Friday, June 10, 2016

Escaping from Alcatraz

Sometime last fall or winter when summer was a forever distance away, I entered the lottery for the Escape From Alcatraz triathlon. Only 2000 athletes can participate. To my delight and chagrin, I got in. Don't go thinking it has anything to do with being qualified. It was mostly a chance drawing, influenced maybe by an accident of geography and organizers' willingness to take anyone from Maine crazy enough to do it. My friend Carla (who lives in San Francisco), who rocked the race last year, is a powerful persuader anyway, and when she offered me airline miles, a place to stay, and a bike, what else could I do? I forked over the hefty race fee and she booked my flight.

I was pretty cavalier about the whole thing until about a week ago, when my coach asked me about the distances involved so he could plan my training week. I did the swim a few years ago, a supported recreational event where you give a guy 30 bucks and he takes a bunch of you out to Alcatraz on a big boat, gives you some pointers about sighting so the legendary currents don't sweep you right out to sea, then throws you in the water and kind of keeps an eye on you until you stagger ashore. He assured me there weren't any sharks in the bay. (Whatever you do, DON'T watch this video of a great white shark devouring a seal next to the Alcatraz dock)

The swim is widely considered the most daunting aspect of the race. The triathlon website describes it this way:

"The Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon begins with a 7:30 am plunge from the San Francisco Belle into the icy cold water adjacent to Alcatraz Island. Participants are unloaded from the boat in less than 8 minutes. It is quite a rush when you take the leap from the ferry for the 1.5 mile swim. Triathletes will face strong currents and 55 degree water temperatures. Wetsuits and hoods are recommended.

I've already done it, though, and I feel reasonably sure I can somehow push that horrifying video out of my mind for the 45 minutes it's going to take me to get across the bay. I thought this race was that swim plus a sprint distance bike and run. But no.

No. It's an 18 mile bike over the hilliest hill hills I have ever seen. Hills that Carla laughingly calls "ski runs" as we drive up and down the course, screaming at the ridiculousness of it. OK, ow, but I still think I can manage that.

It's the run. My weak sport anyway. The run that I thought was 3 or 4 miles. It's 8 miles. Plus this.

"Runners will encounter the deep sand of Baker Beach to the turn-around point and back until they reach the dreaded Equinox Sand Ladder (400 steps up the cliff). This experience will drain the legs of even the best professionals. Runners are urged to use the hand cable to help them walk up the stairs. The stairs are to the run what the currents and waves are to the swim. After reaching the top of the Equinox Sand Ladder, runners will go left on the Coast Trail and back to the finish line via Lincoln Blvd. Runners will follow their path back under the Golden Gate Bridge, pass Crissy Field, and finish in the grass at Marina Green among thousands of cheering fans."

Wondering what the hell a sand ladder looks like? Kay, here.

Is that barbaric or what?

So I realized I'm in for a seriously challenging day, and as usual, I feel totally unprepared. Serious triathletes are coming in for this; I can't pretend to be one among them. There are times I feel like a fraud, a big shlubby perimenopausal woman who hasn't lost her weight, who isn't all that fast, here on a fandango, a total indulgence. How can I even consider this? On the other hand, I'm not really worried about my ability to pull this off. Like, barring any mishaps, I feel like I stand a good chance of finishing, really my only goal. (Although staying ahead of Carla on the swim and bike would be awesome). it won't be pretty, and there will definitely be swear words. But it's in my range for sure. So then I must simply shut up.

And I'm in love with San Francisco, with its beauty and healthy smiley people. Days like this- crisp and sunny and windy on the bay, with thousands of locals and tourists embracing it all -- it feels like one big giant playground. Athletes are coming in from all over the world for this iconic race, a once-in-a-lifetime experience, and I consider myself incredibly lucky to be one among them.

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Company Time

It's hard to get going some days. Hard to make it on time. Hard to keep going. And hard to put the effort in beyond merely logging the meters or the miles.

You don't get through an Ironman without a decent level of self-motivation. But like most people, I have a naughty little lazy monkey sitting on one shoulder, whispering into one ear. urging me to quit about 50% of the time. Maybe you know this guy. I think he says slightly different things to all of us, but his mission is basically the same: he's there to hold us back. 

Mine tells me about all the things I need to get done around the house before I can get on the bike. He tells me I'm too slow to keep up with the Bagel Ride. He convinces me that I don't deserve to feel so uncomfortable, that I'll be good enough without pushing so hard. He checks my watch every thirty seconds. Mostly, he talks about nothing and everything all at once, distracting me from the kind of focused effort that will make me a stronger, faster athlete.

The Varsity Kids, a casual weekly ride in which I get my butt handed to me by my faster friends and yet keep coming back for more.
I rely on multiple strategies to outsmart this little sucker. Mostly, I depend on company. Solo time is great, but there's no doubt there's strength in numbers. 

