Monday, August 24, 2009

Spinster, Interrupted

Lately I’ve been feeling free of my usual cynicism and have been passing days, weeks even, in a content mood. This month actually marks the one-year anniversary of my “independence” as it was last August that I moved out of my ex-fiance’s house and spent my first night in the new apartment.

I’ll never forget the feelings I had when I stood atop the stairs before my new home, cradling a box filled with books, spatulas and picture frames in the crook of my arm while I fumbled with my keys to unlock the door for the first time. I entered my apartment and was greeted by a large glass bong on the kitchen counter that was left behind by the former tenants.

I immediately started sobbing.

The drug paraphernalia triggered the unease in my system that I had been trying desperately to bury with thoughts of my future and moving on. I’ve never been into drugs, and seeing this instrument in the first scene of my new life conjured up images of the ex-boyfriend I dated before I got engaged. Ours was an abusive, unhealthy relationship wherein marijuana frequently took center stage (he was the feature act, I was the audience) and I couldn’t help but wonder as I set down my things, “Will I once again be faced with a parade of losers and jerks as I trade in my engagement ring for the single life?” I suddenly felt like Sandra Dee in a Rizzo world. The promise of security and stability was gone, and in its place was this clear glass omen of disaster.

That would be the first of many times I would sob alone in my apartment. For a while it seemed to occur on a regular basis at least once a week. It didn’t help that my wedding dress was being stored in one of the closets, still untailored (and never tried on) zipped in its bag like a corpse in the darkness. A quick visit to the closet to retrieve a new Swiffer pad could easily end up causing that week’s meltdown.

But things got better over time. Six months went by and I had settled into my new digs and a routine that involved spending time with friends and having fun. I read books, I tried new recipes. I watched foreign films and ate hummus.

My family remained supportive, giving my personal life a sense of calm despite the rocky road I was traveling, and I was getting consistently good feedback at work. Things weren’t bad at all. Now a full year later, I really feel like I’ve come out of the rebound phase and am fully reclaiming the happy, positive me.

With so much of my self-identity tied up in triathlon and training, I started to slump back into a state of depression in the spring when I realized that getting over my broken engagement took its toll on my body. I wasn’t as fit as in years past and the “fun” part of my new lifestyle had me drinking and eating a bit more than usual. Despite the fact that I was performing in my races with about five extra pounds in tow, I ended up doing great in the events that mattered to me. Since my last race in July, I’ve ridden the high of my awesome finish right into August where more good things have started to happen.

Something cosmic seems to be taking place within me where finally everything is falling into place. My new relationship has been challenging me in healthy ways, causing me to let go of some of the anger and stress I’ve been carrying around, and breaking down walls between us that I don’t think I’ve ever been able to remove in relationships past.

My ex-fiance is also dating someone new and it seems that we’ve both managed to move past our own failed story into something that is better for us. I met her briefly while in Lake Placid to volunteer for Ironman this year, and for a split second I thought of how awkward it was to see him in that context.

Lake Placid is saturated with my hopes and dreams. Three years ago it was the place I slept alone in my car the night before I registered for my first Ironman, while my ex returned to Syracuse to work the next morning. Last year it was the place where I completed my first Ironman while at the same time my relationship was falling apart. This year it was the place I came with the new man in my life to sign up for Ironman next year. And now my ex-fiance who never had any interest in participating in an Ironman event ever before was there holding hands with a woman who looks as though she stepped out of an LL Bean catalog. The mental assessment occurred in less than a minute and was as refreshing as the first sip of a cold beer on a scorching day. It appeared we were both moving on and happy.

The tough thing about breaking up with someone you don’t hate in a small town is that you will likely run into them a lot when the relationship is over – this is even more true when you’re involved in something like triathlon which shrinks the community down to an even smaller size. To see my ex moving on with his life, and for him to see me moving on with mine felt healthy and provided a sort of closure that I needed to really pull away from that period of my life.

