We began in pigeon. A graceful pose, if you were to look at most of the people in the yoga studio, a silent film of pain if you were to look at me.
With one leg bent beneath my torso, and the other leg stretched back behind me, I tipped from the waist to lay my arms upon the floor, supporting my head as a stripped down, funkified version of David Guetta’s Titanium played in the background. My inner thigh seemingly sang along with Sia’s gritty delivery of the lyrics. “Stone-hard machine gun, firing at the ones who run.” Truth. This pigeon pose felt precisely like fire on my run-weary legs.
These were the opening moments of my first Hip Hop Yoga class at the O Yoga Studio in downtown Syracuse.
In an attempt to widen my fitness horizons, I’ve decided to do at least two athletic things per month that are not related to Gold’s Gym (where I regularly coach), and not related to triathlon (my regular sport). I’m looking for environments and people that will challenge me physically, but also for experiences that I can’t predict or fully visualize in my mind.
All of this, in the name of mojo.
It’s not that I’m leaving triathlon or any of the workouts that I enjoy doing (and will continue to do on a regular basis); it’s more about making this off-season insightful in some way.
Usually, this is the time of the year I go back into step aerobics and serious strength training. I’ll continue to do those things, too, but I want to mix in some new experiences, some foreign movement. I had to do far too much soul-searching this summer to stay on track with my third Ironman, and I think it’s because my brain needs a reboot.
In my regular spin classes, I always challenge my participants to seek out one uncomfortable experience per week—to voluntarily put themselves into a situation that challenges the body and mind. It can be a workout, an event, a seminar, etc. Some athletes aren’t able to “willingly get uncomfortable” in a workout because their bodies automatically deter them from pushing through the aches and pains that come with that territory. It’s not because their bodies aren’t capable of pushing those limits, it’s because their minds won’t allow them to.
“How many of you had to do something today that you didn’t feel like doing, but you were able to get through it anyway?” I’ll ask my class. They don’t respond, but their facial expressions and nodding heads tell me they’ve had that experience.
“We all have the capacity to withstand things that we wouldn’t choose to continue doing if we didn’t have to,” I remind them. To convince them that I’m telling the truth, I’ll remind them of the last time they painted a room.
Hours go by as we tape the edges, prime the walls, cut in with the brush, roll out the first coat, let it dry, then roll out the second coat. Most of us try to power through that process in as few hours as we can. “Imagine that moment, when you’ve got just one coat left to go…you’re sitting on the bottom rung of a step ladder and eating the last few bites of a cold pizza slice. You’re looking at the wall, and you know you’ve got just another couple of hours to go before you’re finished painting that room.” I ask them. “Do you call it a day, or do you get up and push through the tired, cranky mood you’re in and just get it done?”
Most of us just want to get it done. We engage our mind in a way that puts the body in motion to execute a steady course of action that closes the gap between where we are and where we want to be.
Painting a room is no different than getting through a tough workout. It requires the same mental activation, we’re just not used to flipping that switch in certain situations.
That brings me back to the “one uncomfortable thing per week” challenge. The reason why this challenge is so important is because it exercises the mind to navigate through what we perceive as obstacles (being tired, being confused, being in a bad mood, etc.) and trains the body to deliver even under “less than ideal” circumstances.
Seasoned athletes will tell you that many a workout session and race day will occur under “less than ideal” circumstances, and that’s why it’s so important to train the mind and body to work together the way you want them to “on demand.” Getting uncomfortable is a huge part of this.
Yoga, for me, is one of these uncomfortable experiences. Many people turn to the mat to get into their own heads and find that connectedness with the immediate environment—pulling from the energy of the room around them and the world at large. I have always found that sensation in a twenty-mile run. For me, there’s no challenge in getting introspective or tapping into the heart center.
For me, the challenge is being so still. Holding a pose with strength and precision while my nose is six inches from the floor is a new kind of uncomfortable for me. I can ride a bike for seven straight hours without a single F-bomb (save for the times when I get a flat tire), but ask me to stay in chaturunga for three minutes and you might want to make sure your children are not on the scene.
