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.

Saturday, July 25, 2015


I was settling in for the night, right on schedule at 6:30, when I realized I had forgotten to buy salt for the potatoes I'm taking on the bike ride. I went down to the hotel lobby with a little baggie to see about getting some from the restaurant, and the two guys at the front desk looked shellshocked. "That's not good," one of them said. "Call the fire department NOW." I turned around and saw that the beautiful old brick building across the street was fully involved in a fire. Flames roared out the back of the upper levels, which I've assumed all week held apartments.

Stunned, I ran back up to my room. I've been thinking about fire all week. I've mentally mapped out the exit from my room so I could do it in the dark, I've worn PJs to bed every night in case I had to make a dash, kept my phone and wallet and keys right on hand. I never do these things. It's been very much on my mind. I watched with shock and horror as the fire department shut down Main Street, pushed spectators back, and began their first trips up the dark stairway to clear the building. It seemed an eternity before they got a stream of water on the flames. Smoke seeped out between the old bricks with increasing ferocity.

For the last two hours, the LPFD has been pouring water on the fire and on the four or five adjacent buildings. I have my bag packed in case we are made to leave. The buildings across the street house very small, locally owned shops and apartments. A Grateful Dead store, a toy store, a little gift shop.This small sweet, welcoming town has really grown on me, and its resources are stretched impossibly thin this weekend already.

Now so much smoke has gotten into our hotel that the alarms are going off and I'm being told to get out.

OK, well, see you on the race course.

A Body of Work

I am done hating my body. Most of my 40-plus years have been spent criticizing, hiding, and abusing it. Not wearing the clothes I like because I don't think I "can." Or because the clothes I like don't adequately hide the parts I hate the most. Missing out on adventures because I was too self-conscious to wear the required clothing. Missing out because I was too self-conscious to take the clothing off. Feeling guilty about eating. Sneaking food. Bingeing. Restricting. Exhausting a massive amount of energy worrying about it, trying to control it, beating myself up over it.

Enough is enough is enough. One of the biggest gifts triathlon has given me is that inch by inch, mile by mile, it has brought me into happier relationship with this body that makes it all possible. This glorious, strong, tough, resilient, perfect body. It's almost imperceptible, but the self-loathing trickles away with every workout, every race.

So I find myself here at Lake Placid, ready, willing, and able to take on one of the world's toughest endurance events. A race that I already know I can finish, an accomplishment I have already achieved. I wear my Ironman bracelet with pride, and I walk around this town wearing my Ironman athlete bracelet with pride, and I feel like F*CK YEAH, MAN, you're DAMN RIGHT I'm a freaking Ironman. This body and I can do any goddamn thing in this world.  

And at exactly the same time: holy shit, I am the biggest female athlete here. I am the only one with cellulite. No one here has any extra body fat. I feel enormous. I don't even look like an athlete. No one thinks I'm here to race.

I tell this voice to shut it. When I hear her shout, I consciously cancel her message with words of love for my calves, my thighs, my butt, my round tummy. But she's persistent, and loud, and she keeps coming back. The cognitive dissonance is compelling, and the intensity of this convergence leaves me thinking that I must be on the cusp of a major breakthrough. I am ready to shut that voice down for good.

We (women, especially) are bombarded with messages about how "flawed" our bodies are. We are expected to conform to an exceedingly thin standard to achieve real beauty. We are supposed to exercise and diet to achieve a beach, summer, or bikini body before we dare to let our wobbly bits show. No no no no no. My tummy wants sunshine on it, and I give exactly zero fucks about whether you think I have a good enough body for a bikini. Which is not entirely true, but it's my platform and I'm practicing it until I don't feel one bit squeamish about it. 

In a wonderful post in her "Go Kaleo" blog, Amber Rogers writes

Listen folks. Cellulite is not a ‘problem’. It is not a flaw. Cellulite is a normal function of the way women’s bodies store fat. 80-90% of women have cellulite to some degree. Lean women have cellulite, healthy women have cellulite, vegan women have cellulite, paleo women have cellulite, celebrities have cellulite, body builders have cellulite, bikini models have cellulite, women in isolated cultures who still live a hunter-gatherer lifestyle have cellulite, women with access to unlimited amounts of plastic surgery have cellulite. Most of the women reading this have cellulite. You’re not flawed. You’re normal.

(I encourage you to check out the whole article, for a clear and simple anatomy lesson and an inspiring message about body acceptance.)

