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

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Notes in the (off) Season

Can you be an athlete if you don't compete?

*

I was actually shocked when I realized that I hadn't blogged since the Lake Tahoe Ironman and the 70.3 were cancelled due to bad air conditions nearly two months ago. It's not that I haven' been training-- or writing-- but somehow the blog slipped through the cracks. In the off chance that you follow this craziness, I'm sorry. I really have been blogging (in my mind); but that's not entirely useful for you since no one's discovered, quite, how to read minds yet.

So, what have I been so busy doing? Well, training, of course: I try to maintain 20 hours a week of the swim/bike/run gig. The diminishing hours of daylight and (as of tonight) the end of daylight savings time has made getting those 20 hours more difficult. The palms of my hands are scratched up from running in the dark before morning and falling (yes, I know, I need some sort of head light) and the few days I've tried to take the bike outside after work, I'm shocked at how dark the world gets when I'm only thirty minutes into an hour ride (I guess I need lights for that, too.) And there is something that happens in the body, I believe, with all this cold and darkness: with not wanting, really, to be up and out so much. A big part of me wants to curl up with War and Peace or maybe even Infinite Jest and just read with my cats curled around my feet.

But darn it: I've got dreams. And I'm an athlete (I think?) even though I haven't competed in what seems like forever.

Or... am I an athlete? What measures can I apply to know for sure in lieu of an event where I'm tested against other bodies?

*
One of our riders traversing Nevada's "loneliest highway" during the Silver State 508.

At the beginning of October, I crewed for a two-man relay team for the inaugural Silver State 508-- a 508-mile cycling race across the state of Nevada which began in Reno and headed east on old highway 50 to Eureka and back again the same way.

Me playing shadow puppets (sort of) as we wait to hand off supplies to our rider.
I wasn't an athlete in that event (although if you watch how I handed off bottles to our riders, you have to admit it took a certain degree of skill--and leg-speed-- to make a successful exchange); and as we drove/rode across the empty spaces, I couldn't help but feel disappointed in myself that I have not become a real, an elite, a true athlete (yet.)

Following our rider across the high desert en route to the finish line in Reno, Nevada.


Maybe one day? I certainly hope so....

*

Then, there was the Foxy's Fall Century in Davis I rode with Rich and several women who trained with him on long rides, CompuTrainer rides and any and all other kinds of rides.

I told Rich I really just wanted to ride as fast as I could and I did: I stuck with no one in particular, just lay low in my aerobars, stopped only for water and the essentials and ended up turning out 100 miles in about five hours.

Cruising comfortably at about 20 miles into the ride just outside Davis, CA.

The weather was perfect: still and calm and only a little chilly in the morning: once I'd returned to Davis I rode the course in reverse looking for Rich and the girls. I didn't see them, but the additional miles gave me 130 for the day-- 100 of them at a steady clip. I just loved it.

Granted, it was an organized ride and not a race, so there are no bragging rights attached (it's unfair to pair yourself against people who are only there to complete the distance, not compete it) but I do hope it's a sign of good things to come (that I can ride 100 miles and feel fantastic and then ride some more and still feel, more or less, fantastic.)

Plus, I got this really kick-ass photo of me on my bike, Bumblebee. ..
And I caught up with some incredible athletes from the Reno area. Tim (in green) and his wife Martine (who is taking the shot) both did Boise 70.3 with me last spring and are such an inspiration. My friend Rich (left) is the owner of Great Basin Bicycles, he came in 8th in the 508 (solo) and won the 308 earlier this year as well. 

I say that because I do have a race on the horizon, the Ultra-Endurance World Championship Time Trials. In some ways, this will be my first cycling race ever and I have to admit, I'm nervous. I don't know who I'll face in those six hours; and I don't know how (exactly) I'm going to handle the nutrition part of it.  I just rode 105 miles today inside on the CompuTrainer and felt, well, not terribly awful and it didn't take me six hours to do that distance so I hope for a good result from this event.

But I still wonder, I still can't quite decide: am I an athlete, still?

I wonder about all these hours I put into training-- I believe I could do well at an Ironman one day. But sometimes I think I'm the only one who believes that, who sees potential in a body that isn't particularly thin or athletic. That looks, well, normal. Boring, even.


