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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.

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