Learning to Suffer: part one
CrossFit benefit # 2347: the infinite meaning of “athlete.”
In high school and college, the cult of cross-country took to track season with an unbecoming skepticism. As if hamstering around in circles from January to June were not enough punishment, we were occasionally made to give wide berth to a menagerie of sprinters, jumpers, and throwers, all of whom we disrespected with lip-curling conviction. I should emphasize the word “occasionally” - there were a litany of conditions under which this crew would be excused from their very short practices, including 1) temperatures below 45 degrees, 2) rain, 3) coach forgot to make up a workout, 4) weeds in the long-jump pit, 5) coach left throwing implements at last meet, 6) lunar eclipse, 7) free ice cream on the quad, etc.
We ran every day, mostly hard, as immature runners are wont to do, and mostly naked, even in the snow, when the sprinters and throwers were fogging up the weight room and drinking Mountain Dew. And since we practiced longer and more often, and since our sessions did not include fifteen minute periods of sprawling listlessly in our sweatsuits across the second lane, we felt pretty justified taking big gulps of haterade and shit-talking our sunny-day teammates.
I don’t confess to have come from a world-class track program, so it’s somewhat likely that these particular sprinters and field athletes were in fact a little slack… but it took CrossFit for me to figure out, four years later, that the “dinky” workouts in which they were engaged were actually, performed at the proper intensity, ass-kicking and event-appropriate. We didn’t quite understand the importance of quality or recovery, but mostly, we didn’t understand athletes who were not like us.
At CrossFit, I train every day with athletes who are not like me. I train with athletes who are closer to lifting my car than running a 5k without walking, athletes who started exercising only a few months ago, athletes who can string together more consecutive double-unders than I’ve halting done in my life, athletes recovering from injury, athletes cheating injury, athletes getting ready to serve our country, athletes getting ready for their ten-year reunion.
We may have different goals, but we are all athletes. We are bound by our common suffering. And so, as I look around the gym, one of the things I have begun to notice are the athletes who are just learning to suffer. The face tells the story of their conquest - wet eyes, fixed jaw, neck outstretched. They are learning the lesson that all athletes must learn, that, in t-shirt slogan terms, “When the body says ‘no,’ the mind says ‘go!’” They are learning the difference between the body’s wolf-cries and real distress. It is an art that will take years to refine, but there are certain mental exercises that expedite process. And it’s an important one - given the same level of physical fitness, the difference between a competent and an outstanding athlete is only a matter of willingness to suffer.
In our next episode, we’ll hop on the pain train and take a look at some strategies for becoming mentally tougher.
CFC in brief
Since I never updated, I will spare you the narrative version. In brief, I did much better than I expected. I surpassed my goal of making it past the first WOD, posted the fastest 1250 row of the day, and narrowly missed making it to the finals (I was in a three-way tie for 16th - top 15 moved on). My front squat was a miserable 3RM of 112.5# (a PR at the time, to which I have added 10+ in the intervening weeks), and I didn’t manage to squeeze out a single chest-to-bar pull-up post-row (since then, I have managed three, but on fresh arms).
Although I am proud of the state of my general fitness - a state I have clawed for, tooth and nail - I have no self-delusions. Had the first WOD been push-ups and double-unders, the results would tell a different story.
The fitness I have chosen for myself has definite boundaries. It would be impossible to achieve the kind of anaerobic endurance necessary to stay competitive in triathlon and maintain a high level of absolute strength, as the results page of the CFC can attest - of the top three women rowers, myself among them, there were no chest-to-bar pull-ups recorded. This is not, as I used to believe, a result of physical deficiency or impossibility, but of a conscious decision to train other modalities of fitness. Of course, our natural strengths as athletes inform these decisions, and mine are pretty obviously in the endurance domain. If, however, I (or anyone else) wanted so badly to squat 200# or butterfly kip, the price is not only hard work, but the right work. Since it is difficult to ask our bodies to adapt neuromuscularly to more than one thing at a time, the price is endurance training. To achieve beyond a certain level of competency, it is clearly one or the other. I was happy to be able to leverage my endurance specialty so far at the CFC, but I think I prefer CrossFit: the training to CrossFit: the sport. Results here.
Update, TMS/IOS Team, Prelude to CFC
…and another month, quick as anything else. Those things that pass the quickest do so unobserved. (Any amateurish time-lapse footage proves the gradual nature of change. “But it was summer just last week” has little resonance with figure or film.) This is of particular concern to me. Vision and observation are two fairly different acts – I am afraid I have lost my knack for the latter. In any case, I have little to show for it lately. Failure to reflect. Did I see winter coming? Of course. But I didn’t hear it growling like a Massey-Ferguson, toppling full-headed days like dead stalks of wheat.
But a funny thing happened on the way to December.
I am pleased to announce that I will be racing with the Triangle Multisport / Inside-Out Sports Triathlon Team for the 2011 season!
During the first week of November, I also found out I was a finalist for the Trakkers Team. Since I could only race on one team, this left me with an interesting decision to make. I was heartsick. When I applied for Team Trakkers, I did so expecting never to hear from them again. Instead, I heard back from them several times, “them” being none other than Carole Sharpless, sweethearted badass that she is. It was not an easy decision, but I have to feel some gratitude towards the universe for such a gift of a conundrum.
It came down to geography. At this point in my development as an athlete, I feel like having the support of the local community and like-minded athletes to share in the struggle is more important than great gear and a diaspora of teammates, no matter how enthusiastic. After our first team meeting last week, I know I have made the right decision. The team is chock-full of some of the best triathletes in the region. I was staring at most of their backsides all of 2011, and counted myself lucky when I didn’t have to squint to read the numbers on their calves! I am looking forward to training with this bunch and waving at my southbound times. In the words of that great fellow masochist Iggy Pop, “Hooray Success!”