My job has continued to go well and I feel that I’m where I’m meant to be, despite the fact I never saw myself working in new business development for an advertising agency. We're moving into a brand new building in December that will be designed with all the contemporary flare you’d imagine an advertising agency to have – like the way they portray creative places to look in movies and TV shows. In my fantasy of the new office, I think of Amanda and Mark from Ugly Betty visiting my cube to scold me for my choice of shoes (likely the pink Crocs that nobody seems to enjoy but me).

I’ve been given a lot more responsibility and am excited to take on new challenges. And I feel that my personal relationship is giving me more responsibilities also. Being with someone that you are able to have an even exchange of emotion with causes you to be more accountable with each other. I know that in my new relationship my emotions will be taken seriously – and that means that I take his more seriously also. Emotions are no longer chalked up to “drama” and random fits of boredom, but are regarded as delicate conversations that should be paid attention to.

I’ve found myself growing stronger in my relationships with friends. When I started my new job two years ago, I was given a “buddy” to help me get acclimated to the organization. In our first meeting, I discovered she was a former beauty pageant queen, cheerleader and sorority girl. Those might be the top three types of women that I detest the most. My “buddy” is now one of my closest, most treasured friends. I’ve made many friends this year that live off the beaten path when it comes to what women our age “should” be doing at this point in our lives.
It’s like the show Lost – we were all on a plane minding our own business until it crashed and we’ve grown our own community with a lifestyle that we’re comfortable with, not be to sabotaged by the way “the others” live, who are content with suburbia environs, raising families and celebrating life as per societal norms.

With my new friends, I seldom have time to stop and think about the status of my life as a mom or a wife. It feels okay to nurture plants instead of children, to own an expensive bike rather than an expensive ring. To invest my time in making my spin class inspiring rather than matching table linens to floral arrangements at a wedding reception.

Part of my struggle in the past was trying to save relationships with people that I’ve grown apart from. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that failed friendships with some people are nobody’s fault. I don’t begrudge my married friends for starting families and enjoying the life we all thought we’d be living one day when we were in third grade. My path went in another direction from all of that and it’s hard to make plans and have conversations with someone that is never in sync with you. It’s especially hard when you realize that people won’t even try – I am the one that isn’t connecting the dots in the “when I grow up” playbook we all memorized in grade school, so it often feels like I am responsible for thinking of ways we can best relate to one another from our different lifestyles.

I’ve let it go.

It feels great to be realigned with people that I can identify with – both in person and in the blog world where I have connected with many fellow spinsters who chase the cursor across the screen with similar thoughts to my own. It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one who feels like giving our society a big middle finger for continuing to promote celebrations only for women who have married or are having children.

Sometimes I feel guilty maintaining a blog about being a spinster while I’ve begun to enjoy a more serious relationship that is helping to carry me further away from my anger and bitterness and back into a place where I am happy and feel whole.
But being a spinster, for me, was never about the act of being in a relationship or not. It’s about married versus unmarried, traditional versus unconventional. It’s about women following their hearts and passions into places that make sense to them rather than to society. It’s about celebrating successes and milestones in the context of every woman’s life – not just the ones who are becoming a “Mrs” or a mom.

One year ago I was all too aware of what a let-down I was to society. Barraged by the “you’re still young” comments and patted on the back with the “maybe next times,” and ignored by some of the people I thought I was close to as my “ almost married” life started to unravel.

Today my body aches from starting back up with strength training. It is the only pain I am aware of at the moment. There is a peace inside of me that has been absent for a long time.

My weekends are packed with plans to visit friends, see museums, try new restaurants and explore new places with my boyfriend. I don’t have to time worry about what I “should” be doing.

As days go by, my life continues to be full in so many ways and things aren’t as bad as they once seemed, and I’m not crazy because of how I choose to live my life. As for the namesake of this post, I will leave you with one of my favorite quotes:

Was I ever crazy? Maybe. Or maybe life is... Crazy isn't being broken or swallowing a dark secret. It's you or me amplified.

