SUP, Everyone?

Stand Up Paddleboard Silhouette (Version 2) by Chris Goldberg

Version 2: Stand Up Paddleboard Silhouette – Monmouth, Maine by Chris Goldberg; Flickr Creative Commons

I didn’t join my first standup paddleboard yoga class to get closer to nature; I joined because I wasn’t paying close enough attention. One of my friends posted a link to the class on Facebook—the place where you are conditioned to Like and Share other people’s posts without too much thought—and asked, “Standup paddleboard yoga, anyone?”

Without reading the details, I simply said, “Yeah! Sounds fun!” (I now have reservations to float down the Amazon River in Peru with two people I’ve never met because of a similar abundance of enthusiasm paired with a similar lack of attention to detail. You’d think I’d learn my lesson.)

So there I was, standing with a group of 26 other women, the instructor, and her assistant on the shore of Jordan Lake at 6:00 p.m. on a Thursday night. I was still stressed from a long day of work, hungry, and not looking forward to getting into that lake which was a choppy grey under an equally grey sky. Despite the warm, July air, the waves made the water look cold and the clouds threatened rain. Still, I dutifully took off my shoes, hobbled over the rocky beach with my sand bag anchor and a long, plastic paddle in my left hand and an aqua blue, rented standup paddleboard hiked under my right arm, and waddled into the water up to my knees. The lake bottom was composed of that squishy, clay-like substance that sucks onto your feet and makes it difficult to walk, so getting my anchor attached to the zip-tie at the back of my board and getting out of that water was a priority. I situated myself on all fours on the board, then managed to sit up on just my knees and use my paddle to move, in a small zig-zag pattern as I paddled first on one side and then the other, out toward the buoys that led into deeper water.

As we headed out into the lake, a bald eagle—the first I’d seen in my twelve years in North Carolina—took off from the treetops on our left and flew over our heads toward the center of the large lake. A chorus of “oooh!”s rose from us as we appreciated this welcoming omen at the start of our adventure.

If I had been happy to stay on my knees a little longer, the rest of my adventure might have been more successful. But, instead, I decided I needed to move into a standing position almost immediately, whether to prove to myself I could or to prove it to everyone else, I’m not quite sure. As a result, I was one of the first women to stand on her board, and the first one to fall off. Unfortunately, I was still in very shallow water and landed on my knees and hands on the bottom, jarring my spine in a truly unpleasant way.

I got back onto the board, remaining on my now scraped-up knees, and paddled hard, trying to make up for the time I’d lost, only to find I was getting nowhere. The other women paddled farther and farther away, toward the cove where we would begin the yoga practice, while I stayed virtually stationary. Maria, the instructor, came up from behind and realized I was dragging my sand bag anchor and fished it out of the water for me with her paddle, then escorted me the rest of the way out to the cove where the others waited.

After we all dropped our anchors, the practice started gently with each of us lying on our back on our board, looking up at the clouds. I needed this time to catch my breath and try to let go of the initial frustrations of this endeavor. I let my hands dangle, palms facing the sky, in the lapping water, closed my eyes, and tried, as Maria instructed, to let everything else fall away and be fully present on this board, on this lake, in this moment.

After a few moments of stillness, we sat up, found our way to all fours again, and began a sequence of Cat-Cow, alternately arching our backs while looking back through our legs and flattening our backs and lifting our heads to look straight ahead, moving with our breath. After that, the practice became something of a blur. There was Plank, Downward Facing Dog, Upward Facing Dog, Warrior I, Tree, Bridge and Wheel. All I know is that I didn’t stand again on the board, but instead spent a great deal of time on my knees or in Plank or in one form of hip-opener or another, all of my muscles taut, focusing intensely on not tipping over, while Maria’s voice called across the water, in my mind speaking specifically to me, “All variations on this pose are welcome.”

Despite my focus on remaining on the board, I eventually stretched beyond my limits and pitched head-first into the water. I surfaced quickly, found my board, clinging to it as though I had never swam before in my life, and realized no one had taught me how to get back on. Maria’s assistant, Jennifer, quickly paddled over and held my board steady while I hauled my body out of the water and landed, at an odd angle, across it. She waited while I dragged my legs out of the water, too, and was able to resume my trusty all-fours position. At some point during the class, I did manage to find my way into Side Plank, balancing on one hand and one knee with the other hand raised toward the sky, and was elated the next day to learn that there was photographic evidence of this feat! Before we could finish the practice and enjoy another rest in Shivasana on our backs, it began to rain and Maria called for us to head back to shore.

Whatever contortions I had invented or positions I had managed in the last hour had caused a build-up of heat in my body, so the rain was refreshing. In fact, paddling back toward shore in a large pack of women while rain drops zinged against my skin might have been my favorite part of the evening. I still refused to stand on the board and my knees were screaming in pain, but there was an excitement in the air as we raced the quick onset of darkness and the threat of lightning. There was something else, too. Something that made me feel that this experience, of being on the water with others, on boards with paddles, was somehow a primitive, ancient experience. That other people, in far away places and other times, had experienced something similar, and I was getting just a glimpse of what their lives might have been like.

By the time we hauled the boards out of the water, took a group photo, and I drove an hour to my house, I arrived home still damp, sandy, and smelling of lake water—and exhausted and sore from head to toe. The next morning, I found I could not turn my head, but as I looked at the photos from our class that had been posted on Facebook, there was something still calling me back to the water.

Yoga Paddle Sur Le Lac by Benoit Mouren; Flickr Creative Commons

Yoga Paddle Sur Le Lac by Benoit Mouren; Flickr Creative Commons

Apparently it was calling my friends back, too, and so it was that we found ourselves again, one month later, standing on the same shore on another Thursday evening preparing for our second SUP Yoga experience. This time, we were a smaller contingent of only nine participants, again all women, along with Maria and her assistant, Jennifer. The late August sun was still high in the sky with no threatening clouds to be found, the water was flat, and we were in great spirits as we set out from the shore.