I interrupt this broadcast to bring you an injury update. Just kidding. There is no update. There is no progress. I tried running again after Thanksgiving in 10-minute increments, and the injuries are still plain. Simple application of pre-wrap to my IT band alleviates my knee trouble, but my right foot is continually re-irritated by poor choices in footwear (anything but running shoes) and movements involving sudden flexion of the foot and/or absorption of impact (dynamic lifts, stairclimbing). I am at my wit’s end. Not very keen on going back to the orthpaedic circus ($50 co-pay to schedule an MRI, god-knows-what for the MRI, $50 co-pay to have the MRI read and being told to keep off my foot for another eight weeks regardless of the result; potentially being bullied into unnecessary surgical procedures), and currently soliciting alternative solutions. The laser-therapy I got before the Triple-T seemed to help a little, but the progress could be incidental. That the therapy also included a topical anti-inflammatory may be more to the point. Hoping to get a good massage over the upcoming holiday from work – maybe loosen up all of the junk that may be holding that tendon hostage.
On the CrossFit front, I have been in the gym 3-4 times a week on average. I always want to do more, but my swim / bike routine swallows more than its share of my time. Being an unholy hybrid CrossFitter / Triathlete, I find myself blindfolded at the wheel during 5 o’clock traffic. I have two places to be by 6. After the first 5 minutes of panic, I realize I’ve got to slow down if I want to get anywhere at all.
I signed up to compete in the Carolina Fitness Challenge bailed just before Thanksgiving. The thought of having to compete in a surprise WOD with the potential to reinjure my foot was too much to think about at the time, and the training was beginning to be stressful. I was putting a lot of pressure on myself to get stronger, when what I really needed to do was take some real recovery time after the long triathlon season. Of course I wanted to compete, but I told myself that the timing was all wrong.
Then the WODs were announced, and they were beautiful. WOD #1: AMRAP in 12 minutes of 12 burpees, 12kb snatches (35#), 100m farmer’s walk (2x 35# kb). WOD #2: 3rm front squat. After this cute little set, a cut. Then: 1250m row. Then: in the 3 minutes immediately following, AMRAP chest-to-bar pull-ups. After this, a cut. Then: super-secret final WOD.
I wanted to hold my breath and pass out. Damn! Why couldn’t I have just dropped out after the WODs were announced? Watching Phil compete was going to be tough with the knowledge that I could have full-well been out there with slim-to-no chance of re-injury. And then at work on Thursday, a Facebook miracle: Carolina Fitness Challenge posted a status update that two spots had opened up on the women’s side! Thank goodness for proofreading breaks! I panic-dialed Phil at work, but he was out touring a wastewater treatment facility - the glamorous life of an EPA contractor. I had to no choice but to unleash my crazy on Dave at CrossFit Durham. He was the lucky recipient of a lovely stream-of-consciousness e-mail that went something like: i-kind-of-want-to-do-this-but-my-front-squat-is-going-to-be-awful-like-not-just-regular-awfuly-like-really-really-bad-and-its-only-really-worth-it-to-me-if-i-can-make-it-to-the-rowing-so-do-you-think-i-will-make-it-to-the-rowing-even-though-i-am-a-horrible-horrible-lifterrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr??????????????-p.s-what-is-the-future-of-this-liiiiiiiife?????????????????
Poor Dave. I am sure he had enough to deal with getting ready for the challenge without me foisting my insecurity on him. But the numbers said I had half a chance to make it the second round – only fifteen women would be cut from the initial fifty – so I set out again to answer my favorite question. When the time comes to give than extra percent, will I or won’t I?
Saturday gets its own post. Let’s hope this report comes a little quicker than the last few! With a short workweek ahead, the odds are in our favor.
Oh. Also, the bike frame I won at the Triple-T came in the mail. Friends, it is baller-status. I am going to have to tie it down to keep it from flying.
Oh, there is no off-season!
Four weeks have passed since the Triple-T, and between coaching cross-country, my new full-time gig, and gym-time, I haven’t had a whole lot of time to sit down and reflect on the finished season. I am still reeling with surprise at having exceeded my goals in such lousy condition… but I’m moving forward with new dreams for next year – gutsier goals – a plan I wouldn’t have dared to dream this time last year. I am so happy I decided to toe the line that day… and then again the next, and again, and again. I want to give the experience decent treatment – reluctant to just dash off my stats and call it a day. The race report will come, but it will be another day or two (again) until I have space to do ‘er up right.
In the intervening weeks, life has slid belly-ways along. I spent seven days post-race in a state of utter sloth before it was time to work up a sweat again. A month later, my workout schedule has somewhat normalized – swim or gym in the morning, CrossFit and/or cycling after work. I’m trying to find a balance between taking time off and training hard again too soon. For practical reasons, my swim/bike workouts will probably remain in a holding pattern through the holiday. I’ve been focusing more on lifting weights and CrossFit metcons. Plans are also in the works for a swim focus in January/February. I’m looking to put in some major pool time so I can spend less time wet on race day!
Running isn’t happening yet. My body has some deep hurt, and I’m a little scared at how much I might have to back off to let it heal. Along with the hamstring and knee/ITB problems that surfaced during the Triple-T, the sesamoiditis in my right foot is still shivering in its corner. The problems grow fainter, but I’m waiting until Thanksgiving to give it another go. Better to take time off now than in the spring.
Aside from these nagging concerns, the body feels good. I am reclaiming the strength I built last winter before racing season made those gains impossible. Last week, I hit a new clean and jerk PR at 98# (a three pound improvement, but I’ll take it). Yesterday, I PRed my clean by 15# - 110# with plenty left in the tank. This is good news, considering my upcoming participation in the Carolina Fitness Challenge, where I will likely be out-lifted and out-metconned by women half my size. The competition is December 11 – a date I had hoped to mark on my calendar as “Club XC Nationals.” Better to work on those weaknesses, but this is schedule-change in the extreme! I am honestly quite frightened about what the day will hold. I am not frightened of the pain, but of somehow embarrassing myself. It is difficult to know that I am not going to shine here, even if I have a great day. I am somewhere just shy of competent in the CrossFit world, with barriers to overcome in both strength and skill. This does not usually upset me, endurance junkie that I am, but I also do not usually put myself out in the arena of competition. I know the experience will be positive, but there is some anxiety in my preparation. There is only so much I can do to get ready in six weeks (and hold on to my multisport fitness, to boot), and I have to calm myself down over ripped calluses and the discovery that five quick push-ups is some kind of maximum effort (long limbs be damned). I am truly not naturally disposed to this sort of athletics, but trying to succeed in spite of it all has reaped insane rewards. I owe so much of my success this past year to CrossFit, not only for building my body, but tempering my mind – for giving me the reckless confidence that comes when fear of failure is suddenly irrelevant. Phil and I just celebrated our one-year anniversary of training at CrossFit Durham. 3, 2, 1, GO!