OK, maybe this isn't remarkable, but I so love my little Sanchia-cat. And I love writing and reading and cooking. And maybe a part of what I am finding out is that I am an "Athlete-and...." . An athlete AND a friend. An athlete AND a cat-mom. An Athlete AND a writer.

Or maybe this goes back to the changing seasons, the diminished light. There's a song about that, isn't there? Everything turns, turns, turns; there is a season, turns, turns, turns... and maybe life, in a way, is cyclical (like the turning of my legs on the crank) and maybe it is OK to curl up sometimes with the cats, it is OK to write; just like it is OK to dream that one day I can toe the line at the World Championships in Kona that my body has that potential despite the dark hours, the wintertime.

After all, I have my hours. Maybe it is time I start believing in them.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Tahoe: Not a Race, but a Lesson

Jeff Marrifield after the announcement that he would not be competing in his first Ironman on September 21st, 2014
If you've been reading my blog (even for a little while) you probably know that this year is a big milestone for me in and of itself; or, rather, that every race I undertake this year has a deeper meaning to it than the search for another PR or place. Instead, it has to do with overcoming ghosts and self-imposed demons; it is my way of telling myself that no matter what I will be OK. If I can swim and ride and run-- well, I can overcome hardship on my own.

Tahoe was its own creature, however; and in a way, I can hardly believe I was on the starting line of that race. But then again, I can't believe I didn't finish it, either, which leaves me existing in this strange in-between land like the Catholic idea of purgatory. Or, it reminds me of what sitting on the darkened stairwell of a house my family had when I was younger. I liked to sit there-- for hours, sometimes, reading--because it was a non-place, a place I could disappear.

And I know that sounds overly dramatic, but that's sort of how I feel after this weekend: erased. I'm neither here nor there. Will I be OK in life? I think I know the answer is "yes." And yet, there is this lingering doubt. After all, I didn't conquer the Tahoe Ironman.

*

For the inaugural event last year, I spent the day painting my deck with my partner. The paint looked pink but dried red in the heavy winds which brought the snow which made the event so remarkably difficult. I remember getting spotches of it on my jeans (which felt tight around my non-athletic body) and I remember, distinctly, thinking that I would never do an event like the Lake Tahoe Ironman.

I thought a lot of crazy things then, though. Things like my life as an athlete was over. Things like my partner really loved me. Things that all turned out not to be true. And so, in a way, I guess that's where this all comes from. I am still an athlete. And I am going to be OK. And therefore, I was going to race in the Tahoe 70.3 Ironman. Not the full, I know, but I am building my volume slowly and I wanted to slay half of my old demons, anyway.

But fate had another plan in store for me. I'm still trying to figure out what that is, exactly, but it does not, apparently, include me competing in any Lake Tahoe Ironman this year.

*

The day before the race was perfect. I mean, perfect so I didn't argue when a friend of mine said you have to race this. You can't NOT. I picked up my race packet, set up my transitions, did my priming work for the swim, the bike and the run. I met my parents for lunch in Squaw Valley and we reviewed the course and they picked out the spots they wanted to watch me from.

They wanted to watch me kick ass. 

And I really thought I was going to. You know that feeling when you weigh hardly anything and every stroke or step is just effortless? That was me the day before the race. And who knows, really? It might have been an illusion. But maybe not.

After my parents went home, I drove down the west shore of the lake to the foot of Blackwood Canyon to read a few pages of a novel I've been working my way through. It was surreal: one moment the air was crisp and clear like mountain air and the next I was surrounded in a tidal wave of smoke. It literally swallowed me and my shadow turned red.

I guess I really should have known the race wouldn't happen... but I was hopeful. Like the race officials were hopeful, I suppose. I think every single person affiliated with this race was hopeful and maybe that's why its cancellation is so particularly sad.

*
Race morning: 3:30 am. I was staying with dear friends who allowed me use of a lovely bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. I remember the chime of my phone at o'dark-thirty and I'm awake, but not groggy. I'm on auto-pilot: tri-suit on, pj's off. Nutrition in one bag, non-essentials in the other.  My mind speaks in the litany of athletic gear not unlike the song the 12 days of Christmas: 12 salt tabs, 11 cut up green bars, 10 sport gels, 9 rubs of "glide", 8 squirts of sunscreen, 7 times to pee, 6 laces laced, 5 CUPS OF COFFEE, 4 items of clothing (shorts, top, socks, bra); 3 water bottles, 2 Garmin devices, and one freaking awesome bike.

