Sunday, December 31, 2006

Know Who To Listen To

The other day, someone said something to me about my body size. Actually, it was along the lines of she cannot do glide because she does not have any body fat.

Normally, I do not get offended easily. After all, someone cannot make you feel inferior, worthless, upset unless you give them permission to. But today was different. You see, what offended me the most was that it was said in front of a group of about fifteen other athletes and it was said by an employee of my health club.

Employee of a health club implying that this person has received some advanced training and education in coaching, athletics, sports psychology, exercise physiology. Implying that they should have the skill to know how to coach people, know how to motivate people, etc. Implying that as an employee, a professional, they have the tact and social skills to represent themselves and the facility professionally.

But I guess everything implied was wrong.

Ironically, the person saying the comment was on the hefty side themselves. If I was too skinny then I would presume to say they were too bulky. But I didn’t say that. I would never say that. I would never point out to her and fifteen other athletes that they cannot do _______ because they are carrying around too much body fat.

But somehow, the reverse is considered acceptable. Not appropriate, but acceptable. It’s acceptable to tease people about being too small. But too big? Why that constitutes discrimination or insult. How dare you point out that someone has forgotten to push away from the table, or give up buttered popcorn, or spends too much time watching television or any other myriad behaviors and examples of lack of self-control that allow one’s waistline to expand.

Certainly I understand that genetic predisposition or other conditions beyond one’s control can contribute to excess weight. Perhaps it was not their fault that they were a little plump. And so, perhaps I should not have said those things. Well, actually, I didn’t say those things to the person – I said them to you. But you get the point.

Maybe, though, I can plead the same. In my deck of excuses, reasons, and explanations, I pull out the I can’t help it card. You see, I come from a line of small people. Petite-ness and low body fat are bred into our bones, are the product of generations of genetic code. My great-grandmother, imported from Italy, stood at 4 foot 8 inches tall. What she lacked in stature, she made up for in child-bearing abilities as out of that woman emerged 6 sons and 1 daughter – my grandmother. My grandmother was no behemoth herself. She topped out at 4 feet 10 inches tall and weighed in around 85 lbs. My grandmother made a lifetime of meals, cooking, and coffee but couldn’t put on a pound. And from there is born my mother. Upon her own marriage, my mother weighed in at 93 lbs.

And finally we reach me. Literally a monster in terms of my lineage. Weighing in at 105.2 lbs, I might be considered the milkman’s daughter. And he must have been a large guy. Looking back, I’ve always been small. In high school, I weighed about 89 lbs. I didn’t hit triple digits until college. Add on top of that my current workout regime and my fairly decent diet and you get I guess what you're left with is one small cookie.

Is that so wrong? Does that demand teasing or insult? Does that make me so freakish that this person felt obligated to point out my freakishly small stature to all of the other athletes? And why did she think they would care?

Psychology tells me otherwise. You see, you never think that psych degree will get you anything – career, money, babes – but then you hit a situation like this and everything makes sense. Perhaps this person was so insecure with their own a-little-too-large appearance and picked the smallest person around to displace their dissatisfaction on to. Or maybe it was jealously. Or ignorance. Or lack of social skills.

Whatever it was, what bothered me the most was that they were almost trying to make me feel bad about being small. Aside from the fact that I find most store doors way too heavy and most shelves in our kitchen out of reach, I am quite pleased with my size. Ok, shopping for jeans is a real bitch but I can get over that. But I can’t tell you how many times people have tried to make me feel bad about being small. Or, make me feel like I’m a bitch for being small. Or acted like all of this comes with no work, no sacrifice, no problem.

But that is not the case. Genetically, I am programmed with a small frame but that does not grant me genetic permission to sit around the house all day eating chocolate, ice cream, cheese, and French fries. No, if I did that certainly I would be big. And so, I make many sacrifices and work very hard to stay this size. Sure, there were some slip-ups during Ironman training and more than a few nights of desert-induced indulgence but in general I am saying no a lot more often than I am saying bring it on.

What also bothered me was that this person was limiting my potential based on my body size stating that I could not do something because of the way I was built. Which to me seems counterintuitive to what a coach/employee of a health club should be doing. Moreover, since when did body fat become a prerequisite for doing anything, especially gliding in the pool? What does body fat have to do with glide? Doesn’t it have to do with reaching, rolling, and pausing on your side? Were they suggesting I supersize myself in order to slide and glide?

Imagine if we all followed this person’s advice - that I would never succeed with glide because of my lack of body fat. Imagine if we all listened to the voices that told us you can’t, you won’t, you are not built for that. Incidents like this are just more proof that we must let the voice in our head speak louder than anyone else’s voice. It’s about knowing who to listen to. And more often than not, you have to just listen to yourself. You can do anything you are committed to regardless of body shape, size, height, weight, gender, etc. So keep telling yourself that you can do whatever you put your mind to and can achieve anything you desire and make that the loudest thing you hear each day.

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Winter Will Wait

A few nights ago, I ran along the path in the forest preserve. In the first few steps, the cold air bit me and chilled my face. But I welcomed this feeling of winter, I had been waiting for it all day, for these 50 minutes, for the pleasure to run on this path.

I set out alone but still my mind was crowded with remnants of the day. It buzzed with the conversations, situations that busied my mind at work. It was a busy day, my mind was tired.

Trying to push the thoughts away, I found it more difficult than usual. Eight hours is a hard to erase and was not letting go easily. In my mind, I was replaying conversations and reworking resolutions. I had to let it go. 50 minutes will pass too soon, I cannot let these 50 minutes run away from me.

And so, I focused on the season surrounding, the winter season that filled the forest preserve. Trees stood bare and black, their silhouettes etched into the sky at dusk. Watching day become night, the horizon glowed orange and the sky faded blue in the background.

As I ran along the path, I watched winter do what it does best – be still. Nothing moved, everything was silent. Not even the wind spoke tonight. The only sound was that of my feet pushing off the path with each light step.

Winter is my favorite season to run, the beauty and peace in dormancy that surrounds each step of the run. It is a season of quiet, of stark landscapes, of barren silhouettes. It is a season of stillness and waiting.

For athletes, winter is very much the same. It is a season of decreased activity, a season of restless waiting. The mind is quiet, the legs are relatively still. And we wait for the season ahead.

Tonight this wintry path was mine. So was the lake reflecting the fading light of the sunset, the hill that rose above it looming like a mountain in the sky. The path and all of its quietude and peace and serenity belonged to me. On this run, and more, together we will pass the winter waiting for the season ahead.

At that moment, my mind cleared and filled with thoughts of the run, the sound of each breath, the feel of each step. In taking my mind off myself, my work, my worries, I found my way back into the part of myself that really mattered – not work, not worries but the here and the now. These footsteps falling one in front of another on this path.

Finally with my mind emptied, for the next few miles, I began running through races planned for the year ahead. My mind painted pictures of success and desire and strength. I imagined heat and hills, rivers and lakes. By the end, I had visualized so many states so vividly in my mind that I had completely forgotten where I was.

Approaching the end of the run, I looked out to the lake and watched the sun sneak one last look at the world before snuggling under the blanket of night. As it disappeared, the landscape looked frozen and cold. And this darkness and stillness signaled that the day was nearly done. Like winter waiting for spring, for tomorrow we will now wait.

Watching this sunset, I made a commitment to myself, to my goals for next year. Verbally, out loud, for all the forest to hear, I announced my intentions for myself. I made a commitment for the season ahead, a promise I will not let go. And, until then, I will do the work and like winter I will wait.

Running towards the car, I realized the size of what I just said. How limitless and large it was, how immeasurable it might seem. And then I heard myself, words breaking through the silence of winter, saying to myself we are only limited by what we believe. And with quiet acceptance, winter agreed. There is reason why winter waits – it waits because it believes, believes one day winter will turn into spring. Until then, the journey of each day will be mostly dark and uncomfortably cold.

It will be worth the wait when finally spring blooms with beauty and life. And after a winter of waiting, you and your goals will bloom too. In the quiet of your mind, you just have to believe. The spring will come, you’ll reach your goals. I made this promise to myself, now like the winter I will wait.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

The Match Made In Heaven

A few weeks ago, I was listening to some friends share stories from their experiences with an online dating service. Not being single, I had no idea what such a service entailed so I asked a few questions to find out more. Apparently, it’s quite easy – you fill out a profile, it gets posted and boom – you’re entered into a magical world of online matchmaking. Within a few days, you’ve already received hundreds or e-mails from potential suitors and you have the choice to pick and choose as you please.

Sounds simple enough. But I guess where you get bogged down is sifting through all of those e-mails, separating fact from fiction, sexual predator from just plain nice guy, 170 lbs and athletic from that picture was taken 10 years ago. Something that was supposed to be easy and time-saving turns into something complicated and time-consuming.

And perhaps that is fair because after all we are talking about matching you with a potential mate. Rightfully so, that should take time. But if one of the reasons for online dating is to expedite the whole mate finding process, it seems unfair then that it takes so much time to go through the bad to get to the good. In fact, my friends admitted that the success rate was about 1 success for every 10 – 20 failures. Those are not great odds for the time conscious late twentysomething. 20 dates add up. 20 dates cost money. 20 dates cost time. 20 dates can go really bad. Soon the friends were exchanging horror stories from dates that never were to be again filled with quirky habits, busting out ego, short tempers, sexual pushiness. All of those traits that you probably can’t detect through a series of questions, all of those traits whose revealing takes time.