I belong to a Facebook group started by Amber that provides a forum for discussing these issues. One of the traditions of the group is for members to post photos of parts of their body that they feel good about, or bad about, or ambivalent about, as a way of gaining perspective, developing some appreciation for themselves, normalizing our diverse body types, and correcting the radically skewed body image ideals that pervade our mass culture. I thought it was a little weird at first, but over time, I've found it to be one of the most emotionally moving, powerful, effective, and healing aids in my own path toward self acceptance. To see all these normal women's bellies on Tummy Tuesday, for example--to realize how widely reality diverges from the ideal, to read about their own fears and insecurities, and to hear about their own victories and confidence, their efforts to love themselves wholly and completely and without condition: yes. I want that for all of them. I want that for all the daughters. I want that for myself.

I was delighted this week to see that the cover of Women's Running Magazine features a beautiful athlete who does not conform to the typical size/shape/body composition standards of mainstream athletic pop culture.

We so desperately need images that represent us in all our shapes and sizes, that allow us to be strong and fast and brave and tough, whatever that looks like. I'm also a member of a women's triathlon group on Facebook, and every so often someone will post something about looking so horrible in race photos. Some chime in to offer support, but the bulk of the responding comments are from dozens of other women who think they, too, look terrible. How they bulge out of their spandex, how their faces look drawn, how their cellulite shows, how fat they look, how bony their knees are, how old they appear. 

It crushes me. My heart breaks for all these sisters. Of course the photos are unflattering -- we are breathless, in motion, working hard, wearing spandex, concentrating. I deeply appreciated champion runner Lauren Fleshman's decision to publish "real" photos of her body in contrast to her "perfect" runway shoot. 

Why are we even thinking about this? We are strong and capable and winning! We are goddesses and badasses. Stop it, just stop! But here's the thing: I am the worst among them. When I get link to a photo gallery from a race, I rush to find my own photos, and I'm a nervous wreck as I do it. I literally hold my breath while I click though to find out how disappointed I'm going to be. I sort through to to find a photo that I think is flattering enough to share to celebrate my accomplishment. If I'm lucky, and maybe with some cropping, I can find one I'm OK with sharing. Even last year's Ironman! A whole gallery of photos of me smiling while achieving the most badass victory of my life: and I was OK with sharing 4 of them. In the other 10 or 12, I couldn't see through the fat to simply celebrate the image of this strong, happy woman achieving a peak experience.

So I'm going to do something really hard right now. I'm going to post a photo from a recent race that I consider OK to share, even though I'm not thrilled with it. And then I'm going to post the one that horrifies me. I mean HORRIFIES me. Without editing and without further comment.

Yesterday while I was in the changing rooms at the Mirror Lake swim area, I heard some girls using the vending machines just outside the door. I imagined they were about 11 or 12 years old. "I'm actually getting food for a bunch of people," one said. "God, I would feel so gross and guilty if I ate this much food." 

NO! I wanted to shout. NO! Do not feel gross, do not feel guilty. Eat to feed your growing body. Do not explain yourself to others. Do not apologize for your choices. Do not hide. Love yourself, child. Let us all love ourselves, just as we are.

So tomorrow I'm going to stuff my big Athena goddess body into a teeny tiny spandex race kit, and I'm going to spend 140.6 miles in front of some 30,000 spectators. My legs are going to swell, as they do every day, and my various parts are going to jiggle and wobble and bounce, and my cellulite is going to be really pronounced in some of the photographs, and I am going to be jealous of some of the women out there, and that voice is going to try to tell me I don't belong, that I'm not good enough. But I am pushing that voice way away, into the deep woods of the Adirondacks, because the only voice I'm listening to tomorrow is the one I hear at the finish line, the one that says,

Shannon Thompson, of Camden, Maine, congratulations! YOU ARE AN IRONMAN!

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Adirondack Mountain High

My excitement reached fever pitch when I made the turn in Keene onto the bike course. The clouds shifted across the lush green mountains and played the late afternoon light, sprinkles of rain mixing with golden sun as I clapped my hands and pounded my steering wheel and belted Van Morrison out my open sunroof at the top of my lungs, thrilled beyond thrilled to finally be at Lake Placid.

I checked in to the hotel, made six trips up to the 4th floor to bring my bike, all my triathlon gear, and a week's supply of food, not to mention the few things that normal people need for a vacation. I had done my 30-minute run in the middle of my trip, when I stopped in Burlington to meet my friend Nora. I still had a 30-minute swim ahead of me, and as excited as I was to be here, I was exhausted and it took every ounce of will power to get out of the hotel at 7:30 to walk down to Mirror Lake in the light rain. My resistance was so evident as I struggled to put on my wetsuit in the failing light that a man walking by said, "You really don't want to do that, do you?"

