Friday, August 27, 2010

A Little Earth, Wind and Fire on the West Coast

Katy Perry may be on to something. She sings that California girls are unforgettable. That's debatable, but I'll never forget California itself. I didn’t melt anyone’s Popsicle while I was there (we spent a considerable amount of time hanging in San Francisco’s Castro region though, so Krispin may have…) but I did melt away some stress. Who knew vacation was so awesome?

Our ten-day trek from the city by the bay up through wine country, all the way to the Avenue of the Giants (re: redwoods galore) was the first vacation I’ve ever taken alone with a significant other. That’s right, at the age of 31 I’m finally jet-setting about with my lover. I have to say that my Spinster vacations have been pretty good, I wasn’t sure the “couple” thing could compare to Aruba with my favorite cousin, or Barbados with one of my best friends in college. Drinking beer across Germany with my family and living with six girls “Real World” style across London and Spain are also chart-toppers, but California was different.

It rekindled my belief that maybe I could be in a “real” relationship. One that hasn’t only withstood the rigors of getting together on the heels of a broken engagement (mine) and divorce (his), but the trials and tribulations of a crappy hotel room, a tab of unnecessary parking tickets and a slew of unexpected misfortunes that probably come with any vacation (slowest waiter on earth in a restaurant with food we weren’t looking forward to, an uncooperative neighbor in the apartment we rented, and a phone call that threatened to uproot our lives as we know them). Though bumps in the road, they weren’t anything that we (armed with a Mustang convertible and maps to more than 1,000 wineries) couldn’t navigate through together.

I lost track of all the moments we toasted to, and all the future versions of “us” we discussed. Somewhere between the perfect Chards of the Carneros region and world-class Cabs of Napa, we let the little things go and the big things in. I was more relaxed and laid back than I can ever remember being with Ironman behind me and my work life temporarily on hold. My biggest concern most days was wondering what dress I would wear (I brought 15 of them), and whether or not I would get a salad at dinner before my entrĂ©e.

The disciplined athlete in me also took a breather. We rented bikes one day, but cadence, heart rate, RPE and energy supplements were the last things on my mind. I focused instead on the rows of vineyards rolled out before me that in central New York would have been cornfields. I took in the golden hills that were peppered with green and the occasional (unbelievable) home. Rather than hammer over the flat road and power up the hills, I took my time and stopped occasionally to take a picture.

I even smoked a few cigarettes. Oh yes, yes I did. (A throwback to my year and half abroad where smoking came as naturally as Power Gels do now).

I guess you could say I let my hair down, but that’s not exactly accurate. My hair spent most of its time in a wild tangle above me while cruising California’s Route 1 with the top down, our red car winding its way along the Pacific coast en route to Point Reyes, then over to the first winery stop on the trip (a little place that is otherwise insignificant in the shadow of Sonoma and Napa). The winery was run by a couple of loons who could barely be bothered to give us a tasting, as we were standing next to a very important couple who couldn’t jam enough “wine speak” into their discourse over the (I thought) shitty wines. Random vintages from the 1980s were open before them when we walked in the door. Between the woman’s declarations that “ten more minutes would make this zinfandel phenomenal” and the man’s roller-pin-like maneuvers with the his glass upon the bar (he put it on its side—while there was wine in it—and proceeded to act like he was making a pie crust right there) we were ready to leave before we even got to the reds in our tasting (and they only had one white on the list!).

Eventually we parted ways with the woman in her satin pajama bottoms and her know-it all husband clad in a cloak of sorts. With us we took a bottle of the Chardonnay, which served as a lovely pairing with the Jacuzzi at our cottage in Sonoma.

It was Dr. Doolittle meets Martha Stewart in this adorable property surrounded by colorful flower gardens, fabulous patios, and a cozy little structure that was decorated with a gallery of festive prints from wine events in the area, terracotta pots, votive candles and all the things you could ever imagine needing while away from home (including a VHS tape of City Slickers, which we totally watched). The CD player was already loaded with music, and a little "Let's Groove Tonight" wove through the evening breeze.

Outside we discovered a cast of roommates to include two goats, a fearless cat (he spent his mornings leaping from the fence, to the top of an umbrella shading a table on the patio, to the pavers near the garden), and an adorable dog named Snickers who rolled into calm submissive at the mere whisper of your big toe approaching her space.

We spent the next three days visiting wineries—I would write more about that, but the tastings were so generous, I can’t recall those days very well! Suffice it to say, my Visa card recalls them just fine and yesterday a pallet of wine arrived to the office for us. Woot! We were treated to a reserve tasting at Chateau St. Jean, which may have been one of the most remarkable afternoons of my life.