After listening to my friends, I felt quite lucky that I didn’t have to date and go through the agony of online dating. But still, I'll admit I was curious. I wondered how many matches were really out there for me. And so, I approached my husband for permission to do a little experiment. I wanted to go through the motions of posting a profile just to see what it was all about.

Now I know what you’re thinking – that sounds like a flagrant abuse of the internet dating system. Well, you’re right….it is. However, being schooled as a social psychologist and being curious in general, I felt justified – in the name of social science – to do a little research and learn more on what it’s all about. Oddly enough, my husband agreed
to let me do this - almost a little too quickly. And to keep this as inoffensive and harmless as possible, I decided I would sign up, go through the process, see my matches, and then immediately cancel it.

After registering on the site, I got started answering the pages upon pages upon pages of profile. Answering each question thoughtfully and honestly, it took about 20 minutes. Each page was filled with statements and questions. What are you most thankfu forl? How would your friends describe you? What three things can you not live without? Who was the most influential person in your life? How far would you travel for a mate? What three things do you do best? How often have you felt this way in the past month? Questions, statements, lists, check this, consider that. There was a lot to think about.

After completing what seemed like endless statements I agreed with, disagreed with, felt sometimes, felt rarely, preferred, felt were most important, enjoyed doing in my freetime, could not live without, I finally, what felt like 10 days later, completed the profile. I clicked ‘save and proceed’ on the last screen and less than a minute later, a personality profile appeared.

I’ve never put much value into these profiles. After all, being a psychology major in college, I realized that most of psychology – especially personality psychology – is just BS. Really, it’s just a matter of coincidence or generalities, patterns and consistencies. There’s no formula for figuring out who we are. We’re much more complex than a series of questions and more sophisticated than saying yes or no to statements. Our likes, dislikes, and lives in general are more than just limited to a Likert Scale. And so, I did not put much faith into this personality profile.

But then I read it.

Pages of it. Pages of me, me, me. Each sentence more descriptive than the next. After awhile it hit me – oh sh*t – they’ve been watching me. They know me. In college, they taught me all of this was bullsh*t. How could this be? Statements reflected exactly who I was, what I thought, how I felt.

The more I read, the more recognized myself in every single word:

“You’re best described as usually taking care of yourself, curious, responsive, focused, outgoing, demanding, realistic, skeptical, judgmental, perceptive, down to earth, inventive, eccentric, avant-garde, unique, brave, thinker, accessible, too sensitive, candid, unguarded, deliberate, regimented, determined, proactive, perfectionist, purposeful, friendly, full of life, unreserved, vigorous, emotional.”

Holy crap. Not only have them been watching me, but they’ve been taking good notes.

After reading through about 12 pages of notes about me, I wondered if this site, capable of describing me with great clarity and accuracy, could also match me to an ideal mate. I got a little rush. What if I clicked “find my matches”? What would happen? Would my match instantly appear? Have I already taken this too far? Suddenly, I felt giddy and awkward like a teenager sneaking out of the house at night. Being described as curious and brave, I clicked the button. And I waited.

A few seconds later, 6 names appeared. My eyes lit up.

But then I paused. Wait a minute – 6 names? You mean after 20 minutes of pondering these deep and existential questions about my personality and life, after finding a unique understanding about myself within about 12 pages of profile I am left with only 6 men in the entire Chicagoland area that are considered compatible with me? There must be hundreds, thousands that use this website. And I only match with 6?

First, I started to doubt myself. Was I not good enough? Not sensitive enough? Do I like things in too much order? Am I not warm, clever, witty, generous, patient, resilient, or agreeable? I started ripping through the pages of my profile to look for clues or hints as to why I was so incompatible. Then I started getting angry. Too driven? Too aloof? Too irritable, restless, open, and opinionated? Then I started getting scared. Was I really that bad? Should I try to be someone else? Is there no one for me? Will I spend the rest of my days alone, the crazy old lady down the street with a thousand cats and newspapers piled high to the ceiling watching talk shows and infomercials all day long? Was I doomed to spend the rest of my life by myself?

It took me a moment to remember, thankfully, that these worries did not even exist, that I was already married. You fool.

Setting aside the significant threat to my self-worth and the self-induced tantrum that followed, I decided to take a look at my 6 matches. Maybe they would be 6 perfect, Prince Charming and his horse Lance matches. Maybe narrowing it down to 6 was the blessing, not the curse.

But that was not the case. This was no blessing, this was slim pickin’s at their worst.

I quickly read through the profiles. This one lives with his parents….and doesn’t own a car. This one makes a living out of selling items on e-Bay. This one has two kids. This one likes Tom Clancy novels. This one values hygiene above anything else and can’t live without a daily shower. This one likes to watch sports – go White Sox! Dear god. If these people were anything like they were on paper no wonder my friends were having such awful online dating luck.

Snapping back into the reality that I was just doing this for ‘research’ and not for real, I cancelled my account. I had seen what I needed to see. And, no harm done. If you don’t count the harm done to my self-esteem that in all of Chicagoland I match with only 6 men who predominantly valued showers and I-PODs as the most important things in their life.

Later that night, I went home to my husband and reported my research. When I told him I solicited only 6 matches, he laughed.

Pardon the foreshadowing here, but little did he know.

After reading through my personality profile, he was surprised because indeed it described me quite well. Intrigued by this, he wanted to find out what the site had to say about him. And so, the next day he completed it for himself.

About 20 minutes later, I got an e-mail entitled “OMG”. He told me that he completed the profile answering each question honestly, thoroughly. And then, in clicking on “find my matches”, his number one match came up as……you are not going to believe this….no it was not the supermodel he was hoping for….nor Sandra Bullock….or some exotic big-boned blonde.….it was….no other….than…..OMG (OH MY GOD) ….me.

No kidding.

There had to be hundreds of questions to answer, statements to consider, preferences to rank. You had to list the number of miles you’d travel, ethnicities you would consider dating, religious preferences, the degree of mess you made, the amount of drinking or smoking you’d tolerate. I think you even had to comment about the use of cuss words. And after all of those details, each response making it even more detailed and further away from any one person, he ends up weeding himself through the thousands of persons and matches perfectly with me.

Of course, I found this out of control, wildly, want to pee in my pants kind of hilarious funny in a victory-is-mine sort of way.

He called it bad luck. I called it destiny. He called it proof that some higher evil power was working against him. I called it proof that we were meant to be together. He called it a glitch in the system. I called it scientific support that the system really does work. He called it a message from the devil. I called it a match made in heaven. He called it hocus pocus. I called it hard core empirical evidence. He called it a sign that the dark side was at work. I told him to look at the bright side.

In other words, if he never met me, he would have gone through the internet dating scene and eventually just met me any way. In such, I saved him about 7 years; 7 years of bad coffee dates, money wasted on dinners, unreturned phone calls, warding off sexual predators, turning down second dates, break-ups, stalkers that won’t let go, and one night stands. He told me I was describing the sex life he always yearned for. I told him to leave it at that.

“So you think you’re saving me, huh?” he asked.

“Of course,” I replied in a very realistic, pragmatic, deliberate sort of way (see above).

“I was hoping I’d find that there was a supermodel out there that matched with me. And all I found was you. That is so unfair,” he said, tongue-in-cheek…I think.

“I guess this is proof that I am your supermodel,” I replied.

He shook his head.

“It could have been worse,” I added. He looked at me as if it couldn’t get much worse. “You could have matched with your sister.”

There we stood in the kitchen of our home, an internet dating success story, if you will, a match made in heaven. Clearly, there was something cosmic at work when we met 7 years ago in the pool – something far beyond triathlon, or values, sense of humor, or work ethic. And finally there was concrete evidence and profiling to show there was a reason why we matched ourselves together in real life.

Take heart my online dating friends, it may take you 7 years of dating but rest assured you will find who you are looking for. Have faith in the profiling system, because strangely enough it seems to work and seems capable of producing a match made in heaven.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

The Basement Biking Blues

I’ve got the basement biking blues. Winter is not even technically upon us and already I’ve got the doldrums from pedaling in circles while staring at a wall. Sitting fixed in the saddle in the trainer, no coasting, no tailwind, no change in scenery. After a few hours it numbs the mind, and the rear, and the feet. Of course, riding indoors doesn’t come without hazards. The sweatiness, the saddle sores, the sheer boredom. Once I even crashed on the indoor trainer. I was on the phone with my mom during an easy recovery ride. Cruising along at a rocket speed of 11 miles per hour, all of a sudden I felt myself tipping to the left. Next the rear wheel smacked against the trainer and my arm smacked into a table. Damage done – one banged up elbow, one broken spoke, and one bent derailleur.

The other night, I was riding for 2 hours. Not interested in the 5 channels we get for television, I put my trainer next to the stereo and pointed my bike towards the wall. With some good music, I stared at the outlet on the wall for the next 120 minutes thinking about next year. Occasionally, I tried singing along to the songs but found that spiked my heart rate. And so I settled for silence from myself and decided to write my own song, The Basement Biking Blues. Being from Chicago, it seemed very apropos to write a blues song. It’s set to that standard bluesy riff that we all know. Imagine it in your head. If you can’t, just give me a call the next time I’m on my bike for over 2 hours and I’ll sing it for you.