A few experiences and discoveries from the past four weeks are worth noting. Here, dear reader, you may note them:
· REV3 Triathlon is coming to Anderson, SC next fall! I have been dying to see what all of the fuss is about. This just might be my shot! With Phil’s parents a mere stretch of the legs away in Greenville, it seems like a grand idea.
· My middle-schoolers wrapped up cross-country season with their inaugural conference meet! My best boy and girl took the top spots in their respective races. The boy ran undefeated all season. I am a very proud coach. Beyond the middle school glory, I hope they decide to stick with their sport. What a way to live life.
· Spin with a Pro at Inside-Out Sports is an inspired concept. Went this Tuesday and had a blast sweating out 12x2:1 intervals. Can’t wait to go again, but have noticed that my ill-fitting bike may
be aggravating have definitely caused the injuries to my hamstring and knee. (I’ve got a permanent date with a foam roller.) Also noticed the insane-o poster of me on the store wall, which we all had the privilege of staring at for an hour and a half – that and Ivan Basso’s sweaty mug from the ‘07 Tour de Rance. (A more inappropriate juxtaposition I have never seen!) I was laughing to myself the whole time knowing that no one else in the room could tell that the picture was of me. Or at least I hope not. (Backstory: I submitted to IOSDT a picture of myself at my first tri of the season doing my superstitious flex pose. They told me they were going to put it in the booth at the Tobacco Road Marathon Expo. When I got to the expo to volunteer, I saw they were not kidding. The photograph had been blown up into a poster and mounted on foam-core for all to see. It now apparently lives in the nutrition section of IOS. Oh, the irony! But what was initially embarrassment has now turned to perverse delight. I really just can’t believe how ridiculous it is.) I’ll post the picture here, so you can share in my amusement:
And while I’m at it, why not some more pictures?
Additional comic relief: Here is Phil’s arts-n-crafts quick-fix to the aerobar pad that flew off my steel stallion on day one of the Triple-T.
On that note, I’m very excited about the frame set that should be arriving sometime before Christmas! Pending some maybe-good-news-maybe-not-let’s-not-get-our-hopes-up, I might end up selling the frame and putting the money towards another… either way, I’m set up for much better riding in 2011! Here is the Blue T14 frameset that the Triple-T folks have headed my way:
Quite the upgrade. For reference, here is a picture of me tottering on top of my bike like a child. The woman in the background is a life-champion. Thank you, citizens of Washington, NC!
And I will leave you all with a picture of the Ultimate Sherpa and I this Halloween. He went as a windshield washer. I went as a doping cyclist. Aren’t we too old for this???
Are you getting sleepy waiting on the world’s most overdue race report? These two best friends sure are! Roll over and enjoy a little off-season snooze. I’ll be a day or two more on the next installment. Forthcoming - Triple-T Part Three: Wherein We Do a Little Racin’. (photo credit, as usual, goes to Phil)
Triple-T Part Two: Call and Response
I’m on my way to Canaan’s land
I’m on my way to Canaan’s land
I’m on my way to Canaan’s land
I’m on the way (praise the Lord) I’m on my way
If you don’t go won’t hinder me
If you don’t go won’t hinder me
If you don’t go won’t hinder me
I’m on the way (yes my Lord) I’m on my way
- Flatt and Scruggs
After looking forward to running in the Blue Ridge Relay since spring, cancelling felt like a defeat – or worse, a surrender. And while it was one thing to come to the decision myself, it was quite another to break the news to my teammates, who, being decent human beings, shared with me their condolences and common sense. Their obligatory kindness did little to alleviate my grief. With no swelling, bruising, bones protruding, I had nothing to show for myself. The injury was a ghost. No limp, no crutches, no doctor’s note. And I had the stupid notion that everyone thought I was a liar – that I was making up some mystery ailment to get out of the hard work ahead. This was almost certainly not the case, but the absence of physical symptoms had me doubting even my own assessment. Did it really hurt to run? Just running? I dreamed it away every night, waking to the terrible experiment of bare feet on hardwood. Every morning, that creak of pain. I raised on my toes, took a few short steps. Foot, are you hurtin’? Yes, Lord, yes. It went this way - call and response.
Since Phil had signed on to our team as an official volunteer, we decided to keep our date with the mountains. We drove up early Friday morning and worked a shift at the first exchange zone in Grayson Highlands before driving to Little Switzerland, where we had reserved a room in a motorcycle lodge just off the Blue Ridge Parkway. The plan was for me to get in a long bike ride on the parkway that evening and again in the morning, when we’d make our way to Asheville for the finish. Along the way we were supposed to meet some of my would-be teammates – friends from college – and Phil’s mother and step-dad, who had come up from South Carolina. It took some logistical sleight-of-hand, but we got it all in.
A note on my mental state going into this trip: Bad. Two weeks into working three jobs, busted foot on the end of my leg, training in slivers. Angst. When the car ride from Grayson Highlands to Little Switzerland took a turn for the long, I gave Phil a surprise-attack of bawling and low-grade meanness. Variety: the world is conspiring against my success / everyone is trying to take away what I’ve worked so hard all year for / if I can’t get a bike ride in right now I might as well throw in the towel. Phil was a good man to calm me down and remind me that we are team McBost. The rest of the world may indeed conspire, but not him. He was going to drive me into the mountains and set me loose. Check your peripheral vision, E – there’s a guy right beside you. He’s been there for years. Public thanks to you, Phil, for being there when I’m all shook up and spewing crazy. It is neither fair nor easy.