Here are some ways it works. Left to my own devices, I'm almost always late getting started on a workout. Then I come up against a firm deadline (like work) and I have to end early, even when I feel like continuing. What's the fix? I make a date to meet someone else at a specific time, especially if it's a time of day when I'm especially vulnerable to the madness of the monkey.

5:30 am meetup.
Here's another: I don't usually work all that hard. I'm pretty good at logging the required hours in my training plan, but I log a lot-- I mean A LOT--if "junk miles". I believe I will someday find the inner drive to push really hard up a hill or do speed work on the track, to redline it in the pool, the way most of my friends do. Until then, I'm counting on those friends to make me do it. It's humbling to ride or run or swim with faster people, but it's also a surefire way to get faster yourself.

My coach texted me an said he was coming to get me in 5 minutes for a lake swim, the first of the season. I was not in the mood. I said yes anyway.

I'm also not so great at going the extra mile, which all my successful athlete friends do literally, all the time. So I'm trying to say "yes" to spontaneous invitations when they come, even if that monkey goes kicking and screaming. I'm never sorry I do.

It goes way beyond fixing my flaws: this time with friends is FUN. On our Thursday morning dawn ride, 6 or 7 of us tear through the deserted downtown streets with abandon.

"We're a gang!!!" someone shouted last week, and we were all feeling it, the glee and giddy freedom we felt zooming around the neighborhood on bikes as kids.

Besides, friends not only make us better athletes and happier people; they make us healthier. My friend Dr. Kate Killoran--an athlete, a physician and a cancer survivor--just published a great little article about the very real, proven benefits that good relationships have on our overall health. A longitudinal Harvard study that's been tracking men since the 1930s has found that relationships are a major indicator of health and longevity. "Being more socially connected to family, friends, and community led to happier, healthier people who lived longer." Kate writes.

So how to connect with like-minded sporty people?

Swimming groups like Masters clubs are great ways to get a good workout, improve stroke, and make friends. Here in midcoast Maine, we have an exceptionally friendly, welcoming group that encourages participates to modify workouts as needed. Come as you are, and you'll fit in. They currently meet Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings. Contact the Penobscot Bay YMCA for info.

There's a spirited and fun bunch at the newly formed Trail Runners of Midcoast Maine. They have a ~5 miles group run on Monday nights called "Monday Night Dirt" with a 6:00 pm start time at the Camden Snow Bowl. They also have a "Wednesday Morning Romp" with an 8:50 am start time. 

Finally, our local bike shop, Sidecountry Sports offers welcoming "no-drop" group rides on Wednesday evenings at both the Rockland store (5:30) and the new location in Belfast (at 6:00). These rides just can't be beat: chances are good you'll work harder and have a blast doing it.

Sidecountry's popular family rides are also starting up on Sunday mornings soon. And the kids' Youth Explorers, the phenomenal mountain bike program for kids of all ages gets going at the Snow Bowl and runs June 13- August 15th, 6:00-7:30 pm.

I'm all for the benefits of solo time, but if you're being held back, maybe it's time to lose that little monkey in a crowd.

Friday, April 15, 2016

The Dog Days of Winter

The broken ankle healed up well, and I had a few slow treadmill runs before my January vacation in Nicaragua. I was very much looking forward to kicking off the New Year with my first outdoor runs since I PR'd that Dempsey Challenge 10K.

On its face, it was a two-week trip to the Pacific Coast, a vacation invitation in honor of my parents' 50th wedding anniversary that I accepted gladly. A house in a beachfront community; my brother, sister-in-law, nephew, and aunties coming together to celebrate my parents in the sun. All pretty damn idyllic.

I flew into Managua on New Year's day, checked in to the hotel and took a cab to this outdoor 50-meter pool. 

The following morning I caught a bus up to Esteli to catch a connecting bus to Somoto, where I would hike-swim-hike-swim the beautiful, remote Somoto canyon. I love riding these local buses. They're hot and loud and stinky, the bus stations are chaotic and overwhelming, and the take on local culture is unsurpassed. These old Bluebird school buses from the US are the primary means of distance travel for huge numbers of people in this country. Most of them are outfitted with blaring sound systems of medium-poor quality, and many are festooned with prayers and petitions to Jesus and God, which makes sense to even the most secular passenger given the state of the road, vehicle, traffic, and driver.

I made Somoto in the afternoon, blazing hot and dry way up there in the hills near the border with Honduras. The small city is paved in cement cobblestones, the streets lined with low, brightly painted adobe houses. My backpack on my back, I walked up to the central square feeling young and wild and free, feeling so richly rewarded for stepping just a little out of my comfort zone into new geographic territory. I was a million miles from anywhere and full of joy. I checked in to a small family-owned hotel, gave a big thumbs up to my $13 room, and met my guide, Reynel, who would take me into the canyon the next day. I liked him immediately, and he walked me up to see the town's improbable Olympic swimming pool. I could not wait to hit it for a training session after the canyon tour the next day.

As the sun sank low, I set out for my first outdoor run since the broken ankle in October. I texted a 
photo to my coach as I left the hotel.