It’s getting cold in Chicago
Too cold too ride
When it gets this cold in Chicago
We take our riding inside

Sitting on a saddle
Staring at a wall
Pedaling in circles
And I’m going nowhere at all

I been riding so long

I’ve got the basement biking blues
I’ve been riding so long
I got the saddle sores to prove.

Working so hard now
Sweating up a storm
Pushing my pedals
And my rear wheel’s getting warm

Basement’s getting hotter
So I turn on the fan
Look down at my speedometer
It says I’m going 10


Heart rate’s going up now
Pushing 12 miles per hour
Not gonna get discouraged
‘Cuz I’m watching my power

Intervals get me going
Wattage getting higher
It’s only been 20 minutes
But my ass is already on fire


10 minutes feels like 30
30 feels like 110
10 hours is an eternity
When is this gonna end

3 hours into riding
Scenery hasn’t changed
Turn my head the other direction
Stare at the other wall for a change


Gonna climb me some hills
Rpm’s 50 to 60 grinding
Climbing this bear of a mountain
Made of phone books and magazines

Fan at my back now
That what’s we call tailwind
Feel wind no my back but
It ain’t pushing a thing


Hopped on the rollers
Then I fell right off
Hopped back on the rollers
Did another flop and drop

If I fall off the rollers
Will my bike still go
Ride right through the wall
Oh this I want to know


Yes, it’s going to be a long, cold winter with many long rides ahead. I’m sure I’ll write more lyrics to add to my song. And once I run out of trainer lyrics, I’ll hop on my rollers and write about all of the hazards of pedaling 21 miles per hour while trying to stay balanced atop of 3 steel drums connected by a rubberband while watching your front wheel spin in circles.

There’s something about it, though, and I wouldn’t give up a winter’s worth of indoor riding without also giving up some mental toughness. You see, winter is our secret weapon here in the Midwest. We ride all winter with our bodies burning, our passions burning, our competitive fires burning inside. There is no release for over 4 months. No group rides for chasing someone, no hills to attack. You just ride. And if you can last these long rides on rollers or your trainer, when you finally get outside in the spring you’ll have the mental toughness of a brick wall and muscular quads to boot. No one spends a few hours staring at an electrical outlet without emerging a tougher person. No one.

So this winter, take it indoors, hop on your trainer, make sure your rear wheel is securely clamped in, and go for a ride. If you find yourself singing the basement biking blues, send me your lyrics and sing me the song.

Thursday, December 14, 2006


Surfing the triathlon-related sites the other day, a press release caught my eye. 101.06? This couldn’t be. Yet another distance and series of races? That’s right, a new 2007 series cleverly called one-o-one with 4 races covering true long course distances; 4K swim, 120K bike, 30K run.

With the release of this new race series, it seems an appropriate time to for me to jump on the bandwagon and introduce a new, number-related race that has been stirring around in my head for some time.


As in, 40.0 work hours in a week. As in the number of hours you need to work to be considered full-time, as in the numerical value of selling your soul to some company in exchange for what they consider generous and what you consider embarrassing as a yearly exempt salary. Exempt as in exempt from over-time, double-time, freetime, or any good time that you could be having if only you didn’t have to work 40.0 damn hours each week.

As such, this race will showcase the finest training that a full-time, 8 am – 5 pm, work schedule has to offer including swimming at peak pool usage times, biking along rush hour busy roads, and running in complete darkness.

The only qualifying factor for entry into this race is proof of full-time employment. Full-time employment denotes that you show up at a desk – not within your own home – by a certain time each day or someone in a position above you will question your absence and discipline your disappearing ass if you don’t show.

To verify employment status, all athletes must present a copy of last years W-2 form on race day. Just for an added kick, we will pin your W-2 to your back so when you get passed by some maniac athlete they will not only have the option to shout on yer left! but may also opt to ostracize you for the meager size of your salary. Chances are if they are passing you, they make twice as much money to buy twice as fancy equipment at retail cost to kick the ass of people like you two times over.

Now, stay-at-home moms and work-at-home employees, we at 40.0 believe you work just as hard as the rest of us. In fact, you probably work harder. However, this is not the competition for you. You just don’t qualify. To be fair, we will have a lottery and for a small fee you can get a chance at a slot to compete in this highly awaited and highly coveted event. We accept all forms of bribery, pity stories, and pleas as entry into the race. And we will automatically enroll anyone with celebrity status.

The race will start after work at 5 pm. Here at 40.0 we completely reject the standard 7 am race start time knowing that most of you are either up at 4:30 am training before work or out until 8 pm training after work. The only people ready to race at 7 am are the unemployed, graduate students, and professionals athletes. The rest of us have barely choked down 5 ounces of our 21 ounce cup of coffee and are still wondering if we left the house fully dressed.

The race will begin at a local gym with a 1000 yard swim directly after work on a weekday. Note that this tends to be a time of heavy usage in the pool. Unfortunately, participants will not have special pool privileges. In fact, expect to sit and watch time tick by for 10, maybe 15 minutes while waiting for half of a lane to open up because all of the lanes will be double stacked with people doing some semblance of swimming but unsure if they are drowning or just waving. By chance that you actually do get into a lane, the swim portion will consist of snaking your way up and down over 4 lanes filled with other pool users. Consider it a version of pool steeple chase, if you will.

In Lane 1, you will find a woman walking laps back and forth while you take the other half of the lane against the wall. Since this woman is swinging foam weights in each arm as she walks, you can expect to swallow approximately ½ of the water in the pool including ½ of the stuff that seeps off of all those band-aids that keeping sinking to the bottom and some gum. Also, being pinned against the wall, you can expect to swallow another ½ of the pool water after it hits the wall and then bounces back in tsunami force at you. Because of this woman’s girth, space will be very limited and you can expect to scrape your entire body against the wall at least once every lap adding blood and skin to the other specks of suspicious items floating around the pool at any given time.

Lane 2 will contain a man doing breakstroke back and forth while overkicking the black line making a swift kick to the ribs or stomach punch a likely inevitability. When he finally does an entertaining version freestyle swimming, his flailing arms will make contact with you at least every 50 yards and you will lose your goggles at least one. After each lap, he will stop at the wall and stretch his hamstring over and over again, hogging half of the wall in the process, making any turn impossible.

Lane 3 will consist of the group we shall refer to as the two noodles and a kickboard club. We’re not sure what they’re doing in the pool or why they need to do it in water, but one thing is certain – they are not getting out anytime soon because they have a strange affinity for floating in chlorinated water and freakish endurance for mind boggling boredom and inanity as they coast up and down the lane with these inflatable toys.

Finally, in lane 4, participants will be faced with the biggest obstacles of all – a water aerobics class designed specifically for pregnant women. As these mommy’s-to-be move up and down in the water, kick their legs side to side, their collective weight alone causes all of the water in the pool to move in the fashion of a swirling vortex ready to suck in any unassuming swimmer as they go by. Their chattiness is deafening, their penchant for bad eighties music set to techno beats is nauseating. Even worse, the instructor insists on talking to all 6 of them in a screeching, high-pitched voice while she jumps around like a monkey on the deck completely oblivious to the fact that no one in the class is even watching her. But the hot tub finds it highly entertaining. After a few laps you will feel grateful you spend most of the time submerged underwater.

Upon completing the swim, you will jump in your car and drive to the bike course at approximately 5:20 pm (because commuting from work wasn’t enough, because you just couldn’t wait to commute for your work out as well). Since it is after 5 pm, you will not have time to drive the 30 – 40 minutes to any decent roads. Instead, you will ride right from home. The bike course will be 20 miles of out-and-back along a very busy, four lane road again at the peak of rush hour. Just to be sure your average speed doesn’t get too high, there will be a stoplight planted cleverly every ½ mile.

Participants will bike along the shoulder of the road. At times, this shoulder may be 4 feet wide, at other times about 4 inches. And sometimes, for no reason, there may be no shoulder at all. Expect to flat 2 – 3 flat tires as you ride through debris most commonly found along a shoulder, including, but not limited to, glass, random pieces of metal, remnants of headlights, paper, plastic bottles, hubcaps, large clumps of grass or dirt, cigarette butts, old shoes, a bumper, and other assorted items that you have no clue how people lose from their car going 50 miles per hour.

50 miles per hour is also the speed limit along this road. And so you best pack an extra pair of shorts because at some point along the course you will get scared shitless and soil yourself after a far-too-close encounter with a semi-truck or a suburban housewife driving a Lexus SUV shouting senseless and rude cuss words at you while either driving her kids home from soccer practice or driving to Target to buy juice for the fourth time that week.

Part of the bike course will also take you through a neighborhood. This will showcase some of the finest and safest cycling available to those that ride after 5 pm. In the neighborhood, you will complete 10 loops of the same 1 mile circuit. If the sheer monotony alone does not cause you to drop out after 10 loops or throw up from going in circles, you will go back and do the same 10 loops in reverse.

Along the bike course, there is also the slight risk that you will be verbally assaulted by a genius. Yes, a rare genius that has somehow mastered how to drive a car and talk at the same time while informing you with window rolled down as they come squealing around a corner that bikes belong on the sidewalk, not on the road because the road is for cars. Who knew.

