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Friday, May 17, 2019

"The sweet is never as sweet without the sour" (Success, failure, and the balance in between)

      I'm sure within my first few years of running cross country and eventually track back in the day, I had some races I less happy with than others, but, by and large, nothing really got to me too much.  For the most part, when I set goals, I met them, and even if I fell a little short of the more lofty ones, my team was more successful than I was individually, so I always had that to celebrate instead.  Improvements came easily early on, too.  My freshman and sophomore years were marked with team wins, relay trips to states, sneaking into ribbon winning and point scoring at my individual events at sectionals, and lowering PRs each season.  I remember the first time I felt truly disappointed with a race.  County meet, junior year.  Hoping for a top ten finish, I had an off day, for whatever reason, and struggled home in 18th.  I still recall sitting on the bus home that day, arguing with my coach, insisting that I'd had a horrible race and telling him I just wanted him to tell me that.  Always wise, knowing that I was both the most consistent one on the team and capable of being harder on myself than anyone else would be on me, he refused, assuring me that I'd done fine, and I could do better at sectionals the following week.

   Turns out, he was right.  A week later, my confidence still shaken a bit from counties, I started out conservatively, quickly realized that actually, I felt good, and continued to pick my way up through the field, passing a handful of girls who had readily beaten me the week beforehand, and, by the final half mile or so, into tenth place.  Tenth was a milestone for me; top 10 at sectionals got called up at the awards ceremony and received half blue, half white patches.  I had plenty of full white patches from team wins and relays, and I knew I'd never win a full blue one for winning an individual cross country or track title, but that half blue, half white one was something that I'd coveted as a high school goal since the time I'd been a freshman.  I finished 17th as a freshman and 13th as a sophomore, so not too far off, but not super close, either.  My results from the rest of my junior season had suggested that top ten was possible, but that counties race had thrown a wrench in what I thought that I could do.  Then, I remember emerging from the woods onto the final stretch that day to the excited screams of my teammates who had last seen me far further back in the field, and how special that finish was to me-not just because I had achieved a long-term goal and run one of the best races of my life, but because I'd rebounded after nearly giving up on the idea just a week beforehand.

Really bad picture proving I got to stand at the front of a gym and it was a high school life highlight #nerd

   Fast forward many years, with many highs and a few lows, and I found myself getting started in triathlon, about ten years ago.  It took me a few years before I actually found myself any real adversity in the sport.  Sometimes, I like to think of my career to this point in three stages-pre-IM/transitioning from a "runner" to a "triathlete" (the early, clueless days), early pro pre-crash years, and the post-crash years.  Much like the early days of my running career, those early, clueless days were pretty mentally easy.  Obviously, climbing the sport's ladder took a lot of physical work and toughness within workouts and races, but, by and large, my successes came easily, and failures?  I don't really even recall any, to be honest.  After so many years in running, everything in triathlon was new and exciting, and the formula was simple.  Train hard, improve, taper, race hard, get results.  As races got longer, I noticed I seemed to do better.  Sub-5 in my first 70.3.  A worlds qualification in my first attempt at an IM 70.3.  An AG world title.  A pro card.  Moving up to the pro ranks and full IMs.  A second place off the bat, a winter of PRs, another second.  I dreamed about winning Placid.  I won Placid.  I decided I wanted to go to Kona.  I went to Tremblant three weeks later, somehow ran even faster than I had in Placid, and did enough to go to Kona.  Neat.  Clean.  Simple.  Success fueled my motivation in workouts-why wouldn't it?  I asked stuff out of my body, I mentally and physically found ways to make it do what I wanted, and my body delivered.  Putting forth effort in workouts is easy when effort=results.  For several years, I started every race I planned on, and I finished them all.  I missed nothing due to injury.  I won an IM before I ever crashed my bike or experienced a mechanical in the race.  I knew more about joy from exceeding my expectations than adversity.  I was young.  I kind of hate my old self, too.

I look too indifferent to a 70.3 overall and run PR here because I didn't place very well.  Stupid young Jennie.

At least this was better

    The next year (2014), I started to at least have some growing pains, some born from all the racing I'd done the previous season, some from self-induced pressures and difficulty living up to the standards I'd set for myself (I prefer a good low bar over a high one), some from the dumb luck that everyone experiences after long enough at this stuff (i.e. costly bike mechanicals in a race), and some just because I had some difficulty finding as much joy in it, having lost a bit of the ability to surprise myself anymore.  Still, nothing major, until Cozumel, breaking everything, and then everything that has since transpired from that.  As much as I wanted to believe those niceties we like to tell ourselves, hard work pays off, everything happens for a reason-they seemed hard to swallow at many points in the following years.  I think as any athlete matures in a sport and goes through the full range of experiences and related emotions, the rose-colored glasses of the early days get taken off, and probably stomped upon here and there in fits of frustration, as well. 

   I've cried every type of tear over this stupid sport-pain, joy, sadness, frustration, relief.  I've been lifted and lived my (sports-related) dreams, and I've also been thrown onto the ground (literally and figuratively) and had my heart ripped out.  Sport has been simultaneously the main consumer of my thoughts (and time), and something that I've laughed about because it can seem so stupid and insignificant in the great scheme of life, as well.  Compared to five or six years ago, yes, I'm a heck of a lot more jaded and cynical about it, but I also have a deeper sense of appreciation and gratitude towards it all.  I've rolled my inner eyes at those rose-colored glasses posts-"hard work is everything!  Triathlon is life!", as well as the "I had a bad race and everything is OVER" posts, all while knowing that I used to post similar stuff before anything "bad" happened, and that I still get pretty damn dramatic over bad races or small injuries or illnesses that derail training at all.  It happens, and I struggle with it-with all I've faced in the sport, is something small really that big of a deal?  With all people face in life, does a sport even matter?  But, at the same time, if I just brush off a bad race or a bad workout or a smaller "failure" along the way, does it mean that I don't care?  And why would I be doing this if I don't care?  But, again, why am I allowing myself to care, when I've had so many instances where caring has led to hurt?