Next stop was the redwoods, where we stayed in a bed and breakfast that I’m sure has been used as a set in some horror movie. It was run by a man who made Shooter McGaven hand motions while describing his egg-frying capabilities, and gussied up his main lobby with a portrait of Jesus, ceramic elks, the unity candle from his wedding, and various other disturbing objects (a stuffed sheep missing an eye, a tapestry of a pillow fight, and many, many dolls). At the top of the stairs from the main lobby, was the door to our room. A floral wall-papered, lace-trimmed vision, with wicker furniture, a flat-screened TV, and a bible by the bed.

I feel compelled to also mention that across the hall from our room, was a closet filled with more dolls all posed in various positions—and in place of the door, was a glass pane. To view the dolls. Moving on…

We left the redwoods later that day and headed back to San Francisco where we spent three more days before coming home. One of my best friends from high school, Jamie, moved to San Francisco earlier that week, so we had the awesome opportunity to have a little reunion while also discovering the city together for the first time. Ironically, the apartment we rented was on the same street and just a few blocks down from where he lived. After an incredible night out to dinner at Foreign Cinema (where Jamie’s charm wooed the waitress into bringing a boatload of complimentary delicacies to our table), we went back to his place and had a night cap. The door to his bedroom could have been the door to a time machine. He surprised me with a home video we made ten years ago.

While I was in Italy, I was part of a band and wrote a song. It was recorded and became popular there, and my friend Jamie decided he wanted to try his hat at making music videos (we were always big musical theater dorks in high school). I had forgotten all about the hilarious work of art that ensued the night we “shot” the video. The production was a family affair, with my younger brothers accompanying the music by playing guitar in the background and helping Jamie direct each scene. My mom makes an appearance to remind Alex (the youngest brother) that bed time was soon, and Ginger (my beloved dog that we had to put down in 2005) is in several shots, trying to escape my cuddling stronghold as per the usual. Seeing her again was perhaps the most moving thing about the video. I only have pictures to remember her by, and seeing her mannerisms again brought tears to my eyes. I could almost reach out to the screen to pet her.

It was getting late and we began walking back toward our apartment. With each step (as with many in San Francisco) I imagined what it would be like to live in that city. Perhaps it was because I was being courted by views of the Golden Gate bridge, Alcatraz and the amazing hills all urban and pastel, or perhaps because seeing a video of myself on 19th Street just steps from Dolores Park from ten years ago made me feel like it was already home.

I went to sleep that night knowing that the next morning we would be packing to return home to Syracuse, where our real lives awaited—jobs, families, responsibilities, credit card bills, and workouts…oh workouts, how I missed thee (I was on a solid cheeseburger for lunch/steak for dinner streak and it wasn’t pretty).

Our suitcases were robust with trinkets of our time away. New clothes, post cards, prints, and a wonderful letter and gift from my boyfriend were all tucked between a collection of dresses that were well worn all along the west coast of California—the golden state.

But what I will remember always, are the feelings I had while we were there. The fortification of my heart in a serious relationship. The time spent rekindling an old friendship. The fresh hope for the future and the delicious elixir of the past. It all left me feeling at ease with my life. The one I’ve lived, the one I’m living…and the moments that are yet to come.

Three cases of wine have been delivered to my office, and I'm well prepared to toast the future. I can’t wait to see what it holds.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Swim, Bike and Run is Done. Bring on the Swig, Dance and Fun!

Shakira says there's a she-wolf in the closet, and she might be right. But I know for fact there has been a spinster in the closet for the past 24 weeks. Now that Ironman has come and gone, I'm ready to dust off the high heels (that were too painful to wear after regular runs over 10 miles), loosen up the schedule (that has been dictated by seven-hour bike rides), and pop open the vino (well, that part has been happening all the same, but soon I head to Napa Valley for a much-needed vacation and I don't have to worry about hungover workouts anymore!).

But before I get back on track with my sizzling spinster summer, let me tell you how all of my good-girl training has paid off since January.

I arrived in Lake Placid on Friday morning to soak up the vibe in the air that can only occur when you pack 2000+ athletes into a small mountain village who are all on the brink of going after a major goal. Some are there for the first time and just want to finish the race. Others, like me, are there to chase a special time that we’ve put in our minds as the proof that our efforts will be successful. Whether you’re there as an athlete, spectator or volunteer, the common denominator is respect for the race. The lake, roads and mountain tops that make up the course take on a life of their own and together become a fourth character in the scene that is “Ironman.” Lake Placid becomes a shadow box of courageous moments where people push themselves to their limits while being encouraged by the helping hands of volunteers and the clapping hands of spectators.

