Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Chatter

The other day I was out for a long ride – 90 miles.  I’m training for an Ironman.  Actually, I’m just about done training for Ironman.  Taper is just around the corner for Ironman Texas.  I didn’t realize I was training for an Ironman until the last 4 weeks or so which is around the time I started to hate training.  Not surprisingly, as fatigue builds, so does my disdain for training!  Not so much that I get tired from the training (that’s actually the FUN part), I just get tired from fitting the training in around life. 

(Life is fun too but when combined with training it can get, well, difficult)

On this particular ride, I set out at 6:45 am.  It was cold, windy and I was (mostly) alone.  In 90 miles, I passed 3 cyclists.  I’ve endured some fairly long rides in preparation for this early season Ironman.  There have been countless 4 ½ rides on the trainer.  There was even one that lasted 6 ½ hours.  Those were easy – climate controlled, fuel at hand, headphones, internet to keep me busy for hours. 

In contrast, the long rides (and runs) outside are perhaps the only time these days where I’m totally disconnected and alone with the voices in my head.  And, boy, do they talk loud.  The more tired I am, the louder they talk.  The first 45 miles of my ride were a constant chatter of hatred for everything – Ironman, my training, my bike shorts, myself.  What was I thinking – train for an early season Ironman, 8 months after a baby, with mostly indoor training and setting out today WITH NO CHAMMY BUTTER!?  What is WRONG with me?  It was around 2 hours into the ride when I found myself bare-assed in a ditch off of Grove Road taking a pee, actually peeing on my bike shoe.  The wind was whipping 20 mph from the east.  I was tired.  My legs hurt from a long run two days before.  Even worse, I had set out for the ride without coffee. 

I couldn’t help but wonder: am I the only one?

Your Twitter feed is full of pictures of perfectly executed workouts of nothing but awesome done with tailwind at your back and nothing but sunshine.  No one posts pictures of themselves shorts down, peeing on their bike shoe and one pedal stroke away from crying because the thought of going another hour into the wind is that overwhelming.  No one takes pictures of those meltdowns.  No one takes pictures of themselves with hands over ears at mile 38 saying trying to silence that voice in your head that says you’re slow, you should stop, what were you thinking.  I want to see that picture.  That’s real life training. 

Someone humor me next weekend, please?

The voices in my head run constantly.  If I’m not doubting myself about parenting, I’m doubting my ability to be a good wife, mother, coach, athlete.  Self-doubt is sometimes the backdrop of my mind.  In my moments of weakness, my self-doubt is a comforting friend.  See, I told you so.  Nearly 40 years old and I have yet to figure out how to silence those voices.  The older I get, the more that is thrown in my plate, the louder they get.   

The only thing I have learned to do is let the voices run while I keep moving forward.  I can hear them but it doesn’t mean I have to listen.  If they choose to stick around for the ride, know that at some point one of us is going to give in.  And hell if it’s me.  I don’t give up easily.  So I challenge those voices to keep up.  My hope is that I will outlast them.  I might be 80 when that happens but at least I know I’ve given it a good fight. 

Between the chatter, the winter, two kids, trying to regain fitness/race weight after pregnancy, training for this Ironman has been a challenge.  I’m not one of those people who nurses their way to race weight.  At times, I counted calories.  I’m not one of those people who ran all through pregnancy and emerged just seconds off of my old pace.  My first runs back were still 2 minutes per mile slower, which was slower than some of my pregnancy runs (HOW?!).  Needless to say, there have been very few magical days in training.  No glorious sunny days to capture in photo and post on Instagram.  Most of my runs were done in the dead of winter.  No warm weather triathlon camps to escape life and focus on ME!ME!ME!.  I’ve done my training in the maelstrom of every day – those days where everyone needs something all at once, all before 7 am, all at the exact moment I start to put food into my mouth.  How can all 3 living things under 40 lbs in this house need to crap SIMULTANEOUSLY!?  