Nope. But I have never once regretted swimming. This time was no different. The moment I slipped into the water, my body rippling with appreciation and ease, I was filled with gratitude. All the kinks of the ride, the stress of the month leading up to it, all the fatigue dissolved away. I swam a portion of the Ironman course -- a double line of buoys, with a cable running along the bottom to allow swimmers to sight a straight line--and came out of the water a changed woman. Rain fell as the sun set, a band played in the park across the lake, a group of teens flirted on the dock, and two young boys splashed in the children's swim area, ignoring the pleas of their mother to call it quits for the night. I am in Lake Placid, and I believe I am the luckiest person on this planet.

I slept until I woke up, a near-forgotten luxury, and spent the morning catching up on a few things, thrilled to be quiet and still and alone. When I ventured out in search of a new race belt at the bike shop, I ran into a guy taking photos of the Olympic Speed Skating Oval, where they're setting up Ironman ground zero. 

"Isn't it cool?!" We both exclaimed. 

"Are you racing?" I asked him. He was not, and my grin nearly broke my face when I told him I was. I gushed about the whole thing for probably way too long, but he was into the story, and his excitement on my behalf is one of the things that will sustain me in the darkest moments of Sunday's interminable marathon. He wanted to know if he could follow my progress during the race. Humbled and embarrassed and completely delighted, I told him, yes, yes, please! I can actually feel the support when I'm out there. It makes a physical, not just a mental, difference. 

I spent a few more hours goofing off, including grabbing a most precious afternoon lie-down in the sun by the lake, and then got on my bike. My legs were tired, but the scenery was breathtaking, and it was all I could do not to stop every couple of miles for photos of the mountains, the trout streams, the glacial ponds, the wildflowers, the the the the.

While was pulled over in the golf club parking lot trying to get the sun to come back out for this shot, two friendly local guys pulled up on their mountain bikes. Splattered in mud, gregarious and charming, they offered advice about the race and suggestions for fun in the area. John said he was riding back home, so we said goodbye to Randy and headed up the hill. John then treated me to a backstreet tour of this sweet little town, showing me where to launch a kayak on Lake Placid, the place where they cliff jump, the old foundation of the Episcopal church, now a beautiful garden. 

He told me about his neighbor, Pownie, who is 90 but you'd never know it. She happened to come out as we rode by her house, and he was right--I would put her at maybe 75. Her friend Bobbie showed up, and I was treated to fifteen minutes of total inspiration and hilarity. They are all there, I realized. More than most people far younger. It's all about being present. Yes, they're healthy, and their intellect is sharp, but there's something more than that. These women are totally in their bodies, totally in this moment, totally engaged. I want that when I'm ninety. I want that now

It's a big part of why I do this race--the training sharpens my mind and puts me in my body and keeps me present like no other practice. When I asked these amazing women if I could take their photo, I snapped one, and then Pownie declared, "I'm getting rid of this old cane!" and threw it off to the side.

They headed off to a concert at church, and John and I took off for two more stops on the tour -- including the views from the Crowne Plaza resort, built on the highest hilltop overlooking the town. We stopped to admire this scene, and (real estate broker that I am), my first thought was wow, what a tragedy they put this hideous white building right here--it totally ruins the view. 

They really should have protected it--you'd think the resort would have done something! Or the zoning! This is a travesty. "What is that AWFUL building?" I ask. 

"Uh....that's the Olympic Center." John politely replied.

The Olympic Center. The one built in 1932. The, um, whole reason that all of this is possible, really. 

No wonder people hate real estate brokers. We both had a huge laugh at my expense, and it was a perfect end to a most magical tour.

I got off the bike and have the fastest run I've had since spring 2014. 

Oh, Lake Placid. I love you.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Impossible Question

Are you ready? Are you ready? Are you ready? Are you ready?  Are you ready?

I love every single question I get about the Ironman. I'm grateful that anyone has even the slightest interest in this fandango, and the support I feel is humbling and immeasurably precious.

But this question. Oh, this question. I don't know how to answer it. Yes! Hell no! I don't know! GAH! NO!!! Yes. 

