When I was in a sophomore in high school, I thought I was going to become a Personal Trainer...
...in part because I was an athlete, and in part because I thought sitting behind a desk was about the worst thing you could do to make a living. Because of a lot of things which boil down to an eating disorder, living abroad and growing up despite all that, I didn’t become a Personal Trainer, ever.
I didn’t, really, even become an athlete like I’d planned until I was in graduate school and decided to run a marathon and I fell in love with training again when, no matter how much I might have wanted to be even mildly competitive, time had passed me by.
So too with coaching others. When you’ve invested in three graduate degrees which lead you to a desk job (and the student loans to go with them) you better damn well sit behind the desk you traded in the running shoes and the bed for, because you bought that desk over and over and now you’ve got to sit behind it.
But, I’m in my thirties now, and I did Ironman (and I didn’t do great, but not bad, either) and now I spend many hours on the bike and thinking about the bike and how so many people want to be fast on the bike but still haven’t gotten there, and from my lovely vantage point from this desk of mine, it occurred to me that even in my un-athletic life in which I did not become a coach or trainer, I’ve learned a thing or two through the races for which I’ve signed up and the training which leads me to them.
The most important thing, the vital thing, which I wish more people understood and appreciated, is this: greatness isn’t built on quick-fixes, fads, or coaches which tell you that four weeks with them and you'll be World Class. Any sport like cycling— or, long distance running— instead, is a slow mastery of form and efficiency which forms the opportunity for strength to build. Without learning the proper movements and creating muscle memory for those movements, developing pure power will not ever get you to the finish line. And, half the time, it might even keep you from the starting line, too, sidelined by injury.
Eight years ago:
I’m 26 years old, and slightly overweight. I haven’t run in years. I have just started a graduate program in French Language and Literatures at the University of Nevada, Reno because the job I had— and, that I really loved— ended and I worked seasonally at a ski shop in the winter and a marina in the summer to survive. I lived in the basement of kind English professors I’d had as an undergraduate student years before and I’m deeply depressed about all of this. I’m so out of shape that I never tell anyone about my life as an athlete in high school. I also have a dozen rejection letters from creative writing programs which tell me I’m also not a writer— and so, this is not a happy time in my life.
When the semester starts, I have a full course load and I’m teaching two sections of undergraduate French which pays for an apartment on the wrong side of the train tracks which run through Reno, a place my mom calls “a shit hole” where pigeons come to die on my doorstep and homeless people burn trash in cans in the park across the street to stay warm.
This forms the backdrop of my running. I bought a book, Distance Running: For Beginners which offered training plans divided into miles. I thought I was so fat and slow (and I only owned a digital watch, no Garmin or GPS device at the time) that I assumed I ran 20-minute miles. So, every run was long and slow and probably longer than it needed to be.
I ran on trails. I ran on the streets. I ran whatever pace I ran, without a single thought about speed. I was fat, remember, and slow.
Later in the training program, I was supposed to do half and full mile repeats on a track. So, I’d have to come face-to-face with my pace. But, funny enough: because I did all these workouts alone, asking myself only to finish, and to hold a steady pace. So, if the workout asked for three one-mile repeats, all I had to do was run each mile at roughly the same speed, feeling as though I was pushing myself, but never to the point of collapsing.
As I progressed in the graduate program, so too, my running began to frame my life. I lost the fat that wasn’t useful. I gained muscle.
I mention all of this, because this was the training regimen that led me to win a marathon that fall, my first, beating the elite field by over ten minutes. I hadn’t relied on hard-core interval training. I didn't have a coach or a special nutrition plan. What I had done, instead, was focus on my form, and of learning what it felt like to maintain a steady, constant effort-- or, in other words: what it felt like to make running my life.
I fell in love with running.
Not the speed, but the lifestyle of it, the way I could blend into the world and climb a mountain if I had to, or not. I wish I could describe how much I loved running. Running was the reason why I breathed and ate and woke up in the morning. It was my morning ritual, the way the world and I talked about time, back and forth in the pre-dawn crisp.