NO magic.  Instead, it’s been nothing but a grind. 

(and if you don’t know what the grind is, watch this:

Real life pulls at me in so many ways that skipping my training or giving up on my goals feels like the easier way.  When I was in my late 20s, even early 30s, training for BIG things was easy.  It was all about me.  And a little bit of my husband.  And a small house.  These days, I feel like ME gets the shortest reserve of focus and energy.  I need to remind myself that I’m worth it, that my goals are worth it.  The voice in my head tries to lure me to a more comfortable way of life by way of guilt or doubt.  It tries hard to undermine me.  At times, I feel like my own worst enemy. 

Some people get all pent up about the chatter their head.  They listen, get scared and cower back.  They think it means there’s something wrong with them or that they lack self-confidence.  In the past 24 hours, I’ve had two athletes talk to me about their own chatter.  The impression I get is that we  think that once we start hearing the voices, we have to listen and then we are doomed for failure. 

Trust me, the chatter doesn’t mean you’re broken, weak or not meant to be a winner.  Some level of doubt is normal, even healthy.  You can be highly confident in your abilities yet at the same time full of doubtful voices in your head.  Those doubts are just helping you do your homework.  You see, if anything, the voices in my head have kept me honest.  It’s tougher than any competition.  It’s me against me.  What are you doing, Liz (I better know my WHY).  It knows exactly what button to push and senses my weakness.  It constantly does calculations, looking for the distance from where I am to where I want to be.  It tries to convince me I’ll never get there.  If I want to get there, I’ve got to be able to do what it’s telling me I can’t do.  You’re slowing down (better work harder).  You’ll be out here riding all day (better find a way to push more power).  You’re crazy for even trying (I better reconnect with my motivation).  I’ve got to rise up above myself. 

On race day I expect there will be voices.  I know it’s going to get tough – no, ugly.  I expect it to be sweltering, competitive and long – after all, it’s an Ironman.  I expect to have moments of feeling totally awesome but even more moments of feeling like I want to quit.  I know the chatter will speak the loudest when I am at my weakest and most uncomfortable.  I know, too, from going there in training that all I have to do at those moments is keep moving forward.  Sometimes I hear the chatter go on and on and on about how it’s hot or the legs are tired or how I’ll never be fast again.  Yet I never change what I’m doing.  I just keep going with chatter ticking away in my head.  At some point, I figure I’ll outlast it or very simply get the workout done. 

And at its most basic level, that is the purpose of training: to just get the workouts done day to day.  The pay off from the grind is a very potent variable called consistency .  Training can feel like a grind and still be very, very effective.  It doesn’t need to be magical or life changing!

When you hear the chatter – don’t get scared or think there’s something wrong with you.  I took a huge step forward in life when I just embraced the inner voices, let them chatter on and stopped trying to control or wish away every little damn bad thing about myself.  They’re chattering for your attention so don't give it to them!  We make mistakes when we change our course of action based on what those voices are saying.  Instead, I've learned the best way to manage the chatter is to just stay the path, to move in a forward direction towards your goals or the end of the workout.  Chances are you'll get fit, finish or surprise yourself.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Time To Fly

Spring has sprung and that means it’s time for the masters state swim meet.

My last trip to the state meet was two years ago.  I swam the 1650.  This year, the meet was special.

We were defending champs.  Every point would matter.  The peer pressure was intense  – 140 other swimmers were swimming.  There were signs on deck calling out those who weren’t registered.  But most importantly, we were swimming in honor of two swimmers who we lost this year.  One who was especially important to me.

Years ago, I let a brilliant young woman named Clari borrow my cyclocross bike to take it on the adventure of a lifetime.  She rode it across America for a charity group to support research for a condition that her brother had.  That same summer, she also babysat Max at the quarry while Chris and I went swimming.  When pregnant with Mackenzie, Clari and I swam in the same lane at the monster swim.  Over the years, Clari’s mother had been a frequent lanemate of mine.  In 2013, I advised her on how to train for her first Ironman – as a thank you, she bought my plane ticket to the 70.3 World Championship.  Clari and her mother were a part of our life in very unique and close ways. 