I'm ready to stop thinking about it. I'm so ready for a week's vacation that I would do an Ironman just to get a few days off. I'm not tired of training. I don't want to be over. I'm not looking forward to the discomfort. I am looking forward to the thrill. Physically, I have no idea. I know I'm behind where I was last year. I also kind of don't give a shit. It's deeply disconcerting. I'm worried that I'm only remembering the best parts of last year, forgetting how horrible the pain. 

"Of course you've forgotten!" laughed my mom and Aunt Sue, who between them have birthed 5 babies and raised six. "You'd never do it again if you remembered the pain!"

Last night a friend asked what I was most excited about. 

Taking a few days off of work. Hitting the road all by myself. Unplugging. Having lunch with a friend in Burlington, taking that cool little ferry across the lake to Essex. Buying new bras at Victoria's Secret. A hotel room all to myself, jumping on the bed, clean sheets and bathtub and everything so tidy, and the TV that I'll turn on the first night and see what it's like, and then never turn on again for the rest of the stay. Reading a book. Finding a giant flat rock in the middle of a river and taking off all my clothes in the sun. Making new friends. Flirting. The giant spandex man party. 

And oh yeah, the race itself. The spectacle of 3000 athletes, and tens of thousands of spectators. Digging deep, pushing through the pain, finding the fun that's there even when my body hurts. Figuring out what my body can do. Finding out what my mind can do. High-fiving the little kids, dancing with the rock bands, smiling for the photographers. Reveling in the party. Keeping everything moving. Staying warm, staying cool, eating enough food, drinking enough drink. The joy, the exhilaration, the adrenaline.

The attention. Cheering and waving back at the people cheering and waving for me. Making people laugh. Hearing thousands of strangers yell my name. Spending 14 or 15 hours immersed in a world of people at their best. This race is challenging for every single person who participates. It's hard for everyone, no matter what their story. There are so many kinds of victories happening on this day. A fair share of heartache, too. It's raw and huge, and it blasts my heart wide open.

As I dedicate my race primarily to my friend Kelly, who is having breast cancer surgery the following day, I wish that by voluntarily taking on some discomfort, I could relieve the suffering of someone else. I don't think it quite works that way, but I view this race as my offering.

What happens inside this crazy bubble is a glimpse of humanity at its best. People supporting, encouraging, cheering, helping, cooperating, wishing each other the best. A world of love disguised as sport.

Oh hell yes.  I'm ready. 

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Empress of the Innertube

Somehow, with all the miles I've put on in the last 7 years, I've only had one flat tire, and at the time I was only a mile away from my destination so I hitched a ride back and let some guy deal with it. See, as independent as I am, I am a big fat chicken when it comes to things mechanical. I don't like to fix things. I like the feeling of having fixed things, but the uncertainty and fumbling around and crushed knuckles and ripped nails? No thanks.

Coach Scott suffered two flat tires during his Ironman race last year, and he's been exhorting me to practice changing flats so it doesn't kill my time if it happens to me. So I've been watching YouTubes and switching tires in my living room over the winter and spring, feeling reasonably adept in the comfort of my home but a little queasy about the prospect of dealing with a real-life flat.

Yesterday it finally happened. I was 10 miles from home on Route 90, with 62 miles behind me, when suddenly my rear tire went whompwhompwhompwhwomp. I was racing to get home in time for work and had almost no juice left in my phone battery. Ruh roh, I thought. Hot, dusty, greasy, tired, thirsty, late. This could get complicated really quickly.

The culprit.
But no. I whipped that wheel right off the bike, got the tube out, found the staple that caused the whole thing, replaced the tube and blew it right up with the CO2 cartridge I've carried around all these years but never used. Just like that. Which is no big deal for most people, but I felt like repairshop royalty at that moment. The empress of innertubes, the boss of bicycle grease. The slayer of staples.

A couple stopped across the road to switch drivers and asked if I was OK.

Oh HECK yeah.

Made it home just in time to scrub the grease out from under my nails and get to work.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

The Heart Practice

Someone the other day said I'm tough. In a good way.

It came as a revelation to me during the marathon portion of last year's race. Way tougher than I ever realized. I take the compliment with gratitude, and I'll unapologetically pat myself on the back for pushing through discomfort and fatigue through this training. I used to think that this race involved a fair amount of suffering.

But my perspective is shattered to pieces every single time I think about my dear friend and co-worker, Kelly Gray Hall, who is at this moment waiting for the nurse to get the IV out of her arm so she can say she's finished with her 16 weeks of chemotherapy.

This, my friends. This is what toughness is about.

