Sunday, November 9, 2014

The starting line

It all started with a text message to my friend Diane.

"Do you think," I asked, "that I could do that Hot Chocolate 5K thing in November?" It was late summer 2010, and I had an inexplicable wild hair. 

"Yes," my friend said, "you can absolutely do this, and I will help you." The next weekend found me out on my first-ever training run, panting, praying for sweet death, with Di running up ahead of me, talking the whole time in a manner that made me envious and hopeful. I registered for the race, not knowing what was about to happen.

I was inspired to try running by my sister Kathie. My sisters and I, we've never been particularly athletic, but I admired Kathie's gumption, and truth be told, I wanted some of my own. But I wanted something else, too. For years, I'd seen runners around town, doin' their thing. Solo, in groups, in the morning, at night ... I wanted what they had. I wanted that wind-in-your-hair freedom. I wanted to see if there was an athlete anywhere inside me. 

That first race took place on Kathie's birthday, and I will never forget watching her finish the race. While I ran the 5K, she ran the 15K, and I thought what she was doing was absolutely otherworldly. Hollering to her as she approached the finish line, I couldn't hold back the tears. 

I have never seen her look so strong. 

Today, I ran my fifth Hot Chocolate race. To date, I've run the 5K twice, and the 15K three times. Today's race wasn't my best time, but it wasn't my worst. I covered 9.3 miles at a pokey pace, and I finished in a little more than two hours and 15 minutes at a pace of 14:31 per mile. But contrast that with four years ago, when I ran 3.1 miles in 49:56, at a 16:05 minute mile. This is what progress looks like. 

But it's so much more than that. It's friendships forged, goals set (and occasionally crushed but often missed, yet celebrated anyway), breakfasts eaten, photos taken, challenges offered and confidence built.  It's the blisters and the black toenails, the smelly sports bras and the unmentionable chafing, and it's chasing something bigger than you are.

For a long time, I was chasing a sub-40 5K. For a lot of runners, that's incredibly slow, but for me, it's a huge accomplishment. And I've done it. Twice. Now I'm chasing a sub-35 5K, and a sub-3-hour half marathon and yeah, a sub-2 15K. And I'll get there, eventually.

But for tonight, I'm achey and accomplished. My feet are really pissed at me, and there is this raw spot where my trusty sports bra and I clearly did not see eye-to-eye. I'm ravenous and euphoric, not because I made it to the finish line.

No, this incredible feeling comes from believing in myself enough to make my way to the starting line, time and again, with the absolute knowledge that, one way or another, I will finish.

I am so grateful for the love and support of everyone in our tribe. May we only cease to run when our bones are too brittle to risk the impact. I love you with everything I am.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Ten kilometers

You learn a lot about yourself when you're running. If you let your mind move away from the pain in your hip flexors or the sound of your feet hitting the ground, you might discover some interesting things about yourself.

For instance, yesterday I learned that at about five miles, I get really really bored. Which was kinda not bad because yesterday I only had a total of 6.2 to run ... but it makes me a little scared for this weekend, when I have 9.3 to run and the last half is rather boring by design. (Because the lakefront path just doesn't do it for me anymore. Snob.)

Anyway, out there, feet propelling you forward ... if you're willing to go there, you can find out a lot about you. I got bored, yes. But out there, on the path to whatever, I've gone through all the emotions at one time or another. (PS, it's really hard to run when I get all seething angry, because I cry then, and running is not much possible when I'm also sobbing.) (PPS, not pretty; this is why I don't wear makeup when I work out.) I've been through all the feels while running. From blissful to hungry (rungry?) and everything in between, six miles is enough ground to work through it.

Feel it. Heal it. That's kinda where I'm at here. And a 10K is enough time to make some very real headway.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The tri that almost wasn't


Sunday morning, August 24, started way too early for me. The night was a series of tossing and turning, and not much in the way of sleeping. I don't get much in the way of pre-race anxiety anymore, but I think it plagued me on Saturday night. At 3:15 a.m., my alarm went off. It was time to start my day.

I jumped into my tri clothes, acknowledged my screaming headache, swallowed some toast (thank you, Linda) and headed out the door with my backpack (packed with a wetsuit, goggles, timing chip, swim cap, running shoes, racecourse nutrition, socks, headband and sunglasses) and we were ready to go. (Our bikes were already on the car.) Off we headed, into the city.

We parked below Millennium Park and walked our bikes toward the lake. The world was dark and quiet; every awake human was also toting a bike. Triathletes are a different breed.

When we arrived at the transition area, one thing was clear: the rain had taken its toll. MUD. Everywhere. This wasn't going to be neat. Linda and I checked into transition (hers for the Olympic distance, mine for the sprint), got our stuff set up, and met back by the portalets. Because you always have to know where the bathroom is.