    I feel as if the question has come up in different forms fairly frequently lately-how do we care about success, without letting failure get to us?  Is it possible to open our hearts enough that success is meaningful, but failure isn't crushing?  Or, conversely, if we're not supposed to define ourselves by our failures, isn't it only fair that we don't define ourselves by our successes, either?  "Don't let success go to your head, and failure go to your heart" is an interesting concept, and, within the context of sport and life, one that's nuanced in many ways.  I feel sometimes like I'm sort of "in between" a triathlon live and a "real" life-just good enough that I can do ok and be sort of competitive and, with a little bit of luck here and there, turn a profit, but not good enough that I can even remotely justify making training and racing all I do, so I still have jobs and income outside of it.  I can justify to myself caring about this stuff, although I also don't think that anyone who takes seemingly silly exercise contests up owes it to anyone to have to justify why it's important to him/her, regardless of level of investment in the sport or goals, etc.  Everyone has their reasons, as well as their particular life circumstances; no one's right or wrong.  Anyways.  I'm digressing here.  Point is, no one starts triathlon (or running, etc) without some degree of caring about it, or putting some amount of physical and emotional investment towards some sort of goal, whether they're related to places, times, self-improvements, or finishing.  When we meet-or exceed-those goals, it's awesome and affirming and deeply satisfying.  But when we fall short?  Saying, "just move on" is easy enough, but after devoting large amounts of time and energy to something, and putting aside other things in life for it, actually doing so is more difficult. 

    "Success" and "failure" (I don't love the terms, but I'm going to use them here for simplicity's sake here) in sports don't need to be seen as some sort of mutually exclusive, binary concepts, though.  I mean, sure, ok, one team wins the Superbowl, the other team loses.  In triathlon or running, maybe you qualify for Kona or, say, break an 18:00 5k, or you don't.  Yes, those sort of outcomes exist, where they either happen, or they don't.  But, except for at the highest levels, which I cannot attest to, by and large, our external worlds continue on unchanged around us regardless of endurance event outcomes.  Podium or DFL, I've come back from IMs, gone back to work, and done the same stuff.  I remember going back to work two days after winning Placid, and just laughing to myself when I pulled up to a news crew...filming the new dialysis center next door opening.  The sink still fills with dishes, my dogs still want dinner and walks, people still block aisles with their carts at the grocery store.  Medals get thrown over doorknobs, trophies get stashed on a shelf, and the person who just cut you off in traffic doesn't care in the least about your race time.  Harsh reality, very, very few people care about it.  Yes, sometimes I make money, and that's nice and helpful, of course.  Qualifying for a trip somewhere is pretty awesome.  When I won in Vegas and could get a pro card, that sort of made things a little different.  I've gotten cakes and cards and flowers after particularly good results.  Sneaking pieces of cookie cake between patients did make those days better.  But, when it comes down to it, race results don't change our external worlds as much as impact our internals ones.  And, that's where we have control and power.  After good races, I've always come home with a more positive attitude towards life in general, which leads to generally greater friendliness and patience to spread to those around me.  As someone who can be timid and lack confidence, even though triathlon is totally unrelated to, say, human interactions, the dose of "I can do hard things" still somehow carries over.     

   But, how do we prevent the opposite from happening when things don't go according to plan?  How do we prevent ourselves from becoming miserable, ornery creatures who feel like we can't do anything in life when, say, we totally blow up in an IM marathon and ponder just passing out in a port-a-potty instead of continuing on?  We could just go into things with a sense of apathy and detachment, so that if it doesn't work out, oh well, it doesn't hurt.  But, that's no way to approach, well, really anything in life.  What's the point of doing something, especially a completely voluntary sport that requires time and money, if you don't care or have zero sense of investment in it?  There's none.  And, nothing in=nothing out.  I've never happy ugly cried at a finish line because I didn't give a crap.  Plus, in a sport that requires a lot of physical pain and a lot of mind over matter, the mind has to be committed.  There has to be something that keeps us moving when the body is reminding us it's pretty freaking idiotic, and the couch is way more comfortable.  So, not only is it not worth doing if you don't care, it's not really possible to train for endurance crap and not care, either.  I've gone through time periods where I've felt pretty apathetic, and it shows.  For me, I've learned that opening my heart to success, but not succumbing to failure boils down to a few things-recognizing all that stuff about external life not really changing much is true, learning to appreciate, enjoy, and feel satisfied by all of the smaller steps along the way, not denying feelings but not wallowing in them, looking for ways to learn from missteps, and letting the setbacks give the successes more meaning.  As much as I've tried to put up my guard and wall myself off to protect myself from triathlon hurting my feelings again, it never works.  My guard is about as effective as our dumb hound who sleeps through everything, and my wall is just a mirage.
Finishing off a 5k in the brief reprieve between fracture healing and realizing my hip was busted in 2015.  I was over a minute of my PR.  But I was freaking thrilled with this race.

     At times in the past, come race day, I'd often be proud of my effort, but variables like time and place were how I'd really define it all.  Looking back at some of my pre-crash triathlon career, I kind of want to shake myself for how I crossed the line on certain days.  Races like Kona 2013 or Coeur d'Alene 2014, I fixated on a run that was a few minutes slower than normal or losing a few spots to a bike mechanical, instead of the fact that I swam and biked as well as I had all season and held it together at the highest level when everything was protesting my third IM in 2.5 months, or that I channeled frustration over that bike mechanical into the fastest marathon of the day, when I could just have easily stepped off the course, and no one would have faulted me.  Now, some of those races that have come with the least external accolades and prizes are the ones that I'm most proud of, really.  Pushing to the physical limit is always hard, but it's a heck of a lot harder when things aren't really working out as well as they should, when the goal ship has sailed, when there's nothing left at stake from an extrinsic standpoint.  A for effort doesn't get you much in professional triathlon, but I've learned that at the same time, it's character-defining, and I'm the one who has to live with myself (not to deny that there are a select few I drag into this).  I had to fall hard, miss time, miss long periods of racing, and have some really whopperly (that's a word now) bad races to appreciate that putting my best foot forward at the lowest points might not be noticed, but led to just as deep of a sense of fulfillment as, say, pushing hard to hold 7:20 pace at the end of an IM when in a podium position.
IMTX 2014 finish.  Honestly, this was probably the least invested I ever went into an IM feeling.  My race was fine, but my finish here is sort of emotionless by my standards.  Again, one of those performances that I'd be freaking thrilled with these days, but was too young and dumb and hard on myself about back then.
Argentina part I.  I was really freaking emotional at this finish line, because finishing my worst race ever-by far, at that time, although I've since rivaled it-was hard.  Really, really hard.  And I wasn't happy with the result, but I was proud of myself for forging on.  I still am.  Even though it had some health repercussions, I don't regret it.  At all.

