Saturday, July 24, 2010

Tomorrow's the day

Well, it is another night before Ironman Lake Placid. Once again, I can't believe how many times I've done this. Who tortures themselves all winter/spring so that they can then have one, long day of torture at the end of July? Me, apparently. And 2999 of my closest friends. That is the number I saw on the Ironman web site for registered athletes. I really, really hope that means assigned numbers and not the number who actually showed up. It seems impossible that it could be the latter, but we shall see.

I got some decent sleep last night and stayed in bed until 7 this morning, which was nice. After that it was off to the QT2 breakfast to get our money's worth at the buffet. Pancakes, french toast, english muffin, cereal, potatoes and eggs. I ate enough to feel full but not sick, which is a good balance, I think. After that I made short work of my gear bags and headed down to drop off my bike and stuff. This is where I was extra glad that I am not in St. George. The whole process was over and done in 10 minutes. In St. George, between driving to two different locations and picking things up, the same task with the same outcome took something like three hours.

After that it was off to a little pre-race meeting with Coach Jesse. He continues to exhibit patience in spite of the fact that I have made his coaching life extra difficult in my case, and it is appreciated. One of these days I'll get myself 100% on track and make things easier for both of us. The day has potential to be pretty decent, but it is going to depend on a lot of factors and much of that is me doing things correctly. So we'll see what happens. It's not going to be my best race here, but it also shouldn't be my worst, so somewhere in that range will probably make me happy.

After that, what else but more eating? Picked up a nice turkey sub and made short work of it. Also had some pretzels. This year I seem to have finally found a way to eat a good amount without going overboard. I think one of the keys is only buying what you plan on eating, instead of big bags of pretzels or other sort of carb "treats" that may sound like a good idea until you start mindlessly munching on them to the point where you are stuffed beyond capacity at the end of the day. And for me, I know I work best when stopping early, so even though it's only 5:00 as I write this, I am done with food until breakfast tomorrow, and I have no problem with that.

The rest of my exciting day has been spent drifting in and out of consciousness to some background TV. Just have to wait and rest some more and maybe get some sleep between now and tomorrow morning and hoping that tomorrow evening I will be in the mood for some post IM celebrating as I cross the line here for the seventh time. And hopefully it will be the last time I show up to one of these things feeling less than 100% prepared, because I'm getting tired of it and let me tell you, it's not a great feeling.

Friday, July 23, 2010

36 hours to go

I'm sitting here typing with a full stomach for the first time in several weeks. Ok, admittedly in a moment of weakness I may have gotten full once on an abnormal amount of dill pickles. But let me tell you, that kind of full doesn't stick with you long. This can only mean that I have an Ironman coming up and it's time to down some carbs. But let's start with me getting here...

I finished off the last of my workouts and tried to lie around as much as possible, which I pulled off pretty flawlessly. I didn't quite nail the sleeping at night part just before leaving, though. That was thanks to witnessing a woman getting hit by a car right in front of me, with her 9-year old daughter right behind her and somehow not getting hit. I was dead stopped in a big traffic jam on a city street, so it was safe for her to cross right in front of me. But it was dark and pouring rain and she didn't look to see if any cars were coming the other way and just ran right across. One of those awful things you could see coming but couldn't do anything about. I was sure I'd just seen two people get killed, but quickly saw the daughter was all right, and although the impact threw the woman quite a ways, landed her shoe right outside my car door and left her nearly immobile, she was conscious. And she also happened to get hit directly across the street from a fleet of ambulances and a team of EMTs who were on the scene in about 30 seconds. I don't know what the extent of her injuries were, but from the looks of it, she will probably be ok. The thing is I can't seem to get that image out of my head, and knowing that nobody was killed hasn't really helped. So, that did not help my getting to sleep that night. The worst thing of it was that she really never even looked to see if anyone was coming, just started running and there was no chance for the car not to hit her. And I swear I thought she had killed her own daughter. Just glad that's not the case.

So anyway, after that little sidetrack, let's get back to the other stuff... I drove up to Lake Placid by myself yesterday after getting my workouts done before leaving home. I'm one of those people who would rather get the "have to" stuff out of the way so that once I arrive at my destination, I don't have to rush to unpack and get more things done. Also makes for less packing and less workout clothes. I somehow made it in 4 hours door-to-door, including sitting and waiting for 10-15 minutes for the ferry to take me across from Charlotte to Essex. I know some people are annoyed by the ferries and try to take alternate routes (and there are LOTS of alternate routes, as one of those "can't get there from here" places and all of the back roads, there are literally dozens of options all within similar time/mileage ranges) But I like having the trip broken up a little like that. Especially as the driver, you can just sit back and relax for a bit.

Once I made it into the busy-as-always town I headed straight for registration. It was about 2:30 at that point, and in my experience, the best time to register for these things is during the later hours. Triathletes are crazy. You tell them something opens at 10:00 and several will probably start lining up at 9:00 or earlier, depending on exactly what it's for. Show up in those first hours and you're bound to wait in long lines. Hang out somewhere more comfortable and show up an hour before it closes and you're likely to walk right in. Which is pretty much what happened to me.