And before you really had a chance to think about it, it was time for Linda to grab all her stuff and head to the start line. It was 5:45 a.m., and race day waits for no one.

As we walked along the lake shore, one thing became obvious: the water was not calm.
Lake Michigan is not your friend.
Now, I'll be honest here. I wasn't entirely convinced I needed to do a tri today. My head was still pounding, and clearly the swim was not going to be easy. I walked to St. Arbucks to see if a little caffeine might help.

As I made my way back to the lake, the thought that occurred to me was, "Doing the tri probably isn't going to make you feel worse. But not trying will definitely make you feel worse." So I headed to transition, grabbed my wetsuit and other swim stuff (with only a few minutes left to spare) and made my way toward the start line.

Soon, it was my turn to jump in. When it was my wave's turn, the water felt great. I made the right decision to do the race. And then ... we started swimming.

SWEET JESUS, the water was awful. Choppy, wavy and full of seaweed. I'd get a face (literally) full of it, over and over. It clung to my arms and my feet and my everything. It was awful. I kept moving, hoping it would stop, and eventually - about a half mile later, when I got out of the water - I was free of it. 

That sucked. It took me 28:25 to finish. It shouldn't take me more than 20 minutes; certainly not more than 24. But there you have it; almost a damn half hour! Yikes.

In racing, there are four different levels to the Emergency Alert System - Green (good conditions), Yellow (conditions could take a turn), Red (it's looking like not a good day to race) and Black (we're shutting this sucker down). When I got into the water, it was green. As I got on the bike, I was told they had moved it to red; I was to proceed with caution. I briefly contemplated ending my race there.

And then I got on the bike. 

May I say, holy shit Lake Shore Drive is hilly! I had no idea there was that much elevation on LSD, but my legs sure felt it. The wind didn't help. It was a shitty, shitty 15 miles. I finished at a speed of 12.7 mph, contrasted with a usual 13.5 to 14.3 mph on other sprint courses. It took me over an hour and 10 minutes. And I still had to run.

Usually, by the time I get off the bike, my clothes have started to dry. Not on Sunday; nope, it was so humid, there was zero chance of anything being dry and comfortable. We were at 90-something-percent humidity, and it was time to begin running through a cloud. Supremely gross, and about to get grosser.

A 5K on the lakefront should be a glorious thing. Instead, it reduced me to a soggy bucket of flopsweat and lake water. But the only thing standing between me and a medal was 3.1 miles, so off I ran. It seemed to take forever.

It kinda did take forever. I would not be deterred. And finally, I crossed the finish line and got to put this beauty around my neck.
Medalicious.
This was one of those races. Since the moment I crossed the finish line, I've had mixed feelings. I'm proud that I finished. I'm even more proud that I started. And honestly, I wanted to quit about a dozen times during the race. I almost turned around early on the run, cheating and cutting my 5K short. No one would've know. Except me.

And I'm the only person I'm competing against, anyway. It's me against me out there. And while I'm not happy with my results, I'm happy with my refusal to give up.

There will come a day when I'm unable to do these things.

Today is not that day.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

My inner badass

I started this year saying I wanted to complete three triathlons this summer.

On Sunday, I will complete my third official sprint tri, although it will actually be the fourth time I've participated in an organized sprint swim-bike-run event. (One was a training event and not timed, but we had numbers and a transition area and everything!)

In 2012, when I did my first tri, I just wanted to finish and not die. I remember being scared to death, and I remember it taking for-freaking-ever to finish. I had a hand-me-down bike and I'd just learned to swim and hell ... I didn't even know how to be smart in transition.

That first year, I took two hours and 38 minutes to finish the "race." Last year, I shaved almost 20  minutes off my time, bringing it down to 2:18:27. This year, I accomplished the impossible by taking another 10 minutes off, coming in at 2:07:17.

A few weeks ago, I did another sprint. This one had a little bit shorter bike portion, so my time of 2:01:12 is as much an indication of a shorter course as it is a better time, but it's still a sprint, and it's still less time, so I'll take it.

And what all that means is, I'm chasing the two-hour mark. It's gonna be tough-to-impossible, though, because we're lookin' at a 15.25 mile bike, as opposed to 13.3 for the Esprit de She (June), and 12 for the Iron Girl (July). However, I wouldn't bet against me.

So that's the big goal: finish under two hours. It's a stretch, I know, and honestly ... this is my first time doing the Chicago tri. It's a lofty goal for something unknown. But I have another, more important goal in mind.

The truth is, I want to get out there and enjoy the process. I want to spend 20-something minutes swimming in Lake Michigan, in water that's a good three to 12 feet over my head. I want to peel off my wetsuit and climb on my bike, taking myself along the lakefront and allowing myself to be awestruck by my city. And yeah ... I want to go for a three-mile run in the hot, sticky sun at 11 a.m.