   I also used to see good workouts as a means to an end.  I'd feel satisfaction for hitting something well and seeing improvements, sure, but the main source of excitement with them was what they suggested I might be able to do on race day.  This past season, my best blocks of training were leading into IM Lake Placid and IM Mar del Plata.  Of course, those both ended up being my worst race results.  I mourned Placid for a bit, but at the same time, when the smoke cleared, I had to admit that training for that race had made me happy.  The disappointment over the race was fair as well, though-even though I've been through worse and others have been through WAY worse with real problems, I had a right to be upset about it for a bit.  But, I also had to (with some help) look at some of the things that had gone wrong-cold, nutrition, peak long run too close to race day, etc.  Learning.  When Argentina was an even worse experience, honestly, I was ok with it this time around.  All along in that training, I had known that pushing for one more race that season was a bit of a stretch.  At the same time, I was enjoying training for it, and I remember telling myself that regardless, some of those sessions were showing me what I had in me still.  I was taking training at face value, and, with the lessons learned from Placid in my brain, reminding myself to be happy with them along the way, no matter what happened on race day.  And then the lessons from the debacle the race turned into?  I was able to (with guidance and some TPs numbers) look and see, hey, here's what overreached is on paper, and here's what it feels like in my body.  1.5 weeks before Texas this year, even though I hadn't been training nearly enough, I was able to recognize some of those same feelings in my body.  This time, I pulled back, slept, got everything back under control, and, come race day, felt (as) solid (as I could).

   Recognizing toughness and grit, figuring out what controllables could be tweaked or adjusted (sometimes, shit days just happen), learning to appreciate the small things along the way-these things are the start of turning the tables and not seeing things purely in black and white.  Ultimately, though, the hope still remains of having some sort of result we can see as a success, or goal met or exceeded.  After all, continuously falling short eventually just extinguishes the fire, instead of feeding it.  The beauty of sticking with it through rough times, unmet goals, injury, setback, dumb luck, colossally legitimately bad races, deprovement (another word that I'm calling a word) is that once out of the valley, the reward is greater than it was prior to entering.  It's not like I didn't appreciate or celebrate success in my pre-crash triathlon career.  I did.  I worked damn hard, and I accomplished more than my ok-ish runner self ever would have imagined.   At the same time, it's all just...different now.  In a way, I feel like success came too easily to me early on, and I wish that I'd been knocked down a few times prior to some of those results, so that I would have had a deeper appreciation of them.  If you had told me five years ago that I'd be sitting here with the same PRs in everything and I'd be fine with it, I would have felt uneasy.  Probably a little sad.  But, I actually am ok with it.  Chances are pretty damn high, really damn high, that I'm going to be one and done when it comes to IM winning and Kona qualifying, and that's fine.  Because, I know what I've been through in triathlon now, and no start line, let alone a finish line, is taken lightly.

   Races like Tremblant in 2017, Wisconsin last year, and now I'm throwing Texas onto that list, where everything on the day went well and I came through knowing I'd gotten my potential at the time out of myself-maybe externally, extrinsically, I didn't get any more out of it than I did for some of the IM successes of my early career, but the intrinsic satisfaction is indescribably deeper than it once was, and that I can't quantify.  Winning Musselman as a 26 year old little twerp upstart paled in comparison to how it felt to win as a 33 year old who'd had to get her shit together yet again after spending a Sunday in Australia in June weakly slumped on a curb, still racked with illness, instead of finishing her comeback IM 2.5 years later.  Failure/setbacks/etc suck at the time, but they just add something...extra...to it all down the line.  Even 16 year old Jennie on a cold November Saturday at the section V cross country meet could have told you that.  I would have been thrilled with that sectional shield regardless, but if I'd nailed that race the weekend before and felt like I *should*  The athletes I admire the most aren't the ones who are the most polished, the fastest, or the who spout niceties about hard work and dedication, but the ones that have remained positive yet real through real adversities (beyond the rogue ok but not great race here and there), or who balance their lives in ways I can't imagine (parents...you're all on this list).  Even-rare moment of saying something nice about Dave-have to include the husband here.  The dude has had all kinds of injuries, including a broken ankle bone that didn't heal, he's deferred a million IMs, fell short of Kona time and time again, works a demanding job as a managing partner in an accounting firm, and has still endured on and gotten another ticket to the big island this year. (**For those that are concerned about the state of my marriage while reading that, I just started choking on gum and he made an obscene gesture at me, so, we're all normal and good over here.)
This was a solid life moment

   Anyways.  That was all a whole long of rambling psychoanalytical bull.  I've been relatively down on training the past couple of weeks trying to kick a cold that's taken up long-term residence in my sinuses, I started on a writing roll last weekend finishing up a paper for my online epidemiology course, so all those thoughts that float around my head while strolling through the same woods with my dogs on a daily basis ended up here (and, Welby, our IG conversation on this stuff spurred me on).  When it comes down to it, lessening my own fear of "failure" has been a working point for me for many years.  The more success I had, the more I came to fear not living up to that, which was failure in my mind.  When various forms of failure eventually came, I had to figure out how to get past them.  I can't not care.  I've been known to wear my heart on my sleeve, and I don't hide my emotions at the ends of races.  Nothing about my athletic existence is refined or acted; it's all genuine and real.  I feel things, and I want it to be this way.  Bad things are inevitable in athletics, though, and we can't selectively feel only the good ones (note: I'm talking about triathlon here, not life.  I'm not going to act like I've really had legit bad life stuff happen.  That's a whole different world than my life, very, very thankfully).  Still.  We can learn from the bad things.  We can put them behind us, and realize you know what, it's ok, that didn't make me less of a person or change my life or me fundamentally, if anything I'm stronger.  We can let them help us appreciate, enjoy, and take pride in even the smallest good things along the way and the effort that goes into them, and not just because they're the means to an end.  And when those big good things happen?  Well, that's just pretty awesome, too.             

