Saturday, June 30, 2012

I've got a bike you can ride it if you'd like.

I rode my third century ride yesterday. A century ride, for those who are not familiar, is a hundred mile bicycling ride. In this case, it was a local, sponsored event that also included other shorter length rides of 25, 55 and 75 miles. The longest distance was slightly over the century mark: it was 104 miles. Yesterday’s ride was trying for me, more mentally than physically. I have to hand it to the area cyclists for continually confronting the highly underrated but menacing New England hills and the even more frightening Connecticut drivers. They pass you at such a high rate of speed, and seem infuriated by any cyclist’s mere existence. You sense their total disregard for human life as you clutch your bike in fear. The Connecticut roads are rough and torn up all over from several seasons of snowplow damage. Unfortunately, my experience yesterday contained all of these experiences. I kept cycling though, with a constant awareness that I was uncertain why exactly I was riding these miles. From moment to moment I would glimpse at the makings of a pleasant ride, and would try to tap into a more relaxed attitude. Then it would get difficult again, and I would try to tap into some deeply recessed New England toughness. I thought back to my history with riding bicycles. I tried to get a better understanding of why I had such conflicted feelings. My first memory of riding, or rather of someone else riding was when I was just under nine years old. I lived in a lake community. There were six of us. I remember running after my brother Rob while he rode fearlessly around the neighborhood, the way boys do, dashing over speed bumps and around corners. He went around a corner too quickly and hit a patch of sand. He fell off his bike and cut his entire chin open. Of course, this was another era where you could just go to a neighbor’s house and she would sew up your chin right at the kitchen table (she was a nurse). That is exactly what my brother and I did. His accident shook me though. Every time I rode by that corner, I would most likely cringe. I am sure if I did it today I would have the same reaction. I remember walking past the corner on my way back from the bus stop, observing the blood spots from my brother’s chin fade into the pavement. 
We lived in a perfect neighborhood to ride bikes. Unfortunately, I was always the little one in my family, and among the kids in the neighborhood. The bigger kids were always reluctant to let me tag along, doubting that I would be able to keep up. I recreated this scenario today on the ride. I sensed that I was pushing too hard, frantically, not riding, just trying to keep up. The Century ride was frustrating me; it felt like I was furiously going nowhere.
We eventually moved out of the Lakeside neighborhood and closer to town. Inevitably, I started riding farther and on busier roads. Although that particular sleepy lake community had a few busy months, the rest of the year the town shut down after 5pm and was asleep all Sunday. When I was about 12 years old, I acquired a pink Huffy bike. I rode it in parades. I was never entirely comfortable with a pink bike. It was very girly and I felt that it somehow hindered my riding or at least my young credibility. When I say pink I mean that everything was pink: the rubber handle bars grips, the wide hot pink seat, and the tires and body of the bike were different shades of pink, each brighter than the one before. Each handlebar grip had pink glittery tassels that came out the ends. My grandfather found employment for my siblings and me delivering newspapers, and each of us would take off in a different direction early every morning, before school and early Saturday and Sunday mornings, as well. It became a dreaded thing to do, and none of it was worth the few dollars a week we each obtained. My newspaper route took me up a road called Colonial Drive. I lived on a dirt road that was across the way from a large hidden pond hidden behind overgrowth. There were dirt trails carved thru the landscape. Local teenagers would ride their dirt bikes through these trails. There would be remnants of teenage partying at every corner. Early in the morning I would set out carrying a few dozen newspapers in my backpack. A few pesky flies would buzz around my ear. Colonial drive was a modern suburban street. It was over a mile long, and was a straight-up hill. I remember those mornings where you could see the air. You could feel and hear that sound of the dull, persistent heavy air and the beginnings of an excruciatingly hot day. Around half way up the hill I would get off my bike and start to push it, adding to the misery of this already challenging task. As I would crest the top of the hill tossing out my last paper, I knew that I would be rewarded with the opportunity to ride back down that steep and fast hill, back into the swampy pond area and eventually into my driveway. I would cruise down the hill with my empty newspaper bag fluttering in the wind only to be reminded of that vision of my brother’s bloody chin as I greeted the pesky flies crossing over the dirt trails. I would never fully be able to let go and enjoy that downhill ride. Even today, I feel some anxiety cycling down some long and winding hill. Soon after these paper route tribulations, I took a long hiatus from the world of riding bikes. My family moved from the area, and we left behind the quiet winter streets where perhaps one or two cars would pass you by in an hour on your bicycle. I stopped trying to keep up with my brother and sisters in more ways than one, and then I took a path that took me far away from any bicycle ride.