And as for other wildlife, beware the wild turkeys along the side of the road that get scared silly when you ride by and start gobbling which will send you in a panicked frenzy swerving into oncoming traffic. Do not approach the angry geese that do not look both ways before crossing the road. As for the squirrels, they are fuckin’ fearless so watch out.

When you hit the turnaround point, you will make your way back to experience all of the joy, love, and fun of riding down a busy road during rush hour in tight black shorts, a colorful jersey, and matching socks but this time you get to do it in reverse. Before reaching the end of the bike course, you will go under what is referred as the bridge of death – a tricky descent down a 45 mph road on which you on a bicycle can reach 35 mph right before going under the bridge with no shoulder to save your sorry two-wheeled ass so you must keep turning your head back while simultaneously praying to god that no car drives under the bridge at the same time. If perchance you make it through the bridge alive, as you sit at the stoplight catching your breath a car will pull up to you, roll down their window, and say “Oh you think you’re fast, do you?” provoking you to sprint out of the light to catch up with them, tap on their window, and flip them the bird – also another type of wildlife you will need to watch out for.

If by some miracle you survive the bike course unscathed, you will then transition to a 5 mile run. You will run through neighborhoods in complete darkness because by this time night has arrived. To avoid traffic, you will run most of the course in the gutter. You’ve been treated like crap the entire course of the race so it is most appropriate for you to finish it in the gutter like the rest of the street trash. By the way, running in the gutter is great for your IT Band and balancing out your hips.

Along the run course expect to be chased by at least one small dog that thinka it is 10 times it’s size. Mostly like this will be a pug that the owner has leashed but still has not learned – after 2 years of runners running by it – that the pug tends to lunge at runners when they approach in the dark, yanking the owners arm and leash far enough to run into the runner and attack them in a vicious frenzy of barking and small sharp teeth.

Part of the run course will take place on a path through a local forest preserve. You will maneuver your way along the path in total darkness while avoiding large branches, nocturnal wildlife, and large piles of horse crap. It is best to attach bells to your shoes for this portion of the run so those enforcing the forest preserve’s deer management program don’t confuse you for a deer or else you risk getting a few rounds of buckshot in your ass.

At some point along the run course, your stomach will drop. At that point, you will have two choices – hold it and risk the massive bowel movement being reabsorbed by your body or sneak into some dense shrubbery to drop the anchor that is sitting in your ass. Whatever your choice, choose wisely – you could pay for it either way.

The participant who completes the course first will be crowned the 40.0 champion. Other than the intrinsic gratification of calling yourself a champion, there will be no other accolades, awards, or prizes. Of course, next year we will either completely change the series or eliminate it all together so your championship title will become obsolete.

The 2007 date won't be announced for another few months. But, registration will be open soon and we will gladly take your $600 entry fee any time.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Gene Pool

Saturday night was our masters swim team holiday party. It was a rare opportunity to mingle with the dry-land version of the team fully clothed without cap and goggles. After a short while, I noticed that not only were some of the swimmers current masters national champions or ex-Big 10 collegiate record holders but they were also national champions of the drink. You couldn’t even get near the bar and every time I turned around someone was walking off with what seemed like their fifth chocolate martini, lemon drop, mai tai, or raspberry fizz. Cyclists wouldn’t be caught dead with these drinks, runners would probably drop dead after two. The swimmers, however, had a taste for fully-loaded, fruity froo-froo drinks, drank them like water, and then went back for more.

But it wasn’t that surprising. After all, you spend enough time taking gulps of chlorinated water across 5000 yards and I imagine your stomach becomes strong enough to handle anything. Not only that, but after playing tag with the wall 200 times and following a black line I imagine your mind welcomes the drinking with a hearty hello and a desperate let’s get this party started. Plus, their ability to somersault with flip turn over 200 times in a practice probably gives them an unshakable, steady balance. I bet they never get the spins, or throw up, or lose their footing when drinking. Swimming has not just trained their aerobic systems but their champion-pedigree alcohol processing systems as well. Couple that with their massive shoulders and buoyancy, I’d say most swimmers have damn good genes.

My husband, Chris, on the other hand, did not fare as well, and when it comes to alcohol processing he did not take a dip in the gene pool. We walked in the door, he had a drink, and already his face was bright red. In fact, it was so red that one of the coaches came up to him and asked why his face was so red. Thus began the explanation of his half-Asian but mostly full inability to metabolize alcohol. Apparently, it leaves the body to think you are throwing toxins at it while it slowly, painfully tries to keep up. The byproduct? A bright red face that never lets any drink in your body go unnoticed.

“You look really hot,” the coach said. Not hitting on him, but suggesting that quite literally he looked like he was ready to explode head first into the bar. Another swimmer soon came up to ask about the red face and then received the explanation. It was awkward, but entertaining when he said, “It looks like another person of your heritage is having the same problem,” pointing out another half-Asian swimmer in the corner that was red-faced and sweating while holding a drink in his hand.

The ability to tolerate alcohol is kind of like the coffee gene. You either get it or you don’t. And since half of Chris’ lineage is not able to process alcohol and not interested in coffee, he had half a chance of getting what I would consider the ‘good times genes’. You can have good times with coffee, you can have good times with liquor. No one has ever had good time with green tea and O’Doul’s. Don’t fight me on this one. Ironically, Chris’ sisters have no problem processing their alcohol and have been known to put down entire bottles of Jack. But Chris didn’t get that gene. He tries really hard but you cannot create what genetics did not create in you in the first place. And so with all things alcoholic he turns red.

The coach looked at me, asking if we were both a cheap date and, I imagine, alluding to the fact that Chris could barely drink and I was barely over 100 lbs so put us together and you get a cosmically cheap and fun date after only two drinks. Not so. I, born from a mother with a steel stomach who drinks brandy before bed every night and drank stout every day of her pregnancy with my brother, I can process booze like a 250 lb. man. And on more than one occasion that has worked against me. Rather than me being carried upstairs, it is often me that has to drag Chris by arm or leg to carry him up the stairs.

Though I had my share of drinks, and jello shots, and wine throughout the evening, perhaps they were spread out too far over too much time. Not so for Chris. As the night went on, his face got redder and redder like mercury rising. After a few hours, the mercury was literally exploding out of the top of his head. Swimmers began coming up to him and asking what was in his flask, wondering what could intoxicate someone to the point of explosive redness. Kind of like a special needs bag, Chris always carries his own flask to a party. And tonight it contained bourbon. He claims this is an easy drink to handle. I had my doubts. According to his face, his body was fighting it every step of the way. So, I suggested we call it a night and go home.

On the way out, Chris mentioned something about really feeling it and being really ready to pass out. Another swimmer, also leaving, looked at me and said, “looks like you’re driving home, Liz.” And this is the usual routine. Indeed, after 4 hours of holiday cheer, Chris had cheered himself into a drunken corner and passed out in the car. Again, nothing unusual. I drove home trying to shift gears while alternately trying to shove his knee and head out of the way from landing in my lap.

When I pulled into the garage, the thought of trying to haul a 5 foot 10 inch man through a 3 inch crack between the door of the car and the door of our other car in the garage was not as enticing as the thought of going inside to eat a snack. It had been 8 hours since my last meal and I was really, really hungry. Plus, this was Chris we were talking about. The human equivalent of an oversized ragdoll after a few drinks. From past experience (ie., New Orleans, Las Vegas, Lake Placid), he is not easy to carry as his legs go one way, arms another, and eyes roll around like Cookie Monster in his head. On top of that, we had swam 5000 yards earlier that morning and lifted weights. My arms were not up for the task. At least, not until I had some fuel for the task of dragging my husband up the stairs.

Before exiting the car, I took one last look at him, his shoes off (wondering when he took off his shoes), his head leaned far to the left side (a good position in case he vomits), face bright red (still….this could take hours to go away) and thought really I should wake him (but the hunger pains rumbled louder and the space between cars looked smaller). I looked at him again - still wearing his seatbelt I knew he wouldn’t get too far, I knew he’d be safe. And so it was done - I was leaving him in the car.

About 5 minutes later, I was standing in the kitchen eating some noodles when Chris stumbled in from the garage, still unsurprisingly red-faced and barely able to hold himself up. I looked up from my plate.

“You left me in the car?” he moaned in disbelief. You would have thought I left him naked in the front yard, shamed for all the neighbors to see. He took out the bottle of Advil and threw back a few pills.

“I was going to come and get you after my snack,” I admitted. Really, I was. And, really, never get between the post-Ironman version of myself and a snack. If I don’t eat every few hours I become like a caged animal ready to roar.

He dragged himself upstairs and quarantined himself to the guest bedroom - a jail cell of sorts between us reserved for those nights when you know you'll breathe too loud, kick too much, or toss and turn for one reason or another. When I finally went upstairs, I found Chris’ blanket and pillow gone, but my blanket in the hall. I imagined Chris, like Linus, dragging his blanket down the hall not realizing that the bed sheets, my blanket, and other pillows were attached and following behind him.

Part of me knew I should check to see that he actually did make it into a bed but part of me also knew he’d find his way. Besides, that’s the fun of drinking too much – waking up and finding yourself fully dressed on a floor, or passed out with your face pressed against a toilet seat, or in the back of a Jeep Comanche miles from home. True story – we have a friend who went out for a night of drinking excess, got so tired that he crawled into the back of a stranger’s Jeep Comanche, the stranger who later in the night drove himself home thus leaving our friend to wake up and find himself a long walk from his home. Experiences like that are an integral part of the excess drinking and holiday party routine.