Nothing has changed at all in registration, except for the fact that there are 3013 race numbers and I don't listen that hard when the nice volunteer tells me which stickers go where on what bags. Am I supposed to cut them off and tell them I know what I'm doing? It seems rude, so I just let them go through it. Also, somewhere along that stretch of expo and registering I got asked several times if I'd done the race before. Well, yes. And sometimes it was followed up with "How many times?" It feels ridiculous to say that this is my seventh time here. How did that happen? And why do I keep torturing myself like this?

For the record, I looked it up, and the first year I did this race there were 2306 numbers, and the first year they ever had the race there were 1677 (not starters, but numbers - starters were always less) Last year? A little under 2600. 400+ more numbers in ONE year?!?!? And I thought I was going to get killed on the swim LAST year. I know I'm a veteran and I'm not supposed to get freaked out about such things, but I've done this race six times before. Every year has had more participants than the last, and every year I spend more and more of that swim fairly convinced that I am, in fact, going to drown due to the beating I'm taking from the sea of competitors trying to "swim" in such a tiny space that was so obviously not meant to support that many people. Anyway, looks like there were close to 500 no-shows last year. Which means we need about 1000 of the same this time to make it not worse than the last time I felt like I was going to die. For the love of God, please STOP adding so many people to these races! There IS a limit, you know. At some point it does become unsafe, and I'd argue we're past that point. What does it take for them to realize this? A 400 competitor increase is insane in one year. Let's just ignore the fact that I was a last-minute entry....

So, back to yesterday. I walked through the expo, which just gets less and less exciting somehow every single time. Then I had a wonderful afternoon of lying down. So wonderful, in fact, that I never left the room again. I suppose I could've gone out to dinner or something, but let me tell you, going out to dinner when you are so limited as to what you're supposed to eat is not only not fun, it's gotten to the point where it's just plain irritating. So I just gave it up a while ago. I did go out once in the last month, but only because I knew the restaurant had a salad bar. Somehow salad bars are exciting to me. I do like salad, but it does get annoying when it's practically all you eat.

Anyway, after hardly sleeping the night before, I did manage to sleep well last night. I was up really early though, so I got my workouts done nice and early. I love doing my workouts early up here, while hardly anyone else is out. I like it anywhere, really, but especially here. It was a chilly morning, so I threw on a jacket and headed out for 25 whole minutes of riding. I passed a few people walking their dogs, but it wasn't even 6:00 yet and I don't think a single person was even in the water as I rode around the lake. After that epic workout I got to run for ten whole minutes. Almost not even worth putting the shoes on, but off I went. I barely made it out of the hotel parking lot. Then down to the water for a swim. The downside to no more Gatorade at these events is no more Gatorade swim. They used to watch your stuff and give you Gatorade and water bottles and stuff. I must have 10 Gatorade water bottles at home, because I come home from each of these things with one or two. But no more. So with so few people in the water there was no worrying about swimming head on into anyone while we all did whatever distances we were going to do. The water was gorgeous, warm but not too warm and glassy.

Then, not even 7am and no more workouts to worry about, just how I like it. Somehow the rest of the morning passed fairly quickly. Oh, I did get one last massage with the amazing Courtney Wheeler, so that broke things up a little. My parents arrived just in time for us to go and get lunch. We ate at The Cottage over by the Mirror Lake Inn. And finally, FINALLY I got to order a sandwich. Let me just say, there are certain things I don't necessarily miss while eating "the core". I don't really miss pasta (I like it, I just don't really care about not eating it) I don't miss rice. I desperately miss cereal, and I really miss eating sandwiches. I mean, I had a turkey sandwich for lunch every day for probably ten years, and even once the streak ended and I branched out to things like caesar wraps or veggie wraps, turkey was still part of the regular rotation. So, to sit down at a restaurant and eat a turkey sandwich on nice, thick bread was heavenly.

The afternoon consisted of much lying around and a little nap, and before I knew it, it was time to eat again. This is my seventh time here, and every time I have had a great pasta dinner before the race at Jimmy's. There are probably a dozen Italian restaurants here in town, but we discovered this one the first time and why mess with what works? The food is great and they give you portions enough to make you full but not enough to make you think your stomach is going to explode. And although I said I didn't miss it that much, it was still nice to have some pasta. They make their own.

And now it's back to lying around and killing time before bed. Big breakfast tomorrow, dropping the bags off and then just waiting. Sunday is 6 years to the day of my first Ironman, July 25th 2004. I was a clueless 25-year old who didn't know anyone else first hand who had actually done one of these crazy things, so mostly I was just scared to death. I had absolutely no clue how the race was going to go. Thankfully, it was actually pretty decent. Things have obviously been up and down since then, but we'll see what happens. I definitely don't feel as ready as I've ever felt, but I don't feel as unprepared as I've ever felt either, so I guess that's something.

So that's about it. Nothing left to do now but wait and eat.

Monday, July 19, 2010

It's getting closer...

Sorry that the last couple of posts have been the length of short novels. I'll do my best to make sure this is not the case this time, but I'm not making any promises.

Well, it is the Monday of race week. All of the tough workouts are in the bank, and there's nothing left to do but do a few shorter ones to keep things moving, rest, get a massage or two, not eat to much in the beginning of the week and eat way too much at the end of the week. Oh, and try not to die of boredom with all of this new found free time.