I finally got back on a bike while living in Eugene, Oregon. I bought a heavy bike for a couple of dollars at a tag sale. Eugene is a prefect place to ride a bike with its countless bike paths and lanes. In Eugene, people used their bikes for more than recreation; it was an alternative mode of transportation.  I would often find myself doing errands on my bicycle, as it was much faster than driving. Though it was a short-lived time in my life, I have so many fond memories of cruising along at slow speeds. Many reasons took me away from Oregon and back east. 
When I quit smoking I tried to my hand at running. I have told this story before. Yet prior to this, there is another story that I frequently neglect to mention. After quitting smoking and moving back to a less than desirable living situation, I was constantly energized. I had too much pent-up, chaotic energy that desperately needed to be trimmed away. I decided to buy a real road bike. I had forgotten about how this part of the country is not very cyclist friendly. It was certainly no Eugene, Oregon.  I feared for my life at each turn on the busy suburban roads. So after a few times in the saddle, I went back to exploring running. Cycling would have to wait for another day. Then I developed an interest in triathlons. I would need to get my bike out to train. I knew I had to get out and ride, at least for a few miles. This became a regular frustration for me. I would load my bike on the car to drive somewhere away from my own neighborhood to ride on safer roads.
  Over the last several weeks since I started writing this entry, I have been training hard for my upcoming Half Ironman event this weekend. The race contains a fifty-six mile ride, so I have been on my bicycle quite a bit. I rode several 50 plus mile rides alone on the local rail trail. It provided me with plenty of time to think. I contemplated my relationship with the aluminum frame and race wheels underneath me. I tried different postures, different fuel, and, most importantly, a different mindset. I cursed at chipmunks darting in front of me.  Then something happened that I hope will, from this point on, change my riding.
My son, Elijah, has had his eye on my older road bike that I retired when I bought my new Cannondale. Elijah has an entirely different relationship with bikes. He skipped training wheels completely and has been a competent no-hands cyclist since the age of four. He is also now riding a unicycle. Finally, after much persistence from my son, I put air in the tires of my old road bike and took him out in an abandoned parking lot. He excitedly strapped his helmet on, got on the bike and began to pedal. He smiled as he zoomed past me, his hair blowing down his back in the wind. He was not racing, but was simply riding, effortlessly and freely. His young mind filled with euphoria as he spoke to me about how awesome it was, and how fast he could go. As I reached mile forty on my ride last week, I thought of Elijah. I often miss him while I am training. I thought of his soft giggle, his exuberance, and his enthusiasm. I sat up straighter on the bicycle and felt the wind against my face. I felt the glide of the wheels beneath me carrying me past trees and along side birds in the warm June sun. In that moment, I lost my fears of riding and of keeping up with everyone else. I finally enjoyed riding a bike. I was riding to escape, to go fast, and to feel good. I noticed how the wind was so loud that I could not hear my own thoughts. I had glimpses of this on the century ride. I was trying the see the positive in riding. I was putting my fear of the road aside and feeling the things I saw Elijah feel. He rode in the moment; he rode for the sake of riding.