The next morning, Chris woke up, joined me in bed, and said again, woefully, “you left me in the car.” Oh please. It’s not like I abandoned him on a stranger’s doorstep in a basket with a note attached that read ‘please care for him for I no longer can.’ At least it was our car in our garage. Need I remind him of the Jeep Comanche incident?

“I knew you would eventually get uncomfortable and find your way inside,” I said matter-of-factly. After all, he did find his way.

“I woke up in complete darkness, I didn’t understand where I was,” he recalled. “All I could see was the little green light on the garage door opener,” he explained. “I kept thinking I wanted to lay down but I knew I wasn’t in bed and that’s when I realized you left me in the car.” I tried to imagine how alone and cold he must have felt realizing he was left in the wilderness of our enclosed two-car garage.

“I woke up this morning still wearing my clothes,” he added. It could have been worse, I thought. You could have woken up in a lawn chair wearing no clothes with a pie pan covering your privates – put there by another friends’ mother. Again – true story. What can I say, we have a magical group of friends.

I looked at him, bed head like a rooster, bags under his eyes, the thought of being left alone in the car by his wife heavy in his head. Looked like one heck of a hangover. And so I did what any loving wife would do, “how about some coffee?” I asked. And with that I poured him a cup and thought about telling him that coffee would clear that little hangover right up. But then I remembered he was missing the coffee gene and knew in a few hours he would be java-induced jittering right out of his skin along with about 1 liter of bourbon. So I smiled quietly, thanked my mom for a damn good set of genes, and drank my coffee instead.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Crossing The Line

Winter time is test time. Time to retest power output on the bike, strength in the weight room, and heart rate on the run. Done right, these tests feel harder than any race as they leave you gasping for air, ready to heave, and seeing stars. Yet once complete, you have a solid baseline to measure your progress from throughout the year and a starting point for the year ahead.

Earlier in the week, I had my bike test. With heart rate pumping into the red zone, sweating profusely, going absolutely nowhere as I sat fixated on a training stand with nothing but a fan at my back, I finished the test with not one ounce of strength left in me except a strong need to vomit on the basement floor.

As if that wasn’t enough test-filled fun, this morning I awoke at 6 am ready for my run test. And where better to do a run test then at a run race…

Chris and I headed downtown for the Rudolph Ramble 8K. Now, racing in Chicago in the middle of December there are a few things that you can be certain about; it will be cold, it will be windy, and the wind will be colder than the cold. True to that, winds whipped from the southwest sending flags full and consistently in the northeastern direction. The city itself looked frozen and bold with warning for the warm-blooded to stay snuggled and sheltered under blankets indoors. But we did not heed the warning – we had work to get done and strong orders from the coach. Winter or not.

After a 20 minute warm-up, that didn’t do much to warm us up, we arrived at the start line, jumping and marching in place to stay warm. It was a strange place to be – standing on a start line. It had been 7 weeks since Hawaii, 7 weeks since I swam up to an imaginary line in the ocean to take on the Kona course. The memory warmed me but I was shivered back to the cold of Chicago as the announcer shouted one minute to go. My heart rate inched higher.

The gun goes off and I settle into a comfortable but snappy pace. I keep my cadence high and steps short in an effort to warm myself up in the first mile. The path narrows and runners begin sorting themselves. I find my place with a group of men, using them as shield against the nippy wind. The wind blows through my shirt and bites my legs beneath my shorts. If Jack Frost was real, he was blowing right in my face and he wasn’t letting up.

Mile one approaches fast, hitting the clock around 6:18, what felt like a solid, steady pace for a race like this on a day like today. I run out towards Belmont with someone to my right mumbling what sounds like my name. A moment later, a man is running along side me and saying way to go, Liz. I look to my right but only see an unrecognizable man bundled in thick winter running gear. He identifies himself as Mike – yes, an acquaintance, a top star in the local tri scene. He says some encouraging words, congratulates me on Ironman, and as he runs off for his own training run along the path I say, yes, thank you, and I just love these Ironman legs.

The fact was I still had Ironman legs. But the better fact was that I still had an Ironman mind. There I was, running along the path in winter, as focused and hungry as I was 7 weeks ago in Hawaii. Just pushing ahead, full steam, full focus, straight ahead and strong. And similar to Ironman, I was running along at one speed. And today that speed appeared to be right around 6:20. A wee bit faster than Ironman, yet ironically it felt the same. After awhile, racing is just racing no matter what the speed. It’s a mindset, a feeling in your brain that gets passed on to your legs. All that changes is the distance or the location. But a race is a race. Your mind just focuses on the task at hand and the legs just go.

Running towards mile 2, I tuck in behind a man. We run directly into the wind and drafting today makes a big difference. He is fighting the wind, forging ahead and I take shelter at his side. Mile two passes around 12:35. I think to myself that my legs are getting tired and my body is getting cold. It is Sunday morning and like the rest of the city I should be snug under a comforter in the warmth of my own bed. But then I stop that thought. 7 weeks ago you ran a marathon – a marathon – I screamed in my mind at myself. 26.2 miles and it’s only going to take 4.96 to shake you today? I shook my head. And that’s all it took – I pushed on.

Mile 3 is an eternity that ends around 19:10. Running straight into the wind, it’s chill is relentless and exhausting. My heart rate hits 179. My head explodes in cold. With 2 miles to go, I pick up the pace. The wind is so angry, so cold. I am working so hard into the wind that I am getting sleepy. The winter wind will do this to you. It drains you of everything as you not only fight to run fast, but fight to keep your body warm.

Mile 4 is hidden past the baseball field and the clock reads 25:34. I take advantage of the wind at my back, pushing me along with perfect form. I push strong, I push solid, I push all the way across the line in 2nd overall at 31:58. The announcer says my name and for a moment I am transported back to a warmer, sunnier place, any place this past summer whether it was Iowa or Missouri or Canada or Texas or Hawaii – and just as in those places I hear the sound of my name. It is the sound of accomplishment, the sound of achievement, of pride, pain, desire, and strength. There is nothing better than hearing your name and crossing a line for at that moment all of those feelings – accomplishment, pride, desire, and pain - belong entirely to you. And even in the chill of winter, it still feels the same.

The tests are done, the 2007 season is mapped, and there is nothing but time this winter to grow stronger, fitter, and faster for the upcoming year. Although it may be awhile before I hear my name called after crossing a line, I know what I am working for and I know why. And no matter how cold it gets this winter, those thoughts will keep me warm and my firing burning until it’s racing time and I cross that line again.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Time For A Coffee Break?

This morning, I went for coffee. Nothing at all out of the ordinary but when I arrived at work I found the cup floating in what had become a negative 14 degrees wind chilled frigid pool of coffee in my car. That was it, I thought, I’m OFF the coffee. Enough is enough. It’s time for a coffee break.

I’m tired of being slave to the coffee cup, dependent on the daily grind. Farewell my black and peppy morning cup of pick me up. I’ve had enough of your cup-sized casual disregard to the laws of gravity when in my car. And for the last time, I’ve watched you tip over at the slightest turn I make. No more. We’re through.

But as I walked to my office, into the biting wind and bitter cold, it took about 100 yards to reaffirm my unshakable love and commitment for coffee. For during winter, coffee is one of the few things that will keep you warm and how dare I break the habit on this negatively chilled day.

To celebrate my renewal of coffee vows (I vow to drink thee everyday, I vow to never drink thee over ice, I vow to never drink thee from a gas station), I sat down at my desk, nursing and savoring each and every sip of the remaining coffee from my spilled coffee. I enjoyed it, sip by sip, between reading and typing over the next hour. After awhile, though, I realized something was not quite right. My coffee had gone cold. There is nothing worse than cold coffee – except maybe an empty cup. So from that point on, every 20 minutes, I got up to microwave my coffee for 45 seconds to make it drinkably warm again until finally the last quarter of an inch laid helpless, dark and burnt in the bottom of the cup.

Know what I did? I drank it.

It didn’t taste great. In fact, what tasted like a beautiful cosmic combination of chocolate and raspberry swirled together in sweet bliss a few hours earlier had become something so acidic and nasty that it can only be described as ass. Purely the swill of what would happen if you poured the hot coffee through a flaming donkey and it came out the other end – ass.

And this is not the first time this has happened. On a daily basis, I will heat and reheat coffee until it barely recognizes the former version of its tasty self. Even my friend Brenda advised me not to do this. She had worked with a very famous, large coffee company in the past and had learned that reheating the coffee actually changes its chemical properties. It could be that when I reach these last drops I am not even drinking coffee anymore. Chemically, it could have morphed into….dear god….tea or…..even worse…..decaf. Even the cup begins to protest as it gives in and disintegrates after a few microwave whirls.

Why do I do this? What pleasure do I get from this last drop of flaming donkey fuel, from drinking something that is not even what is was when started?

I begin thinking, searching, wondering. Why is coffee so darn good to the last drop? Why can’t my day start without it? Is it the nature of coffee or my nurturing the daily coffee routine? Biology or psychology? Am I a victim of a cleverly marketed experience economy or a plain old physical need? The power of suggestion or the power of a deceptively potent drug? I had to find out.