So, the last bunch of workouts weren't so great, but I know from experience that I am terrible at tapering. I mean, I have no problem with the resting part. By the time all of that crazy training is over I have no problem with scaling it back. It's just that none of those workouts ever seem to go very well. Fortunately, I have lots of experience behind me to tell me that no matter how crappy those last workouts go, it is probably no indication at all of what race day might be like. I'm not one of those people who 'nails' these last workouts. In fact, I vividly remember one of my last long rides two weeks before my Ironman PR where I was slower than I'd ever been, couldn't get my heart rate up, and spent much of it seriously considering throwing my bike off a bridge somewhere and curling up under a tree to cry.

So, no, I don't let it bother me. Amazingly, this is my 7th year in a row racing in Lake Placid. This year I was supposed to skip it, but things didn't exactly go according to plan. I've had good races, terrible races, and amazing races there. For some reason my swim split, however, is always almost exactly the same - literally all 6 splits so far are within 42 seconds of each other. The only reason I don't have high hopes this year for finally braking out of that streak is that the latest participant list has about 3000 people on it. I'll be lucky if I make it out of the water alive let alone with a swim PR. But let's try not to think about that too much right now...

Placid, for obvious reasons, has some great memories for me. Even in the one race that didn't go according to plan I didn't necessarily have a bad day out there. Bad performance-wise, sure, but I chose not to let it bother me too much. I was coming back from injury and it was probably a miracle I was able to finish at all. But there is something just so great about that town. I love it enough that I seriously could live there. It's just too bad I never get a chance to hang around in town much afterward.

It's crazy to think that this is Ironman #7 for me up there, and starting line #14 (hopefully finish #13) I still vividly remember heading up there for my first, and all of the anxiety surrounding my ability to even finish the race for the entire year before starting from the moment I registered from my computer at work that Monday morning. I'm going to have to admit that in years past I've felt more ready than I do right now, but given the fact that we were scrambling a bit after St. George, that's somewhat understandable. All I can do is the best that I can.

The bike is tuned up with some new parts and ready to go, massage and a day off scheduled for tomorrow, nothing much left to do but continue waiting...

See? Apparently I can write something less than a novel. Although it was pretty darn boring. My brain also turns to mush during the taper...

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Me Vs. Running

Back to our regularly scheduled programming...

I think a lot about running. Mostly about how not good at it I am. (which I recognize does nothing to help the situation, but it hasn't done anything to stop me) I spent the morning the other day on my bike thinking about running instead of thinking about biking - mostly dreading that I'd have to run when I was done.

Running and I go way back. Possibly even further back than me and walking, according to reports from my mother. Apparently, before I could walk I'd 'run' laps between the living room and the kitchen, supporting myself with one of those plastic shopping carts that I pushed in front of me. I spent plenty of time playing outside as a kid, running when it was required of me just like most kids.

I think I always knew I wasn't fast. Me and fast don't get along well either. But I could keep going forever. I think part of my problem was that I was growing so fast that I just plain couldn't control my scrawny, overgrown limbs. Seriously, if you look at those children's height/weight charts, while my weight was normal, my height was off the charts. If there was such a thing as being in the 120th percentile, that's where I was. It's probably a miracle I'm six feet tall instead of seven.

In spite of my lack of speed, I still thoroughly enjoyed doing anything and everything active and outdoorsy. I think I took gymnastics for about two hours (I still can't even do a cartwheel) and then moved on to your typical little kid schedule of soccer and tee-ball. But also spent plenty of time riding my bike all over town from the time I was four. Seriously, my best friend when I was little lived a little over a mile from me and the two of us would often ride between our houses. I actually remember when I was seven years old and we were riding to his house and I took a nasty spill about halfway there with no helmet and no moms in sight. My niece is that age now and I can't even imagine sending her on that same ride. She'd be crushed!

Anyway, I don't know that it ever really bothered me that much that I was slow - at least not at first. In spite of the slowness I at least had some coordination so I was decent at any of the sports I attempted to play. I got even slower when my accelerated growth started making my knees ache on a fairly constant basis. Fortunately, that went away eventually.

I accepted my slowness as part of the deal. Some people were born small and quick, and I was born to be big and awkward. I did take pride in the fact that I could keep going. In gym class in junior high it never bothered me when they'd make us run a few slow laps around the gym to 'warm up' (why, as 12-year olds, we needed to warm up to run around in circles and play 'bombardment' for 30 minutes I have no idea, but anyway...) I felt like I could run slow laps forever. Remember when we had to run the mile as part of the fitness test? Although it seemed like a daunting distance at the time, especially since it was something like 20 laps around the basketball court if I remember correctly, I don't think I ever felt hugely exhausted at the end. Sure, I wasn't fast, but if I had to keep going I could have.

While the sports I played did require running in short bursts at high speeds, which I already figured out wasn't my strong suit, I don't think I ever thought too much about being the slow kid on the team and I don't think any of my early coaches ever made a big deal of that fact. Although I do remember trying to stop 6-12 inches short of the line when running suicides in basketball practice in junior high. Why I thought that would save me a lot of time, I have no idea. But I do know that the coaches almost always noticed.