  As I set out this morning on my last ride before my big race, I heard one of my favorite sounds of summer. I was riding up a gentle hill in the middle of the day under a hot summer sun. I heard the quiet buzzing from nearby. It was a rhythmic hum from the over grown side of the road that was full of wild flowers and pretty weeds. It pushed me on. I pedaled faster and relaxed my shoulders. I looked ahead and saw nothing but a winding suburban road ahead of me. I thought of my race, of that feeling of being on that pink Huffy when I wanted to jump off my bike and kick it to the side of the road. Then I remembered Elijah, his ease at pedaling the bike. I thought of his contentment, his comfort in the solitude of riding, in the simple act of pushing two wheels around powered only by his legs. I will still cringe at the cars coming up too fast behind me, at the potholes and the piles of soft, slippery sand. I will, however, ride from here on out with the gratitude of a young child. I will try to stop racing all the time, on a bicycle and everywhere else in my life as well, caught up in doing more, having more, being more. It is not always about pushing through the difficult things, the unpredictable things. It is also about surrendering to a life where we do not know what is around the corner; it is about enjoying the ride, while we can.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Swimming in January

This week marks the three year anniversary of my first triathlon. The year was 2009. Since that first race, I have completed dozens of triathlons, and I am now preparing for my first half Ironman distance (1.2 mile swim, 56 miles bike and 13.1 mile run). In the time prior to that first triathlon, I had run several 5k races, and had even worked my way up to a number of longer distance events. I found racing buddies. We all drove to the races together, sometimes wearing matching shirts. We found camaraderie at finish line festivities and our post-race coffee. We convinced each other to try new distances, new events, and pushed each other past our fears. I credit part of my success today to these three people for believing in me and encouraging me. Steve, his wife, Kim, and her sister, Stephanie, are fantastic people and great athletes, as well. After countless 5k races, Steve suggested that we needed something else, something that took us to a different fitness level, and something that gave us more of a challenge. On New Year’s Day of 2009, I received a call from him while I was grocery shopping in the local market. I heard his excited voice on the other end: “Heath, listen: we are signing up for a triathlon. They are going to sell out and I will sign you up now, but I need to know right now.”
 I stood there in the cereal aisle listening to him. I tried to speak: “but Steve, I don't swim like that.” He interrupted me: “Heather, man, you just have to know how to doggie paddle. You know that- right? I mean, come on Heath, you grew up on a lake. You can do it. This is nothing.” Steve continued to try to persuade me. I reluctantly agreed and told him what would become the familiar information of race registration: age on race day, emergency contact name and phone number, shirt size, waiver agreement signature and all the associated fees. Instantly, my world of triathlons began.
I grew up next to a lake and loved to swim. I stayed in the water all day long. I would come home after a long hot day at the beach and still fixate on swimming. I would imagine the streets being filled with water so that I could swim to school. I loved to be in water though I never swam competitively. My brother, sisters and I would dive down to find the old stonewalls on the bottom of the man- made lake that spread out over five area towns. We would swim on a private beach at my grandparents’ home. My sisters and I found the public beach across the lake much more appealing because it had many more boys on it. We would swim clear across the lake to the other, more populated beach. My grandmother would yell over to us from the doorway of her sliding glass doors. At times, she even sent my grandfather out to retrieve us via a row boat. Suddenly, thirty something years later, I found myself standing in a dressing room under a fluorescent light in the swim shop trying on swimsuits. It was the middle of January. My skin color was a whiter shade of New England winter. 
I felt my intimidation grow as I walked into the warm pool area. I sat with my legs dangling in the pool in front of the life guards. As I watched swimmers in a steady stream go quickly up and down the lanes, my self-doubt grew. I slowly immersed myself into the cool water. I flailed around the water, my arms fatiguing quickly and grew out of breath after only swimming one length of the pool. One of the lifeguards was an older woman. She sat silently in her chair. She was rigid in her body language and her tone. I regarded this outward appearance as her dislike of me, but then I reconsidered, and conjectured that she held her own life's hurt so clearly in her posture and manner. She was in a kind of self-protection mode brought on by a painful life, but there was most likely a soft heart under her armor. I looked to her and enthusiastically told her I was doing the triathlon. She glared at me for what seemed like several minutes. In an animated manner, I continued to tell her that if she wanted to give me some tips, I was open to it. She then turned her head and said with a faded southern twang: “Well, you're going to drown.” I looked at the guard. Her name was Bonnie. I said: “maybe so, but I am a very determined woman.”