I ran 25 minutes up and down these charming little streets, finding my way up to the highest point, where the sunset clouds came in around the mountains to the west, the town below me as I turned around for an easy cruise back to the hotel. I'm BACK! I thought, my heart bursting with joy. My training is finally on track, I can run again, I've got a week of ocean swims ahead of me, my 2016 training is hereby launched. I am on top of the damn world. Neighbors gathered on their steps while dinners cooked. Children played on the sidewalks and chased balls across the road. I ran down the center of the street, grinning from ear to ear. 

Suddenly the barking of a couple of medium-small dogs intensified dramatically: they were coming at me. I warned them off with a sharp NO!, and in an instant the larger of the two had ripped into my leg, his top teeth sinking deep and holding hard. AHHH!!! OH YOU FUCKER!!! I yelled as I kicked him off. I skittered away, feeling embarrassed for roaring such an obscenity in this idyllic scene. I paused on the sidewalk to collect myself, and I saw the blood gushing out of my leg. Filling my shoe, pooling on the pavement. More than I've ever seen.

A woman immediately approached me and asked if I knew Reynel. YES! I said, so grateful for her concern and assistance. She ran up the block to get him, and a few minutes later he appeared with a first aid kit in hand. By this time I was crying. You’re fine, you’re fine, he said, a guy who’s seen everything. Turns out the whole thing happened in front of his house, so he walked me up there and invited me in to his living room, where we both got a good look at the wound. Ohhh...wao, he said. Es muy profunda.

Yeah, I was thinking it looked pretty deep too. Can you please call me a cab? I think I'd better get to the hospital.

bsolutely not. Tranquilo, tranquilo, sit down and wait, we're taking you ourselves, he insisted. The owner of the hotel, Hervin, and his son, Ervin, were there in a flash and loaded me into the pickup truck, Reynel and Ervin riding in the back. We were at the hospital in three minutes.
There were probably 20 people waiting in the filthy hall. No check-in, no triage nurse, no apparent system of any kind. Reynel grabbed one of the two people with stethoscopes wandering around and told him what was up. He told me to sit and wait with everyone else. I found a gurney and bled on it as I began to process what had just happened, trying to think clearly, trying to figure out what I needed, how to get it, the various implications tumbling in.

At some point I was told to go wait in a room with three beds. On one laid a woman in obvious pain. Four family members stood and sat around her, and they all ate chicken from a Styrofoam takeout container. The counter and cupboards were a 1980s prefab kitchen set. The countertop was covered in dirty medical supplies, used equipment, various bottles, plaster splatters, and soiled cloths. All the cupboard doors were open. It looked more like a construction site than an emergency room. 
The woman next to me told me she’d been waiting to be seen for six hours. Something about her back.

A cat wandered in from the street and meowed insistently, hoping for a discarded drumstick. Go home, I told my entourage. Go get some dinner. I’ll be fine. Not a chance, they replied. The angry gash from the dog’s powerful upper jaw bled onto the dirty sheet beneath me. New layers of tissue revealed themselves as I strained to recall the relevant anatomy and physiology lessons from a couple years back. On the back of my calf, two smaller punctures bled where the lower teeth had gone in. I was already bruising between the two, in the space where the dog’s mouth encircled my leg.

As I laid there wishing I had maybe washed the wound out a little bit before coming to the hospital, my thinking started to clear. The good news: the dog belongs to a person, and Reynel knows it. Nobody thinks it has rabies. In fact, everyone knows the dog is an asshole who has already bitten some people, including a couple of children. The other good news: these amazing guys, one of whom speaks excellent English, are clearly not leaving my side until I’m fixed. I felt embarrassed and humbled and very grateful.

Then the disappointments started trickling in. Obviously, no canyon tour tomorrow. Another forced break from running. No swimming. Oh God…I’m headed to the beach with my family. To swim, to surf. No swimming. And this: I had left my job on Dec 31 and I start my new job Feb 1. Facing a $950 COBRA premium, I had decided to risk a month without health insurance. I was totally uninsured. If this thing went south, I would face massive hospital bills. I had a dog bite and I was in the tropics and I was in a small, understaffed, under-equipped, unsanitary, local medical center with a stray cat in the ER. Now, I’m not a worrier, and I’m an exceptionally healthy person, but any one of those things would have given me pause. Now I had all three. Shit shit shit shit shit. Visions of competing in my next Ironman as an amputee, a recurring daydream I’ve had often for the last few years. Shit.

Then it hit me. I HAVE to be here. I'm a nursing student. I'm in school because I want to work in developing countries. This is part of my curriculum. I don’t know exactly why or how, but I need to experience exactly this. Of course. Yes. This is exactly the kind of place I want to work, the whole reason I'm in school. How incredible that I'm on the inside on my first day of vacation. The certainty of it pierced through my worry, and I settled right in, a new calm and lightness coming over me.