By the time I reached junior high my super-quick growth had slowed and I stopped being such a lanky kid as my love of Doritos and Pepsi finally started to catch up with me. That did nothing to help my speed. But again, this was just something I accepted, because surely just embracing the fact that I was a chubby adolescent was a lot easier than not eating Doritos, Pepsi and chocolate chip cookies. It's a wonder I was never sick. I don't think I ate any fruits or vegetables until I was about 21 years old.

My coaches never seemed to get upset that I wasn't fast, because they accepted it as reality too. As long as I looked like I was trying, even if I was the last one to make it back to the line. When I played softball the coach timed us to run all the way around the bases, but I wasn't chastised for having the worst time out of everyone.

High school turned out to be a different story. I had heard stories about the varsity basketball coach long before I got to meet the man for myself. Fortunately, by the time I got to him, he had already gotten in trouble the year before for hurling a chair against the bleachers in fury during a game. So I could be assured that he was probably going to take a break from tossing inanimate objects in fits of anger. He prided himself on having a 'fast' team. He loved to full court press and I had heard about how much he made people run in practice to make sure that his team was in better shape than anyone else's and would simply exhaust them until we beat them.

I didn't expect to make varsity as a freshman, but I did. In true teenage-Molly fashion, it was celebrated with a super-sized #4 extra value meal from McDonalds. (item #257 on the "no wonder I was fat" list) In tryouts the guy didn't seem so scary. Then I showed up to my first real practice on the morning after Thanksgiving. There were trash barrels on the four corners of the court. "In case you have to puke," coach proudly proclaimed.

He started us off with ten laps around the gym, but with a twist. Behind the bleachers on one long section of the court were stairs that led up to the locker rooms, then came down the other side. So for every lap we did it included running up those stairs, across and down the other side. I was never one to prepare for a season by getting in shape before, so by the end of just the warm-up I had been lapped by the entire team and tasted blood in the back of my throat. I did manage to keep my turkey dinner in my stomach for the entire practice, but I am also pretty sure that I nearly cried on several occasions that day. I'm not positive, but I don't think we ever even touched a basketball that practice. I'm also pretty sure that in one week of high school basketball, I lost ten pounds.

Things got slightly better, and I don't think I tasted blood in the back of my throat all that much for any more of the practices, but I didn't get a whole lot faster. That drove my coach insane. For a guy who prided himself on having a fast team, I was definitely not what he was looking for. He loved to scream at me about it. He loved to scream at me about almost anything, really. I was a 14-year old kid and I vividly remember when we played this team who had the league MVP on it. She was 6'2", 18 years old and already had secured a full scholarship to UCONN, the ultimate college for women's basketball. As the tallest (also youngest) person on the team, not a starter but typically the 6th man, apparently I was supposed to do something about her. By halftime she was having a career game and I was getting screamed at to get my "fat ass of the floor!" (aka, "Jump!") For future reference, that is not the best way to motivate me.

Coach loved to threaten us with more running. If we had a bad game, if we were talking in practice, if he dind't feel we worked hard enough, he'd make us run more. "Bring your track shoes!" He'd love to yell if we had a particularly poor outing in some game or another. He'd sometimes make me run more by myself if I couldn't make some arbitrary time standard he invented on the spot for some sprints.

I was on a team full of speedy guards, there was just no way I could compare. In all fairness, he did yell at each of us, and all of us collectively, but I seemed to be his favorite target. He was never quite as mean to me after my freshman year, and I don't think I'll ever understand why. By my senior year he was forced to mellow out quite a bit because during one early-season game he had yelled at us so much that he had to get hernia surgery, so he was literally medically limited from yelling too much. I also managed to get a pretty nasty sprained ankle that season and got myself a ticket to no more running stairs.

So I spent four years being constantly reminded of how fat and slow I was. (coach made fairly frequent references to my being 200 pounds - a fact he couldn't have known for sure because it's not like we weighed in or anything, but if you saw me back then, it was probably a pretty safe guess - and just the kind of thing you want broadcast when you are a teenager) In fact, in spite of playing JV softball as a freshman, I wound up being cut completely when I was a sophomore. The reason I was given? Too slow to run the bases. I was too slow to run sixty feet at a time. Let me tell you, as a 200-pound kid, one thing I did not have a problem with was hitting the ball far. Far enough that it probably didn't make the slightest bit of difference how slow I was running. But no, in a sport where being quick on your feet is one of the last things you have to worry about, as plenty of grown men play the sport while drinking beer between innings, I was just way too slow to be bothered with. (I made every all-star team there was before then, so it's not like I wasn't any good)

My running "skills" were so legendary, that it garnered an article in the newspaper. One of my favorite teachers in high school taught my honors writing class my senior year. It was the only honors class I took in high school, and it was a last-minute scramble to get me into his class. I recall submitting my application to the head of the English department when I ran into him in the hallway. He was the soccer coach and he had his pen held to the paper to sign off on it the minute I gave it to him before he paused and said, "Let's just make sure you're literate," before turning the page over and giving my essay a glance and then turning the paper back over and approving my application.

Mr. Sullivan's class was one of, if not the favorite class I had in high school. "Coach" as he liked to be called (although he didn't actually coach anything while I was there - and his demeanor was definitely far different from my other coach) also wrote a sports column in the newspaper. In 2005 I qualified for Kona for the first time, and Coach was going to write a column on me and my triathlon accomplishments to date. At that point I had completed only two Ironmans. We had a nice phone conversation and then a few days later the article came out.