Also grace, lightness, humor, authenticity, courage, and an opening of the heart that is so raw and real and brave, I cry when I contemplate it. The day after my Ironman on July 26th, Kelly will have surgery to see if any cancer cells have survived the brutal chemical assault of these last four months. To see if the disease has metastasized.

I will carry so many people close to my heart on that long, difficult day, but every stroke, every pedal turn, every footfall will be dedicated to Kelly and her total healing.

One thing I know is that this Ironman--this voluntary, exhilarating, joyful, finite event--this is not suffering.

There's a Tibetan Buddhist meditation practice called tonglen that I have loved from the moment I learned it. With the in-breath, you take in suffering--of an individual, a group of people, a whole place--and with the out-breath, you offer joy. They call it a heart-practice.

Kelly would be the last person to use the word "suffering", by the way. But as I watch how tough this stupid disease and the treatment are on her body, I'm going to just say she's qualified. I wish I could actually carry Kelly's suffering on July 26th while I'm racing. I would shoulder it for every one of those 140.6 miles just to give her a day with out it. An hour. A minute. Instead, as well as I'm able, my heart, my mind, my breath is for her, breathing in suffering, breathing out relief from suffering.

If you'd like to support this amazing woman, one option is to buy one of these stickers I designed for her. All proceeds go to Kelly and family to help offset the tremendous financial expense this disease brings with it. Go here:


Monday, July 6, 2015

The Long Run

This is the big weekend, long bike Saturday followed by long run Sunday. I have a rigorous week to come, but then my taper starts. All the hay is in the barn, as they say. Oh shit, I say. This is as good as I'm going to get. I will have to sign up for next year. Shit shit shit.

I woke up feeling great after yesterday's royal ass-kicking on the bike. These bodies of ours are amazingly resilient, and I am grateful for my good health every moment these days.

I was scheduled to run 2.5 hours, and I wanted to go at least 15 miles. Last year on this weekend, I ran 18 miles. I'm still feeling like I'm way behind, but also feeling like my run is better, somehow. Maybe not any faster. But it's not crippling me the way it did last year. And don't tell anyone, but I'm actually kind of enjoying it.

Got a late start and texted Coach Scott that I wasn't going to be able to swim afterwards as planned. "Bring your goggles and swim in the middle of the run!" he replied.

I can't get away with anything.

So I stuffed a cap and goggles, a headlamp and a tail light into my shirt pockets, loaded up my fuel belt with sports drink and snacks, put the iPod on shuffle, and hit the road. I had mapped out a route to Scott and Kate's lake house that would take me 8.5 miles to get there. The sun was low in the sky and the deer flies were biting fiercely when I paused on Rockport's strangely named, extremely rural Main Street.

I got to the house just at the red sun melted into the horizon, and I broke into a temper tantrum, tired and frustrated that I couldn't just sit on the porch like a normal person, watch the sunset and enjoy the company of these lovely people.  

But the instant I got in the water, my bad attitude floated away. Breathing to the right every sixth stroke, the sun sinking into the lake; to the left, lakefront cottages bathed in its orange glow. My body felt strong and sleek, supported by the cool, clean water. Eight minutes out across the cove, ten returning along the shore. Out of the water quickly, lights on, music going, water bottle recharged, I stuffed a Clif bar in my mouth and struck out toward home. 

I never run at night--I'm usually in bed before 8:00--and here I was at 8:45, still looking at 6.5 miles to go. I was beyond tired, and several times I very nearly took the straight 3.5 miles home to call it quits by  9:15. But I knew the mental boost of going the full 15 miles would serve me well, so I wound through side streets, seeking a flat and downhill route the whole way. Venus and Jupiter rose ahead of me in the western sky. I had the streets to myself, my only company the music in my ears and the fireflies floating with me across the dark yards and fields to my side.

I turned onto John Street. James Brown's inimitable howl shot through me and I hollered I FEEL GOOD (ba na na na na na) along with him--all the words, and many of the instruments--the full length of the road, then turned onto route one and cruised downhill to home. I made just over 15 miles, proud and grateful and aching. And completely terrified at the prospect of running another 11.2 miles. After a day of cycling. Honestly, if I hadn't done this last year. How did I even do this last year? I can't believe it's even possible. This truly is insane.

Not hungry but knowing I would regret heading straight to bed without some fuel, I drank four full glasses of water, then made a fast grilled cheese and asparagus sandwich, doused it with sriracha, and shoved it down while soaking my feet and watching half an episode of Orange Is The New Black. I let the Garmin sync up and then gave myself a foot massage before crawling off to bed.