The doctor entered, avoiding eye contact with us all. He looked tired and unhappy. He asked a few questions, then got a light, set up a sterile field of questionable sterility and went to work cleaning and anesthetizing the wound. My three guys stood by, trying to maintain their equilibrium as the doc inserted his finger all the way to its base, tunneling beneath the skin where the dog had ripped me open. Good thing you’ve got empty stomachs, I laughed. Why don’t you go find your families for some dinner? I’ll be fine. They stayed.

The woman on the table next to me had been started on a juicy IV of pain meds that were definitely doing the trick, and she began cracking jokes about how the dog was hungry, and when it saw my big, beautiful legs running down the street, it decided that’s what was for dinner. Cena de perro. This gringa is doggie dinner.

You need the tetanus series, the doc said, plus an aggressive course of antibiotics, and we need to watch the dog, even though it's a pet, and we know it's a jerk, just to be safe. Even though Nicaragua has done a great job of getting dogs – pets and street dogs alike – vaccinated against rabies. I was scheduled for a follow up at the health clinic the next morning. I asked Ervin to explain that I have epilepsy, that I had a seizure in April—my first seizure in 20 years-- because I was on an antibiotic that lowered my seizure threshold, so I needed an antibiotic that wouldn't do that.

A medical assistant everyone kept calling "Doctora" had to go find carbon paper before she could hand-write my discharge papers. She wrote a prescription, and I asked Ervin to confirm with her that someone had checked it against some seizure list. He was clearly uncomfortable doing this –- I was seeing total deference to the medical staff, and he was obviously reluctant to question them. When she dismissed us both with a haughty “DOCTORS would never prescribe something that would hurt her”, I let it go and decided to just google it when I got back to the hotel before taking the pill. The guys took me back to the hotel, and the family invited me into their home and insisted that I join them for dinner. It was well after 11 and everyone was headed for bed when I discovered, with some texting help from my brother, that the drug they had given me was in fact contraindicated.

Oh shit. Shit shit shit. Everyone is going to sleep. I have already been an impossible imposition. Maybe I should wait. GET ON THAT ANTIBIOTIC NOW, said my inner voice, backed up by my little brother’s. Oh hell. I found Ervin in the dark hotel and asked him to call me a cab. Of course he wasn’t going to do that. He got the car keys from his dad and the security guard drove us back to the hospital.

The same medical assistant made fun of me when we got there and showed her the screenshot from – which Ervin kept calling “an app.” I could see that he was terribly uncomfortable challenging her on my behalf. I just didn’t have enough quality Spanish at midnight to do it myself. But I had enough to understand what was going on. She rolled her eyes and laughed when she said, fine, fine, let’s just get her out of here. I’ll write her another prescription if she insists on it, but she should get tested to find out what antibiotics she’s allergic to if she’s that worried about it. “It’s not an allergy!” I exclaimed, but dropped it, for Ervin’s sake and my own. The new prescription was fine.

I worried all night, trying to figure out the right course of action. If infection set in, I didn’t want to be up here in this town, a 4- or 5-hour bus trip back to Managua, with its gnarly little hospital. I decided I’d go to my clinic appointment and then I’d know what to do.

The decision could not have been made clearer. My pal Ervin waited with me for 90 minutes as we sat in the open courtyard watching the one nurse give vaccinations to all the children in town while also trying to treat random patients like me. My leg throbbed. An old woman asked what happened, then told me I should put lemon juice in it. 

“Did she just tell me I should put lemon juice in it?” I asked Ervin. “That sounds painful.”

“Yes. I think you would die,” he chuckled. “You’re pretty tough, but that might kill you.” A man said the best thing for a dog bite was gasoline. Just pour gasoline in it, he said. No problem.

A woman came in selling popcorn in baggies as I waited and hoped that the medical staff were inclined toward using sterile water instead of lemon juice or gasoline. Finally, the overworked nurse called us in to a small dark room that smelled strongly of urine. There were basins of liquid sitting on various surfaces, trash on the floor, two small tables jammed with supplies. I sat on an exam table covered with a soiled sheet. With one semester of nursing school behind me, I knew just enough to be really annoying and truly horrified.

I could see by the way she attempted to put on her sterile gloves that the nurse had been taught 
how to do it properly, just as I recently had, but when one didn’t go on quickly and easily, she completely abandoned procedure. She had me dangle my leg over the wastebasket while she irrigated it with a mystery fluid from an unmarked container, then swabbed it with gauze, at one point taking a swipe across the bottom of my heel before taking another pass over the wound. She had a runny nose, and it was when she returned to my wound after wiping at her face that I decided I’d be doing my own wound care from here on out. I also knew I needed to get back to Managua ASAP.

I spent the rest of the day finding gauze, the right presents for my incredibly gracious and generous hosts, and a bus ticket back to the city. We said goodbye with hugs and kisses, and I promised them I would write the best Trip Advisor review they’ve ever seen.