Essentially, it was 1000 words making fun of the way I used to run up and down the basketball court. I might have actually been offended if I wasn't already well aware of how true it all was. At the time of the article I hadn't played a game of basketball on the West High School court in eight-and-a-half years. I must've left quite an impression with the way I ran if he still remembered the way I "lumbered" (that was the word he used) up and down the court. Again, I might have been upset if I didn't realize that that was the perfect word to describe it.

I think one season I actually attempted to get in shape before that dreaded day after Thanksgiving practice. Remember the infamous "Jimmy shoes" from that episode of Seinfeld? I had a pair of those and I tried to "train" with them. I think I made it a week before my calculus teacher wondered why I was limping (my calves were killing me!) and I decided it was stupid and not worth it, so that was the end of the experiment with the Jimmy shoes and any dashing hopes I had of learning to dunk before high school graduation.

I didn't pursue any basketball scholarships or try to get recruited. I decided in one visit to Boston when I was a junior that I wanted to go to Emerson, and I didn't care about anything else. Division III basketball isn't nearly as demanding as I or II, and that was why I liked it. I did wind up getting set up on a training program to get ready for the season. I distinctly remember being asked by the trainer doing my fitness assessment to run a mile and a half on the treadmill and I laughed at him, thinking he couldn't possibly be serious that he wanted me to run that far. He didn't laugh back, so I started to run. I really wish I knew now what my time was, but I'd be surprised if it was anything less than 15 minutes - maybe 20.

My college coach was nothing like my high school coach. This may or may not have been out of necessity. You see, it was fairly often that we'd be an hour away from leaving for a game and calling random people we knew to see if they could come be on the team for the night so we wouldn't have to forfeit. Coaches can't be jerks when one, they don't have much of a team to begin with. And two, if you yell and scream too much you might lose what few players you do have and wind up having to forfeit the season. I don't think he was that kind of coach anyway, though. Either way, it gave me a "nothing to lose" mentality and instead of being annoyed that we were a terrible team made up of literally three people who were dedicated enough to go to every game (the other two were whoever we could find - including eventually one player who I later found out wasn't even technically eligible because she was a Harvard student who only took one class at our sister school. But hey, trust me, nobody was protesting any games.)

I was almost sure that we would lose every game we played, so why not just go out and have fun? I got to do a lot of things I'd never gotten to do on any other teams I played for. I brought the ball down the court like a point guard on occasion, took and even made a few three-pointers (if my high school coach had ever caught me outside the three-point line instead of within three feet of the basket, let alone taking a shot, he might have taken up chair-hurling again) I averaged 21 points a game my freshman year. As a team, we averaged 25. We did come away with three wins somehow, one that was a forfeit to us. We forfeited twice that season, I think both times because I sprained my ankle badly enough that I couldn't play for a few days. I managed that twice that season, and in both cases my team was forced to finish the game with four players. One of those times, the other coach was nice enough to encourage her players to run the score up over 100. Pretty sure that was the only time in my career that my coach asked us not to shake their hands afterward.

Ok, so what the heck does all of that have to do with running? I still wasn't fast, but by necessity, I had to play every minute of every game. I think it was the end of the season before I realized that I didn't even notice anymore. Future seasons gave us a few more players and even some actual wins, but I still tended to stay on the court the whole game, and it never tired me out too much.

I was never, ever yelled at for being slow on the basketball court in college. I never thought about running much, either, it was just part of the game. It wasn't until I returned from a semester in Los Angeles of classes and interning and zero exercise except for my weekend visit to Huntington Beach for a bit of surfing that I decided I needed to supplement my practices by running a bit on my own. I had never considered running on purpose, and just because I said so, until then. When I moved back into my dorm at 80 Boylston, one of the first things I did was walk down the street to City Sports and pick up a pair of Nike running shoes. I picked them solely because they fit and I thought they looked pretty good.

I started with a mile on the treadmill, and I probably felt like I was going to die at the end. I also probably tried running it way too fast and kept changing the speed of the treadmill, but I made it. And I decided to run a mile every day. Then one day I upped it to two. Then by the time graduation rolled around I was running four miles almost every single day. A couple of years earlier my sister had run the Boston Marathon for charity. That is definitely not the reason that I started getting into endurance sports. My sister is seven years older than I am and we were always interested in different things growing up, so I definitely wasn't jumping into marathon running just because she did. But I do remember going to watch her, and my brother-in-law jumped in to run the final four miles with her. My mother suggested that maybe if she ran it next year I could be the one to help her in those final miles. "Are you crazy? I can't run four miles!"

Turns out, I could. And I actually got to the point where I kind of liked it. I'm not sure I actually liked running in and of itself, but rather I liked the idea of being able to run four miles, because my own head always told me that there was no way I'd ever be able to. In spite of my internal protests in the past, it turned out that it actually did get easier the more I did it. And I hated the idea of stopping and then having to build up to it again. So in spite of having no more basketball seasons to get in shape for, once I graduated I decided I was going to keep on running.