Wasting no time, caffeine goes straight to the center of control – the brain. And this is not an easy thing to do. Guarded and cautious, the brain employs one of the body’s most powerful defenses – the blood brain barrier - as the bouncer to all substances foreign and dangerous. Yet, caffeine is one of the few substances that sneakily and easily streams across the blood brain barrier. And though most substances are filtered out as too toxic or harmful to cross this line, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing caffeine casually and effortlessly slips by unnoticed.

Once inside, caffeine builds a fortuitous wall blocking anything drowsy, sleepy, or dozy in its way. In turn, this allows caffeine’s stimulating effects to flow freely through your bloodstream. Specifically, it blocks adenosine, a nucleoside that induces drowsiness, slows heart rate, and lowers blood pressure. With adenosine-blocker enabled, caffeine gets underway to stimulate your central nervous system to get your heart rate going, pump up your blood pressure, and wake you the hell up. As if that wasn’t enough, caffeine further infiltrates the regions of your brain to increase alertness, increase the flow of thought, clarify those thoughts to improve concentration, and sharpen your coordination.

With brain controls now on complete lockdown and full cooperation, caffeine gets greedy and reaches for full body and organ control. Caffeine moves easily from the stomach, intestines, and into the bloodstream. Quickly, it circulates through your body, traveling to every organ, building, and building leaping through your organs in a single bound, bettering every inch of your brain and body along the way. And in less than 1 hour, that’s right – in about 45 minutes, you are en route to a fully leaded way to start your day. Until 3 – 4 hours later, when it wears off and is nearly gone.

But in that short amount of time, caffeine can accomplish some incredible things. You see, biologically, the wiring is now complete. Fast forward to one day later, same exact time, your body is already craving its reward of faster processing, clearer thought, and better concentration. Either physically or psychologically, you’re already hooked and your brain biologically requires a buzz day after day. It’s that easy to get hooked, and once you’re on it’s tough to get off. Hence the reason why caffeine is North America’s most ubiquitous psychoactive drug. And that’s probably a good thing because the other psychoactive drugs out there aren’t nearly as user-friendly.

Precisely the amount of caffeine an individual requires or craves to get the buzz varies. It varies by body size, gender, age, and how well or how poorly your body tolerates the caffeine. Imagine a 100 lb woman, drinking a 100 mg cup of coffee. Her body will reach a maximum caffeine concentration of 2 mg per 1 kg of body weight, twice as much as the effect of a man twice her size drinking the same cup of coffee. Her body might feel twice as caffeinated, twice as perked up, and twice as hooked. In fact, when Chris and I sit at Caribou sipping Hazelnut Americanos it’s safe to say that I am under the influence of a much more powerful, potent drug than he is. And though he thinks it’s his endearing charm and boyishly good looks that has me starry-eyed and jittery, it’s not. It’s just the caffeine.

Which makes me think that perhaps I should stop scheduling meetings at Caribou or quit talking to friends over coffee. Who knows what I’m likely to say or do and considering that I’m under the hypnotic and powerful effects of a stimulant, a drug, should I even be held accountable? Is there any case for personal responsibility when my body is gripped by the daily brew? Will coffee be my new scapegoat, my new excuse for uninhibited insults or unwithholding gossip? Will I walk through the door and kick a bag of beans because it’s all the beans’ fault?

What’s even more interesting is how quickly, or not so quickly, the body eliminates caffeine. It takes about 1 hour to reach peak concentration and disappears within 3 – 4 hours. If you’re a smoker, it actually takes half this amount of time. Which might explain the old coffee and a cigarette habit. Women taking the Pill process caffeine much slower, leaving them jittery for up to 10 hours. And though some doctors approve 2 caffeinated beverages per day for pregnant woman, it’s going to take mommy-to-be 15 to 18 hours to get rid of that cup of joe.
And then there’s my husband whom I believe is not on oral contraceptives, not pregnant, and definitely not a 100 lb woman. Yet still he processes caffeine about as efficiently as someone in their third trimester ready to pop. Give him caffeine and it will keep him up all night. He’s gotten better, he’s developed some tolerance to its effects. But still can’t take caffeine after noon or chocolate before bedtime. And this surprises me. Because 50 percent of his genes run rampant with caffeine addict. My father-in-law has a hard core caffeine habit. He also has a lot of other quirky habits, like talking about trains and chasseys, but his coffee thing even throws me for a loop. A man who makes coffee the color of mud. And drinks it black. A man who drinks coffee after 8 pm. Regular. A man who drinks freeze-dried instant coffee. Because he wants to. Hard core, I tell you – hard core. Why couldn’t my husband have been born just a tiny inkling of that? Furthermore, how can I ensure that my children inherit the caffeine gene?

But one thing is certain – caffeine is an equal opportunity addictor. In other words, it takes only a sip my dear to become fully and entirely hooked. In fact, it’s just a small sip over one, maybe two days, that makes your body dependent and hungry for more. Caffeine is quick like that – it has skills, mad skills to convince your body that it’s better, bigger, bolder while on it and fuzzier, slower, and sleepier without it. This rapid fire readiness of caffeine is what makes it one of the most present and addictive drugs in the world.

But I use the word drug casually. Because a drug implies something illegal, illicit, ill-fated and caffeine – well, it’s just fun. Besides, surely we are not addicts to coffee. Surely, our willingness to pay in excess of $4 for a beverage is not indicative of any – major – problem. And surely, dressing our coffee up with whipped cream, milk, chocolate, and sugar makes it much more acceptable, less addictive, and less of a drug.

In the land of make believe.

The fact of the matter is that it is a drug. A psychoactive drug, at that. Need I even dissect the meaning of the word psycho – active? It’s a broad category that encompasses everything from opiates, to barbiturates, LSD, tricyclics, Prozac, Buspar, marijuana, heroin, codeine, nicotine, and – our friend – caffeine. Those psychoactives – they’re a tough crowd and not one I’d want to brush shoulders with anytime soon. And they’re a group of drugs used to treat everything from depression, pain, mania, obsessive-compulsiveness, schizophrenia, bipolar, anxiety. Now imagine hanging out with that crowd.

And so, by association or like any good drug, caffeine can make you crazy. In fact, it is so agreed upon that it is a drug and can make you crazy that they put it in the handbook for all conditions crazy; the DSM-IV, Diagnostic & Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Along with personality disorders, and depression, eating disorders, dementia, and mania, you will find a condition called caffeinism which falls under the umbrella of Caffeine-Induced Psychiatric Disorders including caffeine intoxication, caffeine-induced anxiety disorder, caffeine-induced sleep disorder, and caffeine-related disorder not otherwise specified (NOS). Sweaty palms, palpitations, restlessness, lack of clarity in speech or thought, psychomotor agitation, muscle twitches, increased urination, and nervousness may result from sending over 600 – 750 mg of caffeine into your bloodstream at any given time. And that is how one becomes caffeine-intoxicated.

600 mg – sounds like a lot, right?

Not necessarily. Most of us are already consuming around 300 mg of caffeine per day or 3 – 4 cups of coffee, 5 cups of tea, or 6 cans of pop. At least with the coffee drinkers, I imagine that consumption takes place all at once. A ‘cup’ of coffee in the morning and most of us are good to go.

But are we really all overcaffeinated?

Maybe, and here’s how. Most ‘cups’ of coffee have about 85 mg of caffeine. But coffee, being the one beverage that can transcend standard rules of measurement, is considered at 6 oz per cup. Note that most cups in this country contain 8 oz. See how important coffee is? How many of you have your own system of measurement, eh? On any given trip to the coffee shop, I pick up a 16 oz cup of coffee or the equivalent of nearly 3 cups of coffee. Get it? One cup of coffee actually equals 3 cups. And 3 cups x 85 mg puts my daily caffeine consumption around 255 mg at one given time. But what if you go for the 20 ounces or the big one at Dunkin’ Donuts rolling in at 24 ounces. And what if it doesn’t stop there? I once had a friend who would drink nearly an entire pot of coffee every morning. That’s roughly 850 mg of caffeine. At once.

And those calculations are with the amount of caffeine in a standard, brewed cup of coffee. I haven’t even touched upon drip method or espresso. With about 100 mg of caffeine per shot, that Venti collassal super-sized Americano might send you well more than halfway on your way to caffeine-intoxication. And how ironic that you can show up at work nearly drunk on coffee, but do the same with bourbon and that would be your last day. Irony aside, the amount of caffeine depends on the method of preparation. Drip coffee contains the highest amount of caffeine, followed by a shot of espresso, brewed coffee, instant, and finally decaf (yes, even decaf has caffeine).

Levels of caffeine even vary by bean blend. Those of you enjoying Peaberry are enjoying the most caffeine in a bean blend at 1.42 percent. For comparison, French Roast comes in at 1.22 percent, Sumatra at 1.3 percent, and Kona at 1.34. Where you buy your coffee might be just as important as what you buy. Though most blends contain the high quality Arabica beans, the cheaper beans, Robusta, used in cheaper blends contains more caffeine than a good old Guatemala Antigua from Starbuck’s. So, if you’re looking for a pleasant caffeine buzz it’s best to stick to your coffeehouses but if you want a cheap, buzzy thrill it’s best to head to the Jewel.