Challenge and discomfort come in many forms and we’re all different when it comes to what we perceive as limits and how we work through them. The important thing is that we are actively seeking out those experiences in order to sharpen our minds to push our bodies toward bigger, loftier goals.
The new and improved athlete you want to be is closer than you think.
Years ago, New Balance ran an ad that resonates with me to this day.
“Sure you’ve flirted with QUITTING every now and then. But as long as you don’t act on it, RUNNING will pretend not to notice.”
I think about this quote every time I feel my motivation lacking in a way that will effect my running. Sometimes it’s that moment I bite into an extra piece of pizza, or crack open that last beer I shouldn’t be drinking.
“Tsk, tsk…You know we’re not going to hit sub-eights tomorrow if you’re putting that crap into your body,” Running will say.
Other times it’s when I find it difficult to pry myself away from a Jersey Shore marathon on MTV.
“You’re choosing Pauly D over me? Really? You do could hill repeats over that crusty ridge he calls hair,” Running exclaims, huffing its way back to my subconscious as I readjust my body weight for the best position on the couch.
For the past few years, however, there has been one nagging conversation in particular that brings this quote back to mind.
“Oh, I see. You’re a triathlete now. You don’t even wear running shoes anymore. You wear triathlete-branded sneakers designed to make your transitions smoother. Uh-huh,” Running says with one hand in the air, and the other on her hip.
“You used to run the hell out of a marathon, Barnes. Oh–I’m sorry, Dolbear. Now that you’re all married and Ms. multi-Ironman finisher woman, you’ve been giving 26.2 your sloppy seconds. What, you can’t ditch Swim and Bike for a season and come back to me? We were working on Boston together, remember? Then it got all Lake Placid-this, and Mont-Tremblant-that.” Running sighs, and turns on her heel.
Hell hath no fury liked a “winged foot” scorned.
It’s always during this time of the year, the fall, that Running likes to remind me of what we once used to share. She knows how to reach deep into my memory bank and fire on all senses in an attempt to pull me out of the multisport vortex.
Dried leaves crunch beneath my feet on trails framed with golden, amber branches. I recall my years of cross-country training in high school and college. Back in those days, my longest swims were across my aunt’s in-ground pool. My bike rides always ended at the Dairy Queen, and my feet were never clipped into the pedals, for I needed to be able to drop the bike and explore a new patch of woods or an overgrown lock along the Erie Canal on a whim. When I run in the fall, the smell of the polyester from our race singlets comes to mind, and weaves into the air around me. And I can recall the horror of having my white thighs so prominently displayed where the fabric on the running shorts parted like curtains just below the hip bone on both sides.
It’s funny to think that years later I wouldn’t even blink as my naked breasts flashed hundreds of athletes in varying degrees of “nude” while we changed out of our wetsuits in T1.
The sun does a magical thing during those afternoon autumnal runs. As the trees begin to lose their green, the rays seem to conjure up a golden aura around everything, washing a sepia tone over the world around you. It feels like every stride is being recorded onto my hard drive, like I’m savoring mile after mile as a reminder that running and my soul are interconnected. There’s a nostalgia that comes with running in the fall that is likely tied to my roots as a runner, having begrudgingly entered this sport as a 100-meter dash sprinter who later joined the junior varsity cross-country team.
Running and I have come a long way together.
Before I did my first triathlon, I had a decent resume as a runner. In high school, I won many ribbons in the 100-meter and 200-meter dash, and I was part of a record-breaking 1600-meter relay team in high school. I was never very good at cross-country, but I credit my years on the Ithaca College XC team as building the base level of fitness I would need to carry on with “longer” races in the later years. From 2002 through 2005, I enjoyed a steady stream of age-group wins in the local 5K, 10K, half-marathon and marathon races. By 2008, I had completed five full marathons and shaved my finishing time down to 3:49 hours. I was nine minutes away from getting that Boston Marathon qualifying time.