I have never been so happy as I was, running. I saw the most beautiful dawns. I saw deer and bear and eagle and sparrow— all pristine and precious and a clip of the landscape, sliding by me. For the first time in my life, I felt beautiful, running. Only when I was running.
My injuries came years later...
after working with coaches who took me out to the track and had me run hard efforts around that quarter-mile red-road, again and again and again. My marathon times dropped.
3:21, 3:13, 2:54.
But, the injuries increased. Tendonitis. Stress fractures. Strains every other week. Fatigue. The last marathon, my best, I ran a 2:47 which was still 60-seconds off the Olympic Trials qualifying time. I tried to come back, faster, so I went back to the track.
18-miles of intervals—which my coach told me not to do— and my Achilles tendon snapped.
Running ended, that rainy day at the track. I’ll never be a runner again.
These days I spend a lot of time on the bike,
thinking about the bike, and how so many people want to be faster, but (somehow) can't. The nice thing about the bike is that overuse injuries are usually not as dramatic as running injuries due to the lack of constant impact (unless you fall off, or you’re hit by a car.) But, how to get faster? There are many theories.
I remember my running days which are now compounded by Ironman days: I ran a 26.2 mile race because I ran one in practice. I was able to complete Ironman because I had already completed 16+hour efforts before, and knew that it wasn’t the sprint that would carry me all those hours and all those miles.
It isn’t fun and it isn’t easy to know that to do something— especially for the first time— you just have to practice doing it over and over again. It’s the 10,000 hour theory, right? (Where you have to do something for 10,000 hours in order to truly learn how to do it right.)
From this vantage point, as a writer, I do think there’s some wisdom in this: to be great, you have to do. Not for one hour or five seconds of the day, but you have to live what you want to be. And, that is not an interval (a presence-absence-presence) but, instead a way of life and a way of being in the world every single second and every single breath.
I also have a theory about athletes,
particularly adult athletes who are serious about the sports they do, who may want to win a race, or if not, who want to pull a PR every now and then and will smile widely when they do.
For these athletes, the sport stands in for some aspect of life that doesn’t glow very brightly; to win a race erases a failure (real, self-imposed or imagined), a tragedy, or reclaims a mistake from long ago. Seconds dropped crossing the line represent a particular kind of triumph that doesn’t present itself in normal day-to-day life.
And, it’s only natural to crave this particular kind of happiness, no matter how fleeting or hard-earned. The intervals, then, a siren’s call, beckoning a faster path to fastness, an easy way to excellence. Intervals are what the professionals do, intervals create an equation between us and them and the possibility that we are all the same.
Yet, there is only so much of me, of you, and of these adult athletes who hold full-time jobs and support families and home mortgages and who exist in the world in so many more ways than one.
Webster’s definition of you would contain maybe a dozen variations, and sometimes span numerous parts of speech (noun, verb and adjective.) We are mothers and daughters; business-owners and non-profit event organizers and teachers; we are friends and mentors; we are caretakers; we are artists, funny, intelligent, go-getters; phat, sassy, sexy; tired, worn, persevering; cycling, working, living. We are every single aspect a person can be, which includes “athlete,” but that is only one single part.
And so, here it is: we have to live in the world in more ways than one. Intervals promise a quick fix, but life is a lifetime long and you can’t do repeats forever. What you can do, and what you should do, is something much more simple and something much more difficult.
You should live the sport you do.
I write, and think about narrative, tone and voice.
I form words with my hands and try word after word until I find the right one. There is no substitute. So too, on the bike. I simply must ride, finding that inner rhythm, finding how to release the tension from my feet, finding how to use all the big muscle groups in my hamstrings and glutes, finding how to breathe so I can go the distance.
I don’t know if I will ever be a great writer or a great cyclist. I only know that those are the things I do: I live language and the way words are delicate carriers of thought and meaning. I am also a cyclist, but one who is learning: my feet hurt sometimes, and I have to use my hamstrings to pull the bottoms of my feet above the bottoms of my shoes. I have to think about how to breathe, exhaling more than I inhale. I have to think about cadence, not bogging down into the tough gears. I have to love my life, as it is, because this is what I do.