I want to tap into my inner badass and let her out to play.

Monday, July 28, 2014

You can do hard things!

Summer is an incredible time to be an athlete. You get to do things just for fun, even while trying to fit in the stuff that must be done. If you're lucky, those two things intersect. For me, tri training means I get to swim, bike and run ... and call it a workout. We swim all year long, but in the summer, we get to find a lap lane outside. We abandon the spin bike for the bike trail, and the treadmill for the great outdoors. It's delicious and perfect and quite wonderful.

But sometimes, it's just seriously hard. So hard you want to give up. Sometimes it's ridiculous. So ridiculous, you have no idea why you started in the first place, and the only thing that makes sense is packing up your shit and going home.

63rd Street Beach, as the sun rises. It looked so innocent.
That pretty much describes the events of last Saturday, when Linda and I headed into the city - to 63rd Street Beach, to be exact - for a tri training event. Several hundred triathletes would do a practice tri, swimming in Lake Michigan, biking along the lakefront path, and running through the nearby park.

As soon as we racked our bikes, it started to rain. I practically begged Linda to call it quits and go home. She would not relent, and our friends Vidya, Gina and Betsy were pushing through, too. There was no turning back; it was go time.
Me, half-in my wetsuit.
 We got into our wetsuits and headed to the water. I have never felt more like a whale than I do when I'm in a wetsuit. I seriously look ridiculous. Every lump - and I have many - is enhanced by neoprene. But it might just save me in the open water, so I was happy to have it. In addition to keeping you a little warm in the water, a wetsuit allows you to stay afloat, lending a little buoyancy (a real plus when you're talking about a big, unpredictable body of water). We stepped into the water to see what it was like.

And instantly questioned our sanity.

Sixty-four degrees. That's it. That's what we got.

The water was 68 degrees for the Esprit de She back in early June, and it was fine; those four degrees make a huge difference. It was awful, and we hadn't even really begun.

We lined up, and it was time to go. As I approached the water line, I hated myself and everything I stand for. I hated you, I hated puppies, I hated that guy with the biceps. Seriously, I hated pretty much all the things. But still, Linda and I entered the water together and started to run into the deep. Our feet were numb. Once submerged - once my face was in the water and I started "swimming" - I immediately lost my breath. It was so cold it actually took my breath away.

It wasn't so deep that I couldn't touch the bottom, so I stopped to catch my breath. I stopped to walk/run/gasp for air. I did what I could and I kept moving. It was a triangular course, and to get to a half mile, you had to loop it twice. By the time I was half done with my first loop, I'd decided I was only doing one. I mean, it was awful. As I approached the beach again, a woman named Dominique challenged me to finish both loops.

I never say no to a challenge.

Out I went again, this time swimming more than running through the ice-cold frigidity. Count your strokes. Get to 30. Determine whether or not you can feel your extremities. Keep going.

As I approached finishing that second loop, I kept repeating the same mantra to myself. With every stroke, it went like this:

You
Can
Do
The
Hard
Things

And I made it. Turns out, that last loop wasn't awful. (To be truthful, though, it remains one of the toughest challenges I've faced.)

Out of the water, thank GOD, I ran/stumbled toward the bike, stripped off my wetsuit (which I'm pretty sure would be hysterical on video) and dripped all over hell, trying to dry off and put on socks and shoes and glasses and a helmet. Shit. Transition is not my forte. Finally, grabbed the bike and headed for the trail.

Here, I found heaven.

It was a gorgeous day, and I was that girl. I was that girl who rides her bike in Chicago around the lake! I was that girl who wished people "good morning" as she passed. (I was also that girl who passed other cyclists, because her legs are friggin' strong, but that's another story for another time.) I felt like I was receiving a gift; being able to be out there, biking (hell, after the swim, being able to feel my feet was like a gift) on a day like this was just incredible.

The bike course was two loops. Again, I could've stopped after one; we weren't being timed, this was just for practice, but I wanted the full experience. I pressed on.

Eventually, I finished the bike and racked it back in transition; time to run. By now, it was hot. I was well in the back of the pack at this point, because let's face it - I'm not what you would consider fast or even not very slow in any of the triathlon disciplines. I am, however, determined, so I pressed on. Past the one mile mark. Nearing the two-mile mark. I was almost home, as the course was 2.5 miles.

Finally I saw my friend Betsy up ahead, cheering me on. Because she is out of her mind, she ran back to get me, because no one finishes alone. (At least, not on her watch.) A true superstar, Betsy ran at my snail's pace the entire time, reminding me to breathe, encouraging me. She was amazing. My heart kept beating, and I kept running. I had to stop momentarily to get my feet back under me and reassure myself that my lungs still functioned, and then I was off again, Betsy by my side. Soon, Linda and Vidya appeared in the distance, waiting to cheer me on.