Right before I woke this morning, I dreamed that I came upon an old dog lying in the road. It wasn't injured, just really sore, and tired, and trying to get some rest. Concerned for its safety, I pulled over and moved it off the road. It was friendly, but barely had the energy to comply. I called the dog's owner -- you've got to take care of this animal! I said. It's tired, it's sleeping right in the middle of the road, it's going to get hurt. I can't worry about that thing, the owner said, I have way too much to do. It's smart, it can take care of itself. I made sure the dog was in a safe place off the road, gave it some attention and affection, and went on with my life.

Some people believe that every character in a dream symbolizes an aspect of yourself, and I'm heeding the gentle warning this one offers. I am indeed tired, too tired to care much about getting out of the road. And I'm so caught up in my busy-ness that maybe I'm not taking care of that tired self as well as I should. But I've also got her back, and I'm going to focus a little more attention on her now.

I took me a while to stand up out of bed when I awoke. My plantar fascia are cursing me, but the rest of this old body handled the weekend's rigors pretty darn well. I put the iPod back on shuffle while I boiled the tea water, and "She Moves In Mysterious Ways" came through the speakers as I hobbled around the kitchen, followed by "Stayin' Alive." 

As the Bee Gees' final chords faded into studio black, my old Kripalu yoga teacher came on: "Gently open the eyes. Extend the legs out in front of you and gently shake the legs. Now we're going to awaken the legs. Begin a massage." 

Okay, yes, yes, I'm here, I'm paying attention. I got it. Total rest day today. Plenty of sleep tonight. Caution tomorrow.

So much strength in this old beat up body. Such gratitude. 

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Slip Slidin' Away

While I often think Ironman training is 90 percent mental, the enormity and complexity of the physical challenge means that we spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about and caring for our bodies. The Facebook tri groups I belong to are full of graphic threads about pooping and saddle sores, women wondering about bras and waxing, men concerned about bleeding nipples and hiding their crown jewels behind race bibs. 

If these things don't appeal to you, just stop reading. Seriously, it's going to get much worse. Right now.

There are extended serious discussions about peeing on the bike--whether to do it, how to do it well. Where the rest stops are, how much time it takes to get off your bike to use a toilet. How to balance it against your goal finish time. Yes. Pee on your bike. To save time. Just let 'er rip. You have to practice during your training in order to overcome the 45 years of conditioning against it, you know. I practiced last year, then decided that I could sacrifice 90 seconds from a 14 hour race in order to not smell and feel my own urine for the next 8 hours. I believe I will maintain the policy this year.

Even if you opt for the Satellite option in the race, your skin takes a real beating with all these hours in wet neoprene and lycra, with your most delicate nether-regions needing the most coverage and therefore subjected to the most contact and the highest risk of chafing.

Fortunately, there are products designed to keep your parts moving in a way that won't have you screaming obscenities by the midpoint of the bike. I use three of them.

I would buy Hoo-Ha Ride Glide for its name alone. Formulated especially for women, this slick little lube is good for the boys too. It's meant to be used in the cycling shorts, but I find that the tea tree and eucalyptus and peppermint oils are a little too...tingly. Instead, I slather it all over my ankles and wrists and neck before putting on the wetsuit. It keeps me from chafing around the neck, and the suit slips right off when the wetsuit peelers have their way with me after the swim. God, I just love that part.

And let me just tell you. My lady parts are in love with Chamois Butt'r, the go-to product for preventing saddle sores and chafing on the bike. Thick and creamy, just the right consistency, not greasy. Lasts a long time. Smells not too much like anything. Contains aloe vera, green tea leaf extract, tea tree oil, shea butter and lavender oil. One of my goals in yesterday's 114-mile ride was to practice re-applying while on the move. If you are a resident of Winterport who casually glanced out your window on the Fourth of July and happened to see a middle-aged woman standing on a bike at 15 miles an hour with her hand all the way down her shorts moaning with pleasure, I'm not sure what to tell you. I'm sorry you had to see that. It's not what you think. It might have been even better than that. At least for me. I really am sorry.

And finally, Body Glide. Applied like deodorant. Great staying power. I use it around my neck for the swim, and on the run under the bra line, and on the tricky spot where my inside arm rubs against the side seam.

These and other intimate products are available at Sidecountry Sports in Rockland, Maine. Stop in or order online.