Running changed for me. It was no longer the focus of my training. Gone were the days when I just wanted to run well. It became about running well off the bike. The budget I saved for seasonal running gear was pared down and reallocated toward wetsuits, time-trial bikes and space helmets. Running full bore with all the piss and vinegar of my twenties became diluted with “appropriate heart rate zones” and structured training plans.
It seemed that running and I were allowed conjugal visits by the Multisport Warden.
Now on the other side of my third Ironman, and fresh off the high of a personal best at the 140.6 distance, I’m realizing that my success at Mont-Tremblant is due in large part to my discipline as a runner (and to my coach, Mary, who could see from my training history that running and I kind of have a thing.)
Over the past six months, I’ve enjoyed the running workouts in my triathlon training the most. I’ve fallen back in love with it.
There’s something so uncomplicated and pure about running, and I think I needed that kind of training this summer after getting married, buying a house and taking on more responsibility at work. There were many times this year when the last thing I wanted to do was prepare myself for a bike ride or a swim. I would walk into the garage and see my bike waiting patiently for me to put air in its tires, load its bento box with gels, pack a few water bottles into its cages, and scurry about to gather my helmet, cycling cleats and sunglasses. Just a few feet away from the bike, my running shoes sat quietly.
As my bike let out a flustered sigh, willing me to saddle up and get on with it already, my running shoes just gave me a knowing glance.
“It used to be so easy,” Running says. “It was just you, me and the road. Left, right, left, right. To hell with the PSI and a chance for rain. The world was our oyster, baby.”
She’s right, you know. It was easy. Being a single-sport athlete was more manageable, and plenty rewarding. I’m reminded of this every fall when I start my off-season with weekly long runs every Sunday. People ask me why I’m running 14 miles on a Sunday now that my race is over. I honestly don’t have an answer. It’s a calling, really. I don’t plan these runs, they just come to mind and I decide to act on the urge.
Consider it a booty call of sorts. Ring, ring…
“Hey, it’s me. I’m not sure what you’re up to today, but I was thinking we should head out for a few hours and get sweaty together on the back roads,” Running will say in her most suggestive voice.
And just like that, I head out the door give in to my senses. Left, right, left, right.
I’ve never broken up with running, I’ve just taken a break from it to date other people. It has always been in my heart, even as other goals and responsibilities have sprung up over the years.
I’m a wife, an Account Planner, a freelance writer, a motivational speaker, an Ironman finisher and a homeowner.
Some time in my teenaged years, my father got a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, which he rode leisurely in the summer months. He never struck me as a “biker dude,” as he almost always wore a full-sleeved leather jacket over his usual attire of blue button-down shirt, navy-blue Red Cap slacks, and brown leather cowboy boots. Up until I saw my father on a Harley, I always imagined the person straddling that machine would be wearing a sleeveless t-shirt promoting some rocker BBQ event from “the good ol’ days,” with a bandana wrapped around his mug to keep the long flowing strands of gray hair from getting caught up on the tip of his Marlboro red.
My dad threw me for a loop.
This was the man who would have a neat stack of newspaper clippings waiting for me at breakfast on Sunday mornings, to prove just how unsavory and dangerous the “late shift” was on Saturday nights. My curfew in high school always fell into the “PM” category, and was seldom extended past 11:00PM. My father referred to the period after this as the “late shift,” where nothing good could possibly happen to me. As such, my pancakes were typically served with a side of drunk-driving accidents and random stabbings as reported in the Sunday paper. “You see, Leesey, nothing good happens in the late shift,” my father would say, peering at me over his glasses as my mom took the opportunity to quietly steal the crossword puzzle from under his nose.
And so it was, my first ride on a motorcycle was with my father—the only man I felt I could trust to show me the joys of the open road without hotdogging about in a way that would land me in some “late shift” tragedy. One afternoon we were cruising down the highway, as another motorcycle came toward us from the opposite direction. His left hand slid off the handle bar, soaring out to the side of the bike in a wave/salute manner to the other motorist, who did the same motion back. I came to understand this as some sort of special motorcyclist salute…a sort of unspoken bond between bikers on the road. It immediately made sense to me, as runners had this same sort of silent cameraderie.