-Girl, Interrupted

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Walk a Mile (or 70.3) In My Shoes

I wanted to write a post that departs a bit from the “spinster” theme, lest you think that I spend all of my time complaining about society and singles.

Recently I completed my racing season with one of my greatest athletic accomplishments to date and it was a total surprise. Despite a really rocky season with tough training and sub-par finishing times in all of my runs, I improved my performance at the Musselman half Ironman race by 15 minutes. The Musselman totals 70.3 miles – 1.2 miles swimming, 56 miles biking, and 13.1 miles running. I’ve done this race twice before.

In 2006 it was the longest triathlon I’d ever completed in 6 hours and 20 minutes. The following year I shaved 12 minutes off that time finishing in 6 hours and 8 minutes. In 2008 I didn’t do the Musselman because I did the full Ironman race in Lake Placid (2.4 miles swimming, 112 miles biking, 26.2 miles running). This year I decided that in lieu of doing another Ironman I would instead try to break 6 hours in the half Ironman. It was a goal that I was excited about in January when my training began, but I came to loathe in June when I realized that I just wasn’t running well and many of my usual races were completed in disappointingly slow times.

During the 5 hours and 53 minutes that I was on the course at Musselman last month, many things came and went in my mind. Yes, getting a new personal best in a race is awesome – but that isn’t what made it one of my best race experiences. Anyone who knows me well has heard me “metaphorize” training as a template for life in general. It is important to set goals, outline a path to those goals and then pull from your experience in the world to overcome obstacles down that path. Every goal you set and achieve gives you the experience to reach a little further than you did before. There is no easy way to an Ironman finish line – just like there is no easy way to most things sought in life.

And nothing happens overnight.
In middle school I was unable to do the mile test in gym class (you had to be able to run a mile on the track in 12 minutes). So who would have thought that I would end up here?

A runner. A triathlete. A spinning instructor. An Ironman finisher.

Goals are set and accomplished, paving the way for new goals thereafter. They have been scattered along my path in life like a trail of breadcrumbs continuing to lead me to new and exciting places. I learn something new about myself in every race.

Here is what the last 70.3 miles taught me.

Rely on Your Weaknesses, Not Just Your Strengths
Most people approach the sport of triathlon with a dominant “strength.” Many were cyclists or runners before they were triathletes, and while they become proficient at all three disciplines of the sport, they rely on their dominant skill set for the best possible time. For me this has always been running.

My game plan for a triathlon is to be comfortable during the swim and get through it at a moderate pace. On the bike I like to go right to the edge of being aggressive – sometimes crossing the line and hammering it for a few miles, but always backing off the pace to conserve my legs for the run. Having gone from being a sprinter, to a half-miler, to a sub 22-minute 5K runner to a finisher of several marathons, I am used to running while miserable and I’ve always relied on that ability to make up time in my races.

Sunday’s race derailed from my usual game plan. As I stood waist-deep in the water before the air horn sounded to begin the swim, I didn’t think too much about what I wanted out of the day. My goal of finishing in 6 hours seemed really out of the question given how lousy I’d been running for the past few months. I decided to get through each mile feeling comfortable and having fun. If I wasn’t going to get any personal records that day, why not just enjoy myself?

Midway through the swim, I realized that I was doing pretty well. I wasn’t getting tired and I was with a small pack of swimmers in my age group that had caught up to some of the straggling swimmers from the wave that started before us (four minutes earlier). By the time I got out of the water and through Transition 1 (where you go from the swim part of the race to the bike part), I was clipped in my pedals with only 41 minutes on the clock. I recalled my last swim time in this race to be 50 minutes, so I was immediately aware that I was already competing against my previous best times.

This presented a new mindset about the day’s events. I wasn’t anticipating to feel this good, despite how much my swimming had improved this season. Now on the bike, I knew I would feel good for the whole 56 miles because many of my longer training rides were longer than 50 miles and I always felt great the whole time and afterward. None of that changed the fact that my running still sucked – I hadn’t even gotten under an 8-minute mile until very late in the season and I barely count it since the average was something like 7:54 minutes-per-mile.