The morning comes early on race day as everyone gets up to prepare for the journey ahead. At 4:30AM, I moseyed out to the balcony from my hotel room and sat silently with a coffee as I stared over the black mountain tops that were silhouetted against a slightly less black sky whose sun was still on snooze. To my right, another man was doing the same…swigging Coke from a liter-sized bottle and sitting quietly with his thoughts. Like old friends who need only the bare minimum of words and phrases to communicate their feelings, he looked to me and said, “So?” I smiled and said, “It’s going to be a good day.” We both exhaled and continued staring forward as a gaggle of women still wearing heels and mini skirts from the night before ambled past us laughing as they took turns impersonating the event emcee, Mike Reilly, and his famous greeting to those who make it to the finish line…”Meghan, YOU are an Ironman!” one of them screamed, as the others doubled over in laughter whilst removing their shoes.

A few hours later I was in Mirror Lake, zipped into my wetsuit and clapping for the pros who had just begun their race. Ten minutes later we would do the same—plenty of time to pee in my wetsuit and collect my thoughts. I recognized Ryan Sutter (of Trista and Ryan “Bachelorette” fame) standing next to me. I smiled and waved when he caught me staring and continued to pee. It was a pre-race ritual after all, and I wasn’t about to let a D-list celebrity change up my game plan.

Moments later the race began, and I began my 2.4 mile “fight” through the water, swimming in and out of the thousands of limbs that were stroking and kicking their way down the long, narrow lake along the buoy line. I took a few blows to the face from nearby swimmers, and felt confident that should one of those heavy strokes push me beneath the water, the scuba divers that were nestled beneath us would swiftly usher me back to air. When I finally exited the water to run to the bike transition, I swore I tasted blood in my mouth so I checked to make sure all my teeth were in tact. They were, and I continued trotting along the carpeted path to the Olympic Oval to grab my helmet, shoes and bike.

Through the first 10 miles on the bike it was pouring rain. I immediately thought of the race in 2008 and how the rain pelted my skin for 15 straight hours before finally letting up around 10:00PM. At the time, my pink Tifosi glasses were so waterlogged I had to remove them so I could see, and I placed them into the back of my tri top only to discover later that they had slipped out somewhere. Only one day old, and already they were gone. This year it was the same. My replacement pink Tifosi glasses were streaked with rain, but I was determined that the sun would be back so I let them perch on my nose and made the bold decision to bomb down the hills despite how slick the road was from the water. Smart? Probably not. Fun? Absolutely.

There was something about taking control of my race in that moment that made the rain a little less threatening. I came back to Lake Placid Ironman to do the race I knew I was capable of, not to feel beaten down by the elements and let the weather dictate how things were going to be. I was armed with the powerful fact that I had already done an entire Ironman in the pouring rain, so I could do it again if I had to. And if the sun came out with a vengeance? Well most of my long rides and runs were completed during the hottest parts of 90-degree days when the humidity had me just as drenched as the 2008 monsoon.

My gamble paid off. I made great time down the initial descents on the bike course and headed into dry roads and sunshine after 10 miles. The sun was out just long enough to flirt with the idea of a rainbow on the edge of the passing rain, but it never came to fruition. The rest of my ride was smooth, strong and consistent. After the first 56 miles I took the Pepsi from my special needs bag and perched atop of my aerobars with one hand, while the other held the can to my lips. I was chugging cola like a crazy pirate swigging whiskey at the bow of his ship, drunk on the idea of finding coveted treasures. To me, the prospect of another strong loop on the bike into a solid marathon to the finish line was more valuable than all the rubies, diamonds and sapphires in the world. I was on track to beat my projected finishing time, and my progress on the course was motivating me to push just a little harder than I ever had in my training.

Back to the big downhill on the second loop, I stood up and soared over the road at 48 MPH. Several cola burps left me feeling ten pounds lighter and the wind in my hair left me feeling as sassy as a rebel on a motorcycle, and as carefree as a dog with his head hanging out of the car window.

I finished the bike with no issues (the anxiety of a possible flat tire or broken chain was haunting me the entire way) and got ready to set out on the run. By this time in 2008, I was so cold from biking in the rain that the idea of heading out to run a marathon in a tiny Lycra suit seemed on par with being admitted to a torture chamber. This time, I felt incredibly fresh and was looking forward to doing the last piece of the race—still on track to meet my goal of 14:30 hours.

In the transition tent, the scene was frantic and fast, the way I imagine it must be behind the scenes at a Lady Gaga concert when she’s jetting through one of her many costume changes. Only instead of sequins, cellophane and sparkler bras flying around, it was salt tabs, sunscreen and sneakers. The volunteers in the transition area descend upon each athlete like a team of stylists and make-up artists.