I arranged for a doctor from the Military Hospital – widely considered the best – to meet me in my hotel room in Managua. Roque was in his late twenties, adorable, concerned, attentive and reassuring. He liked how the wound looked, and he was glad I’d skated through the first 24 hours without infection. I told him about the conditions in Somoto. Even at the military hospital, he told me, they are under-equipped and under-staffed. The government pays for the last two years of medical school, but the pay is so bad that there aren’t enough young people becoming doctors. As we exchanged contact info so he could track my progress and advise me over the next week, I asked what I owed him. “Pay whatever you feel it is worth,” he said. When I pressed him for some guidance on a house call, he admitted that it was his first, but that the charge for an emergency visit in a private hospital was around $50.

Feeling reassured, I settled in to wait for the rest of my family to show up over the next two days. As the wound started healing without signs of infection, my fear turned to irritation, disappointment, and frustration as I realized that I would be spending ten days in a house at the beach with my family, unable to do most of the things that I was looking forward to—swim in the pool with my nephew, surf, take long swims in the ocean, and spend hours upon hours biking and running. For some people, a week to just sit around and read is a dream come true. It’s anathema to me. I mean, I love my family and looked forward to time with them, but I couldn’t bear the thought of sitting around like that. And not being able to exercise my way through any stress that might just come up with family? Oh man, they were going to kill me for sure.

Plus, I have always been the family member who creates drama, who has some THING going on. Like Jan Brady. Horrible little Jan. I wanted to be Cindy. Or at least Marcia, a little obnoxious, but so successful you have to love her for it. Not bitchy old Jan. I wanted this trip to be about my parents, about everyone else, not about me and my stupid scary thing. I am always feeling like this desperate attention-seeker, with some ridiculous medical issue giving me the excuse. Last year I injured my foot in Costa Rica. I made a bigger deal out of it than I meant to, and I ended up really regretting it. I had no idea how to do this any other way.

Of course I was aware of the ridiculous privilege inherent in this line of thinking even as I was thinking it, and while I let the feelings wash through me I resolved to keep my perspective. Even while the emotions came crashing in, I was buoyed by a calm and steady certainty that this was all exactly right, to my benefit as a future nurse, maybe, and that the script was playing out exactly on point.

Still, when we arrived at our beach villa and my brother found me to tell me he’d discovered seven surfboards in the hall closet, I burst into tears. This is going to be a long week.

I felt well enough to walk, though, and I discovered a gym, and on the second day my pattern was set—a 6:30 am fast walk of about 3 miles to the gym, some kind of light workout, and a walk back. I’d get to the house around 9 full of endorphins, energized and relaxed. We had great family time and I made all kinds of friends around the neighborhood. I changed my dressing daily and sent photos of the wound to Dr. Roque and my friend Mara, also a doc, for analysis. I felt tremendous relief with the growing certainty that I’d be keeping the leg after all. 

But my head was messed up. I have lived a blissfully, blessedly trauma-free life so far. And this thing screwed me up in ways that stunned me. Panicked by a friendly dog brushing against me, or terrorized by a street dog minding its business on the other side of the road, my mind totally clear that I was safe, my body seeing it differently, bursting into tears, reduced to a shaking, terrified, paralyzed mass. My walk home from the gym one day was delayed by half an hour because I couldn’t bring myself to walk past a dog at the resort entrance. I was crying hard every day. Aw hell, I thought, I need to fix this now. I cannot be limited like this. I can’t be this scared. I suddenly had a whole new kind of respect for people who have experienced massive trauma. There were times in this week when the terror from this tiny little bite was so huge that I felt I would not survive another dog bite. I wanted to scream and scream and scream and scream. Mostly I just cried. I cannot imagine working through something truly life threatening.

Lucky for me, I was on vacation with my aunties, who were described as “Boulder’s social work power couple” at their wedding in September. Aunt Cindy does a lot of trauma therapy, and she comped me a couple of sessions in between dips in the pool and beach trips. We worked through layers and layers of sadness, fear, anger, frustration, rage, and terror. I wadded up rolls of toilet paper on her floor as I cried it out. “Jesus Christ,” I said at some point. “It’s just a damn dog bite. This can’t be such a big deal.” Cindy reminded me that humans are the only animals that try to pretend everything’s OK. All the other animals let their bodies shake and yowl and run the trauma out. We are the only ones who stuff it in. Try not to judge it, she said. Just let it flow through.

And finally, tired of it all and to my greatest surprise, I felt just a moment of deep, sincere, unvarnished gratitude toward that little dog. To the universe, for this experience and all that it was offering me. Complete trust in the perfection of it. Pure love. Gratitude too for the relative simplicity of the situation, for the fact that I was not badly harmed. I cried again, now with joy and delight.

The following day, I stopped into the stables on my way from the gym. The guys working there were great, but I quickly realized that I was terrified of the horses I was so excited to visit. Will he bite? Will he bite? I asked again and again, almost panicky in their presence. No no no, the guys assured me. Muy tranquilo, muy tranquilo. I walked away crying, heading for home, disappointed in myself and dismayed that I felt so fearful. This thing with the dog was affecting everything. So I stopped at the front desk in the main building and inquired about booking a horseback riding session. Just let us know and we’ll reserve your time, they told me.