I was trying to find pictures for this post, and I randomly clicked on a few .jpg files in list view in my downloads folder, hoping they might be some sort of decent surprise.  They kind of weren't, but I'm going to include them anyways.  I suppose a random rainbow sort of works here, though.

A Welby pic from Placid kinda fits, too.  #kona2019troublepreview

Bunny cakes that look like they were decorated by a five year old are never wrong, either.  I like cake.

Because, let's face it, probability dictates that any random selection of pictures from any of my devices will include one of my dogs doing nothing that I definitely had to take and save.

And finally, a beaver.  You're welcome.  Yes, I watched a PBS special on beavers last year and was not mature enough to not spend half of it crying laughing.  Yes, I took a picture of it.  Yes, I apparently transferred it from my phone to my laptop.  And yes, it is absolutely necessary to conclude this with a beaver.  That's all.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Mind games

   I long considered myself an athlete who could turn on the mental toughness automatically when needed.  When not in motion, leading up to big competitions or tough workouts, I could be somewhat of a wreck, worrying and anxious, but I could always count on all of that dissipating almost instantaneously upon starting.  I think that's part of why running/triathlon has been such a huge part of my life for so long-it always has just been a place where I've found strength and confidence I lack in other areas of my life.  This was especially apparent once I started triathlon racing, and found that I just had almost an alter ego on the bike in races vs training.  I have a million different mental strategies for breaking down time and distance and dealing with the pain of exertion, and I used to very, very rarely doubt that I'd gotten the most that I could out of my body in tough workouts or races, regardless of outcome.  I've also just generally been a happy person-always up for a laugh, good-natured ribbing, or immature humor, someone who finds enjoyment in the simple things in life, someone who can be content on her own, or within the company of those close to me.  I can be hard on myself, I have my fair share of social anxieties, and I sometimes struggle with feeling like I belong or wondering what to do with my life as a whole, but overall, I'm content with what I've created for myself.  But, I've had some experiences over the recent years that have shook these basic foundations, and I'm still recognizing this, and figuring out how to overcome it.  This winter and spring have brought on another big step.

 When I went through all of the "major" injury stuff in 2015, sure, that all had its moments of being mentally tough.  Being kept away from what you love to do always is, after all.  But, initially, that was more run of the mill-I had broken bones, I had surgery, but I also had x-rays to tell me when I was better, and protocols to help me along.  I could tell myself that the setbacks were going to make me stronger, blah blah blah.  I've written a ton in the past about the mental crap that comes with injury, and I've also felt somehow like issues that are black and white-i.e., my pelvis is broken vs I'm disappointed in my race-are more valid and support/sympathy-worthy.  2016 was kind of a gray area of different challenges-I could train some, I could race some, but it wasn't as much or as well as I wanted, I didn't know why, and I didn't know if I'd ever be able to get back to my abnormal previous "normal".  But then, I entirely rebuilt at the end of that year, and by the summer of 2017, there I was.  Musselman, IM Mont Tremblant, and Barrelman that year should have proved to me that I was capable. 

   Then, Argentina (round I) happened at the end of that year, and I let it shake me to the core.  Instead of just recognizing that I was sick that day and that how I felt for the next couple of months afterwards was the aftermath of pushing a weakened body beyond its limits, I decided it meant that I just sucked.  I questioned if that was just how I was going to race from that point on.  I got tested for every medical thing on the planet, driving myself nuts, and just being upset and not relieved when nothing showed up-I wanted something I could just easily fix, because otherwise it meant that I was a terrible athlete.  I threw myself back into training, wanting my run speed back, insisting that I needed to force running more and running harder and racing a lot, or else I'd never see it again.  In reality, that was probably the opposite of what I needed.  I'd have stretches where things went relatively ok, mixed with days where I'd absolutely force something to see the numbers I wanted, which were then invariably followed by days where I just couldn't function, until the cycle would repeat.  My training logs contained a fair amount of lies of omission; I knew how to make things seem ok on paper so I wouldn't risk being (necessarily) pulled back, until I couldn't anymore.  Even in individual workouts, if my power was a little less than the previous week, or my run pace slightly slower, I'd mentally shut down, telling myself I was never going to get any better, it didn't have a point anyways, I was a 3:51 IM marathoner now, after all.  No matter how many TED talks Jesse sent me about trying to overlook failures and see successes, I could only see those days where I'd failed my workouts.  And if I failed, I couldn't objectively see that it was because I'd been driving too hard on a body that had never truly recovered from what it had been through that winter; I could only see it as failing because I wasn't working hard enough, and I was just mentally weak on top of that.  I was locked in a vicious cycle.

   I was also afraid to race another tri until everything was perfect again, which resulted in some of the most mentally limited racing of my entire nearly 23 years of running and triathlon competitions.  Exhibit A was Eagleman, where I let not being able to hit my goal power within the first 10 miles of the race run my entire ride, vs thinking logically about the situation, adjusting the target, and pushing to the best of my abilities on that day, something I'd been able to do dozens of times in the past.  Then, I went to Tremblant, where I thought that my last second heroics to nip my way into the money were a turning point-finally, a positive, run confidence, something I could build from!  And build I did-to a fault.  I was going back to Placid next!  Back to the site of my most exciting triathlon day.  I knew I wasn't going to win again, or even podium, it was an all-star lineup, but that place has magic, and I was going to make it a perfect race.  But first, I had to train perfectly for that next month.  I pushed paces and powers and durations, I hammered warm ups and cool downs so that my overall workout paces and powers would be good, too, not just the intervals (face palm).  I restricted eating to get down to less than what I'd weighed last time I'd raced there.  I had some bad days, and of course stressed endlessly about them until I way overcompensated forcing a good one.  In the final couple of weeks, I looked back at the last couple of weeks I'd done prior to what I considered to be my last truly good IM-Chattanooga in 2014-and forced myself to beat those numbers, so I'd have "confidence".  I did get really fit.  I felt like I'd gotten as close to perfect as I could.  Then, on race day, I had a few splits that weren't what I wanted or felt harder than I had it in my thick skull that they should.  I actually just needed food, and to not have pushed as hard as I did in the weeks leading up to the race.  I decided it was because I sucked, Argentina was happening again, something was wrong with me, and I should just give up.  I tried to give up.  My support crew wouldn't let me.  I pulled it sort of back together.  I was ok, but I was also disappointed.