So we get to Little Switzerland and check into our hotel, where the other bikes are Harleys and Goldwings. The weather is cool and good. We put together my bike and check that it is in order. We coordinate. Phil’s phone is dead, but I have mine – somehow this seems adequate at the time. I will ride north on the parkway with Phil leapfrogging around me and pitstopping at the overlooks. No out-and-back – we’re touring. Phil will pick me up when I feel done and we’ll drive back to the room. There are about 2 ½ hours of daylight left, and I intend to use at least two. Hands-in, and team McBost heads out.
The next 3 hours are a sequence of surprises. I will retell them as such.
1. It is chilly. I’m in a sleeveless jersey, shooting down a dim green ridge. The sun is low, and it is the warmest it will be that evening.
2. The terrain here is extreme. I had been excited for climbing, but the first miles are a steep, winding descent. I ride my brakes hard and do not pedal. This is not exercise, but an exercise in fear.
3. Tunnel. Holy no. The tunnel is wet and unlit. There is a small yellow sign at the entrance with a picture of a bike, as if this is a sufficient reminder of the pedal-powered fools that may be swerving, terrified, in the dark. No cars, but I could have used the light.
4. First climb, and it’s no roller – it’s the side of a mountain. I grit down. This is why I’m here. I hit my shifter, and my bike responds with a series of strained clicks. No shift. I try again. Foreboding clank. This bike has never shifted as well as it should, but across the mild terrain of central North Carolina, I’ve found it acceptable. The bike refuses to shift into granny gear. I leave the shifters where they are and mash my way through about a mile of very steep climb. This is not ideal. Phil is waiting at the overlook. I stop.
5. Phil overturns my bike and commences to adjusting my cables. I will learn in a few minutes that this has made things worse.
6. The climb continues for a few miles. Phil has maneuvered my bike back into mid-gear, where it is now stuck. More mashing. Metallic grind. Then, my gears bottom out. Terrifying, but I’m finally able to muster a decent cadence. Then the hill crests, and I cannot shift out. Another long descent, and I’m a little out of control. Useless pedaling, brakes whining.
7. Meet Phil at the next overlook and we agree to proceed in spite of mechanical difficulties. I am convinced that the steepest parts are over and I’ll soon hit some long slow burners. Phil adjusts my brakes and I feel a little more confident. We’ve been out an hour. It is good to be alive in the woods.
8. I am getting used to the playing-card click of my bike as it ascends. More up and down. In mid-gear again and stuck. At such a low cadence, the climbs are too slow to be cardiovascularly taxing, but the legs pick up the slack. Mashing is really not my style. Mash, mash, mash. Making potatoes.
9. Another 45 minutes pass. The overlooks are farther apart, and I have not seen Phil. He is not waiting at the next, nor does his car whiz around me with his elbow out the side. I wonder if he has fallen asleep somewhere with his book.
10. Pass sign reading “Collisions likely next 5 miles.” Great.
11. Pass the Linville Falls picnic area, and the hills relent. Recognize where I am. Feel self-congratulatory. See a sign for Hwy 181 and Morganton, my hometown. Stop and give Phil a call. No answer, since he does not have his phone. Leave a message. Press on, try to push myself on the more modest terrain. Try not to worry about Phil.
12. The sun is really low. Cars begin to turn their lights on. It is really quite chilly in the bottomland and the darkening coves. There is no light on my bike, and I decide to turn around. Start sobbing. Really, where is Phil? Could he have passed me without my knowing? Hope he is not waiting ahead of me somewhere. Call again. No answer. Stop on the bridge over the Linville River. Check phone. See missed calls from 704 number. Call them. Twice. No answer.
13. Not knowing what to do, I call my mother-in-law. This is a better choice than my own mother, who does not like me riding my bike and would be especially traumatized to know I am alone on the parkway with the sun going down. Pattie is calm and kind. She finds the number for the local police and calls them for me. I get a call from Phil. Here is a transcription of our conversation:
Erin: (pathetically) Hello?
Phil: Where are you? Tell me quick.
Erin: (angrily) I am on the bridge over the Linville River.
Phil: Okay. I’m coming.
Erin: Wh -
This does not calm me down, but I am glad to know I will be rescued. Call Pattie, who graciously stays on the line to make jokes with me. It is now full dark, and I am damp and shivering. I complain that no cars stop to help me, then two cars stop to help me. Thanks, cars. I let them go since I will soon be rescued. Phil’s is the car driving fast.
The answer to the riddle is this: Phil was chronically overestimating the time it would take me to get from overlook to overlook. (The parkway speed limit is 45 mph, and it would have been difficult to drive that fast on the stretch we faced. If he was traveling 35 mph and I was traveling an average of 20 – say, 28-30 mph on the downhills and 12-13 back up – I would reach each checkpoint only a few minutes behind him.) I skipped an overlook since I did not see him there, and neither was he watching for me, early as he thought it must be. So we missed each other. Only Phil’s phone was dead. When he had sat there long enough, he started to worry about me, too. So he backtracked a little, expecting to find me in the ditch. The 704 number was from a lady whose phone he had used to try and call me. It was pretty asinine of her not to answer when I called her later. She could have at least told me she had spoken to my husband and that he was looking for me. Fellow travelers at the overpasses he checked claimed not have seen a woman on a bike. After failing to find me between the first overlooks, he drove as far down as the Linville Picnic area – about a mile from where I was waiting – before turning around. His frantic call cheated the bad reception and battery life of his phone.
Owing to the happy end, the evening was a comedy of errors. That, friends, was a hell of a ride.
The next day’s ride was less dramatic. I took off from the Folk Art Center in Asheville and climbed Mt. Pisgah, still stuck in my awful single-gear. Phil had his phone this time, and waited for me at a festival being held where I took off. Another pitch-perfect day – warmer, cloudless. We ditched our original plan for me to ride south on the parkway from our hotel to Asheville after noticing Mt. Mitchell was in the way. I wanted to avoid excessive climbing on my busted bike, but I’m not sure Pisgah was any better. Called Phil an hour into the ride and announced that I would not be doing an out-and-back – I had passed through three tunnels and did not intend to pass back through them again. Little did I realize there were four more tunnels immediately ahead! Held again to the foolish hope that the climb would level out, but up and up it went. This day’s ride was not punctuated with daredevil downhills. It was not punctuated by anything at all. It was the mother of all long, slow burners, teasing with a few hundred yards of flat before cruising back up again. Viaducts, tunnels, terror. I laughed to remember when I used to be afraid to ride Jordan Lake. And when I’d had enough, I called Phil from the nearest overlook, and he fetched me without a hitch.