This past November, at the age of 19, Clari passed away.  Unsure of whether it was the personal connection or the fact that I now had my own daughter, I felt incredibly sad.  When the head coach announced that we would swim the state meet in memory of Clari, I felt compelled to swim.  I felt it was the best I could do to honor her life and spirit. 

Now, I’m a decent triathlon swimmer but pool swimming is a completely different story.  I can fake it in the fast lane but I’m guilty of lane line pulling, open turning and putting on toys when intervals get really tight.  When it comes to swim meets, I’m not exactly going to be a high points earner.  So when I asked the head coach what I could do to gain points for the team, she came back with an immediate answer: 

200 fly 

I couldn’t believe I walked right into that bear trap. 

No swimmer in their right mind wants to do 200 fly.  It’s painful.  Most triathletes cannot even do fly.  But as the coach reminded me, you’re an Ironwoman, you can do this!  Mostly I just wanted to stay on her good side for the next year.  Being on the head coach’s bad side could mean very, very painful things for a full year at masters.  If all it takes is less than 4 minutes of pain, get me registered!  Sure enough I looked at the results from last year and only 5 women did the 200 fly.  As long as I finished, I would get points. 

I had two weeks to panic train.  In that time, I tried to swim as much fly as possible.  Every workout I attended the coach suggested I do fly.  Sprint 25s?  Do them fly, Elizabeth.  Distance day?  You should do the “fast” as “fly”, Elizabeth.  One day, she put Andrew (another poor swimmer who asked what he could do to get points) and I in a lane and made us do 200 fly in its entirety.  The good news:  I didn’t die.  The bad news: that’s a lot of fly – 8 x 25 with NO REST!

A few nights, I even researched my strategy.  I watched videos and searched forums how to race 200 butterfly.  The general consensus was: 1) don’t, 2) go very easy for the first 50.  

All of this effort was impressive if, and I mean IF I actually knew how to swim proper fly.  And technically speaking, I have no idea what I am doing in the water.  Years ago, tired of watching other swimmers so effortlessly move through the water with both arms and hips undulating as I had to substitute free for every set of fly, I finally said f-it, I'm trying.  So I just started doing what I thought fly looked like.  For whatever reason, it worked.  I was moving forward and actually had some rhythm.  But I still have no idea if what I think I’m doing is actually what I’m doing.  I have visions of my Phelps-like powerful arms sweeping through the water with an explosive dolphin kick.  When really I’m 62 inches tall and turnover like the wings of a hummingbird on meth.  That fast.  More like frenetic.  As my masters coach said when I did the 1650, I cannot take credit for that stroke (in other words, she won’t). 

The day of the meet, I traveled an hour north to Wisconsin for the Illinois state meet (huh?).  The facility was beautiful – two pools – one for men, one for women with an additional warm up pool attached to an indoor water park.  My mom accompanied me with the kids and after the meet we enjoyed that water park!

The warm up pool was salty mess of swimmers of all paces.  Pretty much all that I accomplished was getting wet.  I then waited nervously on deck, I in a bright pink cap and rainbow suit while everyone else around me had on one of those speedsuits.  

Next up: 200 butterfly 

In the 30 seconds before the race started I decided I would indeed dive off the blocks.  But first I had to get on the block and look down.  OH MY GOD WHO PUT THESE BLOCKS UP SO HIGH!?  A long whistle, a take your mark and a beep.  It was go time. 

Sitting on the bulkhead was Amanda, Taylor and Beth (mother of Clari).  An audience!  I can only imagine the heckling.  I glided through the first 50 (easy, go easy, this feels amazing!).  The next 50 felt fantastic.  That is, until right before the wall when I missed a breath.  And then I started to burn – bad.  I pushed off the wall and felt myself losing it.  PANIC!  But I was trapped in the 200.  There was no turning back, no breaststroking.  I had to regain my rhythm.  And is that wall actually moving further away?