While one woman fastened my heart rate monitor onto my chest, another was tying my shoe. A third was basting each arm in SPF 50 and I was out of that tent and running the first mile of my marathon faster than Jimmy Johnson makes a Nascar pit stop. Apparently I ran right past Michael Phelps in the first mile who was there to cheer on his sister in the race. But not even the presence of an Olympian could have distracted me from the task at hand—run this marathon faster than the projected 12-minute miles you planned on, and you’ll crush your anticipated finishing time.

The run was without much drama. I kept a steady pace the entire way, only walking here and there as needed to sip from a cup without spilling its contents, and just briefly up the final hill of the course when Mr. Calf Muscle decided to come back and make good on his previous threat. My rationale was that running up the hill wouldn’t buy me much more time than briskly walking (which hurt far less) and trying to push it with four miles to go in the race could have resulted in a serious muscle spasm that would have me hobbling to the finish line like Mama Fratelli from the Goonies (and I wasn’t about to let Mama get to that finish line treasure before a focused, capable ME did!).

When I had just a mile to go and I realized I was going to beat my projected time by about an hour, I started to feel verklempt. My chest was hurting in part because I was pushing so hard, but mostly because I was stifling back so much raw emotion from within as I felt every fiber of my being striving for a finishing time under 13 hours and 40 minutes. Over the last 10K, I kept recalculating what I could realistically achieve with a body that was starting to deteriorate on the course. I knew I would beat 14 hours, but then I had my sights on 13:45 hours. And when it was barely safe to think it, I upped the ante to 13:40.

I headed into the Olympic Oval for the final 200 meters of the race, completely overcome by my senses. My legs were heavy with exhaustion but light with enthusiasm. My breath was shallow, but measured and strong. My arms ached, but they were reaching for the stars. I tasted salt, sweat, tears. I saw lights, and crazy arms wild with excitement for each person who came into the oval on their way to the finish line. Millions of mouths formed a sea of tiny black circles all screaming and cheering. The sound might have been deafening on another day, but in that moment it was like a song from the siren and I was happy to steer my ship directly toward it, crashing with utter joy at the finish line where my friend Jen slipped an Ironman finisher’s medal over my head.

My legs buckled beneath me, but I rested on Jen’s arm and broke down into an aggregate of sobs, slurs and one-word sentences.

It was truly special to have Jen at the finish line. I met her years ago when she moved to Syracuse from Canada and started coming to my spin class for something to do. Eventually I talked her into a triathlon, and like so many others, she was hooked and continued to pursue bigger goals. Just months ago she landed a job at a new triathlon publication (Lava) as the online editor. They flew her from San Diego to Lake Placid so she could cover the event, and there she was—taking a moment out of her time covering the professional triathlon scene to festoon little ol’ me with a race chotchkie. It made an already perfect race even better.

My parents were there to cheer me on, along with my boyfriend and a couple of my really close friends from Syracuse. Along the course there were many people from my local triathlon club volunteering and racing. It made Ironman feel like a family reunion. It’s like when you hear about your cousins from your aunt, and see pictures of them, but don’t really get to hang out with them except for once a year during the holidays. I know that the people close to me are aware of my training and my love for triathlon, but to have them in such close proximity after achieving this milestone in my life was truly special to me. Pictures and words can’t capture what I felt on that finish line. Though it was my second Ironman race, this is the one that I will always think of when I hear people say that I’m an Ironman. 2008 had its unique challenges and I know that it was a great accomplishment to make it through the race that year, but this year I feel utterly transformed as a person. I feel doors opening within me leading to potential I wasn’t sure I had. I feel the seeds of goals being planted in my soul and have goose bumps when I think of the experiences yet to come. I’m excited about new challenges and the prospect of going for something that may still be just beyond my reach.

Throughout the Ironman race this year, I kept thinking to myself how much I loved this sport and the people that I’ve come to know through it. Whether you’re just getting started in triathlon or you’ve been at it for a long time, make sure to stop and appreciate what it means to test your limits, and the way it makes you feel. Life is full of opportunities to realize how much we’re capable of and how strong we can be. It doesn’t take an Ironman to find your potential, ask more of yourself and dare to set ambitious goals—but it’s a nice stop along the way.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Heart Rates and High Heels

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Business casual had left the building.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Can-Do Shower

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

The Flip Side of Injury

I used to shun the idea of the flip turn while doing my swim workouts.

For one, I am not a swimmer. I came to triathlon from running. All triathletes start from somewhere, and we tend to be rather possessive of our respective “background” sports. In a way, it gives us the opportunity to put a disclaimer on our weaknesses, while highlighting our inherent strengths in the multi-sport world.

