting the job you want may force you to sacrifice all that seems rational (shouldn't you always have a nice car? time to watch TV? New clothes?) Even if you make the "right" career choice (or, you're in pursuit of the one you want) you might not have all-- or, any-- of these things at first. 

This is going to sound hokey, but I remember my grandmother telling me that if you pick a job which is something you are passionate about, you'll never work a day in your life. I don't think it is- or can be-- totally true. Sometimes I hate going to work and dream about 200-mile long bike rides or long swim sets or some really potent alcoholic drink.  But I also don't want to write all the time, either. Sometimes I really dread my time before the keyboard when my thoughts just don't (or won't) come, when the words clog themselves in themselves-- and it sucks. 

But I'm a writer. And the fact that I write every day-- that I am paid to write-- means that I've "made it."

Find your metaphors. Honor them. 

OK so you're not a writer (or for the sake of all things, don't be. Re-read the first few paragraphs if you're confused as to why I'd say such a thing.) But you still need the reasons to do what you do. 

One of the reasons I want to do the Ironman is that the event represents my journey becoming a writer: a journey that is long, unpredictable, difficult, at times (seemingly) impossible, beautiful, awful, painful and glorious. It makes me cry and laugh when I think about what I am preparing my body to go through; not unlike the process of writing about my life, which also makes me laugh and cry and requires hours of my life every day.

Does the Ironman help the writing? Yes and no. I was not an athlete in college and becoming one has helped me to understand who I am and how I undertake goals whether they are professional, athletic or personal. 

But the metaphors come from my experience and the experience comes from the time I have given to my career choice. And the time (funny enough) comes from the ways I allowed myself to explore ideas, to think and to grow as a person back when I was in college and taking courses which seemed to have no bearing on the "real world." But time moves beyond that-- back to when I was only twelve and writing my first novel on lined paper and a ball-point pen. 

Maybe that was the most important moment, then, when time and effort were all that mattered. Trust--and believe-- they still, always, do.








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.

Monday, November 17, 2014

World Championship Time Trial: A Six-Hour Success

"When you want to quit you have to surrender to the moment, and find a calm." 

--Mark Allen


Me at the starting line of the 2014 6-12-24 World Championship Time Trial Race in my Great Basin Bicycles skinsuit.

This was supposed to be my race. That was my thought as my bike was propped upside down on its handlebars and seat, its rear tire removed and the contents of my saddle bag strewn in the desert sand. I try not to think my race is over, fumbling with the tire irons to extract my tube so that I can replace it with the only one I have left.

The hardest part wasn’t getting the tube out; instead, it was keeping thoughts of you’ve already failed out of my head so I don’t start panicking… or, crying. 

*
On Friday “Team Great Basin Bicycles”-- of which I was a part-- drove to the 6-12-24-hour WorldChampionship Time Trials held in Borrego Springs, California on Saturday. We weren’t big, as teams go: Rich (the owner of GBB) would ride in the mixed tandem 6-hour time trial division with stoker Irena. Then there was me: competing in the solo female division for the six-hour time trial event.  

Packing the car for the event-- I'm still amazed we fit one tandem bike, one "bumblebee" bike, a cooler, 64 water bottles, five suitcases, snacks, cycling gear and three riders in there.


The landscape of 395-south is primarily desert, although it varies in type. There is high-desert steppe at the base of the Eastern Sierra where, once you’re far enough south, the mountain peaks top 14,000 feet, dwarfing the valley floor (like in Independence, California, home to one of my favorite western writers, Mary Austin.) Eventually that landscape gives way to the Mohave, the land of creosote, Joshua tree and power line; the grand Sierra fade into the distance and the sky spreads out without its frame of mountaintops. 

Just so you know, from Reno to Borrego Springs is about a ten-hour drive, so it gave me plenty of time to think. (As Rich said on the way down: We must be crazy: we are driving a bit over twenty hours round trip to do a six-hour bike race. And when you put it like that, it does sound crazy.) 

Driving by Topaz Lake on Friday morning.  Watching the landscape change on the drive down was one of my favorite parts of the event, actually.