On our last full day, my Aunt CJ and my parents joined me at the stables for an hour ride on the beach. I got on my horse. You’ve ridden before? asked Lorenzo, the head trainer. Not for thirty years. And I’m really scared, I told him.

The next thing I knew, he had me on a line, leading me behind him like a child. Whoa whoa whoa, why am I being towed? I asked.

You said it’s been thirty years and you’re scared, he said.

Well, I said. I mean. I’m not THAT scared. Just. Just let me try it. By myself. I’m actually a pretty adventuresome person. I’ll be fine.

(FuckfuckfuckfuckFUCK I’m scared.)

My horse was called Mora Azul, Blueberry. She followed Lorenzo’s horse down the trail as we set out. My heart slammed against my chest as she went down into the first small ravine with a faster step. With the slightest pull on the reins, I ever so gently asked her to slow down, knowing that my own fear was the only issue here, feeling slightly embarrassed by the request. She immediately responded, almost before I’d even asked it, with such unconditional assurance and grace, that I was moved to tears. I put all my trust in this enormous creature, and she totally took care of me. My fear vanished and I embraced the ride. I knew this horse was way smarter than me, patient, and intuitive. She did what I asked her to, but she also did what I needed her to do, even when I didn’t know how to ask for it. She healed me.

The following morning, in the hours before we left for Managua, I went for my first run since the dog bite. I came upon two enormous guard dogs on the service road, and I just turned around and walked away. I didn’t enjoy it, but I didn’t lose my shit, either. And the run felt great.

By the time I got home, though, the flap of skin was black. Mara took my stitches out in my living room, and she urged me to go to the wound clinic at Pen Bay. The PA took one look and cut the big flap right off, along with the other dead tissue rimming the wound. I was left with a hole in my leg almost an inch deep. For two months, I packed moist gauze into it, changing dressings daily and visiting the clinic every week. 

As a nursing student, I loved this real life example of the healing process--suddenly all those Powerpoint slides were coming into focus. I made my classmates look at my wound every so often, asked one to change the dressing once. Texted photos daily to Mara.

The wound filled in from the bottom with textbook perfection. Millimeter by millimeter, it grew shallower and shrank in diameter. "I feel so lucky", I told my dear PA at the clinic.

"You SHOULD feel lucky!" he said, suddenly dead serious. "I don't mean to be morose, but this could have ended very, VERY badly." 

Yeah. You don't have to tell me that, buddy. For a few days back there, I seriously worried about losing the leg. 

However, I just kept getting better and better. Stay out of the pool until that wound closes up, my PA told me. So for three months I cautiously ran and biked, mostly indoors thanks to the excuse of weather, working through some fear about getting bitten again, but feeling very lucky and profoundly grateful for good drugs, good care, good genes, good health, and good friends. 

But the swimming. I really missed the swimming. It's the only one of the three sports that always feels good to my body. I dreamed of slipping into the water, my body supported and strong as I stretch and flex, gliding across the surface. No dogs to chase me, no cars, no potholes, no ice, no danger.

Three months to the day, the wound finally closed up completely. And on that auspicious day, I happened to land back in the tropics, a previously scheduled trip to Bimini. I jumped in that warm Caribbean sea with delight, and I swam with a loggerhead turtle, a giant reminder of steady, slow grace.
Photo by Kathleen Fisher, Bimini Healing Arts

Monday, October 19, 2015

An Unexpected Dempsey Challenge

I took a long time to recover from that horrible awful no-good amazing wonderful Ironman. I rested and ate and didn't worry about a damn thing. Finally it was time to think about my final event of the year, the Dempsey Challenge, a fundraiser for the Patrick Dempsey Center for Cancer Hope and Healing.

Apparently all that rest was good for me. I PR'd the 10k on Saturday, the first time I've ever run a pace with an 8 at the start. I felt like a million bucks. And hanks to my incredibly generous friends, I got to hang out with Patrick once again at a VIP reception for top fundraisers. I told him about my friend Kelly Gray Hall's recent fight against cancer and he just about broke Facebook when he posed with one of the stickers I'd made for her.

The next morning, I took off on the coldest bike ride of my life, 50 miles at 28 degrees. 

I met a guy in the last 20 miles, a guy who owns a flower shop in town, and we hit it off. Just before the end, Mike the florist and I exchanged contact info and agreed to meet up later. I stopped on the bridge right in front of the finish line to take a picture. I got back on my bike, clipped in, and somehow fell over. My foot didn't unclip, and it twisted under the bike,  the pain  excruciating. Several people rushed to my aid. I pushed them away, trying to see through the pain. And then suddenly, it was gone, just like that. Oh, I must be fine after all, I thought. Thank God. They wanted to carrying me over the line in a golf cart. Hell no, I said, I raised $10,000 and just ran and rode all this distance? I'm riding over that line myself. Plus, I feel great!