Over the years I’ve taught myself to be a decent swimmer and have taken the time to register for weekend clinics so I can be at the mercy of swimming as an actual sport, rather than 1/3 of my training schedule.

(Another thing about triathletes, we’ll sign up for anything that’s meant to make us better—especially in the water where most of us struggle).

Swimming as an actual sport is a completely different experience than training for a triathlon.

I won’t pretend to know all about “actual swimming,” since I’ve only heard stories of athletes layering old bathing suits and pantyhose on to create drag in the water while they swim, leaving behind arms that sting with lactic acid in a way that makes you see God. My repertoire of strokes is nowhere near where it needs to be for me to have any business completing an Individual Medley (a series of laps where you use all four of the main swimming strokes). In fact, I consider the “dog paddle” to be among my official swimming strokes. And my backstroke is admittedly modified so that I a) don’t get water in my nose, and b) enjoy a lower abdominal workout while pulsing through the water.

Be that as it may, I have taken the time to get somewhat competent in the pool, mostly because my ego was stroked in a motivating way throughout my career as a triathlete. All it takes is for someone to inquire about my past as a swimmer in high school or college, and I start to fantasize about the raw potential that may be dormant inside of me.

In actuality, my past consists of my cousin and I creating our own synchronized swimming routines to the song “Fever” by Madonna, and seeing how long we could hold our breath under water while swimming from one end of the pool to the other. Still, something about the way I swim makes people believe that I'm good in the water.

I chalk it up to my, “lane-claiming-eye contact.”

At my gym there is limited time to swim laps since it is frequently worked in around such activities as “Hokey Pokey in the water” for toddlers, and the dreaded “family swim” which basically means there are no lane lines and people just frolic about in an unorganized way.

When a lane opens up, you can immediately suss out the athletes in the room. Goggles and swim caps appear from beneath bored thighs that have been pressed into plastic chairs for a half an hour as the clock ticks away at a maddeningly slow pace (accompanied by a background of splashing, screaming and “that’s what it’s all about!” sung in 10 different pitches). You need to be swift if you want to lock down the lap-swim lane when it opens up.

I usually lunge toward the water, immediately dip my toes in and sit on the edge of the pool. Then I proceed to jam my hair into the swim cap, while putting my best “eye of the tiger” face on. This must make people think I know what I’m doing in the pool—but really my expression is more about being disgruntled at having to swim, rather than forecasting any success I may have while covering 3200 yards.

Once in the water, I can hold a steady pace and am able to swim at more than one speed. I’ve mastered bionic breathing and have a pretty good stroke and kick, but Michael Phelps I am not.

I’ve been training for triathlons for five years now, and have never done a flip turn. My rationale for this is that in the open water during a race, there will be no wall to push off from. Therefore, why should I bother incorporating this skill into my swimming when all I need to do is get good at the forward progression of my body in the water?

But the other night I noticed a sharp pain in my elbow. It was in the arm that I use to push off the wall when I swim. That week I swam several interval sets, and started to realize that jamming my hand into the wall to turn around during a fast 50-meter sprint (16 times in a row) may have been the reason for the pain.

With nothing else to do in the water but think, my mind started to reel with possible pitfalls that could result from this “tennis elbow of the pool” issue. Within minutes I convinced myself that a “can’t get this wet” cast would have to be placed on me, or worse, the arm may have to be amputated altogether!

(Another thing about triathletes: If there is even the inkling of a threat to our ability to complete training as prescribed, we are “all in” for any solution that will enable us to continue working out like crazed cardio junkies).

Immediately I recalled my attempts to learn the flip-turn months ago. Water in the nose, flailing about, premature rotation that put me too far away from the wall to get any push, and (the best) hitting the wall for the push-off, but aiming myself to the floor of the pool so that I essentially used all of my force to launch my face toward a cement surface.

Flip-turns, for me, were a blizzard of bubbles and confusion.

All of this, better than amputation.

And so, I adopted the “sink or swim” mentality (pardon the terrible pun) and decided to just go for the flip-turn. I didn't want to end up with an arm that was too sore to swim at all.

Something incredible happened after that. All of my workouts improved. Not just in the pool, but on the bike and during my runs. The flip turns started to feel natural to me, and made it easier to keep moving along at a faster pace. This gave me a new confidence in my swim workouts, which in turn encouraged me to feel that confidence in each stride of my runs, and each “push” on my rides. It was as if some new facet of me as an athlete was unearthed that day, and I received a gift that enabled me to activate that “personal record” feeling I usually only experience in races when I realize I’ve bested my performance from previous years.

How could a flip-turn have such an impact on my training?

I think I’ve figured it out.