OK maybe not quite like that, but close.

I worried I would be mauled by a bear on the way out. Apparently that is a problem up in these elevations. Luckily, I wasn't.

I couldn't see the smoke on the drive in, but I could smell it.  Like a campfire you can't back away from. I kept telling myself it was localized in Squaw and that a shift in the winds would carry the smoke away by the time I'd be running there. Oh, hopeful me. 

I parked the car and grabbed my transition bags, rushing into the line of waiting athletes. Most of them were doing the 140.6, but oh well. I wanted to be at the start, be ready. I was ready. Ready to race. At last. I played a song on repeat that had no words but a beat sort of like the hope hanging in my heart that I could turn out a strong performance.

The kind that says: I'm here. And I'm not going anywhere. 

*

I could only see the reflection of my face in the bus windows en route to the start line. I tried to ignore my face and look past into the landscape but that was nearly impossible.

The song I love-- the song without words, the song with only a heartbeat-- played in my ears. And I wondered if today was the day I'd do something extraordinary and I'd become something more than Rebecca.

Maybe, my face told me.

Maybe, the darkness repeated.

*

What I remember of the transition:the flux of bodies. The feel of permanent marker on my skin. The sharp cold of pre-dawn mountain morning. Finding my bike. Pacing from my transition bag to the bike and back again. All 57 trips to the SaniHut. And then, the lovely sight of familiar faces: my friends and training partners.

Suddenly, we were in this together. This dark-cold. This expectation. This despite-the-smoke.  Team "Reno" I remember we posed for a video camera and a woman asked where we were from. "Reno!" one-- or all-- of us said.  And another: "We're Team Smoke!" It was meant as a joke, of course: "Team Smoke." The smoke we'd beat or race in despite itself.

We had no idea that the conditions were so bad the event would have to be canceled. This is Ironman after all: aren't we supposed to be strong? Unbreakable? The year before, athletes had faced snow and wind and cold. A large percentage of the field got hyperthermia after the swim. What is smoke, compared to that?

Team Smoke: Martine, Tim, Meghan, Dave, Jeff (x 2), and Winnie: Team Smoke from Reno, Nevada. How would we know it wouldn't be funny?

*
Smokey conditions en route back to Squaw Valley.

Imagine this: a year of your life. A year when you give up: late nights, social outings, most of your friends, family picnics, most of your family, vacations, romantic relationships, fried food, weekends, nights after 10 pm, attractive feet, special moments, sex, nice-looking hair, stylish shoes with heels, life, life, life. You're in a wetsuit in a mountain lake at 6am on a Sunday in September and this is the Ironman you trained for.

We regret to announce. 

Your heart drops. You throw up in your mouth a little. The hours replay in your mind.

There is a pause in the air and you hear the words: Attention Ironman athletes.... and you stop swimming. The dawn is redder than usual, spectacularly beautiful. And it can't be, but it is.

Despite all you know, all you have done: there is no way in the world you will be an Ironman today.

*

I wasn't in the water when I heard the race was canceled.

I was sitting on a concrete curb after peeing for the 57th time with fellow Renoite, Meghan when a woman walked by in a wetsuit crying. It was just barely dawn-- or not even barely-- and we thought, for whatever reason, she had dropped out of the race already.

But suddenly, a woman in a white and red racing kit stood above us and, tracing her finger across her smart phone, she said, flatline: "Didn't you hear, the race was canceled."

From there, I remember chaos.

Athletes not knowing what to do or where to go. Bodies walking back and forth and back and forth. Some take off their wetsuits, wet from the lake. Others don't. Or at least, not right away.

I don't stand. I'm still seated when a woman strips her wetsuit and says to me: I have to get on my bike today. I moved heaven and earth to be here. I just have to ride. Something, anything. 

Meghan offers her suggestions-- good ones-- ride over Mt. Rose. Ride Geiger Grade. Ride Spooner Summit.

The place-names don't register; this is not a local. And I am still sitting, still in something like shock when I say: Do you want a guide? 