I had a decision to make. Did I want to continue on with my “joy ride” sense of the morning or did I want to try and make something out of this race? I rationalized that the run was going to be tough for me no matter if I got off the bike with tired legs or fresh legs. I‘ve shown up to plenty of races this year feeling hydrated, zippy and ready to move only to find myself falling apart at paces faster than 9-minutes-per-mile, so there was no way I could make something out of the running leg of this race. Unable to resist the urge to find some success in the morning, I decided that since the swim was over with and a strong run was out of the question, it was go-time on the bike.

I’d only ridden about 6 miles when I made the executive decision to “hammer” the entire bike course with absolutely no worries for what my legs would be feeling like when I got off. For the next 50 miles I kept myself in the aero position, got in the big chain ring and pummeled the road with a cadence that I’d never dared to whip out at a race before. I ended up with a bike time of 3:04 hours and an average speed of 18.3 MPH – definitely one of my best bike legs to date.

When I dismounted to head into Transition 2 (where you go from the bike part of the race to the run), I expected to feel shooting pains through my quads, but there was nothing. I racked my bike and got into my sneakers inside of two minutes and was on my way to the run – just 13.1 miles to go before I could call it a day.

Ultimately, the decision to pursue something with what I would normally consider one of my “weaker” abilities would end up being the reason I was able to meet my goal of breaking 6 hours in this race. If my season had been going the way it normally does, with strong running and fast mile splits throughout the spring, I never would have pushed myself that way on the bike. Now I know that I’m capable of pushing in both areas and that will help me to improve even more in years to come.

My “weakness” provided me with an opportunity, and now I’ll rely on the bike again to lop even more time off this race.

Build Your Mental Arsenal
I began the run with only one thing on my mind: MUST pee. Priority one was getting into the port-a-potty located just after the first mile on the course. Luckily I was in and out and burned away only a minute or two with the nonsense of going to the bathroom.

I was surprised to feel “fresh” on the run after riding aggressively on the bike. Even so, I decided not to make any calculations about a possible run pace yet and to just run however I felt most comfortable. I’ve been fooled by seemingly fresh legs before in long-course races and I wasn’t about to tempt fate by actively pushing the limits of my hamstrings with 10 miles to go.
It was still early.

While I was running, I thought of past race experiences that challenged me to a level of near-quit status. Certainly the Ironman from the previous year came to mind – where I sobbed in Transition 1 as I carefully extracted my numb foot from a wet Pearl Izumi bike shoe and guided it dutifully into the running sneaker.

“I can’t even stand up without pain in my legs – how am I supposed to finish a marathon now?” I remember saying through tears to the volunteer who helped me.

I recall thinking about my whole “I know how to run miserable” mantra and decided that at the very least, I owed it to myself and my $525 registration fee to get out there and try one mile before quitting Ironman. Inexplicably, a second wind came (more like a 19th wind, really) and I felt great for the first 13 miles. The second 13 miles were another story...but I made it to the finish!

There were many other times when I’ve suffered in races, and I let those struggles flash through my mind like a sort of film strip of my athletic "perseverance" as I was about to die with each stride forward.

I recalled images of vomit at the finish line during 800 repeats in college. An image of my own pee running down my leg because I was in too much pain to stop and squat during the run for my first ever Musselman. Flash to the image of my left hamstring during the New York City Marathon in 2005 – with two miles to go to the finish, I recall my leg slowly seizing up into a deep, painful cramp. I picture the muscle tightening like an angry fist beneath the surface of my skin doing everything it can to slow my run to a jog, my jog to a walk, my walk to a DNF (that stands for “Did Not Finish” and in the athlete world it’s akin to Harry Potter saying “Lord Voldemort” at Hogwarts).

But I never quit – not after I puked on the track, or peed on my own leg, or willed my gimpy leg to give me just two more miles through whispered F-bombs in Central Park. Not after 112 wet and chilling miles on my bike with numb feet.