   I moped for a bit.  I reluctantly decided that because Dave was racing Wisconsin, I might as well enter too, since I was going to be there anyways.  I half-assed the next week because I didn't really care-and actually, I half-assed it because my Placid push was when I had started my ass pain problems in earnest in the first place.  I trained and raced over the next few weeks, putting in the work, but the disconnect I felt and the caution over my butt pain was actually a blessing, because it kept my tendencies towards excess in check.  I went to Wisconsin honestly feeling...relaxed.  I didn't feel like I'd trained "enough" (even though I had), and this was Dave's comeback race, so if it didn't go that well for me, so what?  Then, of course, it went well, to say the least.  With a renewed confidence in my abilities came a renewed sense of pressure, though.  I went to Taiwan putting pressure onto myself to try to go for the win.  I wasn't even close-no excuses, I raced flat and other women were better than me.  I should have called it a season there, but instead I got it into my head that I still felt ok enough (which wasn't a lie, at least), and that I wanted to go back to Argentina, and rewrite the script there. 

   The result?  Back to pushing it in training.  I looked back at the hardest three week block I'd done before Placid, and decided that I was going to better than in terms of training hours and intensity.  I actually was successful at this, and nailed those weeks, but-shocker-after racing three IMs in the span of 2.5 months, that was pretty much a horrible idea.  In my mind, I had to prove myself day in and day out, that no matter how tired I was, or how I felt, I could push out good numbers, because I felt like that was reassurance that last year's Argentina experience wouldn't happen again, replaced by some brilliant redemption race.  Not surprisingly, from the orthopedic front, this was when my butt went from there but stable, to "just gonna pretend it's not happening and deny that it's flat out painful"-never great there.  I remember exactly when the switch flipped.  12 days before the race, I did some hard bike intervals-had to beat the numbers from when I did the same workout before Wisconsin and make the intervals longer than written, after all-and felt absolutely miserable trying to finish the ride out to 3 hours afterwards.  I thought about quitting early, and just resting the rest of the day.  I absolutely should have done so.  Instead, I finished the ride-not easily, since I didn't want to ruin the overall wattage average after I'd worked so hard in the intervals-and went out for a run, where my HR was sky high, and I felt awful-but I had to finish the hour, and it had to be under 7:00 pace, because I had to prove to myself that no matter how I felt, I could still produce a good run and Argentina just wasn't going to repeat itself.  Two days later, I did manage to pull off a decent Thanksgiving 10k, but my HR never got within 10-15 beats of normal (high) after that point, I never felt good again, and on race day...Argentina repeated itself.  This time around, though, after I got medical clearance again, I at least had the awareness to look back and say, well, hey, I tried, but that was just flat out overreaching.  I was able to recognize the trap that I'd again fallen into, although I'm not sure that I wouldn't have just jumped right back in had my butt been intact at the time.

   Then came the winter, with all the butt issues-rehab, no improvement, MRI, PRP, recovery, etc.  Through it all, I could at least see that if nothing else, all that jazz was giving all the overreached systemic stuff a chance to right itself, one that I probably wouldn't have given it under my own accord.  I won't deny that I had times of just feeling really, really low throughout all of that.  I was in pain, more pain than I had been in while I was training, only I wasn't training, which was upsetting in and of itself, I could again kiss my spring racing plans goodbye, and I had no idea if or when I'd be able to start running or racing again.  People would ask well-meaning questions about what my racing plans were, and I'd have to hold myself back from unnecessarily biting their heads off.  There was fair confusion as to what was actually going on with me, and I didn't really know, either.  I'm not going to act like I at all experienced any sort of clinical depression, because I didn't, but I was situationally sad, and I had moments where I couldn't motivate myself to do anything other than lay on the couch, and browse pandora and amazon music until I found some sort of melancholy song that fit my mood.  There were days where going to work to treat the pain of others, when I couldn't exist without my own, felt like it was going to be an immense burden, until I got there and realized how much I had needed to do so to just get out of my own head.  I mean, I was fine, but I also just generally didn't feel like my normal self, if that makes sense. 

   Throughout all of that, I used swimming as an outlet, and eventually started biking and using the elliptical, as well.  March brought a few moments of weakness in which I went out and ran before the PRP was ready, but by and large, I saw no reason to push things when it came to training durations and intensities.  What for?  Who cared?  What did it freaking matter, anyways?  Before it had become apparent that the hamstring/butt stuff was going to be a bigger deal than initially anticipated, I'd met with Jesse, with a large part of the theme being how to best get me to take the pressure off of myself, and take a more moderate, consistent approach to training.  Well, there I was.  When we started increasing swim and bike load, I remember seeing some workouts that I doubted I could do-but so what?  I could try.  If it didn't happen, then, oh well, but it wasn't going to be because I'd told myself I couldn't before I even started.  If I didn't feel good in a warm up, I'd back off and tell myself to save it for when it counted, instead of pushing it harder.  I stopped letting every low dictate to me that all was lost.  I eased into longer rides.  I still had my moments where I gave up on myself during workouts here and there, but this time around, something got me started again, telling myself it wasn't all or nothing, that I could modify if needed, and usually the result of that was finishing more strongly than I'd started.  I started to see results.  I was far from as fit as I'd been many times in the past, but the thing was, I was actually enjoying training again, not dreading every tough session.  They were opportunities to see what I could do, vs chances I'd find out what I couldn't do.  And, if I needed rest, I needed rest.  It didn't mean that I was somehow not going to be able to produce anything ever again.