This year I’ve been really focused on trying to feel the same way I did in years past with my training, because part of me is really nervous that I’m not as prepared for this season as I should be. My mile splits in running have been a little bit slower than usual; and most of my cycling has taken place inside on a spin bike since I was coaching a couple of advanced cycling programs at the gym. In the pool I felt okay, but swimming isn’t going to make a dramatic different in my race times, so I didn’t care as much about any progress there.

The flip turn gave me the opportunity to be “new” at this sport again. Incorporating it into my swims made me think about those workouts differently. I started to look forward to swimming more than biking and running, which meant I became less obsessed with how my times were in those workouts. I had become so distracted by my doubts and fears, that I was holding myself back in those workouts.

Nailing flip turns reactivated my goals and renewed my belief that I am capable of anything. In this case, I was forced into a new skill out of necessity; but it has reminded me that the body is always up for improvements so long as you allow your mind to be on board, too.

Don’t wait for an injury or setback to come along and force you to do things differently. Challenge yourself to try something new even if it doesn’t seem necessary or useful for anything. You might be surprised by the domino effect that comes with one small change.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

My Life in Madonna Maxi Singles

I recently got my hands on a fantastic collection of music: every maxi single that Madonna ever released. Last week, I watched the songs download into my itunes with the same fascination children employ while watching pieces of candy tumble into their trick-or-treat bags. And just as children see no problem with having 17 peanut butter cups in their stash, I have no problem with 14 versions of “Like a Prayer.”

While I was listening to the songs, I began to realize my mind was wandering back to very specific times in my life. In fact, with 470 songs at my fingertips—I was creating a chronology of my life based solely on Madonna Maxi Singles.

It all started with “Jimmy Jimmy” (1986).

This was the first Madonna song that I took the time to learn the lyrics for. If only there was such as thing as Google back then. You really had to feel a connection with the song to figure out what your favorite artists were saying in those days.

The process first required a good recording of the song to work with. That part could take weeks—what with the tape running out when you push record, having to wait for hours before the radio station recycled its song rotation so your jam would come back around, and then making sure the volume level was good enough to properly capture the audio in a way that would enable you to understand the words without mashing your ear up to the side of the boom box.

(On more than one occasion I would exit my bedroom with a corrugated cheek, thanks to my lavender boom box and its awesome striped plastic speakers).

At the age of seven, it was worth changing the topography of my face in exchange for Madonna’s pearls of wisdom.

“Why, oh why, oh why, do fools fall in love with fools like you?”

Brilliant, really. Brilliant because the boy that I was crushing on at the time was named Jimmy.

Three years later, I hit the double digits and it was only appropriate that my anthem became, “Express Yourself” (1989). While my classmates were rocking Skidz, Hypercolor T-Shirts, UMBRO shorts and every other trend at the time, my mom preferred to encourage me to be “unique.”

This was a fun way for her to keep me from complaining about the clothes I wanted her to buy for me, and instead get enthusiastic about the ones she sewed for me herself. Her plan worked as I realized it was way more fun to peruse patterns and colors in the fabric store; rather than the ubiquitous pre-packaged looks that plastered the mall.

I quickly wore out my recording of “Express Yourself, rewinding and playing the song for hours while prancing in front of the mirror perfecting choreography to the lines, “What you need is a big strong hand to lift you to your higher ground.”

I never progressed much past the actual (but dramatic) raising of my arm with my hand outstretched, while making what is now commonly referred to as a “duck face.”

By the age of 13, the infamous "Erotica" album was released. Around this time, I started writing really bad poetry in my journals to capture the endless heartache that ensues from middle school romance. Not that I had any romance in my life at the time, I just yearned for it. I pined for someone to rotate me in those awful slow dances at homecoming, always hoping that the object of my affection would come and whisk me away to one of the long tracks like, “Stairway to Heaven.”

It never happened, but that didn’t stop me from writing horrible love notes to boys that couldn’t care less about my feelings. The anticipation of receiving back a folded square of paper from one of them used to fill me with excitement—until I realized they had zero interest in me.

So it was fitting that on a long bus ride to Toronto to see “Phantom of the Opera” with my mom and grandmother, that I loaded my walkman with fresh batteries and silently debriefed my heart to Madonna’s “Words” (1992).

High school came and went, and I ended up in college still carrying a flame for a boy I had a crush on since the sixth grade. This was greatly encouraged by his behavior through the last part of senior year. We’ll call it, “friends with benefits-esque.”

I stupidly believed that "a' la carte" make-out sessions, dinner dates, four-hour phone conversations, and handwritten letters had something to do with actual feelings for another person, but that was an error on my behalf. I found this out when I traveled to this guy’s college to profess my love to him.

As “friends with benefits-esque” burst forth like a butterfly taking flight after months of incubation, I said THE words: I love you.