As we neared the finish line, Betsy encouraged me to find what power I had left and use it up. I dug as deep as I could, and shaved maybe a few seconds off my run to the finish line. It was hard. It was hot. But I was done.

I did what I came to do, but I received so much more. The notion that the fastest among us allows no one else to finish alone is really incredible. Having someone come back for me, and people waiting for me at the end, is one of the greatest joys of racing. It means the world to know that someone cares enough to be there. To show up, to wait, and to tell you "good job."

We can do hard things.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

She's got legs

For the past few years, I've worn the hell out of this one pair of shorts. They fall to the knee, and they're green. Almost threadbare, they were hand-me-downs from an awesome friend. I love those shorts.

They're on their way out, because they're old and will probably bust through the butt the next time I wash them. Which put me in a bit of a predicament, because it's summer and up until a month ago, they were the only shorts I owned.
Me and my sister Kath, at The Bean in Chicago, last summer.
On a hot weekend in June, I found myself in Wisconsin. I had not packed the shorts. Because I was visiting friends and I always know the proximity of the nearest Target, we went off to see what they might have to remedy my fashion emergency. I found a brown pair of Bermudas in my size, and a pair of similar style in orange - a color I'm having a bit of a fling with these days. But these were shorts. Not to-the-knee jobbers, but actual shorts.

I tried them on.

They fit.

And I liked them. Also, they were half price. For $8, yeah, I brought them home. Nervously, I got dressed; I wasn't sure I had the chutzpah to wear them. But then it got me thinking: what the hell is wrong with me?

The shorts looked cute. They made my legs look long. (Spoiler alert: my legs are long.) Sure, these are the shortest shorts I've owned since before college,but I love them. I do not think they look bad. In fact, if I'm honest, I like the way they look.

My legs are not perfect. They are not toned or muscular, at least not to the naked eye. The jiggle when I walk. They are dimply. But they are strong, tan and most importantly, they are mine.

The world doesn't expect us to be perfect. At least, I don't think it does. (And if it does, yipes, it's in for a rude awakening!) But while we admit our flaws, why can't we also accept the good stuff? For instance, I acknowledge that my legs are dimply. But my legs are also strong. Really, really strong. So why not both? Why not long and jiggly? Muscular and cellulitey? Why not one from column A, and one from column B, for a result that's simply awesome?

Since the weekend of the Orange Shorts, I've bought another pair. Beat-up denim boyfriend shorts; they're adorable. I wear 'em all the time, because I'm on a one-woman crusade to remind women that it isn't about perfection. It's about being comfortable in your own skin.

And if I have to rock a pair of shorts to make my point, so be it.
Me, in the orange shorts.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Results

It's been a week since I started flying several feet off the ground over my Esprit de She triathlon results. I am showing no signs of returning to earth. It was, to put it simply, an enriching, rewarding and damn right awesome experience.

I trained hard. Honestly, I worked my tail off to prove myself. I have high expectations, and even higher goals. Most of the time, I have no intention of actually reaching them, which made it even more special when I did it.

I make it a point to set goals that stretch me. Most of the time, a little too far, but that's the point, isn't it? So this year, I talked to a few of my friends about my training and what I hoped for at the finish line, and when I took everything into account, I mentioned that I thought I could possibly take 10 minutes off my time from the previous year.

Now, let's be clear here: that was a realistic goal only if all the stars aligned and everything went my way. The chances of that happening were somewhere between slim and non-existent. And yet, somehow ... well, I'll just let the statistics tell the story.

Here is how things have stacked up over my three years participating in this event:
 
2012
2013
2014
Swim
23:27
23:12
19:06
T1
10:53
7:55
5:27
Bike
1:12:00
1:01:12
59:33
T2
5:26
3:43
2:25
Run
46:16
42:26
40:48
Total
2:38:00
2:18:27
2:07:17

We're timed on five things: how long it takes us to complete the swim, transition from the water to the bike course, complete the bike portion, transition from the bike course to the run course, and then, finally, finish the run. All of that added together gives you the total.

So, between 2012 and 2013 I took almost 20 minutes (19:30, to be exact) off my time. A lot of that work was done in transitions, but I did better in literally every discipline. Fast forward to 2014, and you see some realy work happening. More than four minutes faster in the water, more than three minutes total faster in transition, and real gains on the bike and run, too. (Plus, take note: there was a headwind in both directions on the bike!) I finished 11:10 faster this year than last, and a full half hour and change faster this year than two years ago. That's a lot of improvement in two year's time.
The moral of the story, if there is one, is that sometimes you can stretch far enough to reach a goal that seems impossible. Sometimes you can give yourself things that seem ludicrous but turn out to be so very worth it. Sometimes you owe it to yourself to believe you can.

And then, sometimes, you just do it.