Crazy is relative, however, like distance and time. What seems so incredibly long (a five-mile run if you are not a runner or a century on the bike when you’re just starting out) can become effortless with the right kind of training (or, maybe it’s never effortless. I would argue, though, that the question of pace--of how fast-- quite a different creature than can I finish?) 

It was in this context of a new desert landscape (Borrego Springs, it turns out, was much more like Independence than the Mohave in that it was framed by tall mountains on all sides; unlike the Mohave in its palm trees, grapefruit trees, and golf courses) that I would have to face another unexpected challenge of endurance racing: anything can happen. 

Some high-Sierra beauty somewhere around Lone Pine, the gateway to Mt. Whitney.

If you’ve read any part of this blog, I’m sure you know the story. In 2010, I was training for the Olympic Trials and I didn’t make it. This past season, changed my focus and was training for the Lake Tahoe 70.3 Ironman and that, too, didn’t happen. This isn’t to say I don’t have victories (I did great this year at the Lake Tahoe Triathlon which was an Olympic Distance event as well as the Davis Double where I completed my first double century EVER!) But I haven’t had the kind of victory I think I could have, if all the stars align. 

I had hoped this Time Trial would be my event… at least for 2014. After all, I have a lot of miles on the bike (inside and out) as well as a solid 17-20 hours of training each week. I’ve also been more careful about my nutrition than I have in the past. And although this isn’t a scientific measure, I just feel “healthy.” My pre-race goal had been to complete 120-130 miles in six hours including the time it would take to stop and restock my water and food supplies. 

The more and more I participate in these types of events, though, the more I am coming to understand their fickle nature: yes, it’s a staged event and yes, it’s not quite like venturing across the Antarctic, but there is some element of the unknown even in a time trial, a triathlon, a marathon. Will you sprain your ankle? Run over a nail and get a flat? Fall and break a collar bone? Panic and nearly drown in the swim? 

Maybe the question is never, quite, how fast. Maybe there is, always, some element of maybe I won’t make it no matter what you do.  And in this, maybe these events are just like life: maybe I won’t make it you think when you’re in college, single, married, starting a new job, ending a career, moving, buying a house, losing a house, taking that step into the unknown-- no matter the event-- maybe it’s human to wonder maybe I won’t make it through?

Somewhere right before the Mohave desert when Rich relinquished the driver's seat and Irena took over.

The race morning was warm. I was in short sleeves and shorts and still-- can you imagine in November-- sweating? I was the only woman competing in the solo six-hour time trial; the rest were ten male competitors and two tandem teams. One was Rich and Irena (my Great Basin Bicycle teammates) the other a two-man team who was, oddly, listed as a mixed team.

I hadn’t really studied the course before the event. I knew it was an 18-mile loop, that it was mostly flat and that about five hours after our noon-start time, we would switch to a smaller, 5-mile loop until the race ended at six. It be a day of right-hand turns, of burning hamstrings and quads, and a day of going as fast as I can and my only limit being my strength and/or my ability to hold onto a certain cadence or pace.

When the time trial began, I was hopeful. I rode hard, but not too hard, finding my rhythm as I rested in my aerobars. Rich and Irena passed me early-- in the first two miles-- before Rich misjudged a turn. But I saw them before mile 5, and looking strong, they left me behind. I swore to myself: please don’t let the tandem train catch me before I reach 100 miles. 

Borrego Springs, where the race was held. This shot, taken on race morning, shows the contrast of desert and mountain.

I completed one lap in well under an hour despite the headwind up the only climb on the course. I didn’t even stop for water. I believed this was my event to fly through.  I very nearly did: I exchanged places with a rider from Montana who looked like he does these events often. I rode strong until mile thirty when, with a swift headwind in my face, I felt the floppy wobble of a flat back tire. 

I don’t quite believe it at first. I kept riding for a while until I looked between my leg and the saddle and saw the black of my tire spread flat against the pavement. 

*
I didn’t want to go back to Reno with a round of excuses why I am not a good athlete. I had a flat tire. I had stomach issues. The wind was wrong. I wanted, finally, to just be good and to own it, if that makes sense. It was hard not to be devastated especially as riders I had passed in previous miles rode by me in the wind and I watched, literally, the passage of time.

