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Friday, December 30, 2016

On fear and forward movement. Cheers, 2017.

  "Your dream must be bigger than your fear."

 Taped on Dave's old college desk next to a giant clunky desktop computer in our study, a room that serves more as a dumping ground for bathing suits, wetsuits, transition bags, and gloves than anything else, is a fortune cookie fortune that bears those words.  I'm not sure when I initially stuck that on there, but it must have been years ago, because I can't even remember the last time I turned on that computer.  But, those words have stuck with me, no more so than over the course of this past year.  At many points, the saying became my mantra to get me through the rough points of doubt.  My relationship with fear and triathlon goes way back, though, to my beginnings, and as 2016 draws to a close, I've found myself reflecting back to many experiences along the way.

 I remember my first ride on a road bike.  During the spring of 2009, with steadily increasing hip, shin, and pelvic pain (that would later turn out to be a stress fracture or two), I decided to use Dave's birthday as an excuse to purchase a $200 aluminum Schwinn from Walmart in order to get in some outdoor exercise that wasn't running.  I'd obviously had bikes before, but before that point, they'd consisted of 3 speeds with coaster brakes, and a secondhand "mountain" bike purchased from a garage sale for $40.  The day that road bike came, I assembled it and set off with no clue what I was doing, mostly afraid of the skinny wheels, with a side of excitement to try something new.  I white-knuckled it through the neighborhood a bit, before inadvertently turning onto a road that had JUST been chip sealed.  By some miracle, I managed to stop and turn around without wiping out, heart pounding.  From there, I made it home without incident.  Still, despite the fears, I kept at it, monopolizing what was supposed to be a joint present (of course).  At some point, I was diagnosed with that old pelvic stress fracture, and I registered for the Finger Lakes triathlon after determining that I was in fact capable of swimming the distance continuously.

   So much about that first triathlon terrified me.  I did end up eventually upgrading the Walmart bike to a decent entry-level road bike of my own (that actually fit).  I met a woman at the pool one morning, Lauren, who took me under wing and rode me around the course the following weekend.  She zipped down the hills, while I rode the brakes.  My first time wetsuit swimming in open water was about a week before the race, at a clinic put on by a local bike shop for first timers.  Needless to say, there were a few obligatory moments of panic.  The day before the race, I almost hit a dog while squeezing in an easy ride, but I did finally figure out how to properly use my front derailleur.  Race day, I again panicked early in the swim.  I thought of Lauren's words of wisdom-"you can't sink in a wetsuit".  I thought of my mom and Dave there to watch me, and I didn't want to let them down by not getting through the swim.  I also thought of all of the yards I'd swam that summer, reassuring myself that I did in fact know how to swim, and it was the same activity I'd done for so many hours, just in a different setting.  I swam respectably enough.  On the bike, the hills that had seemed so intimidating on the training ride seemed to have shrunk, and my desire to hit a 20mph average (my goal) dwarfed my brake-squeezing instincts.  The run was painful, but after not running for so much of the summer, I was just too excited to be out there to care.  I came in fourth that day, and in a moment of walking back to transition after the race, I found myself in tears.  The sense of pride and satisfaction that came from completing that race well were intensified by knowing I'd overcome far more trepidation than I'd felt before any running race.  I had a sense that I'd found my new sport, and I wasn't turning back.

   Sometime around the start of the next year, I signed up for my first 70.3, Musselman, on a whim-a new challenge, one that once again scared the crap out of me.  I trained for it, not really knowing what I was doing or what I was getting myself into or what I was doing.  This came to a head the weekend before the race, when Dave and I attempted to ride the bike course on one of those 90+ degree, humid, heat and air quality advisory days.  With little knowledge of fueling, woeful amounts of fluid on board, and no smartphones to guide use when we got lost, we ended up separated.  I guzzled water in a winery bathroom, ready to pass out, somehow found my way back to the park, and was about to head out and look for Dave when he made his way back (I added in that detail to prove that at one point, years ago, I could beat Dave on a bike).  How in the name of everything good and holy was I going to get through that, plus a swim and a half marathon a week later??  I made it to race day with that debacle in my mind, and I was panicked over the fact that I'd never really run more than 3-4 miles after long (2.5-3 hour) rides.  I couldn't fathom what was about to happen, and it showed at the start line.  I remember my sister's former college roommate finding me before the swim, telling me to just breaststroke if I started to freak in the water, and that I was a good athlete, I'd be fine.  She was right.  With little knowledge of pacing or fueling, I'll never forget getting off the bike, and settling into the run at a pace that both felt easy and was far faster than any expectation I had.  That run pace carried me further up into the race than I would ever have dreamed to be possible.  My fear of the unknown and uncertainty of my abilities to get through it morphed into complete joy and sweet surprise when I crossed the finish line as the second female, just under 4 hours, 56 minutes after the start.