   Then, in early April came the SI joint and bursa injections, which got me back to where I was last year-some pain, but functional, and able to start running again.  I had already registered for IM Texas-Dave was racing, I wanted to swim (ha...on how that worked out), I was up to enough bike volume that I could try to finish the ride to get in a long one that weekend, and if nothing else, I could be a pro female body on the start line for slot allocation (wasn't enough, but the intent was there).  When I started to run 30min straight again (all of 3 weeks before the race), I started to hint that I might want to try to start the run.  There was a lot of feigning kidding (and fooling no one), ignoring, and finally being allowed to give my impassioned plea.  In summary, I wanted to prove something to myself-less could be more.  I knew that what we talked about in December, about taking the pressure off and therefore moderating the training was true, but I also know myself well enough to know that I was just going to fall right back into the same traps if I didn't experience it first hand.  I didn't want to do what I did last year, which was let Argentina rock my confidence, completely overcompensate seeking perfection, and throw myself down the rabbithole of perfection-seeking before racing again.  I really wanted to believe it was all true, and I think that deep down, I did, because let's face it, not making every day suck in training was actually a lot more enjoyable.  So, what better way to do this than to plan to race Texas, a race I'd entirely given up on a couple of months ago?

   So, while racing was a terrible idea on paper, it was actually rather brilliant.  Without it even on the horizon, I hadn't been a giant asshole in training for weeks/months on end.  The idea was so absurd, that it just seemed fun.  I had no expectations.  I had no business doing so.  Plus, without having gone to the well so many times in the course of training, mentally, I was looking forward to being there on race day, something I hadn't really felt before many races last year.  I didn't know if my butt would make it, but if it didn't, so what?  I'd never expected to be able to race, so nothing lost.  Additionally, I'd be somewhere where I'd had previous success, something that's been hard for me in the past, yet I couldn't, in good conscious, compare myself to my past self, because I knew I wouldn't be close.  Sure, I hadn't run much, and I hadn't done many long rides, but I had pieced together a string of four decent 20-22 hour, moderate training weeks, which was supposed to be better for me than shelling myself for more "impressive" ones.  All in all, the setup was perfect-race with no (ok, low) expectations of power, pace, or place; find joy after a mentally low winter in being out there; maybe prove (with Argentina still relatively fresh in my mind) that less is more.  After fifteen IM finishes, I think I'd lost the power to surprise myself, as well, and I wanted to find that again.

  So, I planned on racing.  I read (well, got through about the first half) Deana Kastor's "Let Your Mind Run" on the plane, and took the messages to heart.  I'll readily admit, in my most cynical, negative moments, I would have read some of that book and just scoffed at it-whatever, sometimes I just can't be positive-but, I was in the right frame of mind for it this time around (disclaimer: I am absolutely, in no way, shape, or form, implying that it's possible to just positive think your way out of everything-quite the opposite.  Therapy, medications, etc are extremely important and necessary for many.  Needing extra help should not be stigmatized or seen as a weakness, because it's absolutely not, and instead should be supported and encouraged.  End disclaimer).  I'll get more into the race in a subsequent post, but, in summary, I raced with joy.  With freedom.  With both lightheartedness and grit.  I took in the sights, the sounds, the smells, the feelings.  I was present, in the moment, logical, rational, entirely process-oriented, and, when the time came to be so, tough.  I was so many things that I hadn't realized I'd let slip away from me over the past 1.5 years.  My mind, once always my ally, had become my liability-but, I made it my ally again. 

   Most importantly, I found hope, and trust.  I rode and ran virtually the same (or better) than 3 out of my 4 IMs last year, when my (lack of) training suggested that I had absolutely no business doing so-and this is the starting point.  Instead of seeing Wisconsin through the eyes of impostor syndrome-as one fluke day where I kind of got lucky sandwiched between a whole bunch of who I really was as an athlete-I'm now beginning to accept that no, that's actually what's in me, I just need to take all of these lessons on training moderation, letting go of pressure, and racing happy to heart, and carry them forward.  Am I still going to freak out here and there, push too hard to sometimes, bitch that I need to train more, and be a giant pain in the ass here and there?  Absolutely.  Let's not expect miracles, here.  But I know how I feel, and the optimism, hope, and honestly, relaxation over the fact that I just need to calm down, do what's asked of me and no more, listen to my body when it needs rest and communicate that is something that could only have been born from what went down last weekend.  I'm looking forward to feeling like I can, well, actually enjoy training, because it doesn't all have to be at intensities that only feel good when they're done.  Since Dave had to go be a jerk and Kona qualify (kidding! obviously), we're going to scratch the "let's go to Europe if it seems like your butt will be able to hold out" ideas we've been floating around, and I've set my sights on IM Mont Tremblant instead-partially because it's super practical, but also partially because it's a real freaking challenge for me to prove that I can let my actions be guided by all of these nice-sounding words.  Tremblant is where my best IM swim and run times are from, it's where I nailed down my one and only Kona qualification, and it's where I had some (avoiding adding freak, because attempting to tone down said impostor syndrome) nearly perfect day to end up on the podium in my first IM back after nearly three years.  Instead of looking at it as, "how on earth am I going to measure up to that?", I'm (currently, at least) choosing to see it as, "I love racing there, and looking forward to trying to get the chance to again".  The trick will be making that mindset last, but, thanks to taking one giant leap of faith in Texas, I think I can.  So here we go.

Tuesday, February 26, 2019

My story, in reverse

   I didn't even commit to any sort of imaging until January.  Argentina had turned into another disaster of an Ironman, sure, but I couldn't blame the left-sided sacral and proximal hamstring pain that had been a part of my life the entire season-halfway between finishing off the best training block I'd had all year and the race, my HR spiked 10-15 beats throughout everything I did, while my energy (and motivation) dropped.  Quite simply, I had overreached, and couldn't bring myself back in time.  But, whatever, the blood work checked out fine, any major underlying problem got ruled out, and I wasn't in any major rush anyways, figuring I'd need a few weeks to properly rest and rehab that ass pain to pull it back under control.  Unlike previous bouts, though, that pain wasn't coming back under control, but instead falling further out of it-once a week, I'd try a little ~20min test jog, with each becoming worse than the previous.  My main concern was something bone-related; in the back of my mind, my prior history of a sacral stress reaction and a stress fracture at the hamstring attachment loomed.  Not wanting to start up again, working through the pain, only to have it take me down entirely in, say, March, with race season around the corner, vs the middle of winter, I finally mustered up the courage (because I loathe asking for things) to email my hip doctor about the situation.  Within a few weeks that felt longer than the months I'd been actively ignoring the pain, the MRI was done, and I was in the office, awaiting my fate.