I credit these two rides with all manner of miracles, some of which may even be true – increased lactate threshold, the ability to push a bigger gear for longer, more efficient cornering. But the real miracle, I think, was confidence. I remember riding up the mountain in the back of the family minivan, listening to the automatic transmission. We would inch around bicyclists hammering up Hwy 181, totally aghast. What suicide. But on our drive down Pisgah to Asheville, I couldn’t believe the ascent I had made, and in my one gear! Surely this was something akin to the feat I saw those cyclists perform as a child – something I could never imagine myself doing fifteen, ten, five, one year, one month ago. I felt like a real cyclist. I owned it.
This feeling quickly dissipated the following week, when I took my bike in for those sorely needed repairs. I don’t know jack about bike mechanics, and it’s written all over my face. No one who sees my bike takes me seriously, because no serious rider would touch that bike. Beyond the obvious limitations of its construction, it is janky, maladjusted, rust-mottled, residued with HEED and Hammer Gel. The guys at the bike shop speak to me slowly. This time, they tell me it would be at least a week before they can get to it, and I will have to leave it with them then. I can feel the blood pooling in my cheeks. I want to take the bike-boy by the collar and rattle him. I have a recurring dream where I am in a crowded room with an important message, and no one will listen to me. In these dreams, I begin to yell. I yell as loud as I can, flapping in peoples’ faces and escalating past the delivery of that “important message” to mouthfuls of distressing personal insults. This time I want to yell, “I am important!” Thankfully, Phil is there with me. His superior reasonability wins the day, and we politely thank bike-boy and leave with bike in tow. I am flustered and on the verge of tears. I take out my anxiety on Phil, who spends the rest of the evening researching other bike repair shops and fiddling with my shifting cables himself, to no avail. I need to get in one last long ride that weekend. Waiting around is not an option. I throw a pretty big tantrum and head to the pool.
But all is not lost! We hang out with my sis-in-law Catherine that night, whereupon I render the sad account of my fore-bemoaned moan, whereupon she saves my life by calling in an epic favor. Cath and her husbandfriend Ryan are friends with Jef, who happens to be king of the bike mechanics. Why had I not thought of this before??? He fixes my bike the next day. Just like that. I can’t believe how worked up and helpless I was twelve hours before. Out for a test spin, it is clear that the bike has been completely overhauled – not just the new shifting cables to replace the frayed ones, which it turns out were never properly installed, but a total tune-up. My brake pads aren’t wobbly, my chain is running smooth, and I’m shifting through gears I didn’t know I had. It feels like a different bike, and just in time for one more life-altering ride.
That Saturday, I showed up early at Inside-Out Sports in Cary for an event I’d learned of on Facebook. Pedal 4 Purpose offered a 35 or 65 mile route to benefit the Duke Cancer Center – 25 bucks for a fully-sagged ride with aid stations. Despite my fear of riding in a large group, this sounded much better than my habitual 2-4 solo loops around Jordan Lake, which were by now brain-numbingly tedious. As my rides grew in length, my ability to handle them logistically did not necessarily become better, and without enough water or gel, I often finished bonked-out and just north of heat-exhaustion. 25 bucks seemed like a fair price for those worries, and I figured I would drop back if the other riders scared me. I arrived at IOS expecting a crowd of maybe 75. About 25 folks eventually trickled in, half of which were riding the 35 mile route.
When the routes made their split about 8 miles in, I found myself the only female in a group of middle and college-aged men on Cervelos. F-word. I stayed to the rear of the paceline and kept quiet, lest I bust apart the pack with my second-grade bike skills or let fly some stupid comment about wearing a skirt or peeing sitting down. When someone eventually acknowledged me, he shared a story about how his brush with testicular cancer had kept him off the bike for a while. I felt a little like an interloper. The affair was definitely more intimate than I had bargained for, but most folks seemed more curious than bothered by their newfound lady tagalong. (At the first aid stop: “Hurry up girls, let’s ride.” I let the owner of that comment know how sorry I was for ruining the boy-party, and he took it with something less than good nature. Can’t win everyone’s heart.) And I suppose I am a little bit of an anomaly – a girl that can hang with a good bit of the boys, but the likes of whom they’ve never seen at the store before, who rides skittish, who is teetering atop a Shetland pony of a bicycle.
Everyone was friendly, if unsure how I had come to be there. They were better than friendly. They were helpful. I was super-impressed with myself for making it to the first aid station without being dropped. We were at a gas station on Hwy 64 by Jordan Lake – familiar territory – and I was happy to get some gel and water (I had been too scared reach for any fuel thus far) and see my friend Todd from IOSDT. As we regrouped to head out, one of the guys told me to hang on and I’d be okay. I did the whole false-modest “Oh, I don’t know…” stupid anachronistic female thing while secretly thinking, “well, YEAH. I’ve hung on this long, etc. etc. and y’all aren’t seriously all that baller.” Ha! Well. By the time we turned onto Big Woods, I knew exactly what he meant. Everyone had seriously turned it on. We were definitely riding faster than I had ever gone before, and we were only about halfway through the route. It’s not that I felt so much like I couldn’t sustain the effort (though I’m sure I couldn’t), but that the effort didn’t matter. They had cut a gap, and I was loose from the paceline. Without the benefit of drafting, I was falling back while they pulled each other further and further away. One of the kind young’uns of the group took pity and fell back with me. I looked at him and said, “I ain’t gonna let them drop me.” What ensued was his very gentle explanation of how close I was going to have to be to the other rider’s wheel in order for this not to occur.