Not only did my dad break the mold as a biker, but he seemed to have something in common with runners. Definitely food for “Things that make you go ‘hmm'” thought.
Over the years I’ve come to understand that bikers, like runners, come in all flavors. My limited views on these matters have changed and while I’m still leery of riding motorcycles, I’ve realized we share a lot of the same hopes and fears.
When I got into cycling, I felt that my father and I shared more common ground than ever before. Being out on the road on two wheels with no protection around you is dangerous. My brother rides a motorcycle, and I ride a bicycle. We probably log the same number of hours on our respective steeds, and face the same types of fears.
Cars turning into you.
Cars running over you.
Cars hitting you head on.
Cars not seeing you.
Cars not caring if they see you.
My father tells my brother and I that we’re playing a “numbers game,” every time we head out on the bike. It seems that this summer, those numbers have not been going well. So many people in the triathlon and cycling community around Central New York have suffered because of motorists who are driving drunk or distracted. It’s an awful thing to head out for a ride—looking for that oasis of “you” time during a day—and never come home. Bikers and cyclists may not look like they have much in common, but just past the leather and Lycra, I’ve found our hearts are in the same place.
We crave the open road, the wind in our hair, the world at our fingertips.
This thought hit home to me last week during a long run. A motorcyclist passed me just as I was hitting my eleventh mile, sliding his hand off the handle bar toward me in a wave/salute-like motion. I hadn’t seen that in years. Since the time I rode with my dad in high school. Maybe it was simply an older man enjoying the view of a runner in a sports bra, but I’d like to think it was a simple conversation between two strangers who were both spending their Sunday just the way they wanted to—marinating in our innermost thoughts for a few hours and embracing life on the open road despite the odds.
Ironman Mont-Tremblant went by in a blur. A “thirteen hours, seven minutes and forty-seven seconds” blur, but a blur nonetheless.
The morning started with two cups of unsweetened applesauce, a protein shake, one banana, half of a peanut butter Powerbar, and a rogue cup of coffee. (Per coach, I’m not supposed to have caffeine pre-race, but I’ve learned a thing or two about my digestive system over the years, and me and my “system” like coffee before we’re going to take to the waterways and roads for the day).
Around 5:00AM, I headed to the Transition area to go through the morning routine of pumping up the bike tires, dropping off special needs bags, getting body-marked and getting to the swim start (which was about a half mile away from the Transition area).
Despite the rough road I’ve traveled through my Ironman training this year, I quickly began to see hints that I’d have a good race. I’m a big believer that the universe aligns you with things that sort of help you to understand you’re on the right track. “Signs,” if you will. For me, life has always felt like a scavenger hunt marked by a series of clues and symbols that keep me on the right path. I knew that path was meant to go through Mont-Tremblant last weekend when we arrived to Les Eaux Unit 204-3 when I used the bathroom for the seventh time in four hours (I spent the whole car ride into Canada cradling a gallon of spring water that I all but made out with by the time we arrived in Quebec). In the bathroom, I immediately noticed the toilet paper holder. It was a silver hook affixed to the wall that the toilet paper roll slides onto. No need for that “mini rolling pin” thing that you have to squeeze just right to dislodge from the wall. Why was this a sign? Because the first time I’d ever seen a toilet paper holder like this was in the master bathroom of our new house, which we moved into just one month ago. I couldn’t help but to smile when I realized that a little piece of my new home was with me for my third Ironman.