I stopped in the medical tent just to be polite, because my friends the event officials insisted on it. Really I just wanted to make the most of the VIP lanyard I had and get into the beer tent where I could enjoy a big free lunch with the professional cyclists, plus Patrick and his pals. Let's get this over with so I can get over there.

I'm fine, I'm fine, I insisted to the medics. I don't even have any pain! It was just a scare. They convinced me to take off my shoe, and then I realized the only reason I was not in pain was because I was in shock. My foot was a grossly deformed, swollen in the strangest ways. Suddenly I was shivering uncontrollably. They wrapped me in space blankets and blasted me with heat. Oh shit, I said, I just want to go to the VIP tent. I think you'd better go to the emergency room first, they replied.  I texted Mike, the florist from the bike ride. I'm going to be later than I thought.

Karen and Brian came to get me in their truck. We stopped by the hotel so I could change my clothes before going to the hospital, and guess who was there, with a big hug and a kiss for the girl who broke her ankle on his finish line? My friend Karen enjoyed this quite a bit.

And while we were waiting at the hospital for the triage nurse, Mike the florist showed up with a yellow rose in hand.

Then my friends Tom and Laura made it. Tom was the guy who got me involved in this event, which he missed this year due to a fall. At last night's event, I was introduced as his sidekick. 

What a way to cap off the season.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Race Report

The smell of smoke in my hotel intensified as the fire raged on across the street, and sure enough, at 8:45 the hotel's fire alarms began to scream. I had been sort of expecting this all evening and had my stuff mostly ready to go--wetsuit, cap and goggles, morning clothes bag, bike and run special needs bags, breakfast, water bottles. It was a big load to carry up the hill, but when I got to the parking lot and saw the dozens of displaced athletes milling around, I was only grateful that my friends Carla and Martha had invited me to stay in their hotel for the night.

They had rearranged everything to make room for me. We were already up later than we wanted to be, so we settled in as quietly and quickly as we could. Down the hill, the fire grew smaller. I closed the curtains and closed my eyes, eager to claim some of the sleep I knew I desperately needed to fuel tomorrow's 14+ hour effort. But I hadn't realized how jacked up I was, and while my body felt exhausted, my mind's eye replayed a loop of roaring flames and exhausting firefighters and displaced residents and these beautiful buildings charred and soaked beyond repair. 

We athletes have been wandering around all week feeling like this is a pretty big deal, like we have taken on a huge challenge, and we get a lot of recognition for it. It IS a huge challenge, and we're pretty tough, and we've worked hard, and we're going to work really damn hard in the race.

But spring training has brought me lesson upon lesson about humility and perspective, as I've watched friends and family manage major illness, injury, and grief with mind-blowing grace. So it fits perfectly that I'm being served up this final dramatic reminder. I'm not tough. I mean, I am tough. But I'm not charge-into-a-burning-building tough. Yeah, my race is challenging, but really it's just a massive indulgence. It's not losing my home or my business. 

So when the alarm went off at 3:30, maybe 4 hours after I finally fell asleep, I was horrified at how tired I felt--I am a solid 8-hours-a-night kind of girl--but I wasn't about to complain. I felt my good fortune in my bones, and I could only hope my muscles would somehow understand.

My goals for this race had already suffered revision upon revision with a winter and spring fraught with minor illnesses. Until last night, my goal was to beat last year's time. Now my goal was merely to get through.

I counted on nerves and adrenaline to get me going, and next thing I knew, I was in the water. I found my pace quickly, held steady, and had the most satisfying race swim of my life. These swims are about so much more than swimming. It's one thing to swim a straight line for over an hour at race pace. It's another thing entirely to do it with almost 3000 other people, all of whom want to be on the same line. It takes focus, resolve, nerves, skill, and luck to claim a space and hold it well. You get punched in the face, kicked in the kidneys, swum over from behind. It's a kickboxing match in a washing machine. If you're lucky, you get behind someone you can draft for a good long while.

I think men and women tend to occupy space differently. Of course it's a generalization. But here's what I notice in swim after swim after crowded swim, where some 80% of the athletes are male. We women are just as competitive, and just as concerned with ourselves, but I think we're more sensitive to how we occupy space, how we're affecting others around us. It doesn't mean that we'll necessarily slow down to let someone go ahead, but I do think we work more collaboratively out there. Not even consciously. I think we make voluntary and involuntary micro-adjustments that allow us to claim our own space without necessarily usurping someone else's. 

The first few times I got pushed and scratched and clobbered, my impulse was to take offense. And then I realized, no, that dude is only trying to make it through, same as you. Put your head back down, own your position in the water, and go get it. And I did it. With those 2000 men and those 800 women, I found a line and swam hard, fast and steady, feeling the simple, exhilarating power of claiming and maintaining my position with confidence. I finished the swim well ahead of last year's time. I might just make it through this day.