These experiences are my “mental arsenal” and they are probably more important for a successful race than any tempo run, time trial or swim drill out there. If you train properly for a race, then you already know you’re showing up to the starting line with the physical fitness for a good performance. Training, rest, nutrition – these are all essential for success. But without a focused mind and a good attitude, you won’t complete the mission.

Think of it this way…You can have the best recipe for bread on the planet – but if you don’t add the yeast, it won’t rise. You’re left with a bowl of well-intentioned ingredients that can’t quite synchronize to bring you “bread.” Your mental arsenal is like yeast. When you know where you’ve been and what you’re capable of, you can rise to the occasion no matter how demanding the occasion may be.

I tapped into this mental arsenal in the last few miles of the Musselman this summer. I was struggling with only three miles to go and was definitely on track to break 6 hours if I could maintain my efforts just…a…little…longer. As anyone who does long-course races will tell you, “just a little longer” seems like time that is measured out in days rather than minutes. When the body starts to deplete and fatigue, the mind is the only thing that will move it forward. I owe my new PR in the Musselman to my mental arsenal, no doubt about it.

Stick to the Plan

The first few miles of the race I was in it to have fun – no worries about anything except for finishing. By the time I was five miles away from the finish line, not only was I sure I would break 6 hours, but I started to get a little arrogant in thinking that I could even run aggressively and pick off some of the women in my age group. (Our ages are marked on the back of our legs so you can tell who is in your age group when you’re on the course).

Around mile 9, a woman passed me with a 34 on her calf. Her stride wasn’t much faster than mine and I could have kept up with her for a while. My usual plan of attack on the run is to run next to someone and match their stride with the smallest little lead – just enough for them to keep up with me and consider pushing past me, but not too much to make them think I won’t let it happen. After a few miles, the person either has to decide to move ahead of you and take a clear lead, or they fall behind you because you’ve drained them of their spirit. It’s rare that they will stay close to you for too long because it starts to feel like an invasion of personal space that needs to be dealt with.

Since I still had four miles to go, I hung back and let the woman pass me. My reasoning was that I was definitely on track to break 6 hours, which was the original goal. I knew that my time wasn’t good enough to place me in the Top 3 of my age group, so picking off women in my age group at this point would have only been for my ego. Risking my possible sub-six-hour time for the momentary thrill of moving up in the age-group rankings seemed like a dumb idea. I had to remember what this race was supposed to be about and be thankful that my body was cooperating with me.

I was tested again in the very last mile of the race – a mile that I cobbled together with the very scraps of my soul as I mustered the strength to move my legs forward. I was really feeling depleted and beaten up by then. Another women passed me with a hefty kick. As she moved ahead of me I read the black marker on her calf – 31. She continued to lengthen the gap between us. It was only about 800 meters from her to the finish line. On a better day I could have trashed her with an all-out sprint to the finish, something I’m normally strong enough to activate in the last two miles of a race. But on this day I knew better than to tempt fate. As she whooshed by, I felt my body naturally pick up the pace to match her speed and my right quad immediately responded with a jolt of nerves that said, “Um, that’s not happening today.”

I took this as a sign that I was smart to stick to my plan way back at mile 9, and that if I had decided to start editing my goals at that point, I would have probably missed the opportunity to finish under 6 hours (pushing my pace to pass people and keep them behind me would have resulted in my having to walk the last few miles of the race, sabotaging the pace I needed to complete the run on time).

So what does this all mean out of the water, off the bike and away from the running shoes?

To me, it comes down to the simple adage, “live and learn.”

If I wasn’t forced to try things differently in this race, I don’t know that I would have willingly pushed it on the bike or ignored my urge to pass people on the run.

The experience has inspired me to play with my strategies and abilities in future races to see what comes of it. And true to my aforementioned metaphor, I’m planning to apply these same principals to my life off the race course, too. Call it “Transition 3” – where you go from the “live” part of the race, to the “learn” part of life.