The next day, my parents arrived in the late afternoon and we got to have dinner together at a little pasta joint in town. While waiting for my parents to park, my husband and I sat at our table across from a party of three who were about six feet away. The man opposite of us looked very familiar, but I couldn’t place him. One of my “talents” is matching people with their celebrity twins, as I seem to have an eye for identifying features and traits about people that resemble those of famous people. In this case, I had spotted a dead ringer for Edward James Olmos—circa “crazy religious mentor” in Dexter. We pulled up a photo of Mr. Olmos on the phone, and I went about my stalker-like comparisons between this random dinner guest and his celebrity twin. Things were matching up so closely; I turned to my husband and declared that we simply MUST tell this guy that Edward James Olmos is his celebrity twin. I mean, this is information that a person should know. Like your blood type. Turns out…It actually was Edward James Olmos! After a bit more digging online, we realized that his son is a triathlete who was doing Ironman. We ended up exchanging a bit of dialogue completely related to the positioning of the sun and how the patio umbrella did little to shield our eyes, but that was the extent of it. I felt it best to keep my “celebrity twin” shenanigans to myself at that point. The fact that Edward James Olmos was in fact himself, presented the second sign of the weekend. I have been in the proximity of a celebrity at both of my past Ironmans. In 2008 Lake Placid, I stood next to Ryan “The Bachelor” (of Trista and Ryan) during the swim start. (I’m also pretty sure I sort of peed on him, as he was three feet away and I ain’t holding it EVEN if you’re famous and you’re next to me). In 2010, Michael Phelps was on the sidelines cheering for his sister as I ran past him out of T2. And now, Mont-Tremblant presented Mr. Olmos.
The universe was poking me. Good things were going to happen.
Sunday morning arrives, and after a scintillating little breakfast (nope), everything unfolded as it usually does. Bathroom visit one, check. Bodymarking, check. Bike all taken care of, check. Bathroom visits two through four…check, check and check. Which brings us to the shoreline where I stood with my feet ankle-deep in water looking out to the first yellow buoy of the swim course. With over 2000 athletes surrounding me, it’s amazing that my good friend Jen seemed to walk up to me as if we’d executed a flawless plan to meet up. (Getting to people you want to see at Ironman is akin to finding someone “somewhere” in Manhattan without the use of a cellphone or pre-defined meeting point). Jen and I seemed to be running into each other a few times every day, but the best run-in was definitely race day morning, ten minutes before we’d hear the cannon boom and be on our merry (possibly not the right word, given what came next…) way. Just before we started, a fighter jet did a fly-over, cutting through the air with its powerful, purposeful sound.
The first “intense” race I ever did was the Boilermaker 15K road race in Utica, NY back when I was 16 or so. Jumping up to that 9.3 distance in the sweltering heat and humidity of a July morning in Central New York was by far the most intimidating and daunting race challenge I’d ever signed up for. That was well before I even had the balls to THINK about a triathlon, let alone say the word aloud. Over the years, I’ve done about a dozen Boilermaker races now, and after each one they do a fly over at the post-race party. I always get tears in my eyes at that moment because the presence of that kind of sound from that kind of machine reminds me of sacrifice and glory. To hear it in Mont-Tremblant just moments away from the start of my third Ironman, made me feel like all of that soul-searching and mojo cultivating I did last week was worth it. That sound reminded me of my first leap into the unknown, and the glory that comes with going for it even when you’re not sure you can make it.
It was a sign.
Lucky for me, I had a good little inventory of “signs” going by the time we actually sprinted into the water. In what I can only describe as “wicked poor judgment,” I began my race front and center of 2000+ people as we all bombed into the water and began swimming through a bottleneck to the first buoy. Three hundred meters or so from shore, the wide-open swim start was forced to push through an opening that was probably about 100 feet wide, between a pod of anchored boats and the swim course buoys. In six years of training and racing in open water, I’ve never once panicked—and this includes the loss of a contact, tasting blood in my mouth, and choking on water while swimming.
On Sunday, I panicked.