I told myself not to work too fast and not to panic. I kept my hands steady, using the plastic tire iron to loosen the tire from the rim. Then I slid my fingers along the inside of the tire to find what flattened the tube. (A staple. The only one on the entire course, probably.) 

I replaced the tube with a new one when another rider stopeds to help me. I didn't ask for his help but with his lovely English accent (or was it Australian? I only know that it was lovely—bordering on sexy-- his words like someone who takes a flat tire like you might take an adult beverage, straight up-- why thank you, and can you pour me another one?)I couldn't say "no." 

I was stopped for what felt like an eternity. I appreciated the man with the accent even though he gave me a hard time for having no more water.   I nodded and said something like, "I know," even though it was all I could do to keep myself from crying. 

I just didn't want to fail anymore. I was--and am-- tired of failing. 

When I got back on my bike, I told myself: no bathroom breaks. No more food. I will stop only for water. And that is, more or less, what I did. I had to catch the time which passed me. 

On our pre-race walk, we didn't see much, if any, wild life. Instead, we experienced a lot of sand-- sand that would later blast across our faces in the high winds that day.

The athletic mode of narrative advises that I tell you that I was in pain. Or, that I was unaware of pain. That time passed quickly or slowly. That I was in extreme discomfort. If you want to know the truth, though, I don’t remember most of the ride which followed my flat. 

I remember wanting to cry for a while and wanting to stop because I thought my race was over. At some point after I refill my water bottles, though, I decided to make  the rest of the ride a game. Maybe I could try to ride each lap faster than the one before it? I asked myself. Negative split the entire thing.

The only other thing I remember, really, was catching a glimpse of myself in shadow, a projection of me cast upon the desert sand. I had a zen-esque moment, thinking something like: everything is a fluid transitory thing; life, an ocean wave, at best. 

Then I took another right turn and my shadow vanished.
*

Riding up the slight incline where I’d gotten my flat, a race official informed me we’d be switching to the short loop early. I admit: I was shocked (it wasn’t quite 4:00 pm and I wondered if he thought I was riding so slow I wouldn’t get back to the pit area by 5) but I found out later the choice was made, in part, because of the strength of the wind.  Several riders had disk wheels on their bikes and the wind was blowing them all over the road. The shorter, five mile lap provided more shelter from the strong winds.

What I remember of those final laps: the wall of sand we rode through on the first straightaway, a coyote which stood at the side of the road, watching me go by, the feel of speed as the wind pushed me along the course, the final turn and straightaway to the “pit” area where I seemed to pass so many riders (why were they slowing down?)

In the final laps, I remember the bright pinks and reds of the sunset-sky, the pain in my right shoulder and hip like a heartbeat and then, the challenge of riding in darkness. 

The week before, Rich had made me close my eyes while riding out of the saddle in a CompuTrainer class and I recalled the experience in the final 45-minutes of the race. I wasn't as disoriented as I might have been. I remembered how I had kept my center centered, my pedal stroke even and I tried to do the same as day faded to night.

The area around the race course featured these large, metal sculptures. This one (a serpent) occurred about two miles into the long lap. In the really strong winds, some of these sculptures (the horses, especially) looked like they were alive and moving!


I crossed the pit area at 5:00, 5:13, 5:28, 5:45. In this time trial, the miles only count if you completed a lap and I had a choice to make: stop now or try for one more before the end at 6 pm. I decided to go for it. I had finished the other laps under fifteen minutes; I reasoned that I would be able to do it one more time even though I had nearly six hours of riding on my legs and parts of my body I normally don’t feel ached.

I rode toward every red flashing tail light and I kept telling myself that I could do this, that I had ridden hard and done my best. Yes, I’d had a flat tire. Yes, I kept going.

I crossed the line with a minute to spare making my mileage total for the day 115. It wasn't quite what I’d hoped for, but considering the flat and the wind, it wasn't bad. I would be shocked, later, to find I’d ridden the third fastest time of all the solo six-hour riders and I was only five miles behind Rich and Irena who would win the mixed tandem division.

So maybe there is something in not stopping—or, not giving up—when life serves you a flat tire. Maybe the best thing (or, the only thing) to do is say in your sexiest accent, why, thank you, because you get to overcome a challenge, to work hard, to finish despite rather than because of. 

Place: 1
Distance: 115 miles