Bodies flux around us: everyone is going somewhere, placing that race energy onto the road, their bike, a coffee house. Anywhere but where it ended before it began.

I don't expect she'll want me along. But then, I'm surprised again. This stranger-- who will become my friend-- says Yes.

And in the flux of bodies, I have a purpose: I will guide someone through the places I know and love so well. Carson City. Virginia City. Geiger Grade. The vast beauty; my home.

 *
When we finally reach Squaw, not a single person could argue with the decision to cancel the race. The smoke was thick as we left the shuttles to collect our run-gear bags.

It takes nearly two hours to gather my gear. To text my family and friends that Lake Tahoe IM is not happening. To find myself and my new friend on the road again. It's raining, slightly. The light is cloud-gray as we climb out of Kings Beach and Incline to Spooner Summit.

There is another event scheduled for that day, the Edible Pedal and I pedal that away; the smoke is so distant now, but I do not stray too far from this organized ride in case the winds shift; in case another unforeseen event happens.

Up and down Spooner.

As we ride past Nevada's capital buildings, my new ride partner asks me: "Are we riding in Nevada?"

When I tell her we are (not that we have been for a while) she says: "I've never ridden in Nevada before!" with a kind of enthusiasm that just makes me smile.

The world is a beautiful place.

Remarkable people populate it.

I know I can't be sad about today.

I can't, I can't.

Sage, Pine. Choose your vegetation; we ride nearly 80 miles until the smoke makes us stop.

*

And I wonder about the meaning of "Ironman": if, perhaps, I got my metaphors mixed. Maybe it wasn't the race itself that would prove I was, once again, a strong athlete-- a strong person. Maybe it is the ability to "endure" no matter what happens. To know this is not my last race, this is not a failure.

Instead, this is another beginning.

And I will try again and again, when it's time.
"Team Smoke" before they announced the race was canceled due to unsafe air quality.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

And the countdown begins...

There is always this moment before a big race when I turn into a nervous wreck. Usually it's about a week or so out when I'm in the process of tapering (so maybe it's a function of all that nervous energy?) which makes me not-such-a-great person to be around. I start wondering how on earth I will cover the distance I plan to race-- and the thought of doing it "fast" seems so incredibly impossible. This was especially true of me in my marathoning days-- when I would wonder (and maybe rightly) how I'd run a race that was farther than any training run I'd done in preparation for it. Of course, I always did run those races and I always exceeded my expectations-- even that last one when I missed the Olympic Trials.

So, what is up with me now?   Why am I still plagued with doubt?

I guess it has to do with self-confidence (or is it self-reliance?)-- something I continue to work on. I think it also comes with time. Even though I am SO NERVOUS for the Tahoe 70.3, I am not as nervous as I have been for other events in the past.

I know, for instance, that no matter what, I'll finish.

What I don't know is how well I will do.

*

I am doing my best, though, to prepare. I've been swimming in Donner Lake two nights a week after work (getting used to the wetsuit again, open water, sighting-- getting rid of my mental demons, in other words.) I was lucky enough this weekend to be invited to a training swim with UNR Tri Club teammate Winnie D., Martine M., Tim and an old friend I hadn't seen in years: Meghan! It was great to have company in Tahoe's waters. I always worry I am going to get run over by a boat when I swim alone. At least I'd have three witnesses if that happened.

Actually, though, Saturday morning was beautiful: calm and the air only carried a touch of Fall. Granted, that water felt mighty cold the first time we put our feet in, which prompted this shot (anything to delay the torture, we thought.)

Winnie, Me and Meghan before the swim.

But then Martine and Tim showed up and if there's one thing I value so much about them both is that there is no time for nonsense when it comes to training! So, into the water we went, which, actually, felt warmer the farther out from shore we were.

Probably one of the most beautiful shots of an open water swim ever taken (thank you, Martine!) The lake is so low this year we had to walk out pretty far before we could start swimming. Luckily-- for whatever reason-- the water felt warmer out there.

And yet, the roughest part of the swim wasn't getting in... it was getting out! THAT was cold and awful in a way that I am not fully prepared for-- and I'm not sure I ever will be. I couldn't feel my face, my hands or my feet. And even though I don't plan on changing clothes on race day (what's the point for a 70.3?) But on Saturday I didn't want to shiver on the bike, I didn't want that awful saddle-chafe that comes from wearing wet shorts. I already know about that; I know it will suck on race day. And I didn't want pre-race chafe wounds. I've got enough of those left over from the Alta Alpina Double Century.

