Wednesday, February 29, 2012

The Why Of It

Leap Year Day is the anniversary of my father's funeral, and we buried him twenty years ago. As my brother Dan said, it's hard to believe it's been twenty years.

The thing is, my father died too young. He was only 53 years old. The tragic part of his death at that age is that it wasn't a car accident, or a terrible disease, or some sudden calamity. What's tragic is that maybe it didn't have to happen, that maybe his heart didn't have to give out that night. Which, you know - I understand sounds a little harsh, but I don't mean it that way. He not only didn't take care of himself, in a  lot of ways it was almost like he  almost took pride in his unhealthy way of life. I can't remember him ever eating a green vegetable, he ate fatty meats and sugary candies almost exclusively, he smoked, and he didn't exercise. It's not a moral judgment, I'm just saying that if you live like that then it would almost be a surprise to live longer than 53 years.

He did always say that it was better to enjoy a short life than hate a long one. And I am about 150% behind that sentiment. At least he didn't die miserable and deprived, which is doing better than a lot of people.

Anyway, I am not entirely blind to our strong family history of heart disease and stroke. I suppose either one or both of those will come for me in the end, and maybe that end is at age 53 or even 43 for me, who knows? But I'd like to delay the day as long as possible. In addition to not dying too young, I'd like to not be physically miserable as I get older. A body will get old and break down, that's for sure, but it sure would be great to not have any joints replaced before retirement age, you know?

So my father's been dead for twenty years but my grandfather's still alive at age 93. (I'm pretty sure it's 93 now. Maybe 92.) My grampa always says he'd rather wear out than rust out, and those are words to live by, I think, if you want to be not-miserable.

When people ask me why I'm doing this, my general answer is that I'm doing it because it's slightly insane, which appeals to me. But the real answer, the bigger answer is: I do this kind of thing because my father died at age 53. And there are two thoughts that spring from that serve to motivate me:

1. I don't want to die in my 50s. I don't want to be sick or disabled or bedridden then, either. I can't control everything, but I can do my best to make those things less likely. I can make my heart stronger, my cholesterol levels picture-perfect, my blood pressure numbers a thing that nurse practitioners marvel at. I can try to take some weight off my joints and keep my bones strong. I can work hard to keep a healthy body as healthy as it can be for as long as I can. But I got lazy over the last year, in my workouts, and I stopped challenging myself somewhere along the line. Which was so stupid. It's a gift, a strong and healthy body. It's this amazing gift that you're so lucky to have. And you never realize it until you see the strength and the health gone from someone. I think of the people who we're raising money for, people fighting cancer with every bit of their strength, and all I can think is what a disgrace it would be to not take this fully functioning body of mine and let it be everything it was built to be.

2. There are very few people who can say in the end that they've lived long enough. Everyone knows that life is too short. And then on top of it, you really don't ever know how short. You never know how much time you have before your number's up - or before something beyond your control, like cancer or stroke or whatever, will take all your most glorious opportunities away. And there are so many times in my life when I've seen something or heard about something and thought God, wouldn't it be awesome to do that? To be the kind of person who does that? So when Team In Training came and spoke about marathons and half-marathons and century rides, I found myself with that spectator mindset again - how amazing, to do that sort of thing. How awesome it would be to do that. But life really is too short to just assume that one day maybe you'll do something awesome. There's no reason to only sit back and admire the idea. There's no reason not to just step forward and become the awesome. In most cases, the only thing stopping you is yourself. And the only reason you're stopping yourself is because you've forgotten how short life can be. I don't intend to ever forget it.

So there you go. It might even be my motto: Become The Awesome Before It's Too Late. That's why I'm doing this and I won't back out or give up. Awesome doesn't give up. Sometimes Awesome makes lame excuses and eats too much pizza, but Awesome always regrets it and does better next time. Because Awesome is - you guessed it - totally awesome.

And now Awesome needs to sleep. I will be missing this weekend's training (first outdoor ride!) because I'm off to Atlanta for a business trip. But I will do the torturous core exercises we were given, in my hotel room, and I will feel sorry for my teammates out in the cold on Saturday. :-)

Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Lot of Hard Work Ahead

Oh boy, you guys. Yesterday's training was not so good for me.

