Video captures the sound, light and motion of cycling that I love so much.Read More
I'm ready for a new challenge.
I woke up this morning and watched the world covered in white turn from dark to light, and I felt potential in my arms, legs and heart again. I can't really explain it: I'm not fitter, not thinner, not richer or more successful than I have been. But, somehow, I was ready for change.
Ironman still echoes, and so does the California Triple Crown Stage Race. I am so incredibly grateful for the opportunity to compete in such long races.
This year, too, I was granted another honor: I was named an Athlete Ambassador by Shebeest Cycling, a company which makes women-specific cycling gear and whose initiative includes getting more women out there, on the bike.
But, there is something about a race that's over a hundred miles long that makes it somehow "different" and... abstract. After all, there is the possibility I won't finish a race that long no matter how fit I am. Over a hundred miles is a long way, and well, even driving that far in a car has its own risks and chances of failure.
I love distance. I love the unknowable quality of it. But, there is a part of me that loves a new focus, a new challenge. Another kind of unknown.
This weekend, I watched a documentary of sorts
...on a local cyclist who has been training to win the USA Cycling National Time Trial for three years. He's taken second place two years in a row, and the video outlined his training, his life and how incredibly close he's come to that first place finish.
For those of you who don't know, a time trial is literally a race against yourself and the clock: open road for twenty or so miles, and the question becomes NOT will I make it but rather how fast can I ride?
It made me wonder: how fast can I ride? Am I fast? Do I have the ability to do something other than endure for hours on end? Can my legs do what they did when I was a runner: only faster now, and under the strict watch of a power meter?
One year ago, someone told me I'd never be a cyclist because my shoulders are too big.
And, because I take criticism to heart, I more than adopted this as a personal mantra and reason why I couldn't do something. This is a thought-process I'm trying to change. Instead of finding (or, inventing) reasons why I can't do something, I want to find reasons to try. Or, forget the reasons: let's just do it.
As an athlete, I train with a lot of men. And while men carry their own reservations about their ability to complete a certain race, broadly speaking, their insecurities aren't the same kind that I notice that I have.
While their worries seem primarily focused on not being able to hold a certain wattage for a specific climb or lose enough weight before the next race (but they will still race regardless); my worries have a certain finality about them. I can't because... I'm physically unable and, usually, I don't think that training will fix whatever road block I've put up for myself.
Is this true for female athletes generally, I wonder? Or is this my own personal problem? The possibility of a cycling-specific race for a distance I haven't ever trained for has lifted the fog, somewhat. After all, I survived over 1,000 miles of racing last summer. If I'm not too heavy for that, how can I be too heavy for 20 miles?
I imagine I will ride the bike a lot more.
I will do drills. I will ride so long that my mind will drift and I will come-to and not know where I am, out on the open road (as I've done, at times, when training for something else.)
When I was in the Master of Fine Arts program in the bay area (and a semi-elite runner), I remember hearing the words of my academic advisor in my head as I ran mile repeats on a track before dawn. Immerse yourself in this life, she'd said. Drown in it. Breathe it. Of course, she'd meant writing. For me, though, writing and running were one and the same. It was the life I wanted, the life I was willing to race for, to be injured for, and to live my entire life.
Yet, it was a scary thought to me, more scary than the fast pace I was supposed to maintain around that quarter-mile rust-colored track. There are already so many ways to fail in life; why was it that I had more than one?
A moment came, though, right as the sun crested the Coastal Range and I surrendered myself to not-knowing, to the track and the words. And now, here I am again, only this time my challenge involves a bike.
I want to focus on a Time Trial.
I want to focus on Nationals.
That morning on the track was six years ago, and since, I've learned that there is nothing guaranteed in life, not even life itself. And, I as corny as it sounds, I take my job as "Athlete Ambassador" very seriously. Athlete Ambassadors aren't whiney damsels, frail and pale stick figures who pose for scenes they never actually live. Instead, Athlete Ambassadors are Athletes first, which mean they ride and run and swim and do yoga and hike and bike and get bruises and scratches once in a while. They are wrinkly from sun exposure, from swimming too long and from smiling. Sometimes, they have helmet hair, sweat (or, sparkle) and sometimes they win big races. And, sometimes they don't. But, no matter what their personal hang-ups, they always get to the starting line and they try.
I admire the women out there who are winning these kinds of races, and who have raced for years and bring a lifetime of experience and hard work with them. I know I will have to work very hard in order to even hope to do well, and that I have so much to learn.
Bring it, I say.
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.
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This weekend, I competed in the third stage of the Triple Crown Stage Race. I toed the line with my bike just like everyone else did. If you have ever watched a cycling event-- the Tour de France, the Giro d'Italia or any of your local road races-- you know that riders use strategy as well as physical fitness to reach the finish line first. In cycling that means you kill yourself to climb the hills the fastest and then you do your best to push the downhills so you come just short of crashing out. And if you're smart, on level ground you tuck behind a tandem or a stronger rider for a while to give your legs a rest before returning the favor and taking a pull at the lead of the pack.
This is called cycling.
Yesterday, a male cyclist accused me of cheating because I drafted during the Triple Crown Stage Race in a comment on Strava.
To him, I pose this question: how do you think the lead male riders reached the finish line so quickly? And, why is it OK for a male rider to draft and to work in a group, but for us few women who populate endurance cycling, we "should" battle the distance alone?