   Give it five minutes.  I told myself that at the start of runs more times than I can count this past season, as my body struggled to figure out how to make a normal run motion, my left ass protesting and guarding its way up the street.  And, sure enough, five minutes would pass, and I'd have compensated my way into a normal pace and passable gait pattern.  The bike wasn't great, either, but I could ignore that, too.  The more I managed to push through it all, the more I was able to convince myself that nothing could be that wrong.  The thing was, all along, on paper, I looked fine.  I cut some swim shorts because of a cranky shoulder, occasionally had a wonky knee limit me, and of course I just had some days where I felt awful overall and couldn't hack it, but the ass?  Not once did I give in solely because that hurt.  Sure, I did worry that their might be something wrong, but then I'd go out and put forth another solid run, and I'd be able to reassure myself that I was fine.  I can't pinpoint when the pain started this time around.  I remember it protesting the day after Eagleman when I went for a jog between travel bouts, but that seemed normal.  It locked up on me once during my longest ride prior to IM Lake Placid, but then it calmed down, let me finish out six hours, and I happily ran 20 miles the following day.  I remember the pain increasing leading into Placid, but justifying that with the taper, race, and recovery, I'd be fine.  When the ass hurt during the race, which is uncharacteristic for my injuries, as usually race adrenaline overrides all,  I justified that it was just because I'd had a bad run, and had been feeling all of the bad things.  When the ass hurt even more with starting up training again the next weekend, I justified that it was just because I'd been lazy, and needed to get moving again.  I got serious about rehab in August, and actually, it did begin to feel better. I think that September gave me a reprieve, but I was also riding that Wisconsin high into my Taiwan ambitions, and the mind can be pretty darn powerful at times like those.  During the marathon in Taiwan, I remember thinking to myself that I was glad that that was it for the season, because I needed to get a little more serious about taking care of my ass.  Then, even after a very long and uncomfortable flight, I got home, and decided I didn't want to be done-I had a score to settle (ha, on how that one worked out) with Argentina, and I was really quite enjoying training.  My ass had made it through the year to that point, so what were a couple more months?  Despite those limp up the street run starts, soreness afterwards, and nights spent awake with something throbbing, though, I legitimately did enjoy training all fall, until the wheels fell off at the very end.  I was consistent, fit, in a good mental space with it all.  Sure, it didn't work out, but I don't regret those months.  Plain and simple, I was satisfied, happy, despite the growing pain.

   It wasn't like I didn't have precedence for looking the other way.  That left ass hurt in the summer of 2017, but it was after I'd gotten back from Australia, where I'd spent the better part of the month of June doing absolutely nothing.  The more I got back into training, the better it felt-like it just needed to get going again.  The flare I'd had earlier that spring had been pacified with some cortisone injections and a few easy days.  When, after almost two years of strictly right-sided problems, the left side first started to hurt in the fall of 2016, I did have some pause, as an MRI to check on my right-sided pain the previous winter had shown a left-sided sacral stress reaction that hadn't even felt like much of anything.  But, despite my inclination that if I'd had damage with no major symptoms, major symptoms=damage, that fall MRI proved me wrong, and, at the time (until the pain kept recurring), we thought that it might have been related to the softball of a uterine fibroid I ended up having removed a couple of months later, anyways.  Regardless, the old standby of self-rehab got it better, anyways. 

   Besides, it didn't take some complex mathematical equation to get me to accept that some degree of pain on that side might be something I'd just have to deal with.  I smashed it onto hard-packed dirt in Cozumel four years ago.  It took the impact.  That left SI joint has shown signs of being widened on CT scans.  It likes to crack and pop all on its own with residual instability.  Some overuse injuries at that proximal hamstring attachment actually drove me into triathlon in the first place way back when, too.  It might have been problematic long-term even if it had been my bad side at first.  But, it wasn't.  My fractures, hip damage, etc, were all on the right.  I relied on the left for a good portion of 2015, as I pushed every recovery from everything to, and sometimes beyond, the limit.  In 2016 and 2017, my body started to figure out ways to keep all of those damaged areas on the right quiet.  If, for example, I shifted my right ass off of my bike saddle, the bone spur that resulted from that fracture healing wouldn't hurt.  After two years of right-sided pain, which finally went away in early 2017 after a long, slow rehab from my two late 2016 surgeries (the fibroid removal and the sports hernia repair), the left-sided issues seemed just like irritating noise that I was going to have to deal with from compensating from some structural imperfections on to an imperfect side.  At times, I almost felt comforted by the fact that my right side, which had seemed hopeless for so long, felt fine.  As long as I was functional, training, competing, I was happy, even with some pain.  I could accept that I try to do a sort of unnatural activity at a high level on an imperfect pelvis.  I don't expect no pain.  It is what it is.       

   The day I went down, 11/30/14, I was racing with powdered aminos in the bottle I carried on my down tube for the first time, something I'd tried in training lead up until that race.  I was worried that some might have settled out to the bottom of the solution, so I wanted to make sure it was completely emptied into my front aero bottle, so I got them all out.  The throw bottle collapsed in on itself as I squeezed its contents into the aero bottle, leaving some liquid at the bottom.  I laughed to myself as I blew some air into the bottle in order to reinflate it to get that last bit of fluid out-in high school, my teammate had coined the term, "giving the bottle a blow job", which was obviously hilarious at the time, and somehow, maturely, still amusing during an IM a decade and a half later.  I started to finish the refill.  Then, I started to feel my bike swerving beneath me.  It took a moment to register what was going on, but I had time to think, this isn't how it's supposed to end.  Instead of just taking the fall, a run of the mill skid on my side, I tried to correct, and made the situation worse.  I don't know exactly what happened next, but I felt an impact against the entire left side of my body, and I found myself laying on the downward sloped, hard packed dirt between the road and the bike path, my bike strewn beside me, with evidence suggesting it had done a perfect flip, landing exactly upside down. 
I'm sure the impact hurt, but I've blocked that from my memory.  My first instinct was to get started again.  My bike seemed ok, although the aero bottle holder had broken, and it was hanging upside down, so I couldn't see my bike garmin.  I thought to turn on my garmin watch, so I'd have something to look at.  The left side of my pelvis throbbed, but my heart rate was where it should be, at least for the time being.  I debated pulling the flopping around aero bottle off, putting the garmin into my back pocket, and tossing the bottle at the next aide station, but figured I shouldn't waste equipment.  Eventually, the pain began to push the denial aside.  My HR was dropping, my power kicked back in and was 30W low, and as I sat up to navigate a turn in town, my loosened (unbeknownst to me) aerobars dropped.  After having another, am I going down again? moment, I stopped, stood up, and was immediately greeted with stabbing pains on my right side of my pelvis-the opposite side from what had taken the impact.  I thought I probably wouldn't be able to run with that.  And then I was surrounded by spectators and medics, and it was over.  Or, just beginning, really.