So I kept at it. After a summer of running just to run and a winter of ski instructing I did my first run races and triathlons. I took a break from being focused on training while I pursued my short-lived film career, but I still made time to run before or after being on set all day and bike up and down the PCH in Malibu on the weekends. Once I moved back east I started to get more serious about my training. I bought some books and signed up for my first Ironman.

I should mention that I never had any huge, lofty goals when it came to doing triathlons. I had no friends in the sport and I would show up to races without knowing a soul aside from my parents who were nice enough to come and cheer me on. Except my first race, where my very pregnant sister was my lone spectator. So I had no idea what I was doing. It was just something to fill the void now that I wasn't playing basketball and after losing 70 pounds after college, I really didn't like the idea of putting them back on.

I felt like I got faster almost by accident. I just went out and swam, biked and ran based on the training plans I made up. Those first few years I don't think I ever did a single interval workout aside from the swim workouts I did from a book I bought. I'd just go out and run for a certain amount of time and bike for a certain amount of time or in the case of the long ride a certain amount of miles.

Given my history with running, it was probably a bigger surprise to me than to anyone that I was somehow suddenly halfway decent at it. I was consistently mediocre at swimming (once I graduated from being totally, completely awful at it) and biking came easier than I'd like to admit. But comparatively speaking, my run splits weren't doing too badly against everyone else, either. It was like I had conquered this thing that had been pushing me down my whole life. I had no concept of pacing in races, but managed to do fairly well in a lot of those, too. I felt like I had finally figured out the mystery to the whole running thing that I never thought I'd solve.

Suddenly I had expectations that were never there before. And suddenly I found myself unable to meet them. You should know that nobody set them but me. While my current program is very specific and goal-based, what I did back then I just made up. It started to get a lot harder to better previous performances because I was going faster than I'd ever dreamed possible. And in the beginning, the sole goal was simply to do better than I did last time. So what happened when it suddenly got a lot harder to do better than last time? I got disappointed. It wasn't by much, at first. And ironically, it was based on times that had I achieved maybe a mere six months earlier I would've been ecstatic. But like I said, the bar had been raised and suddenly I wasn't able to meet it.

Then, to make matters worse, I had to go and get injured. I had spent 6 years training for triathlons with my worst issue being a strained hamstring I got doing the Reach the Beach Relay - meaning that the injury had a definite cause, an identifiable name and was easily treatable with my first month-long break from running since I started running in the first place. Fortunately, this also occurred at the end of the season, so I can't say that the break was unwelcome.

But this was different. I was out on a run one early morning in March, and, as all running injuries occur, I was as far from home as I could possibly be on that routine 7-miler I'd done a hundred times when there was suddenly this pain in my lower back. I was 28, not 68, and I didn't feel like I was old enough to have back pain.

Plus, as I later learned during my attempts at self-diagnosis on the internet, back pain is often mysterious. Also, it can take an awfully long time to go away. So long, that in some cases it just plain never goes away. So let's just say that after a few weeks of definitely not running, and barely even being able to bike and swim without pain and not the slightest idea what was wrong with me, I was in fear that I had run my last race.

I had the California 70.3 coming up less than two weeks after the injury, a plane ticket, a place to stay and most likely an inability to race. It was the first race I'd ever signed up for and not done, and it was terrible. Oh, sure, on race morning it was kind of nice not to have to get up at 3:30 in the morning and stuff down some horrible breakfast, then hope that I'd be able to clean out my system entirely before putting on my wetsuit and diving into the frigid Pacific. But really, truly, I would've much rather been racing.

I did finally manage to find a doctor who could tell me what was wrong with me - after waiting over two weeks to get an appointment since he was so in-demand. I had done something to my sacroilliac joint. Until then I didn't even know I had one of those. It was nothing I'd ever heard of anyone having, and it made me nervous that it would never go away, even though he told me it would. I hadn't run in five weeks when he finally told me I could give it a shot, and it was another two weeks of running through pain before I was finally back on track.

Unfortunately, the damage had been done. I had spent too much time wallowing and feeling sorry for myself and putting on weight that I faced quite a mountain to climb before I might be able to race again. The problem was, it was May, and the racing season was upon us.

Although I physically recovered from that, running has never been the same for me. I spent the rest of the season setting new personal worsts and just waiting for some other pain to flare up and keep me from doing what I love to do. I missed out on qualifying for Kona after going for three years in a row - twice by winning my age group by nearly an hour. This time I wasn't even close. All of that confidence I'd found was obliterated by a few disappointments and one especially painful winter run.

I got within spitting distance of getting it back last season, but while it was a vast improvement over the year before and I was initially pleased with the results, it just wasn't quite good enough. I got impatient again, and once again I was left wondering if it ever actually would get easier again. This led to another useless spiral down and too much thinking about how fast I used to be.

I'm being told that's the problem, that I need to stop thinking about before and start thinking about after. It's not easy. It's hard to be happy that I did better in a race last week than maybe I did in February when a couple of years ago I was way, way faster. Somehow I've got to find a way to get that confidence back that I just need to keep at it and it will come back. I'm in a wonderfully injury-free zone at the moment so the only thing stopping me is above my shoulders. I just need to decide to take the next step.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Nana's 89

Warning: ahead is a lot of sentimental stuff that has nothing to do with the kind of stuff I usually post. Mostly I will be talking about my grandmother because today is her birthday. It's bringing up a lot of memories and I just wanted to post them. So stop now if you don't care about that. I won't be offended.