Last year, I got on the bike in a torrential downpour, lightning and thunder crackling around me. This year's sunshine and dry roads were a delight, I was energized by the success of the swim, and I pushed hard. We all know the cardinal rule of this race--save your legs for the run, hold back on the bike, don't push--but I was about halfway through the first loop when I thought, screw it. I got nothing to lose here. Let me blast it while I can, see how hard I can go, see how much I suffer later.

Around mile 50 I started to feel the effect of the push and the sleep deprivation, but the spin through town at the end of the first loop was electric. Mike Reilly announced my name as I rolled through the cheering crowds, and I headed out on mile 57 newly energized. But on the flats heading along the river to Ausable Forks, things started to get dark. At the turnaround I stopped to use the sole portapotty and could barely even manage to flirt with the handsome state trooper who offered to hold my bike. I knew things were bad.

After the turnaround I saw Carla coming at me. I knew I was ahead of her out of the water, figured it was only a matter of time before she caught up. I was secretly pleased I had held her off until this point and resolved to make it through the bike. The climb back up to town is mostly blank. It was hot, I remember that much. I was really, really tired. I teamed up with some guys--one of whom had the same Felt brand bike--and when I raced them down a hill, psyched to take the lead, one of my CO2 cartridges for a tire change came flying off the rack and clattered away, narrowly missing the guys behind. They called me "The Felt Bomber" for the rest of the race.

About ten miles before the end, I spotted my friend Mara climbing the hill in front of me. She's a faster swimmer and cyclist. I knew I'd been hammering but this wasn't right.

"Why I am I catching up with you?" I asked. She was nearly in tears, her MS flaring so badly she could barely pedal. "Oh, Shann...This hurts more than birthing all four of my big headed boys," she cried. She let me give her some salt tabs, but that was it. Go on ahead, she said. Just go.

I rolled in to town feeling terrible. This was Mara's makeup race, after last year's attempt was fouled by a sprained ankle one month before race day. (She still did the race, mind you; she walked the entire marathon.) She knew that this distance just isn't good for her MS, but she was allowing herself this one more time to nail it. Just like last year, she had done everything right. She was in peak condition, ready to rock it. I was devastated that she would have to call it quits.

The volunteer in the transition tent opened my bag with urgency. What do you need? What do you want? How can I help? I sat down, feeling the heat, dizzy and nauseated. I'm not in a hurry here, I told her. Let's just do one thing at a time. I sat in that chair way too long. I couldn't imagine how I was going to run that awful marathon. And then I thought of Mara. OK, this one's for her. If she can't even be out there, the least I can do is get going. So I hit the road, every cell of my body protesting.

I was about half an hour into the run when Mara came trotting by. "I can't feel my feet!" she chirped. "I just hope I'm putting them down in the right place!" And off she went.

So much for trying to do anything for Mara. This woman is cut from a different cloth.

I feel like the rest of the marathon took days. I stuffed iced sponges in my top at every aid station. I walked a lot. I tried but failed to eat. I remember a few moments of joy: dancing up the Subway hill with a few spectators, playing a giant foam guitar with some metalheads at the end of a driveway in some back corner of the run.

Eventually Carla caught me. "Ohhh," she muttered. "This is really humbling." It was her first Ironman. "This is really, really humbling." I agreed so completely that I couldn't even mumble a response. We shuffled along together for about a mile, and then I had to let her go ahead.

Coming in to this race, I was prepared to register for 2016 on the following day. I knew I had at least one more in me. Now, as darkness fell on the back reaches of that marathon course, I changed my mind. Why the hell would I do this to myself again? This is a terrible experience. Why would I trash my body this way, why suffer by choice? This is it, I'm done. I'll be glad to get through today, and then I'm calling it quits. There's no way I'm doing this again.

Eventually, sometime after 9:00, I got back into town.  Music blared over the loudspeakers. The crowd was wild with affection and enthusiasm. No longer caring about my time, I high fived and helloed and hugged and hooted with them all, Into the oval and the final chute, I burst into tears. I was awash in a sea of love. Pure love from these thousands of people, all for a total stranger. I soaked it up and sent it back and wiped my eyes as I turned the corner into the final stretch. The music blasted as I pumped my fists, overcome with joy. And there's Mike Reilly, calling me in.

"It's Shannon Thompson. You're an Ironman, Shannon! Great job, girl!"

And there I was.

Oh, I am TOTALLY doing this again.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

One More Thing

Hey friends, if you're thinking of me today in Lake Placid, know that one of the people I'm thinking of is Keith Miller, a local bike mechanic who lost his home in last night's fire across the street from my hotel. If you care to send a few bucks his way, visit the GoFundMe site here: 


Race Day

My hotel was evacuated at about 8:30 last night as the fire across the street raged on. I found refuge up the hill with friends and slept four hours, which feels about four too short. This will be an interesting day. 

The fire is out, and everyone is OK. 

Athlete tracker is here, if you want to play along:

Thanks, you guys.