Let's face it, this post is useless if I don't take the opportunity to once again make fun of my bike setups of years past.  Here I am, combating that dehydration of the training ride the week beforehand with my camelbak and sideways "aero" bottle in my clip in aerobottleholderbars.

But then I finished and it was cool.  I even touched Dave.

   But, that didn't leave me with a newfound confidence, or erase my insecurities and apprehensions heading into 2011.  I researched and learned more about the sport that had found me, figuring out what 70.3 worlds were, and how I could qualify for them.  Well, huh.  Maybe I'd give that a shot.  Dave and I signed up for the Mooseman 70.3.  I also added another source of anxiety to my triathlon life, switching from a road bike to a brand spanking new tri bike.  Just because I had clip on aerobars on my road bike didn't mean that I'd ever actually used them (other than as a hands-free bottle holder), and this transferred over to the tri bike.  I had no idea how to ride the thing, rarely even shifting because I was too afraid to let go of the brake hoods to reach the bar end shifters, let alone ride in the bars.  During my first training ride out on it, I tipped over on a climb because I wasn't downshifted enough.  I occasionally managed to get my left arm down-my days of "half aero".  I began to research the course I'd signed up for.  A huge climb, done twice.  A windy descent to follow.  What if I tipped over on the climb again?  How could I get through it twice?  And I hated descending.  That was even worse.  Once in New Hampshire, I worked myself up to the max as we drove the course and went through the check in process.  Everyone looked faster than me.  The bike at the end of the rack in my age group had race wheels and the shoes were clipped in, she obviously knew what she was doing and was fast.  Could I even bike under 3:00?  That all continued until the race started.  Once again, I was fine as soon as I was in motion.  I remember little about it, except that I got through the chilly swim and the hilly bike (in my "half aero") upright and in decent enough position to make headway on the run.  I do remember how it felt to win my age group that day.  I remember once again being shocked and speechless about not only meeting, but exceeding my goals.
No idea what's going on here, but I have my resting anxious/confused face going in full force.

My classmates in college and grad school always used to hate me because I'd freak out before tests and then get, like, a 98 on everything.  Seems relevant here.

Not that race, but my "half aero" should be noted.

  The rest of that summer was spent preparing for Vegas worlds, and getting over my fears related to the race and the course.  In the midst of racing with a stomach bug a month later, I dropped into my aerobars for the first time, too wracked with fatigue to think about what I was doing or be afraid of it.  That was all I needed to figure out that skill-to not think, just do.  I rode over to one of the quiet, big hills by the bay, and did repeats every Monday to prepare for the hilly Vegas course.  I tried race wheels, and didn't give up on them when I wanted to cry in crosswinds during my first ride.  I raced more, and had success.  The summer was blazing hot, and I forced myself to keep shirts on and sweat it out during midday track workouts every week.  While all of that should have built confidence, it was for naught about a week before heading west.  Someone shared a preview of the amateur race with me.  My name was in it.  Until that point, I'd been happy just to qualify, with no expectations for the race itself.  Once the seed of outside expectation was planted, the nerves started.  These only intensified once we got into Vegas, where it was hot and dry and the hills on the bike course intimidated me to no end in training rides beforehand.  I doubted everything about myself, to the point where I was in tears before the start of the race (didn't help we were one of the last waves), swearing to myself that I would never do another tri after that, I just couldn't handle how scared and nervous I got before each and every one; the anxiety was relentless.  I probably don't even need to say it-what ended up happening there was the same as what had happened at every other race I've ever done, tri or running.  Once in motion, I was fine.  Instead of that being the final race of my triathlon career, I ended up with a world AG title and a pro card.  So that was that.
The classic near tears pre-Vegas picture

Again, shut up Jennie, no one believes your pre-race crap

   The following year, my fears shifted to those big things that any first year pro and first time IM deals with-as in, lining up with the best, and, well, tackling 140.6.  These seemed fairly justified, all things considered.  This time, though, I had a coach and teammates and friends to guide me along the way, and a husband training alongside me for his first IM, too.  That's not to say my pre-race mental state and general anxieties didn't raise questions about my ability to handle it all, but these were largely erased as soon as I was racing.  I was able to demonstrate that so much of that was a defense mechanism, designed to lower expectations and self-induced pressure, that faded into a process-oriented stoicism once I got going.  That year, the next, sure, I got nervous before big races, and I always found something in particular to fixate on, but by and large, I kept things to a normal, healthy (maybe arguable) level of nerves, not abject fear.  I raced well.  Then, 2014 began to throw doubt into my mind.  First, a DNS that made me start worrying that every time I felt even normal tired, I was about to fall down the rabbit hole of excessive fatigue again.  Then, a mechanical that made me forever obsess about my front brake.  Then, just when I thought I had it together again, I ended in the Mexican hospital.  And that was that.