Knowing that I consume about 250 mg of caffeine a day puts my mind at ease. Actually, it’s perked up from coffee but it feels better knowing that I consume less than the average 300 mg of caffeine per day. And it’s probably best I don’t show up to work intoxicated – be it by caffeine or anything else. Wouldn’t want to lose a finger in the fax or anything.

But I know that somewhere in the past, I have teetered dangerously close the caffeinism edge. And this concerns me. Because being on that edge you get a taste of the other side.

It happens, on occasion, after a Friday morning trip to Caribou in which I think the Americano is a great idea. And about an hour later I pop into my co-workers office rattling speedily and senselessly about something – anything – it could be bananas for all I know – and finally conclude by stating that I should probably take a few laps around the building to burn it all off. All this while trying to keep my hands from shaking and trying to keep myself from jittering right out of my body.

Alarmingly, the further I think about how so many of us start out our morning riled up on hundreds of milligrams of caffeine – a drug capable of producing intoxicating effects - the more I become convinced that us coffee drinkers really are crazy. Consider this statistic - nearly 80 percent of the world's population uses caffeine consuming over 120,000 tons of coffee per year. Now, 25 percent of this population is diagnosed with a mental disorder. Now consider the overlap. 20 percent of the world drinks coffee and is crazy. For every 100 coffee drinkers you meet, 20 are coffee drinkers that are completely out of their mind.

I think I may even work with some of those people. I have a co-worker deep in the throes of daily caffeinism. She boards the caffeine coaster at 4 am, takes another hit around 8 am, another around lunch, a mid-afternoon pick-me-up, and the after work wind-down. Her blood flows in an endless supply of coffee. In fact, if you tapped one of her veins she might even bleed coffee. Her brain is so familiar with coffee that it doesn’t even charge a toll when it passes the blood brain barrier (yes, of course, there’s an I-Pass installed up there – this is Illinois, what did you expect). Anyways, we were at a conference in southern Alabama in a city I will only describe as not upwardly mobile for coffee drinkers. It was a dry town, with very little, limited coffee to be found. And what we did find wasn’t very good. 5 days in a dry town with someone that needs coffee 5 times a day. With a person so used to being so perked up that when they don’t get their fix they get fixated on finding it. It makes you hate coffee, it makes you hate yourself for even drinking coffee. It makes you cringe every time they say “I could really go for a cup of coffee.” It makes you want to pop a Buspar in their Coke - the closest available beverage to coffee - and say ‘calm your crazy coffee-deprived ass down’. It makes you think about changing your own coffee habit.

But then you think again. And think to yourself – why? If coffee keeps me happy, keeps me perked up, keeps me productive at work then so be it. There are so many things that could be in place of coffee – cigarettes, clothes shopping, fast food, television that I can’t help but feel I’ve chosen the right thing. Besides, I couldn’t afford a clothes habit and certainly wouldn’t get anywhere running on French Fries day to day. At times, I think I’ve chosen the best of the worst habits.

And so I sit here, thinking about tomorrow, another day and another cup of coffee. Actually, another 3 cups. My heart starts to beat a little faster, my eyes widen, I might even start salivating. I wonder if this is all that it takes – the power of suggestion. Part of me considers strapping on my heart rate monitor to see what happens. Maybe biology has nothing to do with it all, nothing to do with the milligrams, the studies, the method of preparation. Maybe it’s all in my head.

And so I call the coffee break completely off and dream of another perky day. Tomorrow I get to have coffee in the rooster mug filled with dark roast and a sprinkle of cinnamon. And I’ll reheat it about 100 times. Each time, I’ll toast to my habit, embrace it, biology, psychology and all, until the next cup. Are you in?

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Leave It To Cleavage

Later hours at work meant an early opportunity to enjoy a mid-morning masters practice. Unsure of which lane to put myself into, I waited for direction from the coach.

“You and Ann will swim nicely together,” the coach said to me, pointing me towards the lane with filled with who I assumed was Ann.

“Hi, I’m Ann!” she pleasantly announced herself. She was probably in her early 40’s, with a bubbly, bouncy, friendly, welcoming, warm way about her. I wanted to swim with her, I wanted to be friends with her, I wanted to talk with her within a minute of meeting her.

“Elizabeth is the fastest person in shoes on this team,” the coach added, “and second fastest in the water.” The first part contained a small degree of truth, but the latter part was pure bullshit.

“Oh, a runner!” Ann exclaimed. “I used to enjoy running, too, but then after having 3 kids my boobs exploded to four times their starting size,” she said looking down at her boobs and then looking back up at me.

Wondering if I already had water in my ears, I thought to myself she did not just say the word boob. Most swimmers won’t even tell me their name when I jump in their lane, most just scold me for accidentally touching their fins or doing freestyle instead of stroke and here was this woman, on our first meeting, already intimately acquainting me with the size of her breasts.

“Yes, these don’t help me much in the run,” she said looking down at her boobage and then looking back up to me. I am not looking, I am not looking, I thought to myself, must not look at the boobs. “Unless you like big things flopping in your face the whole time,” she said.

Catching a sneaky look at her chest, I did some quick calculations trying to imagine them four times smaller and still came up with something pretty big. Suddenly, I felt criminal and looked the other way.

“Of course, these days I don’t go running unless I wear three jog bras,” she confessed, motioning on her chest in the form of putting on three jog bras. Three jog bras? Imagine the logistical nightmare – three bras to wear, three bras to wash, thrice as many bras to have in your drawer.

I wasn’t sure what reply would cross the line between appropriate and inappropriate or if it was just best not to say anything at all. After all, there was Double D looking right at me and I staring back at her with Triple A. Turn away, I said to my own chest, turn away, do not stare the Double D’s directly in the eye. Sheepishly, I just smiled.

“Yes, me and running just don’t get along these days,” she concluded - I think, I hoped, there had to be an end. I looked around for someone else that might be joining our lane, or some inclination from the coach that the workout absolutely had to begin, or some way to distract her from her boobological assessment.

Honestly, I wasn’t sure what to say. I never had big boobs and had no idea how it felt to carry them around day to day. Or what it felt like to limit my activities because of them. And so I did my best by saying, “well, I guess those are the hazards of big boobs that you never really think about.” She chuckled, politely, and then took off the lead the lane.

As she swam off, I smiled a sinister grin. Well, well, well, I thought. Small-breasted women of the world unite. And it’s about damn time. I have finally found the forum in which small breasts are the advantage and not the disadvantage. For years, I mourned the oh-so-smallness of my chest hoping they would have a late bloom or sudden burst into at the very least a full B-cup but what was left behind were just the remnants, the bare minimum. And now, in my world of swim-bike-run, there is a place, though small as it may be, for even the teeny tiniest of us all - on the run.

This is the best news I’ve heard all day. Finally, having less of something is more. Having the undesired is desirable. Being small actually counts for something big. Ask yourself what are the hazards of having small boobs? None, really, none. They’ll never slap me in the face, or weigh me down, or grow so unwily it would take several bras to reign them in. The best part about is that this doesn’t work in reverse. I’d never have to say I can’t swim because my boobs are too small or I can’t cycle anymore because it barely takes one bra to hold them down.

I had always suspected that big boobs were not worth their weight. Once you ween the babies off, there’s no other biological function for their large size. Other than entertainment value. Or an ornamental purpose. But I would imagine that after awhile they become just like any other load you have to carry around. Like a backpack, if you will. But you can’t take the pack off. And it’s hanging right in front of your face.

In an epiphany, what had just become very clear to me is that the half empty jog bra filled with my half pint sized chest is not half empty but actually half full. And the other half can be nicely filled out with car keys, heart rate monitors, gloves, dollar bills, or even MP3 players. Forget a Fuel Belt, I’ve got the most handy half-full carrying case permanently secured to my own chest. In fact, storing gels in my jog bra is part of every one of my long course race plans. There’s room in there for at least three gels, one full bar, plus all the empty packages as well. Unloading the bra at each aid station is something you’ll see me doing in every half-Ironman. Who needs a Bento Box when you’ve got small boobs?

Suddenly I snap out of it these realizations and realize I am standing in cold water, not running on a trail, and my body reminds me that lean, late-in-life learned swimmers have no place in this pool. Small feet, small hands, muscle mass – all not helpful in the world of water sports. Looking around the pool, I wondered if there were other limiting bodily factors. Does this go beyond boobs? Is there safety in short legs, small feet, tiny hands? Scanning the other lanes, I noticed an assortment of body shapes and sizes. Long and lean, short, fit, skinny, plump, and even a few tugboats. With each of them I wondered if their body held them back or got in the way.

Chest aside, there are certainly ways the rest of my body gets in the way with sports other than swimming. I don’t have the legs for a long jump or the height to shoot hoops or the eye hand coordination to hit a ball. I’m a disaster when it comes to dancing and rock climbing is just an embarrassment. Gymnastics always went well until I had to go backwards – I just don’t bend that way. And soccer – if you can believe it I was once on a soccer team and probably spent most of my time running from the ball rather than running with it. Miraculously I was good at tennis but swinging at a golf ball was a different story – unless you count putt-putt. Then again who can’t play putt-putt. There are so many ways our bodies can limit us that it makes me wonder how our bodies can permit us to do anything at all.