I took Pepe to VisionQuest, to meet my team. What they do there is they put your bike on this computerized trainer, so you get to ride your own bike, but it's immobilized and hooked up to their fiendish machines. Here, it looks like this (not my picture, I just grabbed it from the ever-generous internet):

Then there are these big screens in front of you, which show everyone's progress along the course. They load up a cycling course, you see, and the computer-trainer (aka: computrainer) controls the resistance on your wheels and simulates the course conditions. It's like some virtual-reality thing. Or like Wii. Except Wii is never this hard, unless you're playing Cooking Mama, when everything is unreasonably difficult. Hey, maybe that's a good analogy: this whole thing was like a game of Cooking Mama, where you try and try and in the end all you can do is wail "But why is it so hard? It shouldn't be so hard!" And then you just want pizza.

My point here is: I was by far the worst. And I really wouldn't mind that, it's not being the least skilled that bothers me, because I've never had gears before and trying to figure them out is very difficult and seriously slowed me down. There were all kinds of reasons for me being last, and it's really okay. I am totally having a healthy attitude on that, okay?

The really upsetting thing is that I could not go fast enough. I've been trying to focus on my cadence, because my natural preference is to go at a leisurely pace. I need more speed, and that generally means moving my legs faster. It's not a race, but going like 7 mph is unacceptable, as it would mean the ride would take me like 16 hours. So I've been doing really well (I think - by my calculations, anyway) and just on Friday I challenged myself at the gym, to get on the stationary bike, put it on a not-easy, not-hard hill course, and to keep it above 12mph the whole 40 minutes. And I did - I averaged 14mph, and never let it fall below 12mph. It was wildly exciting! This faster cadence felt totally natural to me at last. Hurray! Right?

Yeah, well. For a day, it was hurray. Then Pepe and I went to the bike-borg place and it was a struggle the whole time - on hills large and small, on flat land, and even on downhills - to get anywhere near 10mph. Once it dawned on me that I couldn't do it even with my gears in the right place, even trying my hardest, even without any hills, I was rather inconsolable. It was pretty bad. I was just pedaling in my little corner, honestly trying not to cry. You know when you can feel it coming on, and you're trying no to blink for fear the tears will spill out? That was me, the whole time. Just trying not to completely melt down. It was not pretty.

This is an impression of me, looking at the stats/progress screen:

Imagine that dog on a bike, and you have what my yesterday morning looked like. Everyone told me not to be discouraged because it's a very hard course. I get that. But I had the hardest time by far. Not just against everyone else, but against my own past achievements.

At this time, I'd like to take a moment to feel sorry for my coaches. Not because they have so much coaching to do when it comes to me (though there is that), but because I am really, really, terribly, horribly, unbearably bad at being coached. My mind, my character, my motivation, my psychology - none of these things react well to any coaching technique known to man. So part of the problem was how very encouraging everyone was. How twisted is that? All the coaches (there were like 5 or 6 there) kept coming around to check on me, give me advice about shifting gears, encourage me, ask me how I was doing, etc. And after a while, it just made me want to cry more.

I am nothing if not super-expressive, so when I am asked how I am, I have a tendency to reflect for a moment and then find a polite way to actually say how I am. A parade of relative strangers asking how I am and me trying to just say "Oh, okay, I'm just trying to learn the gears, it's coming along" - when the real answer is that deep inside I am staring deep into the otherworldly face of Despair and Woe - just really makes everything worse. And it's not their fault! They are doing everything right! They are coaches, this is what coaches do, they check on you and encourage you and stuff! It's just me and my own bizarre nature. I feel awful. I am not built for this particular dynamic. I am not so good with optimism and positivity, in general.