Bonnie continued to watch me get into the pool every day. She reluctantly and gruffly would shoot tips at me as she walked past my lane for the next several months. “Put your head down! Stop flailing! Keep your legs together!  Kick! Point your hands down!” One afternoon, a few months later, she saw my frustration and came over to the side of the pool where I was resting. She spoke softly. She told me to imagine an oval ring in front of my face and that each time I go to put my hand into the water I had to put it evenly through the ring. She said to relax, and that my body would naturally know what to do; just to let it. In the end, Bonnie not only helped me become a stronger swimmer, she often pointed to me as an example for other swimmers. She would point to me in the pool to new swimmers, some of them training for their first triathlon: “You should have seen her when she first came in.” I like to believe that my own determination wore off on Bonnie. Over the last few years, Bonnie has shed over fifty pounds and has incorporated an exercise program into her life. I may have helped her as much as she helped me.
I continued to train, trying to shake off the horror stories told to me about being kicked in the face during the swim part of triathlon, and about the excessive amount of chaotic and intense energy at these events. I thought this kind of energy would place it right up my alley; however, it was the dread of this controlled disorder that almost deterred me from continuing to do races recently. I was feeling burned out, tired and not sure why I why I continued to put myself through these anxiety inducing events. On the other hand, I was hooked on them and was uncertain where this compulsion came from.
As January rolled around this year, I continued to search for my own personal answer. The registration window came and went to participate in that tri event that had been my very first one back in 2009. I found myself training with Sue, who has now become a friend and training guru, that has competed in the Ironman triathlon event, a race that consists of a 2.2 mile swim, followed by a 112 mile bike ride and concluded by a 26.2 full marathon distance. I found myself vicariously experiencing these Ironman races and triathlons through her accounts of them. I listened with amazement, contemplating my own future in participating in one of these Ironman events. A few weeks ago, I finally contacted the race director and asked if I could have a spot in the local triathlon, the one that started me off. I was still unable to answer the question of why exactly I continued to participate in these events, and why, more importantly, I allowed myself to succumb to doubt and pressure that preventing me from even trying.
I stopped writing this blog last week because of training, work and life, as well as my own paranoia. I began writing the answer to the above question and about my love of competing in triathlons while my head simultaneously worked against me. I envisioned dramatic conclusions to the race where I would be dead due to some tragic misfortune. Despite these obsessive thoughts, I actually became excited about the event a few days before the race. As I rode with a friend through the cycling part of the course, I informed him of the small details: where the hills are, where they had recently repaved the roads, where the transition area is. I excitedly relived the feeling of coming around the corner to see the stop light right before the descent that is the quarter mile remaining to the finish. This is where the crowds of people gather to cheer on the participants. As I relayed my own triathlon stories, I remembered the tension and thrill in the air, that we, as a group of amateur athletes, were doing something that pushed us out of our comfort zones. We were striving to get more out of life, at a time of day before most people were even awake on a Sunday morning. I thought of the sun coming up over the pond, the fog lifting over the trees, uncovering the day. I thought about the cold sand between my toes as I lined up to enter the water. The swim is probably the most difficult and anxiety- provoking part of a triathlon. I thought of hearing passing comments, some of them filled with doubt, others were a mutual swapping of encouragement. I felt the camaraderie. I thought of where I was seven years ago, smoking over two packs a day, barely being able to chase my then toddler around the playground.
I pushed through the triathlon, taking two full minutes off of my previous time. I heard my name at every corner. Over the years, I have taken pride in how I have established my own relationships within this particular small town community.  The site of the swim of the triathlon is also the place where my son’s father had his first manic episode, and this always provokes a sense of dread when I visit that place. This history was before my son was born, but it still stays with me and how I think of this community. Over the years, I have reconfigured my identity to this town. I took the scary and difficult memories, and turned them into strength. 
I had my usual post-race thoughts to do better, of wanting to immediately push myself harder, to be stronger and faster. After the race, I was talking with some friends, and found myself speaking to an acquaintance of one of these friends. I believe her name was Michelle. She was as small, fit woman who exuded warmth. She was charged to have just competed in her first triathlon. As we spoke, she commented on my necklace, a small silver ring shape tied to a piece of leather that had engraved on it the words swim bike run. She said how much she liked it. I looked at her and, in unrestrained moment, asked her if she wanted the necklace, as I untied the damp knot from behind my neck. I handed her the necklace, explaining that I wanted her to have it. She protested as I placed the necklace in her hand. I said to her: “this is what life is about- right?” She then gave me a big hug. I walked away from her knowing I had indeed won, won so much than a race.