My coach directed me to go out a bit aggressive in the swim, to pull away from the pack before settling into my own pace. I don’t think she had any idea what would be in store for me in that lake. I was aggressive all right, but it had little to do with the speed of my body as a vessel in the water. All I could think to myself for the first 20 minutes was that I must have been doing some combination of synchronized swimming and mixed martial arts. I was about to freak out, when I got a couple of good strokes in and a clear view off my right shoulder. There in the sky, was just the smudge of a rainbow. All of the colors were there, and it was completely unobstructed by any splashes or limbs. That was good enough for me. The day my husband and I dropped off the offer for our house, we drove away feeling all kinds of anxiety over having to wait two whole weeks to hear if we’d get it. As a storm came through the area, almost at the exact moment we turned away from the property, a rainbow painted the sky.
Rainbow smudge told me it would be okay. So it was stroke, stroke, stroke, breath, stroke, stroke, stroke, sight, for the next two miles.
Upon exiting the water, the first thing I noticed was how easily I was running to T1, despite having swum 2.4 miles with a side of “freakout.” There was a wide, red carpet to run upon all the way to the big transition tent, and my mind went through a mash-up of Hollywood and triathlon (Charlize Theron in a neoprene wetsuit – GO!). My coach told me to take my time in T1, and I recited the mantra she gave me to keep myself focused. “Slow and smooth is fast and strong.” I dutifully put on my helmet, race number, socks and cycling shoes and begrudgingly reached for the SPF 50. Sigh. I spent a good five minutes applying the lotion to wet skin, which wasn’t working out very well but I knew I’d never hear the end of it from my husband if I wound up with souvenir skin cancer because I was too concerned about my time to take precautions in the sun. I finally hopped onto my bike and began the second leg of the race. My coach gave me a heart rate range to stay within, and instructed me to ride slower than I would feel like I wanted to go. She predicted that people would pass me on the bike, but that I would see them again on the run…walking. She noted that this was a course that “rewarded patience.” Anyone that knows me, chuckles when they imagine Lisa Barnes doing anything patiently. It’s not one of my strengths, but following instructions IS something I’m good at and I put myself on the “Mary” setting (my coach) all day.
Along with heart rate, I was following a fuel plan that had me consuming a bottle of sports drink every hour, and a gel every 45 minutes. You can do the math, but over the course of a seven-hour bike ride, that ends up being A LOT of drink and gel. One of my goals on the bike was to pee at least once, a sign that nutrition was being executed appropriately. I peed about three times, and was awesomely photographed by the Finisher Pix staff while doing so (seems I can never get a good picture from those course vendors!).
The bike went by smoothly, and I was ready to pee one more time around mile 100. I decided that I wouldn’t have enough time to “dry out” before starting the run, so I’d quickly hit the port-a-potty after getting off the bike instead.
Nobody wants pee-pee shoe blisters during the Ironman marathon, after all.
As I got off the bike, I did a mental cartwheel and a few fist pumps to celebrate the fact that I made it through the course with no issues. Just a week before, I spent an evening in my garage changing a brand new back tire after it flatted on my last long ride. I was able to get out on a few rides to make sure my installation wasn’t faulty, but still had some reservations when we got to Mont-Tremblant and I noticed a few suspect crevices in the front tire. A quick visit to the mechanical support tent eased my mind, as the repair staff told me that everything looked good.
The moment my cycling cleats came off, my feet reminded me of Ironman 2008 T2. The pressure of the pedals into the bottom of my feet sometimes leaves my feet in an indescribable pain when the shoes are removed. They hurt so badly I can barely stand up. It was at this precise moment in 2008 that I began to cry and almost threw in the towel on Ironman. I was sure that if I couldn’t stand, I couldn’t run. Thankfully, I made myself attempt just one mile on the run course and ended up finding my way to the finish line in time to be a first-time Ironman. Fast forward four years later, and I still had tears in my eyes, but I was sure I could run through the pain. As I tell myself in any triathlon race, once I’m off the bike, I’m back to my world. Running. I don’t have to worry about anything breaking but my spirit.
Bring it on.
I left T2 and hit the port-a-potty, a three minute stop that felt like heaven. I didn’t miss the warm trickle down the back of my leg. My feet were screaming, but I knew from past experience that the pain would eventually subside and I just had to ignore it and focus on my heart rate zones from Mary. Every time Mary tells me to run with my HR just a little higher than it was on the bike, I think to myself, “my coach is on crack. I can’t do that. Can I do that? I probably can’t do that..” And then I do it.