At that moment, I actually thought about Clari.  As cliché as it sounds, it’s the truth.  I thought of her spirit and how she would love to be there right now swimming.  Pull it together, Liz.  And then remembered something a lanemate said:  Remember the time Gary did 200 fly and hung on the gutter for 2 seconds at every 25?  I was going to channel my InnerGary.

Each pause at the wall was longer.  At one point, Beth asked Amanda if I was ok.  100 yards left.  75, 50.  The final 25 I picked up the pace. 

I didn’t break any records, didn’t win my heat but did earn points by finishing 5th place in my age group.  That would be 5th of 5.  But really, I was 1st place. 

Listen, it’s not my problem those other 4 swimmers showed up and stole 1st place from me.

Next up, 200 free relay.

Amanda, Beth, Carrie and I stood on deck.  It felt special to be in a relay with Clari’s mom, Beth.  She swam so many events in honor of Clari’s memory.  She even swam 400 IM.  I’ve never seen someone so relaxed about the 400 IM – it’s easy, you don’t have to go fast you just have to finish it

I've also never seen someone so frantic about my limited counting/number turning skills when Amanda swam the 500 and someone (AMANDA) told Beth to keep an eye on me because of my potentially sub-par sign flipping skills; put it in the water - now, NOW!  Get out of the way of her flip turn!  More to the left!  Don't turn it until she hits the flags!  Pay attention! 

Our relay ended up placing 3rd in state – though I had the slowest time of all 4 of us!  Turns out I swim faster at practice from a push.  The reason?  Even my nonathletic mom said it:  it’s your dive and she then proceeded to demonstrate some bizarre arm flailing and belly flop motion which made me realize if that’s what my mom sees god help me with what the athletes and coaches were seeing!

And that is how I ended up starting IN the water for the 500 free.

500 free.  My last event.  The long whistle and I hop into the water.  I had been wet, standing around in my bathing suit going in and out of warm up lanes for the past 3 hours.  I had eaten nothing but chunks of bagel and was really thirsty.   But once the the race started, I felt amazing.  One of those times where you feel totally in sync with the water and like nothing can slow you.  I counted down the laps until one to go when I realized the final lap bell was being run IN FRONT OF MY LANE!  The winner of the heat got a stuffed teddy bear and all I thought about was I want a damn bear!  I swam one of my best 500 free times at a meet and won my heat.  And, Mackenzie got a new teddy bear! 

At the end of the day I was cold, wet, tired and yet invigorated.  There’s just something about swim meets.  Maybe it’s the energy of people of all ages, all sizes, all speeds sharing a common interest:  swimming.  First timers, ex collegiate swimmers.  Triathletes talk about enjoying races because they get to share the course with the pros while they’re racing.  Been to a swim meet?  Sometimes I watch people like Adrienne on our team who threw down a 1:53 for the 200 free and wonder how they let me even swim in the same pool let alone the same lane.  And what I love about swimmers?  When we have swum together on sprint night, even when I’m panting with a time seconds slower than hers for a 25, Adrienne turns to look at me and says, good job, Elizabeth.  I feel like the newbie swimming with the pro.  And, I don’t know, it makes me feel all giddy.  It makes me wonder if I can one day look that effortless and powerful.  It makes me want to keep trying.

For the first time in a few years, our team didn’t win this year but … I think this year we did it for other reasons.  It was a large coming together of people who wanted to honor two women who were completely different yet shared the same passion for swimming.  I’m glad I was a part of it.  And I’ve already decided that I’m going to do 200 fly again.  I have a mental map of where it goes and how it feels.  And next time I’ll be ready for it.  I only have to take off over a minute to be the state champion.  

That’s 15 seconds per 50. 

I better start training.