So I changed and rode after Tim who said he would take me through the course so I would know what to expect race day.

That's one thing I really love about Tim and Martine: they are so giving with their advice and past experience.  Tim advised not going out too hard on the bike (there are a few climbs before riders reach Tahoe City) and after riding the course with him, I can see how the "little" efforts can really eat your legs up before the big climb over 267 (Brockway) which is-- um, puke-ish.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. The bike route involves this little detours off hwy 89 along Tahoe's North shore which take you back into the woods-- the first is an out-and-back in Carnelian Bay by the mini-golf place. The next "detour", I assume, was to keep riders out of Tahoe City: you turn right just before the Fat Cat Cafe and ride through the residential neighborhood before returning to the highway after the Save Mart.

Then it's down the Truckee River corridor: a road of wide shoulders which is (mostly) downhill. This is the time to gain speed. I didn't on Saturday, really. Tim was riding so strong and I couldn't find my rhythm, quite, so I worked on pedal stroke, imagining my legs making perfect circles as I covered the distance from Tahoe City to Truckee.

When we got to Truckee I had to wonder if the theme of the IM 70.3 bike course would be odd detours and horrific climbs. You think you'll ride down Commercial Row in downtown Truckee-- but no, you turn down a side street before that and then you're climbing this narrow road which turns into a bike path which feeds you into a parking lot and then you're in a neighborhood, turning up streets and-- once--turning directly into oncoming traffic! Yikes!

Then onto 267 (the bridge is horrific: the pavement is so uneven and rough; metal bars frame the actual bridge that might make supplies jump right out of your jersey pockets, if they aren't tied down.) Then Martis Valley with its perpetual headwind (I knew about that, too)-- and up Brockway Summit.

A climb that, simply, sucks. I've done it plenty of times the other way: climbing the lake side, coming down the Truckee side (most boats with trailers tend to head INTO the Tahoe Basin) but I was unprepared for how difficult this climb is-- and will be-- in the race.

It probably sucked more than it will on race day because of traffic. I am so glad I was riding this with friends. We could look out for each other. Drivers can be so incredibly inconsiderate. I mean, I get it: you're in a hurry, you need to get someplace. We've all been pressed for time at one point or another. But give me a break: is it worth running someone over to save five seconds? Is it so hard to move your steering wheel a few degrees to the left? Is it so hard to remember that this person on a bike who is in the shoulder of the road is a human being too? 

OK, I'm done ranting now but honestly the worst part about climbing Brockway was the number of times I almost died.

So much so that I kissed the ground in Kings Beach and decided to end my swim/bike brick there. To live another day, in other words.

*

Sunday I wanted to run. I have had so many challenges which what is, truly, my strongest discipline. I know I can rock the run. Yet, I've had so many injuries, though, that have kept me from the miles I need to make myself fast.

Even so, I have found a great coach in Matt Pendola who's basically rebuilt my stride-- and my strength-- over the summer. My actual mileage isn't strong, but I am-- or I feel "even" now, like every part of my body is working in congress with each other part.

So Sunday morning, I parked at Squaw Valley and ran the course, nose-breathing for the first 30 minutes and then doing 4-minutes "on" (at a hard effort) 2 minutes recovery until I ran 12.1 miles. I did this with my old racing flats and what are called "correct toes", Matt's latest torture device: my toes have been constricted from all those miles on the bike. These are supposed to spread them out again and make my feet stronger.



But what a beautiful morning. I miss running along the Truckee River in between Squaw and Tahoe City. I've been so busy with work-- and so injured-- I haven't done that much this summer at all. 

And I noticed, today, the leaves already have suggestions of gold in them. 

So soon, the summer is ending. But I ran those miles and I didn't feel anything like pain. Then on the bike for an easy 50 miles. 

Maybe I can do this? Maybe? 

I certainly hope so. 