So, today is my Nana's 89th birthday. That means she was born on 7-11-21. Not bad for lucky numbers, huh? Nana raised 10 kids, my mother being the oldest, and those kids had 15 kids, me being right in the middle, and those kids so far have had 10 kids. So there are quite a few of us who quite literally owe our lives to her. She is my last remaining grandparent and has been since my father's father died in 1990. Papa, who was Nana's husband, died in 1985 when I was only 6.

Nana is, quite simply, the best. You'd think with all of those kids maybe at least half of them would be scattered throughout the country. But aside from one uncle who lives in Baltimore, and, quite sadly, aunt Rosie who passed away in 1994, everyone else lives within maybe a 15-minute drive. In fact, four of her children, including my mother, live in houses that you can see out of Nana's windows. That's how I got to grow up, living next door to many of my cousins and getting the advantages of having extra brothers and sisters, extra people to play with, without all of the disadvantages, like say fighting over the TV or sharing a bathroom. This set-up was, and still is referred to as "The Compound."

It was a fun way to grow up. Nana's backyard is a huge field, literally with a backstop, home plate and a pitcher's mound, plus a really nice swimming pool, and every morning of summer vacation we'd usually wake up and make our way over there. Nana's house is the center of many of my childhood memories.

I feel very fortunate to still have her around. As far as her health is concerned, she's physically doing fairly well, although she now either usually needs a walker or the arm of someone else to get around. She does, however, have Alzheimers. If you met her and talked to her for a bit, you might not even notice. She is not delusional and she doesn't make things up. It's just that now her short-term memory is about as reliable as that of Dory from Finding Nemo. It's kind of funny, because when you talk to her, she can tell you a story of something that happened when she was 10 years old, but if you ask her at 2:00 in the afternoon what she had for lunch, or even if she had lunch, she would probably have no idea.

Most of the time, for as long as I can remember, Nana can be found sitting at the head of the table in what she calls the breakfast room attached to the kitchen of the house she's lived in for 53 years after moving the family from West Roxbury to New Hampshire, which at the time she thought was the end of the world. When she wakes up in the morning, that's where she goes. Whoever was around will have left her a medium black coffee from Dunkin' Donuts and sometimes a muffin or some other fatty baked good. Nana isn't really that interested in food anymore, and she is the only person on Earth that I would advocate eating a giant coffee cake muffin for breakfast. You see, that's what she loves, and that's what she'll eat. Nana is not going to eat an egg white omelet with vegetables. In fact, take her to a restaurant where they ask her which of several vegetables she wants, she will reply: None. Ask her if she wants baked potato, mashed potatoes or rice, she will ask, "Do you have french fries?" She will often think that Diet Coke counts as a "meal" because it filled her up, another reason why I think she should get to eat the good stuff.

She's 89. I think she should have whatever she wants. So she'll sit there and drink her coffee with one Sweet 'N Low, eat part of a muffin and read the newspaper. Some days she will read something really interesting, like the National Enquirer or Star Weekly. Nana used to read a lot, but the problem is, if she starts a new book, she won't remember what she read about in the last chapter. Heck, in some cases, maybe not the last page. So anything where the information is conveyed in a paragraph or two is really all she can manage at this point.

This has only been going on for a couple of years now, but fortunately, it has not made Nana an unhappy person. Well, unless she is reminded that she is no longer allowed to drive a car. A while back, she went out one afternoon for a doctor's appointment or some such thing and she couldn't figure out how to get home. She was always fine if she went to the grocery store or church, her two standard destinations, but throw a wrench into the system and things got ugly. But, then again, on certain days, if she doesn't look out the window and notice the absence of her old, green Ford Taurus, she sometimes doesn't even realize she hasn't driven in almost two years.

She will still make fun of herself, like when she asks my niece for the 5th time in one visit what grade she is in school, and finally her 7-year old patience can't take it and she gives Nana "the look" and Nana will say, "Did I already ask you that?" Only to be replied with, "Like a million times." But Nana will usually laugh it off. She knows she doesn't remember much. In fact, on one visit a few weeks ago she was telling me this story, only it didn't have a definitive beginning, middle and end. So she just kept on telling me the same things in sort of a 3-minute, continuous loop. Somehow I was finally able to change the subject.

Another favorite story of Nana is when she was watching a football game (she loves to watch football, and sometimes used to call Teddy Bruschi "My Teddy") and they were discussing some guy's last name and what nationality it was. Nana said that it couldn't possibly be Italian, because no Italian name ends in I. Well, her maiden name - her Italian maiden name - is Pucci.

She remembers all of us, though. Or most of us, anyway. I think some of the great grandkids she still has trouble with, but since the rest of us have been around for anywhere between 25 and 41 years, apparently we are entrenched in some deeper memory that Alzheimers has not yet claimed. She knows I race triathlons and always asks me if I have any races coming up. No matter what answer I give, she will ask me again three or four times over the course of one conversation. Inevitably, rather than explaining the race, the distances, and how many people will be in it once again, I will change my answer to a simple "no."