This time, I paddled all the way out to the buoys before attempting to stand up. A tip from Jennifer to widen my stance on the board took me from a very shaky start to a much more confident standup paddle all the way to the cove. This evening, as we all found our way to our feet and headed out into the deeper water, a blue heron greeted us, taking off from the shore and flying nearly the same path the eagle had taken the month before.

The combination of the smaller class and the fact that this was our second time on the boards made for a completely different experience. We began our yoga practice in the cove the same way we had before, resting on our backs on our boards to center ourselves, and then moving through the same sequence of poses, but this time, at least for me, with more playfulness and more confidence. I was amazed to find that I could keep up with the poses this time, thinking about where to place my hands and feet for best success in balancing the board, and going so far as to get my hands off the board and to my front knee during Warrior I—a forward lunge pose—and even attempting to lift one foot off the board in Tree. It was during my Tree attempt that I found myself again taking a dive into the lake. The water was a golden brown as I kicked toward the surface, found my board, and pulled my body out of the water onto it without assistance.

Something in me had released since my first session. I was less tense, less concerned about outcomes, less scared of ending up in the lake, and so, more present, more capable, and, most importantly, more joyful.

Before I knew it, we had progressed through the series of poses and were on our backs enjoying Shivasana. Or, at least attempting to enjoy Shivasana, as it was difficult to decide whether to swat the black fly that was biting first my ankle, then my elbow, or preserve the stillness and let the black fly continue its feast. And then it was time to paddle back to the bank from which we’d come. We paddled slowly, enjoying the evening and the sunset, wishing we didn’t have to leave the water. The sun had officially sunk behind the trees by the time I neared the shore and the water, still flat, was a pale pink as I sank to my knees inside the bouys and paddled the remaining few feet to the beach.

This was the feeling I had come in search of. This peace. This sense of accomplishment, this sense of community, this sense of strength. This experience of being absolutely present. I was hooked. Yoga on the floor was simply not going to do it for me any more. This practice on the water brought me into my body, brought me into balance, brought me back to myself. It brought me back into connection with nature—water, birds, insects, the pines that rimmed the lake, clouds, sky, color. It taught me, again, how to pay attention…though, I will not promise that my sense of adventure will not outstrip my better judgment at various points in my future.

Rando BBQ au NCY SUP by Benoit Mouren

Rando BBQ au NCY SUP by Benoit Mouren; Flickr Creative Commons

Not Just Any Old Mid-Year Review

Today marks the beginning of the second half of 2011. For many of us, that means it’s time for more boring (or this year maybe even scary) financial and personnel reviews at work, budget reviews at home, and, for the really brave, a check on the progress of those New Year’s Resolutions. (What were those again?) Blech.

What I really want is an accounting of where the first six months of the year have gone. Seriously! Time makes no sense to me any more. It comes and goes and in a blink a whole ‘nother month has vanished. I want June back! Some truly awesome and rewarding things have happened for me in the first half of this year, but they are taking their toll. I am about maxed out with stress and from the creep of my professional life into what I would like to think of as my private life, and I have a whole list of goals for this year that I haven’t even begun to aim toward.

As I am preparing to release a memoir of my experiences during the largest cross-country bicycle event in U.S. history, I now recognize that my biggest, truest goal is to learn to be the Traveler without ever needing to leave home; to be always present and aware of newness and beauty wherever I am; to be my best self in the midst of my life, whatever that life entails at the moment.

At the same time, I really do want to travel more. I joined Chris Guillebeau’s Travel Hacking Cartel this year, and have racked up more than 100,000 airline mileage points for myself and more than 50,000 for my husband in the last two months alone. There is a serious trip in my future–I just don’t know where or when yet. (Chris would advise that you have a destination and a timeframe in mind as motivation before you begin travel hacking, but my motivation to Go! and See! and Learn! seems to be all I need.)

I have this sense that I should go into the world to write about environmental issues and amazing places and good work being done by people who inspire me. But do I really need to go to Borneo or Costa Rica or Belize to do that? Can’t I find plenty to keep my inquiring mind busy and my bleeding heart satisfied without leaving my own community? Wildness is everywhere if you look hard enough, and good people do good things every day of the week in towns and cities all around my own country, my own state. And yet, I am driven to experience new places and people, and, maybe more importantly, to experience myself in new situations and locations. The craving to be on the move is getting stronger the farther into my past the Big Ride Across America slips. (I daydream daily about being able to do the week-long “Mountains to Coast” Cycle NC ride in October, even though I know full well all of my vacation time will be gone before fall even begins.)

So, as I look over the impressive (if I do say so myself) but short list of things I’ve accomplished this year and the considerably longer list of things I have not, I am faced with several questions. How do I recognize and express what is already contained within while also seeking to learn more? How do I both “be the traveler without leaving home” and build a life that places more significant emphasis on travel and adventure? At the moment, I have absolutely no idea.

At the library last week I stumbled upon the book A Year to Live by Stephen Levine, and to complicate things further – in order to, ultimately, simplify things – I have decided that today is the beginning of my 365-day mindfulness experiment in living as if this were my last year on Earth. The hope of Levine’s book, I believe, is to help you face your fears about death – and about life – so that you can live fully awake in each moment that you are blessed to be alive. This includes increasing your capacity for gratitude, for forgiveness for yourself and others, and for weathering uncertainty with grace, as well as being aware of (but not necessarily reacting to) the various emotions and urges that drive behavior and shape experience. I am hoping the process will help me act more frequently from an urge toward freedom and joy and less from an aversion to discomfort and fear.