   2015 was a wash.  Then came 2016.  I didn't make it beyond New Year's day before getting the old butt fracture site x-rayed again.  The 13 minutes of running I made it that day were the last 13 minutes I'd make it continuously for almost five months.  When thinking back on last spring, though, I only tried running a few minutes a handful of times, giving up on myself before trying to get going not because it hurt too much, but because it still hurt a little bit.  I was too afraid of the debilitating pain that I'd experienced over the winter to even want to try in the spring.  I took having to withdraw from races that winter hard, and I was scared to let myself hope again, to risk yet another broken heart.  I turned to my doctor, who gave me the green light.  And with that, I began to work my way through the season that played out.  Your dream must be bigger than your fear.  I repeated that to myself so many times along the way.  I had no choice.  Getting over the Achilles heels of my Cozumel experience-bottle handling and wind-was no small task.  At times, I wondered if I'd need professional help of some degree to help myself over what felt like crippling anxiety I felt even thinking of them.  My overwhelming desire to race again won out, though, at least to break the seal.  Then came Racine to throw me for another loop-a miserable race existence of my own doing, born from my sheer panic in wind and resulting refusal to hydrate.  That was my warning, and my impetus to get my act together with the controllables.

   I've documented the rest of this past year plenty-the ups and downs, how eventually I had my moments of races that came together smoothly (Timberman, Barrelman, Austin), and the way my steely stubbornness and crazy dreams began to push fear aside again on our Kona trip.  But, that doesn't mean that I'm not still afraid of a whole ton heading into next year.  Because I am, big time.  I've done everything that I reasonably could this off season.  I rested.  I had a couple surgeries to fix what could be fixed.  I did absolutely nothing but walk my dogs for four weeks.  I've been methodically rehabbing myself, and I turned myself back over having my training schedule written for me before I even could be overzealous.  But...but.  What if I'm never the same?  What if, despite all of my best efforts, despite the fact that nothing is glaringly obviously wrong with me, I just can't do it anymore?  What if that stupid little butt bone deformity is going to continue to set me back?  I'm afraid that I'll never make it back to an IM start line, let alone a finish line.  I could drive myself nuts.  Sometimes, I do drive myself nuts.  But then I get a grip (arguably...).

   In the wake of Carrie Fisher's passing earlier in the week, I saw this quote floating around: "Stay afraid, but do it anyways.  What's important is the action.  You don't have to wait to be confident.  Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow."  (Note: I've never seen any Star Wars movies-blasphemy-but I liked the quote.)  Hasn't this always been the theme of my triathlon career?  The anecdotes above represent some of my favorite moments of my years in this sport, and they all have a common thread-rising above fear.  Risk/reward.  If I waited until I was confident that something was going to work out, I'd never do anything in life.  There would never be any reward.  At some point in the lead into any of those big days, those great moments, I was a freaking mess.  But, I went ahead with them anyways, because something inside of me wanted it more than I feared it, and nothing was ever as scary as it seemed once underway.  So, that's what I have to do now, staring down 2017 and the uncertainty and fear related to trying to get my Ironman life and dreams back.  Move forward.  Find confidence when I can.  Devote myself to the controllables-the rehab, the slower than molasses progression.  Listen.  Do what I'm supposed to without being a giant pain in the ass (maybe just a small one).  Just keep plugging away.  One of my favorite self-talk messages at the end of long races has always been, "you haven't come this far to blow it now".  This mantra sort of works now (along with, "don't do anything in December that you're going to regret in May...again").  So, that's going to have to be what I go on heading into 2017-I'll try to keep my head straight, level it all out, and remember that I have dreams that are bigger than my fears.

Since we're on the theme of Chinese fortunes, here's a good, classic one from our Christmas Chinese.  Dave and I ended up flying solo on Christmas day, so we obviously ordered Chinese.  It felt right.
And the original fortune discussed here.  I could have moved the ancient white out bottle, but I felt like it sort of fit to describe how long that thing's been taped up there.  But look, 32 is a lucky number.  I'm 32.  26 is, too.  I was 26 when all of the good 2011 stuff happened.  I'll go with it.

And, of course, a Moose.  Why is the Moose relevant, other than that she's always relevant?  Because the Moose is a year into kidney disease now.  She doesn't spend her time worrying about if and when she'll get worse from it.  She looks forward to her dollop of peanut butter with pills hidden in it twice a day, and then goes and runs around the woods and smiles and begs me for petting and shoves her face in my face when I'm trying to do rehab.  Don't worry.  Be happy.

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