Another thing that I struggle with is just the general issue of being athletic-ish in a group. We're a team, but it's not really a team sport - we're just all doing the same thing in a group. Everyone's very friendly and talkative and it's wonderfully welcoming. But I am by nature the kind of person who likes to do a lot of things alone. Working out in a group is really hard for me. I don't want to talk, for the most part. In fact, talking while exercising generally annoys the living hell out of me. I also like to learn things by doing them myself. So you can see how various people talking to me and explaining how it's done and just standing next to me the whole time I struggled along (seriously - the whole time, I was never alone) really, really set me on edge.

Why I really feel bad for anyone who's supposed to coach me, though, is this thing I discovered about myself yesterday.

Whenever someone tells me I am going to be fine, I do not believe it. It doesn't make me feel better. It actually can send me into a bit of a panic and convince me that it won't be fine. How can it be fine when it's this huge thing and everyone acts like it's no big deal? Because it IS a big deal. And it's rather useless to tell me not to worry, because I will worry. Here's the real key and the thing about my anxiety: it's useful. If I didn't worry, I would never show up at training. I don't envy anyone who has to try to convince me of something which is the opposite of what I already believe. Because I am one stubborn chick. Years ago, in an old job, we went on this retreat and the mediator had us fill out this personality test. As she looked at my results, she just paused a minute and finally said "There's really no working with you if you don't want to be worked with, is there? No one's talking you into anything."

And that really sums it up.

So yesterday, everyone kept telling me "You'll be fine" and I feel really bad because after about the 20th "You'll be fine", I kind of snapped. I can't explain it, there's something so dismissive in that phrase, so glib. Plus, if you say the same thing over and over and over, I'm automatically suspicious. (It's like if everyone said that Soylent Green isn't people, everyone knows that, it's true because everyone says it!) So the last person to tell me I'd be fine was this poor woman - not a coach, just a fellow team member - who finally made me snap that really, people need to stop saying that now, it's a little like protesting too much, you know? I feel awful. She was just trying to help. They all are. It's not their fault that I am riddled with anxiety and have insufficient quadriceps.

But she said the best thing then, the only thing that worked. She said, "Okay, let's not say fine. Let's say it will be a lot of hard work ahead. That's the truth. You need to work hard."

And that was such a huge relief, to me. Because it is something I can definitely believe.

Thursday, February 23, 2012


*Sorry, mom and Aunt Aileen, for kinda using the F-word. I can only censor myself so much.

So last night at the team training spin class I not only kept up with everything (and it was hard!) but there were other people - more experienced people! - who could not do it! but I could! I AM SO FREAKING AWESOME YAY ME!!!

He had us doing these sprints in the saddle and a bunch of climbing for loooong times out of the saddle. Translation for you non-cycling types:
Sprint = go really really fast, like twice your normal cadence, for a burst of like 15-20 seconds.
Cadence = that's how fast your legs are pumping, see. I think of it as the tempo of my knees.
Climbing = is when you turn up the resistance on the wheels, simulating a hill
In the saddle = sitting
Out of the saddle = pedal while standing up
Anyway, the hard part where others gave up (but not me!! can you tell how shocked/delighted I am??) was when he had us out of the saddle and climbing for a solid three minutes. I mean, even with all these spin classes, anything more than 30 seconds is a challenge for me. Thirty seconds is where my legs are all like "Okay, sweetie, let's sit down again, there you go." And of course you want to push yourself, but I never dreamed I could do three whole minutes. (I did totally want to give up every few seconds, after the first minute and a half. It was only pride that kept me out of that damn saddle, and the petty thrill of seeing others struggling more. It's just the vicious way we humans work.)

Unbelievably, that was not the hardest part of the class. The hardest thing - at which I SUCKED, and of which I now live in dread - was how he had us turn the resistance way up, get out of the saddle, lean forward , and sprint. Sprinting WHILE STANDING, that fiendish bastard. It was one of those work-out experiences where you're like "Holy what? I have muscles there? What are these, I didn't know about them, they are puny and unhelpful, where did they come from and why I haven't I ever needed them before?"

So anyway, those are my scary and triumphant moments of last night's training. I had no such moments on Saturday - in fact, I had no training moments at all, because I didn't go. I had every intention, but since I'd taken a 5-day weekend, I completely lost track of what day it was. Which is embarrassing, but there you go. It was about noon on Saturday when it dawned on me that it was Saturday, and by then it was too late to go.

