Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Heart Rates and High Heels

I’ll save you the anticipation of a juicy read and let you know that this is NOT a post about sex—but it is a post about stimulation.

A couple weeks ago was the first triathlon of the season for me, a race I’ve done for the past five years to get myself ready for my main race in July. I have taken first place in my age group every year I’ve competed in this race (excluding one year where I took second place), and despite the fact that I use it as a training exercise, I always have some nerves about how things will go now that I’ve inadvertently become a defending champion for my age group.

Mini scenarios of failure hang in my mind like a string of Chinese lanterns replaced with tiny dioramas depicting all of the ways a bad race will affect the rest of the summer.

What would the people from my spin classes say of my prize-less performance? After touting months of intervals and tempo rides, what would I have to show for it if not a medal? And what would the people I ride with say? How could I be so strong in training and so lackluster on race day? How will I feel about myself if I fall short of my goals? Could it activate some kind of butterfly effect so that no race will ever go well for me again?

It is with this stream of consciousness that I stand waist-deep in a lake waiting for the start of this race each year.

This time though, I had the added complication of another important event taking place the day before. After nearly three years working at my current job, I was invited to be part of a pitch team who presented to a major brand in the food and beverage industry. I was involved in developing insights on the brand and its competitors, but I wasn’t expecting that it would lead to an invitation to present to the prospective client. I was thrilled that it did—I’ve been waiting for an opportunity like this.

The day before the race, I sat with my colleagues as we waited to begin our presentation. I was prepared and ready, and teeming with energy to go through my section. But also, I was nervous.

I felt I had something to prove—to show that I was capable of the task at hand, and that I had something to offer as a presenter. For years I’ve been “pitching” my ideas of fitness and wellness to the people who attend my cycling classes. I remember the nerves that first came with wearing a microphone and trying to talk to a room full of people staring at me whilst I was packaged in Lycra attempting to flawlessly execute a workout and motivate people through it at the same time.

Those same nerves came over me even as I sat quietly in business casual, with high heels firmly planted beneath perfectly symmetrical knees, and glossy lips in a smile.

The presentation went great, and my co-workers congratulated me for a job well done. I was relieved to get through it without sabotaging any chances of the client wanting to work with us, and better yet, felt great that I may get to do it again in the future. It was a new door opening for me, and it felt good to step through its threshold. It was a finish line of sorts, and I’d just been part of a team that could see some “podium time” if things continued to go well with the prospect.

Fast forward to the next morning, and there I was with the same insane heart rate and shaky hands—this time with naked toes (some missing nails) and no make-up.

Business casual had left the building.

I was sure I would be tired at the race after spending the entire week preparing and traveling for the business pitch, but something about a starting line pulls me out of “meh” mode every time.

The race began and I was whisked away into the frenzy that is a triathlon swim, reaching and pulling through slippery people for 800 meters until exiting the water in an adrenaline-fueled jog back to the transition area. In a little over an hour, I made it to the finish line with similar feelings to those that I felt at the end of the meeting from the day before.

A sense of satisfaction came over me as I realized that I was able to get through the course easily with decent results (I won my age group, but the time was not the best I’ve ever done on the course).

Being nervous isn’t always a bad thing before you do something important. To me, a little jitter in the hands and a few rounds of “What if?” in your head are all ways of showing your goals some respect. It’s not that I feared doing poorly in the presentation or totally bombing at my race—it’s knowing that I had put in the time to be successful, and that I needed to stay focused in a way that ensures I can deliver on that investment. For me, that manifests itself through shaky hands and turbo heartbeat. I’m so used to it, I would be worried if I didn’t feel that way before something important.

As I stood on the podium with the four other age-group winners in the female 30-35 category, I briefly flashed back to the feeling of standing next to our presentation boards during the meeting.

Though the situations appear to be completely different from the outside, on the inside they registered the same on my system.

To me, approaching the business meeting was no different than approaching the race. In both cases I was prepared, confident and slightly scared of what could happen if I lost my focus. In both situations, shaky hands subsided and gave way to comfortable movement in the presentation, and thoughtful strokes in the swim.

I thought to myself how neat it is that I can be both people—a strong presenter and business woman, and a serious athlete with lofty goals. It made me realize how strong the parallels really are between life and training, and how listening to our hearts is crucial no matter what kind of success we’re going for.

Perhaps if this career milestone didn’t occur so closely to one of my races, I wouldn’t see how obvious it is that when your heart is in something, your body will fire on all cylinders to go after it. We connect all of our senses and systems to this investment of "self" into an end goal.

It makes no difference if it's in the board room or on the beach.

I've heard many people describe the same kind of feelings about marriage and parenting. As an adult, I have fully realized this kind of connection through triathlon. It is something I nurture, enjoy, respect and fear. I love it and I hate it. I have seen the worst of myself in it, but the best of myself, too.

When that pre-race feeling came over me before the presentation, I knew that my high heels were no different than my Sidi cycling shoes.

Now I just have to figure out how to ride 112 miles in a pencil skirt so I can really kick ass at Ironman next month.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Can-Do Shower

To the outside world, it would have appeared I was at my own baby shower. No—I’m not referring to the shower I threw for my sister-in-law in absentia, where I had to fill in as the mom-to-be and open presents in front of friends and family (she lives in Germany with my brother who is in the Air Force). I’m referring to the happy hour I went to a few weeks ago, where dozens of people came to share a drink with one another after the final class in an 18-week Advanced Cycling Program that I created and coached at Gold’s Gym.