I have read a little more than half of the book and I have been struck by so many lovely, simple-sounding phrases that seem so elusive, my favorite of which is “we rest in being.” Wow! What must that feel like? Bye-bye to-do list, today I am resting in being. Sounds heavenly! (I know, someone out there is saying, “You’re missing the point! You can rest in being while you knock out the to-do list!” But I’m fried right now, and the luxury of “just being” is so appealing, regardless of the fact that I probably have no friggin’ idea how to actually participate in such a state.) The sentence that sparked this particular post, however, is:

This is the big dream in which we are awake to the nature of our sleepiness, and know that our life is not defined by its experiences but by the heart that receives them.

Doesn’t that just about say it all? This tension between the ego’s emphasis on experiences and the heart’s emphasis on being open to whatever comes fascinates me and seems completely worthy of a year’s exploration.

Last night, as I was preparing to begin my new, only year, I could feel myself begin to pull away from the idea: I’m so exhausted right now, maybe I should put this off until next month after I get back from the festival? Or maybe even until September after I do the Ride Without Limits? It would be nice if I could give such an important experiment my full energy and attention, and now is really not the time for that. Wow. I hadn’t even been given the one year to live “sentence” yet, and already I was trying to postpone facing the possibility of death!

I quickly realized, however, that people who are truly going to die this year don’t get to put off their last year until it fits conveniently in to their work schedule or until they have the energy to deal with it. And putting this off would mean continuing to live much the way I have been: tired, frazzled, motivated by fear at least as often as by joy, and constantly in a state of striving. It would mean putting off facing real fears and continuing to live in a swirl of conflicting ideas about who I am and who I “should” be. A year of living mindfully, I’m thinking, might go a long way toward helping me gain clarity about what direction my life should take next.

And so, today, I am grateful for the opportunity to learn to live this year fully. As Mr. Levine might suggest, it’s time to catch up with my life.

*Your Mileage May Vary

Thirteen years ago this week I was Rider #1514 in the 1998 GTE Big Ride Across America to benefit the American Lung Association. It was a 48-day, 3,254-mile journey by bicycle from the Space Needle in Seattle, Washington to the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. to raise awareness of lung disease. Thirteen years ago today, Day 8 of the ride, we were traveling between Kooskia and Powell, Idaho, but I was not on my bike. I had been taken to a hospital the night before with three other injured or ill riders and crew where I had been ordered off my bike until we cleared the mountains and had crossed into Montana. I was having an asthma attack that had begun two days earlier and would not break.

Before the ride began, I had never participated in any organized rides. I didn’t even have a bike when I signed up for the adventure nine months earlier. So on the first full day of summer, June 22, 1998, I was an overweight, asthmatic, novice cyclist who was already well acquainted with the SAG (Support and Gear) bus as we climbed along the Lewis and Clark trail through Clearwater National Forest toward a small, gravelly, clear-cut lumber camp at the top of a mountain that would serve as our home for the evening. Many of the riders who had a goal of finishing each one of the summer’s miles astride their bikes would no doubt have deemed my first week a failure. Or, perhaps more accurately, they would have deemed me the failure. I, however, had come to terms with my physical limitations early on and decided that the summer’s adventure happened regardless of my mode of travel. I could be as present, as profoundly alive and awake, on a bus as I could on a bike. I was going to make the most of every moment. For me, Day 8 passed in a sunny, joyful moving meditation spent among friends and ended with a rainbow arcing through the twilight as our camp was bathed in deep, orange light.

Today, I am engaged in the process of pushing Your Mileage May Varya memoir about the Big Ride, out into the world. I had a finished draft of the manuscript by the summer of 2001, but while I received several letters of interest from agents, no one snapped it up prior to my move to North Carolina in 2003. The manuscript got put away as the more immediate demands of finding a job and a place to live took precedence, but it resurfaced periodically for revisions, refusing to let me abandon it altogether. My husband and my friends have lived with me and this manuscript for so long they are thoroughly sick of us both; yet, they keep urging me onward as I complete each step that will eventually launch it.

I need to get this manuscript out into the world because that is how I will finally finish the trip. Publication Day will be my true Closing Ceremony. I did not ride every one of the miles of the Big Ride, but when I publish this manuscript, I will have demonstrated, if only to myself, a different kind of courage and a different kind of perseverance. I will be making good on a promise I made to myself – a promise I, apparently, can’t bear to break.

The problems arise when I forget one of the best lessons I learned on the Big Ride: comparisons don’t matter. I loved my Big Ride experience and finished feeling proud of what I’d accomplished. But, at regular intervals since the ride’s conclusion, I have jumped perspective and started to judge my experiences, my “performance,” and my choices through someone else’s eyes. I’m never sure exactly who that someone else is, but I feel certain that someone somewhere–potentially many someones–will judge me harshly when the book is released. Since “death before SAG” was a mantra for several Big Riders that summer, it is not a stretch to imagine some of the harshest criticism coming from any of the 729 other cyclists who participated in the event.

The fear of these judgments has been crippling at various stages of the writing and editing process. It has only been made worse by agents and editors asking me to “justify” my manuscript’s validity in the marketplace. How can anyone really say that her memoir fills a gap that no other manuscript has filled or argue for why his memoir is better than all of its competition?

To get through this, I have finally realized that I have to take off one hat before I put on the next one. The Writer has to stop being the Rider if she is going to make the most of the material she is given. She can’t spend all of her time feeling guilty for getting on a SAG bus or regretting a thought that went through her head during an exchange with another rider if she is going to get on with the business of writing. The Editor has to stop being the sensitive, protective Writer if she is to shape the words for their best effect. And, the Marketing Manager has to stop being the embarrassed Rider, the shy Writer, and the constantly tinkering Editor if she is to put the book out in a manner that will garner the largest possible audience. Knowing this and accomplishing this, however, are two very different things.