A few minutes later I looked at the rest of our group on the horizon. Then I looked at my new pal. “If they’re going to drop me, you go ahead,” I told him, “I know where to go.” (This was not very close to being true, although I did have a wrinkled-up grayscale map in my saddlebag.) Instead, he told me to get on his back wheel and we would try to pull up to the group. And this is how we got all the way up Big Woods – him looking back every few minutes to tell me I was not close enough. Then the funniest thing happened – he would look back and just say, “good.” And I was doing it! I was riding inches from another rider going 23+ mph, and I wasn’t afraid anymore! Young’un, I totally forgot your name, but I owe you dearly for your patience. We eventually caught up with the group, where they were waiting at a stop sign, and kept pace with them until everyone went barn-crazy in the homestretch. At that point, I wasn’t the only one dropped – three other guys fell off, as well, and I was well ahead of them. I felt the drop coming on, too. Leave three feet of space between you and the next rider, and it’s over. I still have a good deal of skittishness to overcome, but this ride was a watershed, for sure. I rode hard all the way in, feeling great. It was by far the best I’d ever felt at the end of a long ride. Unclipping in the parking lot, in lieu of the transition run I would have done had I been healthy, I asked myself if I felt like I could run a half marathon right then – you know, if I absolutely had to. (FYI, not a great substitute for actual training…) Ever gonna get there? Yes, child, yes.
But for every affirmative moment, there were two or three like this:
1. Stepping on a rock while coaching XC and having to cut the kids’ practice short.
2. Pushing off of the wall wrong during a swim session and stopping mid-lane to rub the shooting pain out of my foot.
3. Being told that my work shoes were inappropriate, and that often the difference between a flip-flop and a dress sandal is “a little bit of heel.”
4. Limping around the office in “a little bit of heel.”
5. Icing my foot at my desk, only to have it stepped on by a co-worker.
6. Rowing to substitute for running in a WOD and feeling a dull ache for days afterward
In short, despite the preparations I was making, I still had no idea if I was going to be able to complete the race when the day came. And “complete” had definitely replaced “compete” as the operative verb. I was not very pleasant to be around most of the time, because it was all I could think about. I do not like to think that I am wasting my time, and it was still very likely that all of my work would a) be for naught, or worse, b) result in even further injury. Perseveration. Irritation. Call and response.
The Monday evening after that 65-mile ride, I found myself on the elliptical trainer at the YMCA reading Runner’s World. If that sounds like a regression, it was. I hate the elliptical as much as I hate the peppy headlines and airbrushed flimsies that hang out in the pages of Runner’s World. I can’t explain why I hopped on the trainer instead of working harder on my bike or swim, or why I picked up that magazine instead of the usual garbage. Maybe I was just nostalgic for a simpler time – a time when I was able to tell myself that 30 minutes on the elliptical was a good workout, and when I could say unflinchingly that the peanut-butter smoothies featured in the RW recipe section were health food. In any case, it’s what I did. And I found myself reading an article about a new treatment for plantar fasciitis using “cold” (low-level) lasers to loosen up the clinched tissue. The author of the article was skeptical until he started the therapy, after which he reported noticeable healing. This is a big deal, since plantar fasciitis is so often a total bitch to clear up. After a month, this guy, who had been dealing with chronic pain for a year, was able to build back up to a regular schedule of running. Since the symptoms of my own injury bore such a close resemblance to the plantar fasciitis I once experienced, I felt an immediate pang of hope. Desperate hope. And I hopped out of that gym to the internet to find out who in the world could possibly hook me up with such a treatment on zero notice within a half hour of Durham.
Sixteen hours later, I was in a chiropractor’s office. A fifty dollar co-pay gets you a full adjustment (first-time – sort of recommend, although I can’t afford to make it a habit) and the laser-show. A good experience all-in-all, but it was apparent that this office didn’t treat a lot of athletes. The doc confessed to using the cold laser mainly as some off-kilter treatment for allergies. (After writing that, I wonder who I am to judge what is off-kilter…) A quick internet search for “cold laser Durham” had yielded articles written on the subject of cold laser treatment for tendinitis by a local gym-owner/physical therapist. Yes. And he responded to my e-mail so I didn’t have to deal with my phone-phobia. Even better. And as it turns out, he is also a triathlete. Perfect.
After my experience with Brian at ActivEdge, I was kicking myself for not thinking to get to a physical therapist weeks earlier. It was like being in the training room in college, except the practitioner wasn’t purposefully trying to electrocute you. (Thank you, Mars Hill College athletic training staff.) We were able to set up three appointments with a week and half until race day. At each appointment, we started with the laser-show, followed by ice, stim, and topical anti-inflammatory medication. I walked out of my first session without feeling any change, but call-and-response the following morning went a little smoother than expected. I even sent out a little e-mail: “Don’t want to jinx it, but woke up this morning and stepped out of bed without the usual tenderness… This quackery just might work!” And there you have it. Placebo or not, I felt like I was finally getting close to the starting line. Foot don’t go, won’t hinder me. The finish line was another story.
My taper began that week, which left plenty of room for anxiety. That Saturay evening, I found myself stranded at the corner of Big Woods and Hwy 64 with a flat front tire. Phil didn’t answer his phone (surprise), and I wasn’t sure what to do. So I texted Catherine, who was kind enough to leave her house and drive to ours to tell Phil to turn on his phone. The women of Phil’s family sure save my neck! And in a weird spot of luck, I decide to call my friend Courtney, whose call I had missed earlier in the afternoon. What else could I do while I waited? Well, it turns out she was only a few miles from me at that very moment, driving the bike course for the Jordan Lake Women’s Only Triathlon, which was scheduled for the following morning. Pal of pals, she sped right over to rescue me! And we got her all signed-up to race the next day – the first chilly morning of the year, and my first time spectating a multisport event. I had a great time cheering for Courtney and gained a few insights into the nature of triathlon that I had not picked up on as a participator. (Top secret stuff.) And I know these posts long ago degraded into rambling cornballery, but I can’t help but project meaning onto all of the coincidences in the weeks leading up to the TTT.
Most of all, I began to see how much my success was not an independent effort. And that my stubbornness, with which I so often credited prior personal victories, was as much a hindrance as a help. Moving forward, I was going to have to be adaptable. I was going to have to admit when I needed assistance. I was going to have to grapple, when the time came, with the thought that I might not get through this. But in preparing for that time, the weeks’ cascade of injury and mishap might just have been the best teacher. I’m on the way, I’m on my way.
And we’re almost to the good part.