It didn’t go well.

“The Power of Goodbye” (1998) from Madonna’s “Ray of Light” album went on to become a source of therapy for me through all of college. I said a lot of good-byes.

“You were my lesson I had to learn, I was your fortress you had to burn.”

In true “fortress fashion,” I went on to withstand many battles of the heart through college. Dating jerks almost seemed like some kind of “half-credit” course I’d signed up for. Despite the warnings from friends about the questionable intentions of many of the men I dated, I carried on with my optimism.

“Don’t tell me to stop, tell the rain not to drop, tell the wind not to blow, ‘cause you said so.” Oh, how it resonated in my soul. “Don’t Tell Me” (2002).

After college, I was living in New York City with one of my best friends and was done with feeling sorry for myself. I decided that if I was going to feel pain, I’d rather have it mean something.

So I started training for marathons.

The alarm clock went off at 5:00AM, and I was out the door on a cold 8th Avenue by 5:30AM headed to Central Park where I’d feel myself come to life one layer at a time. My chunky white ipod only played about 80 songs because I never learned how to get music onto it without losing all of my songs.

“Die Another Day” (2003) came on frequently, and always in the beginning of the run where I was still half-debating about whether or not I should sneak back inside and bag the run for some extra sleep. But the song always encouraged me otherwise.

“I’m gonna break the cycle. I’m gonna shake up the system. I guess I’ll die another day.”

After three years, I moved back to Syracuse. Just to remind myself how much fun it was to date a complete jerk, I found myself one at the local gym. And I dated him on and off for about two years (that's another blog for another time).

Madonna’s new album, “Confessions on a Dancefloor” came out in 2005 and it couldn’t have been better timing. The tracks played continuously from one to the next, and provided nearly an hour of non-stop dance music that kept me from running my car into oncoming traffic on a daily basis.

At the time, I had a 45-minute commute to work, which is way too much time for an introspective loon such as myself to be alone with her thoughts. I broke it off with the loser boyfriend for the last time, and stuck to it in large part because the Confessions album was way too good to turn it down long enough to respond to any of his “please come back to me” phone calls.

“Sorry” (2005) was the order of the day. Every day.

“I don’t wanna hear, I don’t wanna know. Please don’t say you’re sorry. I’ve heard it all before, and I can take care of myself.”

Continuing the trend of “pain through fitness rather than heartbreak,” I continued to run marathons until I found a new passion: triathlon. By the time Madonna’s 11th studio album, “Hard Candy,” was released in 2008, I was well into the sport with several age-group wins and a thirst for victory.

When I heard the single, “4 Minutes” (2008) I was immediately into it. The song became a favorite pre-race track, and was dutifully blasted in my car on the way to every competitive engagement for that entire summer. While Madonna sang about having only four minutes to save the world, I thought about four minutes to save my race. Every second counts in triathlon, a sport that's ultimately comprised of six individual times. It's easy to look at race results and see where you fell short.

“Tick tock, tick tock, tick tock.”

It’s 2010 and Madonna, described by a friend of mine as his “life icon,” still continues to make music that feels like a script to my soul.

My twenties are behind me, and so are the hesitations, doubts and fears. I’ve finally found the balance in life and am enjoying the stability that comes from a strong, solid relationship; a stable, rewarding career; and hobbies that are fueled by my passions—writing and fitness.

So it’s only fitting that I finish this blog on a good note…

“I’m gonna party, it’s a celebration. ‘Cause anybody just won’t do. Let’s get this started, no more hesitation, ‘cause everybody wants to party with you.”

“Celebration” (2009).

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Scheduled Life of the Spinsta

That’s right, I’m so busy I have to abbreviate words in my blog headline just so I can squeeze in the time to write said (super delayed) blog post.

In what seems like a tsunami of good fortune, I have been riding waves of self-actualization from the first seconds of 2010. The year began with a promotion where I saw my title change to include the word “Senior” for the first time ever. Then came the kick-off of a new advanced cycling program that I’m creating and coaching at Gold’s Gym—18 weeks of original workouts built for 90- and 120-minute classes designed to bring new athletes into the world of endurance training.

Somewhere in the middle of my full-time job as an advertising executive and my part-time job as a fitness instructor, I found time to be a freelance health and fitness writer with a weekly column and video series on triathlon.

Topping that all off, is the beginning of my fifth week of Ironman training—spilling into my life like an all-terrain gravy that seeps into every corner of your plate.

It’s a good thing I’m a “like it when my foods touch” kind of girl.