I am at the Marketing Manager stage and yet I am battling the Rider, Writer, and Editor daily. The Rider wants me to publish the book without telling anyone – especially other Big Riders; she thinks (erroneously) that readers will simply stumble upon the book and happily shell out money to read a memoir from an unknown writer. The Writer wants me to wait to publish the book until she is happily ensconced in the middle of her next project and “won’t care as much” if the book gets ridiculed, or more likely, completely ignored. The Editor is the easiest to manage – all I have to do is keep her from opening the manuscript, because if she reads anything, she will want to change it.

The thought that keeps me going is that I have, at each of the previous stages, done the best I could. The Rider was completely overwhelmed and underprepared for the journey she undertook and yet she stuck it out, in her own way, and found meaning, joy, and long-lasting friendships everywhere she went. The Writer did everything she could to tell the story accurately and honestly, to preserve everyone’s secrets but her own, and to shape the actual events into a narrative someone might actually enjoy reading. The Editor hired someone to help her, researched grammar rules constantly, and did the best she could to preserve the language and perspective of the 29-year-old cyclist, despite the fact that she was getting constantly older and more removed from the events of 1998. And, now, I as the Marketing Manager owe it to the Rider, Writer, and Editor, to bring the project home. The book deserves the best cover I can design, the best copy I can write, a fun and appealing website, and someone standing behind it who believes in it. Someone who isn’t afraid to tell people about the book’s existence, regardless of the outcome.

Yes, as a purely literary endeavor, Your Mileage May Vary may still fail. There’s a chance that my experiences really are not worthy of a book. There’s a chance that I wrote a bad book. There’s a chance that the book still needs substantial editing to be worthy of publication. And there’s a chance that, even if I wrote a good book about a worthwhile journey, there is not a large enough audience for my memoir to make it “viable,” or, worse, that I do not know how to find the right audience for my book even if it does exist.

All that matters at this point, though, is that I continue moving the project forward. The contract I have is with myself alone. I have struggled too long to give up now. So for the foreseeable future, I will be keeping my eyes on my own work and reminding myself that in publishing, as in cycling, your mileage may vary – and that’s okay.

The Power of Complexity

I have this habit of choosing to do something because it’s difficult.  Then, I find a way to make it more difficult.  Then I blissfully jump in to tackle the big, scary, very difficult thing.  This is great for awhile; sometimes, only for a very short while.  Then problems begin to arise.  Usually, they come one at a time and for the first several that crop up, I will doggedly attempt to find a solution and be quite proud of myself when I succeed.

Eventually, however, the number of problems that have arisen reaches some unforeseen tipping point at which the problems suddenly feel overwhelming.  It doesn’t matter that I have solved several of them and that only one or two problems are present currently, the process of trying to achieve my goal only to be continually thwarted by complication after complication becomes simply exhausting.  At this point, I throw up my hands and declare the complexity of the problem is just too great for me to manage.  And sometimes, I will drop the project completely.  Or at least for several months or even years before returning to look at it again with fresh eyes.

Sometimes, however – rarely, really – I realize that it is exactly because something is complex and difficult that it appeals to me.  If it didn’t have several layers of problems to solve, I would get bored and probably drop the project quickly.  When I realize this, there is a happy explosion in my brain and I am able to dive right back in and continue knocking down problems.

The most recent case of this comes from the fact that I recently signed up to cycle 200 miles in 2 days with The Ride Without Limits event to benefit Easter Seals – United Cerebral Palsy.  I have been on the email list for this ride every year since its inception, yet I never felt up to taking on the challenge either of fundraising or trying to get back up to that level of cycling skill. This year, however, I developed a pretty bad case of plantar fasciitis that limited my ability to walk far or fast and completely knocked me out of any chance of competing in triathlons this summer.  I have been afraid of cycling in North Carolina since I arrived eight years ago, but had started doing a thirteen mile route last summer to prepare for the two sprint triathlons I finished. Without really thinking through how much preparation a ride comprised of back-to-back centuries might require, I impulsively signed up with only seven weeks to train and raise the $250 donation minimum.  My first day back on the bike was a 52-mile group training ride of which I was able to complete 41 miles.  I was pretty impressed with myself and decided I was definitely in.

The challenges started coming almost immediately: what routes to cycle? how to manage water and bathroom stops when riding unsupported? how to get my stomach to accommodate Gatorade when the temperature was over 100 degrees without making me sick? how to get rid of the foot numbness and pain I experienced around the 30-mile mark?  how to manage the lower back pain I also experienced around the 30-mile mark? how to manage the frequent and numerous saddle sores that made consecutive days of riding especially painful (oddly, a relatively new problem for me)? how to find the time in my week to get in twelve to seventeen hours of training? how to manage my asthma?

I have not been satisfied with any of the routes I’ve tried.  My favorite option, though definitely the most boring, is to ride the same 13 mile loop I used for training last year four, five, or six times in a row until I’ve put in the miles I need.  This route, even though it has no shoulders and uses one road with regular, high-speed traffic, ensures I’m never far from my car and a cooler of water or a soccer field with porta-potties.  I’ve tried the American Tobacco Trail a couple times, but this can be challenging and slow (and actually quite dangerous!) due to the number of walkers, runners, and families who fill its narrow lanes on the weekends.  Plus, driving an hour to the trail and another hour home turns a six-hour ride into an eight-hour day, and I’d probably get more benefit staying closer to home and cycling those extra two hours instead of commuting.  I also learned about and was able to find a “50-mile” route that went right past my house, but the route turned out to be 60 miles and includes stretches of roads that I don’t feel safe riding, so I haven’t repeated it beyond my first attempt.

