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.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

It's so totally not linear

Last week, I didn't weigh in. I usually weigh in on Saturday mornings, and I was in Champaign on April 26, so it just didn't happen. Which meant last Saturday, May 3, was the first time I'd gotten on the "scale of record" in two weeks.

And I gained almost two pounds. Eight sticks of butter. And it bothered only the tiniest bit.

Over the two weeks between weigh-ins, I've been through a lot. Most notably, putting my cat (oh how I miss you, Benld) to sleep and interviewing for (and subsequently getting) a new job. That's a lot of emotional upheaval and expended energy. It took lattes and cheese, rest and yoga, to work through it. And I am feeling pretty good despite all the crazy, so I will take a one-point-eight-pound weight gain, thankyouverymuch, because how I feel is way more important than the scale.

Here's what I know for sure: Fitness, health, weight, the whole nine? It isn't linear. There are times when you're on the perfect path and things fall into place. Training is on target, nutrition is in your wheelhouse, and the number on the scale trends in the proper direction. But sometimes, you need to celebrate. Sometimes, this requires macaroni and cheese. Sometimes, you need to grieve. This almost always calls for a venti mocha, with whip. Sometimes you just need to suspend the rules, just for a little while.

Sometimes you fall off the wagon, just a little bit. And all the time, that's okay. Because the path to discovering your best self isn't a straight line. There are peaks and valleys; there are times when it is so damn hard it hurts. There are times when it falls into place effortlessly. There are times when you veer off the path entirely (hello, gelato) and times when you almost right yourself, only to discover a pint of Guinness where your resolve used to be.

And it's all okay. I could not be more serious here; it is okay. This is real life. Real life is full of screw-ups, but it's also full of opportunities to right the ship once again. You don't have to wait for Monday; 2:37 p.m. on a Thursday works just as well. The truth is, I'm not militant about it. I just do the best I can, each day. Sometimes my best is better than others. It's taken me a long time to get to this place - a place where a small uptick in weight isn't met with the sort of self-loathing that drives me straight to my two favorite fellas, Ben and Jerry. In the past, a downward spiral that would rival any and all cautionary tales would commence. But I'm in this for the long haul, so I work hard not to let that kinda stuff happen anymore.

It's important to remember, too, that the number on my scale is nothing more than the measurement of my body's relationship to gravity. It does not define me or determine my worth. It's a good touchstone, but really no better than how my skinny jeans fit (really well, thanks; in fact, I'm not far from needing to trade for a smaller size) or how good my skin looks (glowing; hydration is so good for my skin!) or how much energy I have (I can jump! I can run! I kick ass!). Weight isn't really the endgame, folks. If I put on a little bit, it's not the end of the world. It's not even in my top 10 worst things that happened last week.

So this week, I have a road map for where I want to go. It includes some solid training, wise nutrition, and good rest. Balance, my friends. Acceptance of where we are, and acknowledgement of where we're going ... with a side dish of knowing that imperfection is pretty much perfect.

Friday, April 25, 2014

The mirror lies

So I'm at the gym the other night, doing a little run on the treadmill before weight training. A woman got on the treadmill directly in front of me, and I instantly felt inferior. As I ran, I couldn't stop the thoughts from tumbling through my head.

She was, as luck would have it, put together from the best parts possible. Long, lean legs. Taut torso. Arms that defied the jiggle in the tricep that most women I know are prone to. She was beautiful and athletic, and man was it hard not to compare myself to her.

I found myself wondering ... What is it like to be her? How must it feel to wear those shorts and know you're not jiggling? 

It wasn't in that beating-myself-up way that I usually approach this particular inferiority complex; it was more just honest awe that there are bodies that look like that, behave like that, run like that. Envy, thy name is Maggie.

On I ran, because I can, and I did feel grateful that in my state of something less than perfect, I am perfectly capable of working out hard. By the end of the night - after pounding out two miles and then lifting some seriously heavy barbells - I was a gloriously sweaty mess. Time to hit the locker room for a hot shower and maybe a foot scrub.

I was sharing locker room space with a several other women. Three of them had obviously worked out together. They were chattering away about their love of a particular class. One lone woman seemed uncomfortable with the whole thing, so I struck up a conversation with her. "Glad the tough part's over," I said. "Now we just get to clean up and eat dinner!" And that's when she kinda made my heart stop "How would you know the tough part?" she said. "People like you have no idea how hard it is for people like me."

If she only knew. If she only knew how I sat in the car and wept on my first day at the gym. If she only knew how hard I am still fighting to gain the healthy life I deserve. If she only knew how much I wish I had the body or the confidence to rock a pair of running shorts.

If she only knew.

Everyone, no matter how fit they appear, goes through this stuff. I believe that. I know this because when I look back at photographs of the times when I was at my physical best, I had no idea. I still craved less jiggle, more strength. So I can only conclude that the struggle is universal, and that we are all truly beautiful. We just lack the insight to see it ourselves.

So to you, dear reader, I have to tell you ... you're gorgeous. What you see in the mirror is only a fraction of a fraction of the story. You are gorgeous and lovely and strong. Your muscle may hide, but it's there, waiting for you to notice. It may be there for the world to see, pulling you through your day in a way that inspires the rest of us to do the same. Your heart, the beating soul of your body, begs to quicken its beat. Begs you to dance, to climb, to become. Man or woman, you are beautifully made, created to understand the wonder within you. You are amazing.

The mirror doesn't tell the whole truth, love. You in motion are a site to behold.