Triple-T Part One: Prologue
Father, forgive me, for I have sinned. It has been six weeks since my last confession.
My last update included this prophetic bit – “It is quite possible that I will be working three jobs by next Wednesday… and training for what equates to an iron-distance triathlon.”
Yes, indeed. Full-steam ahead into two new jobs after Labor Day and the four-week remainder of a third. I have been working 8 to 2 at my new employer in North Raleigh, who so kindly agreed to let me come aboard part time while I coach middle school cross-country in Durham each afternoon. For a while, many days looked like this:
5am: wake-up, grab coffee, make 30 minute commute to the YMCA by my new job
6am – 7:15am: swim workout
7:15am – 8am: obsessively scrub out chlorine, grab breakfast, head to work
8am – 12:30pm: work
12:30pm – 1pm: impulse grocery shopping on lunch break
1pm – 2pm: work
2pm: drive back to Durham, realize frozen food from earlier impulse shopping doesn’t keep in a hot car, not even for an hour
2:45pm: let dog out, try on six different workout outfits to find one that is appropriate for the eyes of middle-school boys
3:30pm – 4:45pm: try to explain to the snakepit of smelly children why this is fun
4:45pm – 5pm: drive home, see food that used to be frozen wedged behind bike in the backseat – wonder how much water damage bike can stand
5pm – 6pm: grade papers, answer e-mails, decode Spanglish mystery texts
6pm – 7pm: CrossFit
7pm – 7:30pm: cry about not getting in another workout
7:30 – 8:00pm: cry about melted food that was supposed to be dinner
8:00pm – 9:00pm: binge-eat Frosted Mini Wheats, take out anxiety on dog
9:00pm-10:00pm: watch husband browse the internet while half-heartedly recording lecture on APA format
10:00pm – 11:00pm: shower, tear house apart looking for swimsuit that is still wet and in car somewhere, yell at husband for browsing internet instead of joining in important upheaval of bookshelves and end tables behind which swimsuit might have fallen
11:00pm: fall asleep on couch with dog, who is desperately trying to regain approval, wake to husband asking when to set the alarm clock I lack intelligence enough to set, sigh mightily, say 5:15.
I am sure those of you with children and careers are not at all impressed, but transitioning into this routine after a year and a half of my part-time from home gig was just brutal. In my old life, I was doing well to wake up at 8:30. After coffee a quick run-down of all my favorite blogs, I would immediately begin perseverating over whether to hit the gym at 11:15 or 11:30. By the time my anxiety-attack subsided, it was usually 11:45. On some days, I walked the dog for an hour or two just because I could, or hit up Wal-Mart to see what I could see. A trip to the bank or post office was a major upheaval – should I shower? what if I get hungry while I’m out there?
I was doing all of my running on trails at Umstead and taking my bike out to Jordan Lake in the middle of the afternoon or whenever I got around to it, bemoaning the calamity of my own procrastination. I went to CrossFit in the evenings, sometimes with no better reason than to see another person, and cooked a healthy meal every night for dinner. I don’t mean to make a case for the luxuriousness of this time. It was no doubt wasted. I was criminally bored and verging more often than not on depression. I wanted to be told what to do. My flaw is not a rare one. There are very few of us who thrive in an environment from which all structure has been neatly plucked. I was not my best person in its absence. In any case, I write this not to self-flagellate, but to remark on how far opposite the pendulum has swung in the past six weeks. The adjustment has been major, with all of the usual trappings – nutritional haywire, moodiness, insomnia. But wait, there’s more…
After my first week at the new desk job, my husband-and-sherpa-extraordinaire drove us down to White Lake for the Set-up Events Fall International race. When last I wrote here, I was making a vague attempt at healing my right foot in time for this event. In short, it didn’t work. The foot ached dully during warm-up, and began to cramp and go numb on the bike. As I came out of T2 into the run, it became clear that the pain was not going to diminish. Stupid me pushed on. The pain increased with my velocity and the forefoot strike it required – the more I got up on my toes, the more my foot screamed. The pain shot up from the point of contact on my first metatarsal and seared through the arch. By mile 4, I was considering dropping out, but there was a woman in my sights. I couldn’t bear not to catch her, so I did, and we occupied adjacent cots in the medical tent afterwards. We both should’ve taken the DNF. The bottom of my foot was fat as a peach and tender to touch. The EMS gave me ice and ibuprofen and expressed the general sentiment that something in there was broken. Thanks, EMS.
(Brief race report: a not-so-speedy 2:34-something. I had a horrible swim in the unusually choppy water and a horrible bike in the cross-winds that had stirred up that water. For no more running than I did in the weeks immediately prior, my run was an okay 42-something. A so-so 9th place finish in a tight field, but I consoled myself with the thought that had just one element of my race gone better – if I had the swim I did at Washington, for instance – I would have been on the podium. I was also not the last place woman in the open category, which had happened at some previous Set-Up races, but beat three women who had previously beaten me in the spring sprints. Also, no age-groupers got me this time, and no one younger than me. Improvement!)
I went to urgent care that afternoon to get an x-ray, even though I knew that a stress fracture would likely not show up. It didn’t. I got a referral to an orthopedist, but couldn’t go until the next week. This isn’t my first trip down the sports-injury pipeline, so I knew she would suggest I get an MRI if I wanted to make sure there were no fractures. She did, and I declined. “I am going to do this race in three weeks no matter what,” I told her, “so I’d rather not know if it’s broken or not. If it gets worse, I’ll come back for an MRI. I want to know if there’s anything I can do in the meantime to shore it up.” She gave me the standard spiel about having orthotics made (to which I am resistant for a number of reasons, beginning with their prohibitive expense), and in the end, I took a pair of cheapie over-the-counter metatarsal pads to stick in my shoes. Each pad felt like a tiny felt rock, and I am convinced now that they did more harm than good. After wearing them for about a week, I removed them permanently and felt much better. The only useful thing the orthopedist told me was that my ailment was likely of the sesamoid bones that help all of the connective tissue glide over my first metatarsal head. I had read about this possibility on the internet and suspected as much. The orthopedist added to my knowledge base this fun fact – if they are somehow broken, their healing is usually prolonged not at all pretty. Great. More on these guys:
A sesamoid is a bone embedded in a tendon. Sesamoids are found in several joints in the body. In the normal foot, the sesamoids are two pea-shaped bones located in the ball of the foot, beneath the big toe joint.