I got new shoes – two sizes larger than the ones I used to cross the country 12 years ago! – which seems to have solved the foot pain and numbness, and I raised the handlebars in an effort to relieve the lower back pain that made me get off the bike every five miles to stretch after mile 35 but the back pain persisted.  On a long ride on my fourth weekend of training, I realized that one of my basic assumptions – that I could cycle 100 miles simply by staying on the bike 8 to 10 hours – was flawed because there was a very real chance that my core was not strong enough to allow me to sit on the bike that long!  If I had to get off to stretch every 5 miles for two-thirds of the day, I would not have enough time in which to complete the 100 miles, let alone be able to manage the constant pain.  So I immediately found and began practicing core exercises recommended by and, after only a week, I saw an increase in my strength, a decrease in my pain, and the happy ability to stay on the bike for twelve or thirteen miles at a time during this past weekend’s sixty-mile ride.

The moment I fell apart, though, and nearly threw in the towel came last Tuesday at about 5:45 a.m.  Just the day before I had seen a pulmonologist/lung specialist who said my lungs sounded perfectly clear and questioned my continued need for the daily dose of Advair that has completely changed my life since the prolonged asthma attacks I suffered on The Big Ride.  On Tuesday morning at 5:40 I climbed on a spin bike for an early class and realized I was having an asthma attack!  I nearly cried right there on the bike because I realized how many systems you have to manage in long-distance cycling–feet, ankles, knees, body/seat contact points, back, neck, leg muscles, stomach, lungs–along with the variables associated with heat, hydration, nutrition, and recovery.  It was just too much.  My lungs, apparently, were always going to be a wild card and an asthma attack could knock me out of any event at any point.

As it turns out, I didn’t cry, I just got really, really angry.  I finished the class, spinning at a constant tempo when my lungs prevented me from doing speedwork or climbs, showered, went to my car, called my husband – and cried.  I was so ready to be done.

But somewhere along my 75-minute commute to work, it occurred to me that I had chosen long distance cycling–just as I had triathlon–because it was a complex problem and one I had little assurance of mastering.  If it were easy, I wouldn’t bother with it. By the time I arrived at work, I was nearly giddy for having figured this out and completely dedicated to seeing the challenge through.  That evening in the 6:00 spin class, I had another asthma attack but instead of getting angry and frustrated, I remembered that I could up my dose of Advair from once daily to twice, dose with my albuterol inhaler every four hours, and try nasal lavage to decrease my chances of future attacks.  Realizing I had a plan I could follow–or the resources to find one–when a problem arose was comforting and has given me more confidence in the last week of training.  With ten days left to prepare for the ride, I am extremely proud of what I’ve accomplished with my training to date, but I know that on some level my ability to finish 100 miles two days in a row will be out of my control.  I’m going to show up, make a valiant effort, and be as surprised as anybody at how it all turns out.  I need a good surprise right about now!

As I have considered my penchant for taking on complex challenges, it occurred to me that maybe it’s time for me to create my own complex challenge with which to wrestle instead of accepting challenges defined by someone else.  I don’t regret for a moment having agreed to cycle on behalf of those with physical disabilities, but I do wonder if I don’t bounce from event to event in part to distract myself from the reality that I am not pushing myself hard enough in other areas of my life that matter most.  Is the challenge I really want to take on too complex?  Am I really not ready for it? Or am I refusing it simply because I am so emotionally invested in its “outcome” that I can’t bear to fail at it?  (Or maybe I can’t bear to succeed?)

What about you? What level of complexity do you find appealing? Do you experiment with different levels or find that there’s a fairly consistent level of difficulty in the challenges you set for yourself?  And, like me, is there a challenge sitting in front of you that you have yet to accept because it is one of your own definition and it somehow scares you more than others?  If so, I’d love to hear about it!

What I Can

I haven’t been doing enough yoga. I haven’t been on the mat since Danielle, chakra yogini extraordinaire, returned to Portland two weeks ago to lead her students there for the next nine months. My body needs the work. My shoulders and back are beginning to hold tension; my hips are tight. When I’m sitting at the computer or walking from one room to the next, I find my arms spontaneously floating over my head, palms touching, inviting me to engage in a series or two of Sun Salutations. But I don’t. I do a quick body scan instead, determine I can go another couple days without practicing before my body really needs it, and go on with the business at hand.

What I forget is that even if I think my body can go without it, my mind can’t. What I can’t immediately see is that tension builds up there, too, and this tension is even more dangerous. When stress accumulates in my brain, my picture of the world and my role in it gets distorted, my sense of my own power diminishes, my ability to stay grounded in the moment nearly disappears. Worry and fear-based thinking overtake calm and joy and the knowledge that I am exactly where I should be. I begin to strive which I experience as an attempt to mentally bend a situation to my will while becoming emotionally exhausted and even more frustrated in the process. Striving to change rather than accept. Striving to speed up rather than follow the natural rhythm of a process. Striving to have it be done rather than patiently, systematically doing. Wanting it all, fully formed, and perfect NOW rather than enjoying the organic unfolding and growth. Needing to check it off my list so I can move on to the next piece of the Universe with which I must do battle. Because that’s exactly what I’m doing–battling the Universe.