Believe it or not, I still have some free time and I’ve been using it to become the kind of girlfriend I’ve always wanted to be. Focusing on the future instead of the past, taking my boyfriend with me to spend time with my closest friends, and making new recipes that require me to find and use kitchen utensils that are more familiar with the back corner of my cupboard than they are with actual ingredients (measuring cups, mashers, prep bowls). Wine tastings. Family time. Foreign films. Scrabble. Naps. It’s all here in my scheduled life.

Despite my being super scheduled, I have been happier than ever this year. My anger has been limited to short bouts of road rage, and I’ve been feeling like my alter ego, “Betty Bitter Pants,” has left the building. I’m finally able to watch a wedding show on television without swearing aloud (though I’ll still change the channel after a couple of minutes—because how much can be said about cake toppers?).

I can even tolerate a little bit of PDA now that I’m realizing there’s more to life than finding love.
The thing about a broken engagement—you find love, you have love, and then you lose love.

Then there comes a point when you realize that you survived that. That love isn't what you needed at all. What you needed, was to know that you could live without it. That life is still full and wonderful even if you are single.

Before I was engaged, I felt like my life was incomplete without that kind of commitment. How could I truly be a successful woman if I were going into my thirties unwed, with no prospects? It was like moving into a great house that had no kitchen.

Think of the housewarming party.

The guests mingle with joy in the grand foyer; sip cocktails as they peruse each room, their shoes click-clacking upon polished hardwood floors as they compliment the view of a great lawn through crystal clear windows. But then they leave, whispering to one another…

“Everything is wonderful, but she has no kitchen. How does she eat? How can one have a home without a kitchen?”

“The poor thing. All of that house, and no kitchen.”

“Maybe she’ll get a hot pot and make some Ramen noodles. At least it’s a hot meal…”

I ask myself how my 2010 would be different if I had been married by the age of 30 as I had hoped. When I was engaged, I was starting to feel pretty settled, as the struggle from my twenties had subsided and I no longer engaged in the drama of needing to find a man.

What happened when I broke my engagement, is that I ended up engaging in the drama of trying to find myself.

I became very busy.

I looked for ways to grow my responsibilities at work and turn my role into something more than it ever was in the past—this resulted in my being promoted to a position that didn’t even exist two years ago in the agency where I work. And a column in the local paper that has never ran before. And a brand new program at the gym that was never offered before.

Filling empty spaces with something new brought a sense of satisfaction to me, as I started to feel my own empty spaces fill with purpose. It was a sink or swim feeling in many ways. I knew I was stuck inside of a dark tunnel that in theory should have a light at the end of it, but I had to rely on my own inner-torch to illuminate the path forward.

I could have sat in the darkness with my face buried in my knees, but I've learned that anger and complaining rarely illuminate.

People complain about being scheduled. They want time to do things that make them happy—time for themselves. People talk about making time to pursue hobbies, travel, or tackle big projects that never seem to get off the ground.
When you’re single, people assume you have all the time in the world. Without kids and a marriage to manage, everything is easier and more flexible. People don't understand how single people can possibly complain about needing more time. When you’re single, the world is your oyster!

I believe the world can be anyone’s oyster, if you want it bad enough.

Lately I’ve seen many people put into a position that has caused them to struggle financially, professionally or emotionally. Whether it’s a break-up, a lay-off, or the sudden unexpected loss of something or someone important in life. I’ve seen some game changers in the past two years.

It’s critically important to manage your time wisely during these situations—as there is no easier way to waste the time in your life, than to sit in the dark tunnel and complain about how terrible things are.

Take it from me. If there were a formula like the one smokers use to determine how many minutes of your life are gone with each cigarette, I’d be missing a chunk of time that was spent wasted on complaining and being angry. A similar calculation for me could have been one day off your life every time you date a guy that treats you like crap; one week off for every time you go back to one of those guys; and a day off for every time you’ve been laid off, fired, or otherwise unappreciated in a career environment. By this logic, I’ve probably lost a month—one of the ones with 31 days in it!

To the outside world, my life may seem bleak, maniacal and nutty. I’m always busy, and when I’m not busy I’m either sleeping, hung-over, or getting ready to be busy again. People always ask me, “How do you find the time to do everything?”

Lately it has occurred to me that maybe I need to loosen things up a bit and find more time to do the things I like. Then I realized that the reason why my calendar is always full, is because I’m already doing that.
I make time for the things I like, and I book it.

Calendars aren’t just to keep track of meetings, appointments and reminders. Make a date with yourself to do something YOU want to do.

And if someone asks if you’re available that day, tell them you’re busy.

(Note to self, for added enjoyment of this post, listen to Lady Gaga’s song, “Telephone” and every time you read the word “busy” up above, pause and sing aloud: “I’m kinda busy. Kah-kinda busy.” The song is stuck in my head and it seems fitting at the moment).

*Image from Corbis