For the first time in my adult life, I stood in a room and felt a celebration happening around me, FOR me, whilst wearing a pink shirt with the words, “Push, push, push!” on the back, and the initials C.S.B. on the front. No—this wasn’t in reference to a baby girl whose name would start with “C,” this was in reference to me...the “Crazy Spin Bitch” and her drill-sergeant mantra to continue moving the pedals at pace.

All while engaging in “can-do attitude” – something of a motto for our class.

My boyfriend secretly hijacked the class email list to coordinate a celebration of the program in its final week. As a result, my 90- and 120-minute spin classes were filled with remarkably coordinated athletes sporting pink shirts (my favorite color) with messages on them for me to read.

After the final class on Friday, everyone was invited to come to the happy hour at Chili’s to get a few drinks and celebrate the end of the program. People arrived with cards and gifts in hand, congratulating me for a job well done and sharing stories with me about how much the class meant to them.

People thanked me for the opportunity to get stronger in their fitness.

For the experience of being coached again after 30 years, when they believed that time in their life was over after high school.

I was compared to a life coach. A counselor. A friend. A force.

People handed me bottles of wine as if it were a housewarming party; festive gift bags as if it were a bridal shower; and bouquets of flowers as if I were on Broadway. Homemade hats and T-Shirts in various shades of pink peppered the classes like a bachelorette party, each of them with sayings I regularly used in class.

One woman pulled me aside at the party to tell me something that she’d been hanging on to for weeks. She never wanted to let me know the ways the class affected her while I was teaching it, for fear that my knowing would alter the way I coached.

“I was a very unwilling participant in your class," she said. “My friend dragged me there because I needed something to take my mind off of things.”

Unbeknown to me, she was recently widowed and my class had become part of an “intervention” of sorts where her friend did the hard (and important) work of reminding her that life was still out there waiting for her to live it.

“You said something in those first few weeks in class that changed me. It allowed me to finally grieve. To move on.” She continued. “While we were in the middle of one of the hard songs, you asked us to feel the work that we were doing…all the sweat that was on our skin, the way it felt as it dripped down our bodies. The way it tasted on our lips, the way the pain felt as we were pushing the pedals, and how our muscles started to hurt just as we started to think that we didn't want to do this anymore. You told us that to work this way would suck. And to let the suck in. Do you remember that?” She asked.

And I did, or at least I was familiar with the concept and the way that I coach. So much of what I enjoy about training and racing are the endless parallels you can draw between a hard workout and a hard time in your life. They both require perseverance, a positive “can-do” attitude and the will to push through and see another day.

In training, it’s race day. The celebration of all your struggles coming together for a single, glorious moment as you cross the finish line and are rewarded with your accomplishment. In life, it’s the realization that there is a light at the end of the tunnel and you will find it if you are persistent enough to do so. Either way, the push gets you through the hard times and you realize that the struggle was worth it.

For this woman, Advanced Cycling Class allowed her to tap into that resource—the part of her that could push through and make it to the next day. And the one after that. And the days become weeks, and in her case—the weeks become part of a plan to complete a triathlon.

I was much more than a cycling instructor to her, and she was much more than a person who wrote a check to come to my class for 18 weeks.

Fitness is a funny thing. Yes, it’s good for you and keeps you physically healthy. But it’s also the only way most people are ever introspective. When you’re working out, it’s all about you. It’s a time to be selfish, to delve into all the things that make you tick. When you see results you are pleased. When you feel fatigue you are unhappy. Training calls upon a spectrum of emotions that allows us to be fully aware of ourselves for better or for worse. And this is why fitness becomes just as important for our minds, as it is for our bodies.

The happy hour lasted for a while, with many rounds of margaritas bolstering our post-exercise glow. I was honored that my classes thought so highly of me that they would thank me so graciously with their gifts and kind words, but I’m sure they’ll never realize that the real gift to me was the experience of watching them all change and grow through the program.

Many of the classes I taught included actual Ironman workouts that I had to do as part of my own training. There were times when I was sure that if I wasn’t responsible for motivating them through hill repeats, tempo rides and intervals that I wouldn’t have pushed through them so hard myself. The irony is that I created a program to train people in endurance riding, and they actually made me into a better athlete.

Last year I wrote a blog on “Showers for the Women of 2009,” titled so because I feel our society doesn’t celebrate women enough for the accomplishments they can achieve outside of marriage and motherhood.

Sure, the commitment of marriage and the birth of a new life are worthy of their fanfare—but I watched 65 people make a commitment to themselves to be in my class for 18 weeks. New athletes were born before my eyes. People who started the class to lose weight were finishing the program with registrations for their first races ever. Sparks were ignited, and the sport of triathlon is now being courted by a crop of new athletes who can’t wait to tackle goals they’d never even thought of until now.

I may not have a birth certificate to prove there is new life in the city of Syracuse, but if you come to any of the area races in town this summer, you can see it for yourself on the shores of the Finger Lakes and the roads of Central New York.

One day, maybe I will marry and have children. Those will be proud moments for me and I may find myself at my own wedding and baby showers being congratulated for these sacred milestones.

But it will be hard to find an event in my life that will compare to the first-ever Advanced Cycling Program, and being part of something that helped so many people grow and change in positive ways.

My thanks to all of those people who helped to celebrate the class, and their can-do attitudes.