I didn’t go willingly into Danielle’s class this year. I had participated in her Energy Healing classes last year and been blissed to the max after each 90 minute session, but I balked at the idea of sweating in public and doing more strenuous work in a true yoga class. I prefered to do my Power Yoga at home by myself, doing the exact same poses in the exact same sequences every time I practiced without any witnesses to my body’s limitations. But the classes were given to me as a gift from my boss, so I went. It was frustrating, exhausting, maddening. The top of my yoga pants would roll down compelling me to pull it up after every pose, I couldn’t breathe in Child’s Pose, I couldn’t kick my feet over my head into Plow (well, maybe I could, but I would probably never walk again if I did), my shoulders were too tight to attempt Wheel, there was just too much of me to squeeze into some of those poses. And to top it off, when I thought I was so exhausted I couldn’t possible do another sequence, Danielle would invariably say, “Step or hop back to Plank,” signalling the beginning of yet another series of movements. At first, I could actually feel anger and rebellion well up in me when I felt she was pushing me beyond my limits. The Universe had shrunk to just my mat, me, and Danielle. I had two choices: lay down on the mat in protest, i.e., continue to battle the Universe, or step back to Plank and push myself through another series. This is how I learned to surrender. To let go of the anger and just keep moving – because with the exception of one day when I hadn’t yet recovered from the flu, invariably I could keep moving (regardless of whether I wanted to) – until Danielle finally said I could stop.

At the end of class I had been wrung out, physically and emotionally. My will had been reduced back to a reasonable size and I was too exhausted to worry or strive for anything more that day. I could move through the world in a state of peaceful presence, do my work without judgment, and enjoy being in my body.

Tonight, I’m awake typing this because when I went to bed worries about my finances wouldn’t let me fall asleep. When it comes to money, in some ways I feel I’ve been caught in a one step forward, two steps back situation (which is not really a fair assessment because, by any measure, I’ve been blessed), and I’m frustrated that emotional issues, and the same old time-management issues, have kept my writing and publishing from progressing more quickly. I see a happily creative professional future but I can’t seem to manifest it fast enough to satisfy my expectations. But like it or not, I can’t draw the right tenant for my house to me any faster through worry. I can’t control whether a publisher has the funds or the time to take on a new writer right now or whether an editor has already assigned a story very similar to mine to another writer. I can’t instantly materialize clips I haven’t done the work to earn.

So it’s time for more yoga. Lots of yoga. Yoga to melt my body and my fears. Yoga to shrink my will back to an appropriate size. Yoga to compel me to write every day without worry about outcomes. Yoga to support my efforts to adopt a healthier eating and exercise plan so I don’t lose my eyesight – or my life. Yoga to refocus my thoughts and actions on what I can do, experience, explore, and be, rather than what I can’t.

One Last Push

I went ahead and signed up for the Lake Royale Sprint Triathlon this Saturday, despite the long list of reasons why I didn’t think it was a great idea. 

I’ve been out on the bike twice this week and I’m stronger than I was in my first race–I’m working in my big chain ring now, anyway. 

Plus, I bought new shoes and a new pair of compression shorts, and Hans drove out to check out the lake with me last Sunday and it’s much less scary than Lake Washington was.  It’s smaller and friendlier!  Mary and I are going together to packet pick-up tomorrow night and we’ll have a chance to get in the water to see how cold seventy degrees really is.  I’ve spent lots of time visualizing myself being relaxed and purposeful in the water and successfully completing the swim.  I’ve also spent a little bit of time feeling the panic rise in my body and mind and visualizing how I will calm myself down if that happens for real on Saturday. 

I’ll be starting in the last wave, composed of all women age 35 and older.  I would have preferred to have the race waves ordered from older to younger the way Danskin does, so that I wouldn’t be the slowest racer AND starting in the last wave.  I wrote to the organizers to tell them I think I’m likely to be the last finisher and that I would prefer they not hold the awards ceremony on my account, but one of them wrote back and said, “don’t worry about it; just have fun.”  Yeah, like having 299 participants and all the organizers, support, and families  waiting for you to finish is fun! 

But we will see.  Maybe I won’t be last.  Maybe I’ll surprise myself.  Maybe I’ll remember to keep my body relaxed and efficient.  Maybe I’ll keep my breathing more controlled at the beginning of the swim and maybe I’ll stick to my run/walk schedule instead of allowing myself to walk whenever I feel discouraged.  Maybe I won’t feel discouraged.  Maybe I’ll speak to myself (in my head and out loud as may be needed ;)) in supportive, encouraging ways.  Maybe, I’ll choose to have fun.

I think I can choose that.

To Tri Again?

I don’t plan to bother you with this kind of thing often, but if no one minds, I’d like to use this public space to ask for the collective wisdom of my readers.

I am having a small dilemma that I need to resolve quickly–several weeks ago would have been the appropriate time, but here I am still stressing and stuck. 

When I did the triathlon in June, I met Mary and learned that she lives in my neighborhood.  A few weeks later, she was driving by and recognized me out walking the dog and stopped to chat.  We have since pointed out our respective houses to each other and spoken less than half a dozen times, but in that time I told her about the open water sprint triathlon I was considering doing October 3, she looked it up online, and the next time we saw each other, we agreed to do the race together. 

Yay!!  Training partner! 

Yay!! Race day buddy! 

But, it hasn’t quite worked out that way.  We haven’t exchanged contact info and unless we cross on the street, we don’t see each other.  We agreed to go look at the lake where the tri is taking place a few weekends ago, but the weekend came and went without us catching up with each other and actually setting a time.  So we haven’t visited the lake together.  Even worse, I haven’t visited any lake at all.  And worst of all, I haven’t even signed up for the race–which I was informed tonight in an email from the race directors is 78% full and closing this weekend.