What I do seem to have permission for is running. A sport that favors the small-boned, small-chested. A sport that required no equipment, no tactics, no plan. Just one foot in front of the other. And of all the things I tried, it’s actually one of the few things I enjoy. It’s one of the few things I actually seem designed to do. And so it makes sense that I took that success and – pardon the pun – ran with it.

But today I wasn’t running, I was in the pool and it was time for my swim. Ann led the warm-up, coasting effortlessly up and down the lane, freestyling, backstroking, and – how appropriately – breaststroking. And she was fast. Her backstroke was faster than my freestyle and I made my way painstakingly down the lane on my back while she glided nearly a lap already ahead of me. Then again, she had two highly buoyant, inflatable rafts planted on her chest which made me think we was perfectly designed to stay afloat in the water and glide right through.

And as I watched her zip along underwater, I thought to myself that there was a fine example of a women taking what she could be good at and running (or swimming) with it. Seeing that made me more grateful for the things I seemed to be designed to do with similar ease and grace. There are so many times I have wished I could do something better or master a new skill. Maybe the key is just to be satisfied with what I can do and stop beating myself up for everything I can’t seem to do. And I’m not suggesting you stop trying to do new things, but chances are there is someone out there longing to do what comes so easily to you.

Perhaps it’s best to find happiness and satisfaction in what you can already do rather than always hoping for more. Appreciate those long legs, or small chest, or big feet. When you find happiness in what you can do and who you are, you become more relaxed and content. You are more confident and satisfied with yourself. And perhaps in finding satisfaction in yourself and being more relaxed you will find it easier to master the next new thing.

And so the next time I am in a long course race and reach into my jog bra for a gel, I’ll remember that it’s not half empty but rather half-filled and one hundred percent fully functional. And with that I am satisfied. If only I had known years ago that this small chest would lead to a world of big opportunities, I might have spent less time longing for what I would probably never have.

So take stock in what you have - and disregard what you don't have. Chances are that who you are and how you were designed has led to countless opportunties that others can only dream about. For that, I am grateful. Leave it to cleavage to teach me this lesson, leave it to cleavage.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Red Light, Green Light

It was the perfect day. After working 7 days straight, including over 65 hours, I took Monday off. My only goals for the entire day were to go swimming and to drink coffee. Anything more would be considered too taxing and too structured for my day off.

And so I was happily on my way to a great day off. The day started around 7 am when I found myself in my kitchen listening to the radio and drinking coffee. A few hours later I found myself in the pool. By 1 pm, I was ready to start my day – for real – and decided I would head to Panera to exploit their WiFi and further exploit their endless supply of creamy Hazelnut coffee.

Driving on my way to Panera, and the most perfect part of my perfect day, I noticed the woman in a white car ahead of me. I only took note of her because she was traveling about 25 mph on a street intended to be driven at 30 mph. Actually, it’s a street meant to be driven around 40 mph but the city doesn’t seem to agree with that. So 30 mph we go. Well, thanks to her, 25 mph we were going.

After about a day, we finally reach a stoplight. The woman in the white car stopped at the stoplight to turn left. But she put on her signal to turn right. Oh, one of the those people, I thought. The in-the-car-and-driving-but-not-really-paying-attention-to-driving-the-car type of people.

And my suspicions were confirmed as she sat at the stoplight shuffling around with either a cell phone or something else that was held close to her mouth which distracted her from responding appropriately when the light turned green. And so she was also one of those people that needed a little tap on the horn when the light turned green.

A timeout to talk about stoplights. At the stoplight, you have one job and one job only – to wait until the light turns green. And when it does, you go. You don’t think about going, or consider where you’re going, or take your time going – you GO. NOW. Around here, we’ll graciously give you about 3 seconds to get your ass on the gas, but after your 3 courtesy seconds have expired – you will get the horn.
Light turns green, count to 1 – 2 – 3. Nothing. Still fiddling with miscellaneous purse contents or cellular phone. So I tapped on my horn, politely suggesting she turn her car – right or left – whichever direction she decided. And in response, she turned left (with signal still blinking right, brilliant, yes, YES, let’s continue to license people like this).

She took her time. I, with intimate knowledge of the ebb and flow of stoplights in this area, punched the gas a bit in an effort to get around her and get through the next green light, a little stale and a ready to turn red. But alas the red light changed ahead of me and I was stopped.

Damn. Coffee so close I can taste the warm Hazelnut in my mouth. So close, getting impatient, almost there, and……

That’s it. I’m turning right. As I pulled into the right lane, I realized that the woman in the white car was turning right too.

Not stopping at the red light, she rolled right through and made herright turn. Light turns green and she stops. Light is red and she goes? Sometimes I think we need stricter laws for who should and should not be licensed to drive.

A short distance later, a small left turn lane branches off towards the shopping mall. The woman in the white car continued straight, so I slid into the turn lane and turned left. To my surprise, as I was turning left the woman also decided to turn left, from the right lane, and nearly turned right into me.

Crisis averted, I continue weaving my way through the sea of strip mall parking lot to the Panera. I’m thinking about what just happened and thinking that this woman is probably lunatic enough to think I was the driver that was wrong. That I was the crazy, maniac driver turning left from an imaginary turn lane.

But that was not the case.

You cannot decide to turn left from the right lane. Well you can do that, but chances are you’ll run right into someone like me who was properly using the turn lane.

You might think I was asking for it. That my driving was laced with a bit of rage and impatience, that I had this coming. But let me warn you – around here, you need to drive defensively. What I mean by that is you need to drive under the assumption that everyone else does not know how to drive, or that they are just barely 16, or that they are too distracted by their cell phone, or simultaneously trying to steer 2 tons of metal while also texting their friend on a Blackberry. Add on top of it the fact that it is Monday at 1 pm. Most of the people out driving at this time are convicts, addicts, unemployed, over 70, or those driving around 10 small children in their backseat.

And then there’s the random, solo woman driving a Toyota Camry. Always trouble.

At that moment, still driving towards Panera and thinking about all of the hazards we face in the form of former felons and women on the road, I notice trouble in my rearview mirror.

I continue to drive, past the Taco Bell, past PetSmart, a dry cleaners, a bank, all of the other things that we just can’t seem to live without 5 miles from our home in any direction, and I finally reach the Panera. I am pleased to see a plethora of parking spaces available and I am closer than ever to coffee. But then I look up and notice the woman, in the white car, still behind me.

Hoping I was wrong, I wondered if she was following me. Could she? Would she? Really? Come on. What kind of crazy does a thing like that? Shaking off what can only be described as the most ludicrous and lunatic of plots that might unfold in a Panera parking lot, I drive a little further down to a parking space.

And there she was…..still right behind me.

Now I was suspicious about being followed by this bundle of estrogen and rage. I was curious – how far could it go? I felt a little manic, a little risky, a little like living on the day-off edge.

And so I drove another loop around the Panera parking lot.

I stopped, looked in my rear view mirror. STILL THERE.

One more loop, I decide, perhaps it was just an uncanny coincidence. We circle the parking lot, reach a stop sign, and look in my mirror to see she is still there.

(insert sinister laugh and crazed look in my eyes)

I keep driving. I reach another stop sign. She’s still there. I drive past the grocery store. She follows. Another stop sign, a right turn, past the bank. She’s still on me, a maniac on four wheels disguised in the all too common and safe cover of the Toyota Camry.

Snaking through the parking lots, I try to drop her but she’s right there. Relentless. Not giving this one up easily. And then I start to wonder - who follows someone through a parking lot? And on top of that, what kind if woman follows another woman? Really – what was she going to do? Stop when I stopped, get out of her car and what? Yell at me? Throw her
purse at me? Feeling pretty pumped up from lifting weights after the pool, I was ready to go. I’d take her on. I may be elf-like and tiny, but like the blog says I can pack a big punch. Need I show her?

That was it. If she would follow, I would bring it there. Oh you want more, I think to myself? You really want to tangle with me? Time to take this on to the real road, I thought. She chose the wrong person to follow, the person with the entire day off with plenty of time for an all day joy ride towards western Illinois.

I take a left onto a major road, throwing the bait, wondering if she’ll bite. She follows.

A bit of traffic ties me up waiting to turn right on a state route and she catches up, waiting with me. My eyes narrow. I watch her in the mirror.

The light turns green. I turn right. I bolt, accelerating to the permissible 50 mph until the lane narrows and I own the now single lane. I’ve dropped her completely leaving a trail of 3 – 4 cars in front of her and in my wake. I’m putting time between myself and the pack behind me so I decide to take a risk. To take the time to slow down and take a right turn into a subdivision. If she somehow sees me, and still chooses to follow then I decide I will stop the car and see what crazy looks like face to face.

I make the turn. Watching in my mirror I wait until the white car goes by, still heading west on Route 56. For all I know, she could still be chasing the phantom from the Panera parking lot, heading west on the state route until it meets the interstate and disappears into Iowa. Hope she likes corn.

I turn the car around, and make my way back towards Panera parking myself there for the rest of the afternoon. And from the table with my coffee and WiFi, I kept a careful, close eye on my car and waited for a white Camry to roll by.

It never happened and I’m glad about that. After all, this was my day off and nowhere on my list of things to do today, between coffee and the pool, was there an open time slot for getting into a cat fight with a woman driving a white Camry.

But just for the record, if there was, I totally would have taken her on and shown her what this clown car was all about.