In the first mile, I stole a quick kiss from my husband, smiled to my parents and hunkered down on that heart rate zone like it was the last stool at the bar. “Better start a tab, Ironman marathon. Because I’m ready to get on every mile up in here.”
Mary’s prediction came true. I passed herds of people walking in the marathon (and by the time I hit the finish line, I’d passed 29 women in my age group placing me 47 out of just over 100 women total in my age group. BOOYAH). I was gliding along the course easily, running nine-minute miles at the low end of the heart rate zone she gave to me. Things were feeling awesome, and I was totally shocked. I decided that my goal was going to be “no walking” in the marathon. In my past two races, I did walk. In 2008 it was out of necessity. In 2010, it was from a wise training partner’s advice to “walk the aid stations.” Mary always tells me to make the aid station “my job.” As such, I go through them without stopping and grab my needs from the volunteers without missing a beat. It works for me.
Around mile 16, I become aware of a guy just off my back right shoulder.
“You’re doing a good job keeping a pace for me,” he says.
“Yeah? Well you’d better be ready to lead the charge if I start to fade,” I respond.
Through a few exchanges, I learn that he’s 23, doing his first Ironman and worried that he will get cold from the rain that started to fall upon us.
“Do you want this?” I ask.
“Yes,” he says.
“Then you’ll have it.” I reply.
And then I proceeded to run without speaking, letting him know that there will be no more conversation as I continue to focus on maintaining my pace and kicking some ass.
I knew I was kicking ass because it started to rain, and then storm. I LOVE to run in the rain, and I always kick ass when I run in the rain. The nine-minute miles kept on coming without any problem whatsoever.
I was still taking the gels every 45 minutes, though the taste and texture of them was starting to make me feel like a quick “puke” was just around the corner. At mile 20, I decided that I would wait until mile 23 to take a final gel, so I could let my stomach have a break for a bit. It seems at the precise moment I decided not to take that gel, my left calf seized up. It felt like somebody took a metal rod to it and shocked the muscle. I promptly opened the gel with my teeth and jammed it down my throat. That kind of muscle spasm usually means that more are on the way and you’d better be smart about what you ask of the body from there on out or it will screw you.
I was too close to the finish line to be getting screwed, thank you.
At this point in the race, I had no concept of my overall time. Since I forgot to set up my Garmin to show me the overall time in the same screen as the heart rate, I decided that I’d just focus on heart rate and use my mile splits to determine how much time was going by before I needed to take another gel. (At a 9-ish minute per mile pace, I just decided I’d take a gel down every four miles). My best Ironman time was 13:38 hours in the 2010 Ironman Lake Placid. Since I had missed a lot of training and was doing a harder course than Lake Placid this time, I was estimating my time would be somewhere in the 14-hour range. I was even prepared to accept a DNF, if it came to that. This was an Ironman year, but it really became more of a LIFE year and Ironman got lost in the shuffle more than I wanted it to, but c’est la vie.
As my last four miles unraveled, I took a break from “Calf spasm watch” to think about how amazing I felt over the course of the race. Unlike past Ironman races, I just felt so calm and collected throughout the day. I marinated in the spectator cheers of “C’est BON!” and “Bravo!” amid the ongoing chorus of cowbells, bongo drums and whistles, and just really enjoyed myself out there—pee on the leg and all.
Part of the run was on an old railway bed, and the texture and sound of the sand beneath my feet along that flat section of the course brought me back to training runs on the Erie Canal Path here in Syracuse, NY, and the cross-country trails in the woods behind my high school.
More of that soul-searching stuff, just weaving into my race. Reminding me that the success I was finding through each stride closer to the finish line was no accident.
Yes, I was an Ironman already. Yes, I’m an athlete. Yes, I have proven that I have what it takes to meet a challenge. I felt those things, but I was going for something more in those last few moments…
I felt alive.