An Independence Day Parade Sandwich

Three weeks to race day, my last long ride. With my late start on training, I've been building volume unusually quickly, paying extra attention to my body and crossing fingers and toes that I don't get injured. Coach Scott had me scheduled for a 5-hour ride, but I felt I needed the psychological boost that a 100-mile "century" would offer. My long ride last week was 70 miles. No cakewalk, but I recovered well.

"OK, try it," he said. "But listen to your body. One hundred good miles. If you're tired, turn around. Junk miles don't get you anywhere."

I didn't tell him that I really wanted to do the actual race distance of 112 miles, not just 100.

Last year I rode my bike to Bangor on the Fourth of July, and this year I realized that if I timed it right, I could see the parade before turning around. I was nervous as hell about heading out -- worried as much about the mental challenge as my physical endurance for a long haul. My goal time was seven hours. I knew I needed to make it an adventure with a prize in the middle or I'd never make it back. And I love me a parade.

One of my goals for the day was to practice nutrition. I have a little excel spreadsheet going on which I have all my little calories and carbs and proteins all calculated for the day. Such a nerd, I know. I am aiming for 250 calories an hour on the bike, with a carb to protein ratio of 4:1. I plan to take all my nutrition with me and not count on the rest stops.

I can't even tell you how much I love having a pastime that requires me to "practice" eating, the one thing in this sport that comes naturally to me. I will tell you that I am planning on brushing my teeth halfway through the race, though. Seriously. Toothbrush and toothpaste are going into my transition bag.

So I loaded up the bike and stuffed my pockets with 3 boiled and salted potatoes, 4 Clif minis, one Clif Builder's Bar, a baggie of chocolate covered espresso beans, five bottles of sports drink and one of water, energy chews, salt tabs, electrolyte tablets, extra lube for the lady parts, and a few dollars, in case I need to patch a flat or buy an emergency coffee.

And I hit the road. Fourth of July traffic was still relatively light and sober in the late morning, with barbecues just getting going and the flea market/yard salers already back home with their finds. Lots of large motorcycles with radios blaring. Many gunshots. More fireworks. Flags flags flags flags flags. A couple of other cyclists. 

My mileage estimate to Bangor was approximate, but I hit the Bangor parade at a perfect 56.51 miles. I was exhausted, so the first thing I did was find this adorable EMT/firefighter on a bicycle named Brian and force him to join me in a selfie while the Bangor Band turned the corner on their truck. A serious energy boost.
Brian is kind of a BFD at the BFD.
I had to keep moving, so I joined the parade on my bike, waving back at little kids and giggling hysterically through downtown Bangor.

"Hey, clown, how about a selfie?"
I love me some Shriners.

Got to love a band on a truck.

Ten minutes later, I was back on the road, totally energized by the spirit of the parade and the silliness of the whole project. It wasn't an easy ride home, by any measure, my mood and body threatening in turns to jump on the tantrum train most of the way. 

By the time I got to Belfast, I felt the relief of finally hitting the final leg home, but I was feeling the effects of the heat and exertion. I stopped at the Irving to fill up my water bottles. Three people asked how far I was riding, and the attention I got was just the medicine I needed to make it the rest of the way. Filling my bottles at the condiment counter, I threw in a number of little salt and sugar packets, and I sucked down a mustard packet because I'd read that mustard can help with leg cramps (something about how the acetic acid helps the body make acetylcholine, may be total BS, don't know/don't care.) It was nasty, of course, and perfect.

Outside, two men in their seventies who were loading up ice for a party across the road asked me where I'd been. "Good Lord! I get tired just driving to Bangor!" one exclaimed, before inviting me over for cocktails.

At about mile 95, at the very moment I was seriously wondering if I would ever make it home, suddenly here was this shed, which has either been there all along the hundreds of times I've driven by, or it appeared just for this occasion. Either way, a godsend.

56.51 miles to Bangor, one mile parading, 56.51 miles back = 114 miles. My longest ride ever. 

Today I have to run at least 15.

Lake Placid, I'm yours.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Out and back to the 'Keag

My favorite morning ride is a fast cruise down Route 1, around the Rockland "rotary", over the hellaciously corrupted pavement of South Main Street and across the smooth wide stretch of  Rt. 73 past the airport to the sharp corner in South Thomaston, where old men in pickups talk baseball and lawn mowers over breakfast sandwiches at the 'Keag store.