The Whole, Big, Whiny List of Reasons Why I Don’t Want to Do the Race 

After the last triathlon concluded, I said to myself, “see, you CAN follow a training schedule!”  Then I said, “But if you don’t want to finish last in your next triathlon, you really need to rock on the bike–your true strength–and shore up the running–your biggest challenge.  So let’s create a NEW training schedule!”  And I did.  I created a beautiful, dare I say perfect, training schedule and posted it on the refrigerator so I could see where I was every day and proudly check off each workout as I completed it.

The problem with perfection is that it has no place in my real life, which this summer included: finally finding someone awesome to create the website I need for work, trying (in my weird way) to get geared up to publish the book, writing some, drawing some, trying to figure out how to keep an art gallery open, and trying to buy a new house.  It doesn’t sound that horrible until you take into account that the training schedule I created included three swims, three runs, and three bikes per week PLUS a 30 minute walk each day (I have to walk the dog, anyway, right?) PLUS five days of circuit training, even though most serious triathletes only lift weights in the off season.  If rocking at this triathlon were my only goal for the summer, I might have been able to approximate that schedule – but the truth is, the plan and I were both doomed to failure the moment I printed and posted it.

I did a few of the workouts for the first few weeks, then I got discouraged and busy with other more pressing things and I stopped going to the pool altogether.  I haven’t been on my bike for several weeks–even though the last two times I rode I was finding new gears and getting excited about my progress.  Running, oddly enough, has fared the best, maybe because I can do it in the dark before anyone is up to see me chugging along and because it requires the least amount of prep time.  But now I’ve been having problems with the knee I injured prior to the Big Ride, I know I need new shoes, and I’m reluctant to get back out there.

And since I’m whining, I may as well post ALL of my excuses: I need new shorts for the race–at the last triathlon I had to keep pulling my shorts up in the water!, as well as new running shoes; I haven’t been in open water since 2002 and without some practice and mental preparation I might seriously not survive the swim; and the weather has turned cold and the thought of doing a lake swim does not turn me on (although the water probably won’t be any colder than Seattle lake temps in the summer!).  And the really big one: if I enter the race, I probably will finish the race, but I will likely finish last–potentially by a much bigger margin than I did earlier this summer. 

So, to Sum Up:

Doing the race means spending at least $200 on race fees and gear three weeks before I’m going to close on a new house, potentially dying of panic-induced drowning in COLD open water, and (provided I live) holding up the award ceremony by half an hour as all other 299 participants wait for me to drag my butt to the finish line.

What I Could Do, if Mary Weren’t Part of the Equation:

I would skip the race, simplify my training schedule to something like swimming two mornings a week, doing two long bike rides a month, and walking five miles a day until I can get new running shoes, then transitioning into training for the half-marathon I’d like to do in March.

What I Could Do, Take 2:

Because Mary is part of the equation, I feel obligated to do the race.  I could sign up tomorrow, get out to a lake this weekend for some open water experience,  do a thirty mile ride on Saturday, buy a new pair of shoes (and plan on holding my shorts up while I swim?), and at the race try to get in the water in a middle wave so I’m not finishing every leg dead last.

What I’d REALLY Like to Do:

NOT sign up for the race but knock on Mary’s door and offer to be her training partner for the next 10 days–I’d be happy to do some open water swims or get out on the bike with her–and be her chauffeur and cheering section on race day.  Parking is two miles away from the race start, so she might really appreciate having someone drop off her and her gear so she doesn’t have to deal with shuttles.

The question that arises from that scenario, however, is: if I’m going to do all of those things (lake swims, bike rides, going to the race), why not race?  And I think the answer is that I just know I’m not trained, which means the race has a really good chance of being no fun at all.  Bottom line: I just don’t want to do it.


So, what do you think?  Do I power through, make good on my promise to Mary, lay out the cash for new gear and race fees, do my best, and suffer all the physical and emotional consequences of this summer’s poor time and expectation management?  Or, is it okay to ask Mary to do the race alone and offer to do everything short of crossing the starting line of the race to support her?



The REAL Reason I Tri

I forgot to include in the last post the real reason I’m training for triathlons this summer.  It seems so intuitive that I often forget it–which is why it deserves its own blog post.

The real reason I tri is because I have finally (I really would like to believe this is the last time I will have to learn this, but my life seems to be a series of me learning and forgetting and relearning, so I can’t make any promises) realized that my health, and especially my fitness level, is the foundation of everything else.  It determines my energy level and, therefore, how well I perform my job, how much I have to give to the people I care about, and how much I have left to engage in projects that are important to me personally.  When I get out of bed tired in the morning and come home exhausted from work, you can be pretty damn sure I won’t be getting off the couch to write in my office or to play with the dog or to get outside for a walk.  And then the vicious cycle is underway – I’m tired, so I don’t work on anything of value to me, which makes me angry, sad, and depressed, which makes me feel even more tired and less energetic.  I have to break the cycle somewhere and it seems to make the most sense that I do that by engaging in physical activities that I enjoy and that challenge me.  The joy I feel at the end of a swim can carry me through to lunch when maybe I’ll carve out a few minutes to write a few pages of something new.  And the excitement of having written something new can carry me through to the evening and inspire me to get outside for that run.

I can carry this one step further.  Fitness is the foundation for me being able to maintain the lifestyle I have currently in an enjoyable, sustainable manner.  But if I want to change my lifestyle, which I do, then fitness becomes absolutely critical.  I considered taking a working vacation in Alaska this year, but when I realized that my duties would include more than leading visitors on nature hikes–things like unloading drinking water from boats and shoveling out composting toilets–on a remote island with no nearby medical facilities, I stopped pursuing the idea for fear that I wasn’t up to the physical challenges.  Not long after, my friend Zoi posted pictures on her Facebook page of her recent trip to Costa Rica and as I looked at the ziplines and the waterfalls, I realized I was probably too out of shape to have enjoyed a trip like the one she’d been on.  And if I wanted to undertake something even more strenuous, like replanting the rainforest, I had a long way to go to be fit enough to make that a fun, manageable prospect.

