*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 http://www.bikely.com 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 Active.com 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!

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?