This coming Saturday's training is at a place called VisionQuest, where we do a spin class on our own bikes. Like, you put your actual bike on some kind of machine. Said machine measures your performance, things like how powerful a rider you are, top speeds, stuff like that, I think. I think the coach can control your bike, like the resistance, too? And they can program it to simulate actual cycling courses. For all these reasons, I am terrified of Saturday. TERRIFIED, DO YOU HEAR ME? It's like my bike will go Borg. That's a little advanced, for my tastes.

But I will go. Until then I won't think about it too much because I will be busy holding this little baby triumph to my heart.

Oh! And in the bestest news ever, I am no longer the only total newbie on the cycling team. Last night a couple of new people showed up and they had no experience. Just like me! I loved them instantly, even though we didn't say more than Hi to one another. They are way in shape and had no trouble with the workout, but I am hoping they can still be my newbie soulmates when it comes to actual real-bike stuff and the anxiety of never having done this sort of thing before. Which would be nice, as I have really really really hated fretting alone. Misery loves company, it's true.

So there's your update: All Is Going Well. I'll be sure to fill you in on Saturday's exciting/terrifying shenanigans.

Sunday, February 12, 2012


Here are the things that are better from a week ago:

1. My leg. I wound up icing/elevating it all last weekend and it's been fine ever since. I was all trepidatious and ready to bail when I went to regular-gym spin class (as opposed to the team training spin class, see), but it was perfectly fine.

2. Speaking of regular-gym spin class, we got a new instructor there, named Peter. He is awesome and I love his classes (all one of them that I took so far, anyway). I mean, I don't love him more than the fan - which is still the only thing I like about spin class, btw - but he is scads better than the former instructor. The last instructor is a Beast, she like  runs 100 marathons with ankle weights without breaking a sweat, does double ironman competitions in her sleep and on the side she probably teaches Navy Seals how to be tougher and more in shape, okay? So her spin class was a little too intense for me. This new guy gives just a nice, normal, challenging workout. What a relief.

3. Wednesday's team training spin class was a MILESTONE, people: I could do everything the instructor yelled at me to do. I find this wildly exciting. Seriously!

4. Saturday, I went to the bigger team training, out in the sticks burbs. I could also do everything in THAT class, and sometimes I wished he wanted me to do more. This gives me hope that I will be able to do this damn ride, because so far I am keeping up quite nicely with the training.

Umm, that's it. I have all kinds of things to complain about, but I will leave that for later, probably. Let's keep this positive. One thing that is NOT better is the weather: it's ass cold out there and I am not even considering getting on the bike to try a few miles. But I should make up for that lack with pictures of some kind, so I will try to do that soon.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Not the best start

Before I tell you about training, I will just take a moment to state very publicly that my brother Dan is great, and he is officially the best brother, and all my other brothers suck in comparison.

Also, my friend Megan is a super-friend because she found and donated to me a set of clipless pedals and cleats. (I am sure I will talk more about this whole set-up once I have it in place, but for now all you need to know is that it is an Advanced Cycling thing.)  I've known I'd get some eventually, but I don't currently have the cash and I am not eager to pay for something I will only use for this charity ride. Everything else I've bought is something I'd wanted anyway (the bike, for instance) or can use in life generally (work-out clothes, sandals). But the pedals are special and specific and I really hated the idea of buying them. And then Megan saved the day. Thanks, Megan!

So now - about Training.

I went on Wednesday evening, which was great because I'd spent the whole day staring at a spreadsheet and tearing my hair out over fiendish formulae, not able to get to the gym or even get up from my chair much. I HATE those days. So an evening workout was very welcome, and I'd never have done it if not for training. It was at a local gym, in their spin room, which I found hilaaaaaaarious. The spin room was like a night club. The walls were painted dark dark turquoise and there was track lighting with boxed theater-ish lights than pointed at the walls, not anywhere they might actually illuminate anything. When I giggled at the atmospheric lighting, my coach Matt told me he could flip a switch and turn on the black light if I wanted. Too awesome for words.