Hence, the commitment to train for a triathlon…which is really just a commitment to train for the best possible life I can design.

Why I Tri

I finished my first triathlon in seven years today.  It was a hard race for me, and I was undertrained and overweight.  I finished last, fourteen minutes behind the next slowest racer.   I had a hard time regulating my breathing during the swim because I was nervous, my legs were Jell-O when I got off the bike, and I walked almost all of the uphill sections of the run.  When it was over, I had pains in my right calf and my left shin.  I’m still coughing from the asthma attack I had afterward.  Still, I had a great time and I’m looking forward to the next race!

So why would a forty-year-old woman who weighs more than 200 pounds and has asthma put herself through the torture, and humiliation, of participating – in Spandex, no less –  in a triathlon, in public, surrounded by other fitter, faster, more sculpted athletes?

Why I Tri

Reason #1: It gets me out of bed in the morning and off the couch at night.  I get bored trying to follow the advice  “walk every day and eat sensibly.”  It’s easy to skip a walk.  It’s easy to skip several walks.  But if I’m training in three different sports, I don’t get bored.  I feel guilty if I miss workouts because all three sports are still challenging to me and I know I’ll improve only if I follow a plan and a regular training schedule.  All three sports leave me feeling invigorated, too – even a run session, which I don’t particularly enjoy, usually leaves me feeling a full-body sense of satisfaction for having met my goals for the workout.

Reason #2: I like seeing myself in a different light, even if it’s only for thirty minutes at a time.  When I’m training, I feel strong and light and lean, even if I’m not really any of those things yet.  I am able to enjoy what my body can do instead of only being aware of how it looks or what it can’t do.  I get to challenge what I “know” about myself and I get to challenge other people’s assumptions about me.  Athlete is not a word most people would jump to when trying to describe me, and, yet, I am an athlete when I am training or participating in a triathlon.  I look in the mirror and I see muscles and firm skin and a woman who cares about herself.  For a few moments, I carry myself taller and feel strong and powerful, like the athletes I see on the covers of running, biking, and triathlon magazines.  I am a competitor.  Which leads me to…

Reason #3: Challenging myself and my identity in one area of my life allows me to challenge myself and my identity in other areas of my life.  I have already discussed on this site a little of how this works.  I think it’s about momentum and the avoidance of stagnation.  If I can see progress and change in one area, I can begin to hope for and work toward progress and change in other areas.  If I can change the way a person views one aspect of who I am, I can probably change the way a person views other aspects of who I am.  All of my limitations, those I impose and those imposed by others, begin to shift and melt when I defy expectations and push boundaries no one, including me, expected me to push.

Reason #4: Triathlon has much to teach me about managing my body.  I don’t have the body of a typical athlete, but I do have the spirit of an athlete.  I want to learn how to take fewer strokes per lap when I’m swimming, how to spin faster on the bike, how to increase the tunrover rate of my legs when I run.  I enjoy practicing drills that help me approximate better form.  I enjoy reading about each sport and learning as much as I can about what makes a person more efficient or able to go farther.  There is an unlimited amount of learning to be done in each sport as well as in figuring out how to do all three sports well in one race.  There’s also plenty to be learned about how to incorporate training safely, and sanely, for three sports into a life in which triathlon is only a hobby.  My mind doesn’t get bored and, hopefully, my body gets better and better.

Reason #5: Triathlon has much to teach me about managing my mind.  When I started the swim this morning, I had butterflies in my stomach.  I had made a race plan and had been following my pre-race plan to the letter.  I knew I was not going to drown in the pool,  something I have seriously feared in each of the three previous open water swims I completed.  I wasn’t worried about times per se, as this was a baseline race to help me get a feel for where I’m starting, and there was absolutely no threat of me finishing well enough to place.  I was a little nervous about crossing the finish line last and what that would feel like, but I really had very little to fear. 

Still, the anxiety I felt at the beginning of the race meant that I swam the 250 meters one minute slower than I could have because I couldn’t regulate my breathing.  I couldn’t focus on long, efficient slides on my side or on front-quadrant swimming and a patient hand because all I could think about was getting air into my lungs.  I swam with my arms and my legs, as I am conditioned to do, rather than with my core, as I am learning to do, and it cost me.  Managing anxiety is only one example of what sports training can teach a person.  I also have much to learn about positive self-talk, about focusing on efficiency – regardless of what comes up, because something always comes up – rather than perfection, about flexibility, and about meeting myself where I am in each moment.  If I can practice these things in triathlon, they will inevitably spill over into my every day life.

Bonus Reason #6: It’s fun and it enriches my life in lots and lots of ways!  It’s hard to explain why something so difficult is so much fun, but triathlon is lots of fun.  People come to it from all kinds of backgrounds and with all kinds of reasons for competing, and somehow manage to respect and support everyone else in the field.  I was amazed at the number of racers who took time to offer me encouragement on the course today.  I was really amazed when Jody, a runner who could have blown right by me, slowed down in the last half mile of the run so I wouldn’t have to cross the finish line alone.  I have met great people at the pool where I train, I met Mary and John K. during a pre-race training ride, I met Mary L., who lives in my neighborhood, in the hour leading up to my start.  Becoming a triathlete – at any ability level – is a wonderful way to become part of a community, to meet people who are willing to go out and have a good time and accept you exactly as you are. 

It’s also an opportunity to practice your one-liners, as it’s always fun to have something clever to say to the person passing you or the volunteer pointing out the next turn. 

Triathlon is an excellent way to practice laughing when what you really want to do is cry.