Acting as a pulley for tendons, the sesamoids help the big toe move normally and provide leverage when the big toe “pushes off” during walking and running. The sesamoids also serve as a weight-bearing surface for the first metatarsal bone (the long bone connected to the big toe), absorbing the weight placed on the ball of the foot when walking, running, and jumping.
The mean truth was that if I wanted to participate the Triple-T, I would have to make it to the starting line first. This meant no running, which meant compromising the outcome of the race. It meant changing my hope of hopes from making the podium to making it to the finish line. It meant having to tell my friends that I couldn’t run on their Blue Ridge Relay Team, and scrapping half of my CrossFit training to avoid high-impact activity. With both of my secret weapons – running and CrossFit – in the commode, I didn’t know if I even wanted to show my face at the Triple-T anymore. Disaster seemed pretty certain – if not the first race, then surely the second – and there I would be, crying selfishly with my poor Sherpa-husband and my pile of janky gear, the fumes of wasted time.
To be continued… (Hang in there folks – a race this long sops the words right up!)
This was six weeks ago. Feels like a lifetime. Summer has come to dog days again, and I’m still slack-jawed at the crocuses and lilies.
Wednesday Update on a Friday Night
I see that the internet did not implode with my broken promise. This news is unremarkable at first, but grows more perturbing with the application of additional brainforce (which is initiated, of course, by squinting). Should this thing that has groomed me into such high narcissism really be so indifferent? I say, I say, and the sentence begins and ends with “I.”
This has been a break week at the fine institution for which I teach. As such, I was prepared for leisure - long country bike rides, a book, and a trip through the house dragging a damp rag. Not so. Far from it. After months of turning over barren stones, three different employers scheduled interviews with me on Tuesday. I was hired to coach a middle school cross-country team on the spot. Practice began Thursday, and the bunch is wild. I have a second interview for another job next Tuesday. A new class at said fine institution will begin Sunday, and this accident of timing prevents me from jumping ship for another four weeks. It is quite possible that I will be working three jobs by next Wednesday… and training for what equates to an iron-distance triathlon.
In my yearlong layover in underemployment, I have become unused to this sort of stress. All calm on the surface, but trust that there’s a witchy brew a’brewin underneath.
I took my foot out for a twenty minute test run on Tuesday. It is not altogether right, but I believe it will hold. I “ran” a little while scouting routes for the cross-country team, and alongside them during practice. (I am less like a coach than a herder.) And today, I ran thirty minutes slow-as-never-before and did 4x200m during the WOD. The foot also held through 125 double-unders the day before. I’ve been icing it a little and stretching out the arch, which seems to help. I’m not ready to take it out for another long run, but the end of next week holds promise. Sprints, anyone?
On Wednesday night, I had the treat of going with my good pal Courtney to a ten-mile time trial. We were a pinch tardy and ended up timing ourselves, but it was a beautiful ride and an excellent stretch of the bike-legs. My unofficial clockage was 26:01. Not bad for a girl who won’t get in the JB-Welded aerobars on her cast-iron tricycle. The rest of the set were dressed like rocketships in their aero-helmets and skinsuits, their tt-bikes slick as greyhounds. (A man tried to sell me his bike out of the bike of his rusted pickup. The bike was worth more than the truck.) I am quick to jab at the resolute dorkiness of elite cycling attire, but my secret shame is as simple as “yeeeeah, I’d wear it.” Give me a leg up through the next couple of income brackets, and I’ll be dressed like a neon shark on a space age carbon-fiber weed-eater on wheels. Lordy. Two girls late to the party and underdressed, but Courtney and I held our own. I worry what I’ll do when I am forced to abandon my underdog mentality.
I have been laying low at CrossFit since my last race a month ago. At first, it was a recovery issue. This grew into a “building phase” issue, which crash-landed into a “busted foot” issue. I’m ready to get back into it. I know I won’t be able to fully commit myself until late fall, but it’s nice to know that I’ll be ready when the time comes. I only got in two WODs this week, but they were good ones. Worked on front squat today, and felt strong - probably a nice side-effect of my mini vacation from running. Maybe the only nice side effect.
Since I seem to be running the bases here, I’ll make a note about swimming. I have felt awfully strong in the pool since my breakthrough race, but it takes everything I have to get through the doors at the YMCA. I know that seasoned swimmers do 4000+ yards in a workout, but it takes all I have to do 2000-3000. The physical challenge is one thing, but the mental strain is what I’m whining about. It takes me a full hour to get through a decent swim workout, and I find swimming laps is as likely to set my brain on “nuthouse” mode as it is to send me into a meditative calm. I never know which card I will draw. So I put off drawing the card as long as I can. Once last week, I even drove over to the Y and changed my mind. I sat in the car pleading with myself to the tune of the Diane Rehm Show. No good. There are three times a day when it’s most likely I will have my own lane. These are the times I choose to swimming: 11am, 2pm, or 7:30pm. I quit going at 11, telling myself that I did not like the man who works the front desk at that hour. That gives me time to talk myself out of going in at 2, when my lunch is digesting. And who wants to go at 7:30? That’s family time. It’s in the Bible.
Speaking of digestion, the frenzy of this week has knocked me off of intermittent fasting. Nonetheless, I am visibly thinner from having cut out nuts and dried fruit. Despite the copious amounts of cereal I have been consuming, the “no treats, no trail mix” diet plan is a winner. I need to tone down the grains, but I’m not in a panic over it. I still plan on moving treatlessly forward for another 2-3 weeks and observing the night-through-morning fast when possible. I understand that folks think I’m crazy for watching my waistline, and that it’s quite possible no one can parse out this change but me. I’m not doing it for you. I feel better and I don’t give a damn. My body is North Atlantic. It roils with whitecaps, whirlpools, riptides. It has unrolled itself in an afternoon and lay there, unallayed. Far beneath, the swallowed things asway - anonymous as storms.