Sunday, August 24, 2014

Lake Tahoe Triathlon: Race Report

I have come to believe that there are certain challenges we are meant to face in life. I'm not a determinist and I'm not saying that this is fate; but I do think there are aspects of our personalities-- especially those areas of curiosity or sometimes fear--which draw us back again and again to a similar challenge, as if to ask: are you ready now?

Or this is what I thought when I woke up at 3:00 am this morning to drive to Sugar Pine Point State Park on the West shore of Lake Tahoe for an Olympic Distance Triathlon. It's not really my distance, but I wanted to see how my ribs would feel since it's been about a month since I was hit by a car while training... and also, really, I need more racing experience. I'm pretty green, as far as competitors go.

It was dark when I woke. And dark when I was driving. And I couldn't help but remember myself, about ten years ago, when I lived on the West shore of Tahoe (in a town not so far from Sugar Pine Point State Park called Tahoma) when I had just graduated from college. I lived in a small A-frame cabin on 7th avenue (the town is set up like a grid) and I was steps from the boundary of Sugar Pine Point State Park. I had a job working as a Research Assistant at the Tahoe Maritime Museum in Homewood (the next town North)-- it was my first "big girl job"--  and life was not the struggle it had been in college. I had pots with flowers in them. I had books I could read on my own time and a novel of my own I worked on every night. For the first time in my life, I had time. 

But I'll never forget how much I wanted to ride my bike down to the Ehrman Mansion in Sugar Pine Point State park (an estate built by a wealthy newspaper owner in the 19th century)-- how much I wanted to ride my old bike down the wooden dock and watch the sun rise over the Eastern side of the Basin, across the lake. It would be beautiful. It would be elemental. That sight would change me, I thought.

But I never did ride down to the wooden dock in Sugar Pine Point State Park when I was 22 and living in Tahoma.  I could just say I ran out of time, but that isn't true. The Board of Directors terminated my position in September. I'd had an entire summer to do it. But I hadn't, in part, because of my fear, a similar fear that kept me from training and competing for over ten years. What if there is a bear? What if I can't see? What if I'm cold? What if, for some stupid reason, I can't ride my bike that far? What if I'm too fat? 

That was me, in my twenties. Afraid of everything. I wish I could relive those years. But then, life does this funny thing sometimes: it circles back. And I found myself at the age of 32, watching the dawn on that same old wooden pier, knowing that within 90 minutes, I'd be racing. 





I racked the bike. I peed a million times which is really annoying when you're in a one-piece tri-suit. I ran around (nose-breathing only) to get warm because, well, especially before the sun rose, it was really cold! I had on my green down jacket and sweatpants and a ton of snot running out of my nose. (A real fashion statement, right?!) I checked my bike again and moved it to a better position in the transition area. Then I went to see where the swim began and ended.

My heart fell a little when I saw the swim exit. Rocky as heck and then a nice (steep) climb up a hill to the transition area. I tried to think of how to use this to my advantage and I decided I'd regain my "land legs" while stepping on the shoreline rocks, strip the top half of my wetsuit on the (short) but relatively flat paved path before the longish grassy climb to the transition area. It would not be ideal (other athletes left shoes at the swim transition to get over those rocks) but I had nothing but my running shoes and, well, what's a few seconds of pain? :-)


The swim exit-- beautiful-- if a bit rocky.

Back at the transition, I find the Kaia girls. 

These are the woman who have ridden with me in CompuTrainer sessions at insane-dark o'clock Tuesday and Thursday mornings. I hope they don't mind my company so much; but I have to say, I really love them. They so inspire me; up so early every day ( I guess I am, too) but they are always so vibrant and friendly. And their stories are so amazing. And you know, anyone who gets up that early to train is incredible.

Me with some of the Kaia ladies who keep me company during 5 am and 6 am CompuTrainer classes at Great Basin Bicycles.


They pose for a photo with me and I feel like I'm a part of something. Again, that's amazing. 

Then the announcer calls us down to the water. It's time. 

So soon? But I'm ready. 

Come what may, right? 


I think I got into the water too early; about 15 minutes too early, to be exact. I have the idea in my mind that all Olympic Triathletes will start at the same time after the first two waves of 70.3'rs. And so I swim and feel OK but really cold. And then I'm told I've got another 15 minutes or so and my teeth start to chatter.