In spite of her memory issues, she still remains incredibly perceptive and an excellent judge of character. Beneath that sweet demeanor lies someone who will not take any of your crap if that is what you are trying to get past her. She can tell when people are trying to pull something over on her. She knows when someone isn't to be trusted or isn't really worth her time. The great thing about this is, at her age, she isn't afraid to say so anymore.

There are a few absolutes when it comes to Nana. First, there will always be treats in the freezer and the pantry. If there are no Oreos at your house, you will definitely find them at Nana's. Same goes for the seemingly self-refilling jar of M&M's kept in the living room. The freezer has evolved over the years. When I was growing up it was always Hoodsie cups. Somewhere along the line it switched briefly to ice cream sandwiches and occasional popsicles. Eventually things settled on Klondike bars (which everyone will start by cutting in half, offering the other half to someone else, putting it back in the freezer when nobody accepts, then going back very quickly for the other half) and Brigham's ice cream. Nana's five sons are all over 50 years old, but one day I witnessed several of them deciding to make Ring Ding ice cream sundaes like 12-year olds. (Ring Dings are not part of the usual rotation, but sometimes make special appearances)

I have spent every Christmas of my life at Nana's house. I'm not sure there has ever been one with less than maybe 30 people. The turkey was always monstrous, and Nana still makes the best mashed potatoes I have ever tasted. Her other specialty, and really the only thing she makes anymore, is potato salad. However, on for one recent family barbecue, she did, in fact, make the potato salad twice.

It's funny though how her memory can be so bad but so many other things are going so well. For example, she has great eyesight. It wasn't so great a few years ago, but she had cataract surgery and suddenly could see everything crystal clear. Apparently things had gotten so bad before that, once she looked in the mirror and saw her face clearly for the first time in years, she immediately went to the store to buy wrinkle cream. I believe she was 83 at the time. Probably too late for that cream to work any miracles, no matter what the commercials say. She does wear hearing aids, which she hates, but we appreciate not having her answer questions we didn't ask. "How was the weather today?" "Oh, yes, they were here last week." Huh?

I don't like to think about it, but it will be strange when she's gone. Most of my run routes go past her house, and depending on the wind direction I can smell her perfume from the street. Her house is the central location for so many family activities. My parents were married in her back yard, as were a few of my aunts and uncles and my sister. There have been many family reunions, dozens of pick-up softball games, volleyball, basketball, kickball, water balloon fights, giant snowmen in the winter, pool baseball, cookouts, and one recent party, the 7-7-07 party to celebrate the 50th anniversary of living in the house, when the police were called about the noise into the night. My uncle brought Nana out to the cops and told them, "Here she is, boys. Arrest her!" Of course, they didn't. By the end of the night the line to say hi to Nana was long enough to require a Disney World-style fast pass. It was like seeking an audience with the Pope.

I don't know what it is about that old house though. The week after September 11th, without any real sort of prompting, people started bringing candles out to place on the rock wall in front of it. By the end of the week there were dozens of them from random strangers all over town coming to reflect at the makeshift vigil. I still can't figure out what started that or why it occurred but I'm sure I'll never forget it.

You don't ever ring the doorbell at Nana's, you just walk in and say hi. My aunt Tricia lives with her, so she doesn't have to be by herself. But considering the amount of relatives living in such close proximity, I'd say that most days while Tricia is at work she probably doesn't go more than a few hours without a visitor of some kind. Just this winter though my mom and her siblings decided it was time to get her one of those visiting nurses who just comes a few days a week just to be in the house in case something happens while nobody is there. Nana thinks she's just the cleaning lady. Nobody lied to her and told her that, she just assumes. She doesn't want to need help and I don't blame her.

Fortunately, Nana doesn't spend all of her time cooped up in the house. For one thing, she does love sitting in the sun in the back yard if the occasion calls for it. I know she's got that pool, but funny thing, Nana never learned how to swim. She often tells me a story of the mean woman who used to throw her in the ocean when she was a kid growing up in Southie and made her terrified of water. So the pool is not her usual destination, although she used to sometimes go and just wade around in the shallow end. She gets to go out to dinner a few times a week, always ordering a vodka and tonic, the only alcohol she consumes. She also goes out to lunch with my mother or anyone else who might be around, although you have to make sure you catch her at the right time. If you call her and tell her you're going to pick her up in 20 minutes, you might just go and find that she forgot you called and decided to take a nap instead.

No matter how frustrating it can be at times now to talk to her, she is usually in good spirits and I don't like to go too long without seeing her, even though she would usually have no idea if it had been two days or two months between visits. She smiles a lot and always seems happy to see anyone.

Yep, her memory may be slipping, but fortunately after a rapid decline early on, the deterioration seems to have slowed or possibly even stopped completely. Looking forward to having a huge party for her 90th next year. It probably won't be as mobile as her 80th, in which we rented a trolly to drive around Southie, handed her a microphone and let her narrate her childhood memories like some guided tour, but I'm sure it will be fun, nonetheless. Actually, that one was a surprise. I don't think it's a good idea to surprise people once they reach a certain age. But dinner for 40 at Pier 4 in Boston was also pretty nice. She still loves those popovers.

So happy birthday, Nana. Thanks for giving me such a great family.