So there we were in what felt like a dark bar (smelling of sweat instead of gin and cigarettes) crammed with spin bikes. It was me and five guys. I was the newbie by a landslide, but all of them were super nice and supportive and welcoming, thank god. The spin class itself was much easier than the one at my regular gym (I repeat: thank god) but I had a serious and seemingly unsolvable problem with the bike. A quick note on spin class, if you're unfamiliar: it is super duper extra important to adjust your bike right, in order to avoid terrible pain during and/or after your workout. The seat has to be high enough so that your legs fully extend but also your knees can't come up too high, and your elbows have only a slight bend when you hold the handlebars. At least that's what works for me, and when it's wrong, the workout is harder than it needs to be and I am virtually crippled with sore muscles the day after.

Anyway, I could NOT get this bike adjusted to satisfy me. It was an evil contraption, conspiring against me. No, but SERIOUSLY. The seat could not get low enough, and no matter what I did, my arms couldn't extend enough to get rid of the extreme bend in my elbows. But I soldiered on, despite the odd cramping in my right calf - until it turned into a full blown charley horse and I had to stop, get off the bike, and stretch it out. I was a little mortified. Way to make an impression, newbie. You know when you just want to shout "It's not me! This never happens! I'm not a malingerer, please believe me!" But you CAN'T be like that because it becomes a The Lady Doth Protest O'ermuch situation and you're better off just keeping your trap shut? Yeah. But it was fine and I'll just get there earlier and more aggressively adjust the bike next week. And I went to my regular gym's spin class Thursday and was fine.

Except yesterday, my legs were really sore. Either I worked too hard Wednesday night, and/or I should've given my legs a day off between spin classes. So I rested and didn't work out yesterday, just did stretching throughout the day and walked around a bit like a cowboy after a day-long hard ride on a metal mule. Or something.

Aaaaaand I can't go to training today. Because I woke up this morning and my right calf is swollen and painful. This happened a few weeks ago, after a particularly brutal bit of calf-strengthening work at my regular gym (the instructor there is a Beast, people, and "calf-strengthening" is like a modern day version of "galley slave orientation") . I was still in physical therapy at the time and my therapist slightly freaked out at the sight of my leg then. She said I'd strained the muscle and to ice it, elevate it it, and let it rest for a day or two. So that is what I will do now. Literally right now, as the ice pack is on my calf as I type. Since training today is a spin class all the way out in Orland Park, I'll just skip it. That's a long way to go to tell my coach I have a wee injury and maybe try a very lame work-out, you know? Especially since I forgot my clothes and shoes at the gym, and I don't really have enough gas (or money to fill up) - I was prepared to go despite those issues, though, because what Dan said is my new motto: Quitting benefits no one. But I have to reluctantly acknowledge that injuring myself benefits no one, either. So I really don't think I should go.

Still, it feels like a huge personal failing, somehow. Even though obviously, duh, it's not. I understand now how pro athletes and the like can really push themselves when they know they shouldn't, because even though your body has limitations, you're focused on pushing past those limitations. And to not push it feels like you're wussing out. But I admit that I am slightly alarmed at my calf and am worried that I've done some kind of damage that will force me entirely out of the game. I really really REALLY don't want that. Just the thought has me all devastated with disappointment, you know? I don't know if it was the strain from a few weeks ago that was triggered again by the cramping Wednesday? Or did I do something specifically wrong that would cause this? I don't know these things.

So I'll treat my leg like a fragile princess today, and go to spin class Monday and see how it is. And if I feel the pain/swelling again, I'll suck it up and go to the doctor and officially make it An Issue To Be Dealt With, instead of a freak fluke thingie that just messed up a Saturday training.

That's my plan. That, and going out on the bike tomorrow if the weather holds, which (knock on wood) it should. And it'll be Super Bowl so everyone will be a football parties and I'll have the lakeshore path all to myself, right? Well, I HOPE so, and I'll comfort myself with anti-inflammatory pills and ice packs until then.