But WTF, the water feels warmer than the air so I stay in it and watch the other athletes go and swim, so I go and swim.  But then I wade and (mostly) chatter. 

The announcer says: turn right at all the yellow buoys except the last one  and I remember that, too. And I really do feel good which is why I'm so mad at myself for what happens next. I feel so good. Ready to roll. Arms are loose. Snot's cleared from my nose. I have peed in the lake so much I've raised the average water temperature by a good two degrees. 

And the man says "go" and I do. I go. I swim. Stroke, stroke, stroke.  And I'm OK for the first five minutes. But then I get into the wake of a jetski and the sun's in my eyes and I can't see where I'm going. I remember it gets dark and I can't breathe and I'm going to do my impression of Jimi Hendrix in his final hours and I'm going to strange myself in my own vomit-- so I stop and breast-stroke, head out of water. 

I breast-stroke old-lady style and watch my heat move ahead of me. I try to swim, but I'm hyperventilating and every time I put my face in the water, I can't, I can't I can't.

I know I can't give up. I can't stop. I breast-stroke until the wheezing stops.  I swim freestyle with my head out of water until I reach that first buoy. 

When I make that turn, I put my head in the water. 

I swim. I am alone at first. Then I see pink swim caps. Then red and yellow and green. I am passing so many athletes.

I know, somehow, the rest of this race will consist of me trying to make up all that lost time. 


My transition area before most of the other competitors are there.

Out of the water, across the field of rocks, up the bike path and then a stretch of grass hill that most athletes walked. I ran. I was so far behind. 

I had to try and catch up. 

Never give up, never surrender, a favorite movie of mine says. 

I will not give up. I won't surrender. I just hope I can make up lost time on the bike and run. 


I am dripping wet and on the bike and all I think is: don't give up, you. 

I wonder if I'll be able to run after this and a part of me doesn't care. I want to try, I don't want to let my coaches down and I feel so embarrassed about my swim. But I know I can't focus on that. I have to keep going, keep trying, I can't abandon my plan to push hard on the hills in the first half, knowing the climbs on the way back are shorter. 

It's the most beautiful morning in the world for this. No wind. No clouds. The most perfect morning. Of course, I don't notice this on the ride. I notice hardly anything at all but the sound of my heart (how hard it's echoing in my head) but I keep pushing. I pass women. I pass men. 

I keep hoping i haven't fucked my entire race by being a pussy in the swim. I try to make myself make perfect circles with my legs: I push hard, wheezing. I do not stop at the turn around/aid station. The great thing about an out-and-back is that you can see the competitors in front of you. I counted them; seen them.  Then, one by one, passed them; the last two not until mere miles (or less) to the transition. 

Strong women. And I don't believe that I passed them, actually, when I do. 

I rack the bike. I take off the helmet, the gloves, the shoes. 

Too soon, I"m running. Down the trail and I feel like I've forgotten something. Running down concrete trails. Running through sand trails marked by pinecones. I know I'm too slow. I take water at every station. 

I see hardly anyone around me and I worry that I've taken a wrong turn somewhere. 

But I haven't.  But that's my thought for the whole run: am I moving in the wrong direction? 


But I am not slow and I am not wrong.  I run and I keep expecting to see someone in front of me, but there is no one but me and the forest. I don't know what place I am; I just keep pushing, hoping to catch one more body no matter how many I've caught before.

I run. 

No one tells me my place, my position. I worry I am last.

Most of the final mile is downhill, I focus on my arm-swing. I try not to imagine how I have failed. 

There's no words for the emotion in my head-- my heart-- which explodes when the announcer tells me I am first, that I have crushed the field. I want to cry, I want to laugh but all I can think of is that I'm so grateful that I gave myself a chance to try. 

Me at the finish line right before the announcer revealed that I was the first woman to cross the line. 


After all these years I finally watched the dawn from the pier at Sugar Pine State Park. And after all these years, I don't stop swimming even in the midst of a panic attack. Maybe it's not quite bravery; but something close. Something I've yet to fully master.  




Yay! My award!



Me posing with my trophy-- a klean kanteen bottle (I will be hydrated!)

...and my age group "award"-- a glass and a metal glass. I will be so hydrated! And, obviously, thrilled with my performance!


Place overall : 6 
Place female overall: 1
Time: 2:44