The store is named for the Weskeag River, on whose shores it sits, and the owners and employees got so tired of all the various mispronunciations of its name (logical though they were) that they appended their sign to read "'KEAG STORE (Pronounced 'Gig')"

It's a perfect turnaround point, because there's a port-a-potty on the wharf if I need it, and I can race myself back home to try for a negative split.

Warm sun, donuts, cigarettes, landscaper trucks with trailers, birdsong, mulch, 43 minutes going, 40 minutes back, 17.0 m.p.h.

On the bike I feel like I could do anything in the whole fucking universe.

I will do everything I can to ward it off, but if I do somehow die on the bike, know that I was as happy as happy gets.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The run that did not suck

I barely knew it was possible, but I hit the foggy roads for my one-hour run tonight and I loved it. Not the first 20 minutes, which felt awkward and painful and heavy and hard. But the rest of it? Oh so lovely. And so I made a big discovery about my training runs so far. I've been heading out too hard, trying to go too fast. Trying to make up for what I think is a massive training deficit.

Truth is, I'm smack in the middle of another crisis of confidence. I'm way behind where I was last year. I know how hard last year's race was, and I went into it with more training than I have now. I basically have three weeks of building fitness before the race. I can't even think about it.

"You're going to go into it so FRESH!" says Coach Scott, ever the voice of good cheer. And he might be onto something: everyone else I know is completely burned out on their training. I'm just getting going. Maybe, just maybe, I'll hit it just right, with just a high enough level of fitness to have a good time. Yikes, though, man. I'm SCARED.

So anyway, I'm trying to build my run volume without getting hurt. And since I pulled a muscle today trying to beat four tourist ladies to Zoot Coffee so I wouldn't get stick behind their 15-minute order of every variation of skinny latte known to womankind, I started my run cautiously. Without caring about the big horrible number on my watch. Just determined not to be truly injured by my earlier impatience. Imagine being denied an Ironman finish because you couldn't stand to stand in line.

The super slow pace changed everything. It was a revelation to actually enjoy the run. After my warmup, I enjoyed some ridiculously scenic sprints through Aldermere Farm.

Trotted on a little ways, then it was wheezing hill repeats up Beacon Street. So. Freaking. Hard. So completely rewarding.

Then a delightful cruise home down Chestnut Street, home to cauliflower curry surprise baking in the oven and one Allagash White.

One incredibly slow hour on the books, some confidence restored. Some understanding maybe of why people actually like to run. Profound gratitude for the whole damn thing.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Can't Touch This

Been noticing in the last 10 days how my body is showing the effects of training. I'm not talking muscle definition and buttock toning, I'm talking skin abrasions, hematomas, and, well, I'll spare you the most tender details, but let's just say I'm not making any waxing appointments anytime soon.

I'm sure some of my friends are cringing to read this--those of you who think of me when you meet a single guy who seems straight, smart, sane, and solvent. This is dangerous territory for a single woman, a frank discussion of the gross imperfections of the body under stress. But I figure I've got nothing to lose, banking on the thin hope that any eligible bachelors out there find my wit and candor appealing enough to overlook the ingrown -- oh, never mind. Plus, I'm too tired to give a shit, I have to get up at 4:00 am to do hill repeats before swimming tomorrow, and anyway, when the hell would a single man ever even see my ingrown -- right, never mind.

I have a bruise the size and shape of a chain ring stain on my right calf, a cut where the big gear gouged me, where I've been tattooed permanently with bicycle grease. I swear I only shave my legs these days to get all the grease off. There are shocking moments when my slovenly athleticism is thrown into sharp focus: I had a meeting with fancy ladies yesterday, and I truly felt like the Fonz. 

A toenail is on its way out. Chafing smudges in awkward places look like the burns I got from wrestling on the mustard shag carpet in the basement rec room with my little brother. Sad little sweat pimples where that tech fabric doesn't breathe as advertised. Random bruises, cuts galore, frightening rashes. Strange aches and spasms in the most...specific places.

Oh yeah, it's sexy, this sport. Then there's the lifestyle. It's 8:10 right now and I'm worried about wrapping up this post because I'm already late for bed. And I am well aware of how boring it is, how one-dimensional. I dated a man right after the race last year, and in the initial getting-to-know-yous, he was all like, Okay, so you do triathlons, and you sell real, what else? And I was like, Um, yeah, sorry, but that's all I can offer you right now. There's actually nothing else. I know. I know. I wouldn't date me either. He's getting married in September.

But hell. I am an Ironman. My other faces will be back in August, I swear. Most of my skin should be back by then too.