   What if I'd just gone down when I first started to lose control?  Would I have landed safely on my side, with road rash and bruises, but nothing major?  What if I hadn't been so worried about those final couple of ounces of fluid?  What if the wind had blown in that moment at just a slightly different angle?  What if I hadn't mistaken some water safety personnel for a buoy and swam past the turn into the swim exit-would I have been at a slightly different place in the road in that moment, where I might have kept control?  If my first tooth implant had taken, I never would have missed training, and I would have raced IM Arizona, instead of opting for the extra week of training.  What if I'd never even been born with whatever tiny genetic variant kept me from having two adult teeth, and I'd never needed that implant in the first place?  What if my brake had been just a fraction of a centimeter, in Coeur d'Alene earlier that year, keeping it from rubbing-would I have been content to have finished my season earlier then?  What if I'd never picked up some microscopic bacteria in Florida, leading to me getting sick at camp, eventually withdrawing from IM Los Cabos, and ending up racing Coeur d'Alene?  What if all of these tiny little flaps of the butterfly's wings had never happened?  Would I have ended up on the ground that day?  Would I be here, over four years later, writing this, analyzing how my current situation is so intimately linked into that one dumb, stupid moment, that moment that changed the trajectory of a large part of my life, that has reminded me it occurred via some sort of bodily pain every day since?  I'm not going to deny that these what-ifs haunt me sometimes.  When I'm able to train through the pain, not so much-then, I can override the pain and shut those little gnawing thoughts right up.  But in down times, like now, they get their chance to taunt me.  In plain terms, it sucks. 

   At the same time, in my moments of clarity and optimism, I see the good in everything that's transpired as a result of that moment.  I wouldn't have learned as much about resilience, fight, grit, etc, as I have otherwise.  I always trusted my ability to hurt, but I guess it's given me more evidence to support that.  The times I've gotten things right, those races I've nailed, have filled me with a greater joy than in previous years.  I'm not going to deny that I still take bad workouts and races to heart, because that's my personality, but I've come to appreciate good days and workouts for what they are in and of themselves, not merely as means to the end of a race.  The race doesn't always work out, so I sure as heck better be finding a deep satisfaction along the way.  Just because Argentina was total shit this year doesn't mean that I regret this fall, because I know how I felt working my way through that training.  Sure, I ended up overstepping it, but lessons were learned.  While, like many endurance athletes, I've always had a sense of wanting to make sure I did what I could to give myself the best chance of success on race day, having a race day end up in a Mexican hospital also gave me another perspective-if it doesn't work out, am I going to regret any decisions that I made along the way?  Shit's too uncertain to throw my entire life out for a dumb sport.  Sure, I'll still go to bed early so I can get up and swim (note: giving up the comfort of my bed to go embark upon an activity that allows me to work towards a goal that benefits me and me alone just is NOT a sacrifice), but if I want real ice cream and not mashed up frozen bananas here and there, so be it.  Additionally, maybe it goes without saying, but even in my worst moments, I can appreciate how small my issues actually are-I don't have a terminal or chronic disease, I don't have a sick child, my material needs are more than met, I'm in a happy marriage, I have the time and resources to train and compete around the world, my family is close by and loving, and overall, I'm happy in my situation in life.

  As for right now?  That MRI from last month showed some glute tendonitis, some asymptomatic, unrelated hip joint stuff, an "assault" stress reaction at the sacrum, whatever that means (I'm guessing "old and not important", since my doctor didn't really seem to think anything of it), and some partial tearing of my proximal hamstring tendon at the attachment, with related bone marrow edema.  That one required attention.  We opted to try PRP injections that in hopes that the tendon would heal up enough to get going again.  The surgical option sucks, not a really high success rate at returning to high-level sport even after a lengthy recovery period, so I'm not really about that.  I'm now four weeks post-injection.  If I'm being honest, at the moment, everything still hurts more than it did before the injection, with some right-sided stuff talking to me a bit again, as well.  I can swim, bike limited amounts, and elliptical a little bit, but running is a total no.  I haven't exactly been sunshine and rainbows lately.  Despite saying all of the right things prior to the injections about how smart I'd be, blah blah blah, I've had my share of moments lately of pushing into pain amounts that I know are not in my best interests in frustration.  It's dumb.  Really dumb.  Which is why I went about writing this-because maybe, just maybe, getting these thoughts, these dumb little what-ifs, out in writing will keep them from bouncing around in my head, leading to poor decision making on a physical nature. 

   So, I guess I should wrap this up here, since my dogs need a walk and I need to clean and pack and get some actual work done.  Fact of the matter is, it's easy to drive oneself nuts thinking about the tiny things that could have gone differently to result in a different outcome.  But, my cards have been dealt.  Instead of obsessing about how one more shuffle might have given me a better hand, I can make the most of the one I have, because guess what?  I still have a chance to do something with it.  Some people get truly shit hands, and don't get that shot.  I don't always have to want to celebrate a less than ideal hand, but being angry about it and throwing my cards across the table isn't going to solve a darn thing.  Instead, like throughout every other pelvic sequelae that's result from one tiny moment in time, when it comes down to it, I can pick up my cards, allow myself to have feelings about them, but smile, keep playing with whatever comes my way, do my best to make the most of it, and appreciate the hands that work out all the more.  That's life, and mine is pretty darn good no matter what.