So alive, and so aware. All of my senses were engaged. And while my body was beginning to feel the familiar aches and pains that creep into the end of an endurance race, I felt happy.
I love that pain. I always have. It reminds me that I’m alive.
As I rounded the corner for the finishing chute, I celebrated my pain and my pride for carrying me to the third Ironman finish line in my life so far. That was really all I needed to consider the race a success…but then I caught the finish line clock in the distance and realized that I was coming in 30 minutes faster than my best Ironman time. I couldn’t believe my eyes, as I careened through the narrow path lined with cheering people. I had such a kick moving over the cobblestone street, with an Arsenio Hall arm whooping it up above me, and hoots of happiness coming out of my mouth. I swept over the finish line in utter joy, riding a wave of pure happiness in that moment.
Just when I thought the day couldn’t have gone any better, I got a personal record for the Ironman on the hardest course I’ve ever done.
Of course later, I couldn’t help but to tally up the minutes it took me to apply sunscreen, use the port-a-potty and kiss my husband which could have been the difference between breaking 13 hours or not…but who cares. When you go into a race prepared for a DNF or the slowest time you’ve ever documented for a race, you cannot experience anything other than sheer exhilaration when you realize you’ve set a new record for yourself.
And so here I am, sitting at my dining room table on a Thursday evening with a glass of rose’, smiling to myself as I look down to see that I’ve written 3,500 words on the Ironman that “got lost in the shuffle.”
Perhaps getting a little lost in the shuffle was just what I needed this time around.
Last night, I got tangled up in my old blog, The Spinster Chronicles, and happened to find many more insightful blurbs from posts about past workouts and races. Reading back through some of these posts reminds me again of how far I’ve come, and has solidified my commitment to keep a record of my thoughts as I move through this world—both on and off the race course. The single woman who religiously posted on that blog from 2007-2010 couldn’t have imagined what the married woman in 2012 would be up to. Starting a blog for yourself to document your growth in this sport is one of the best things you can do as an athlete and a person. It’s a great way to begin developing mental skills and cultivate a lifetime of mojo. Below are a few excerpts from favorite posts of the past…
Jan 5, 2009
From the Post: No Pain No Gain
For the first time since moving in August, I’ve started running from my new apartment on the east side of Syracuse, NY. I live on a steep incline and relish the fact that every run starts with a five minute trudge uphill (and since it’s winter right now, it’s also accompanied by a bitter lung-freezing chill). I like this sensation the same way I imagine Rocky Balboa loving that first punch to his face. Over the crest of that hill are many more miles that will be so deeply satisfying, I’m willing to withstand some frosty lungs and screaming quads to get to them. No pain, no gain.
So far in the new year I’ve run three times, for an hour each time. The pace has been slow, but those familiar soul-searching strides cause the adrenaline to flow through me as if it broke a levee somewhere deep inside and I’m suddenly free from all stress, anxiety and apprehension. Training makes me feel like I’m on top of the world.
Jeans fit better. My thoughts have rhythm. Lip gloss accents a more authentic smile. My ability to “go with the flow” comes back to me like a long lost friend who can pick up the conversation with me no matter how long the hiatus between us has been.
Sometimes, when I haven’t been working out for a long stretch of time, I find myself fixated on material things. I want more stuff. I see a nice car and wonder why I can’t have the same thing? I notice a woman’s jewelry and develop a craving for diamond studs. I go through all the ways life isn’t fair, and especially how it hasn’t been fair to me. I self-loathe. Any notes of jealousy or angst that I attempt to bury beneath my “Mary Sunshine” demeanor immediately surface like a U-Boat coming up on the attack.
But training changes all of that. As my body gets back into shape, I melt into a state of self-actualization that no material thing could ever recreate for me. I slip into a pair of sleek and defined hamstrings the way Sarah Jessica Parker slips into the latest piece of haute couture. Diamond studs? Like I care. A sculpted set of deltoids is a far better accessory.
January 30, 2009
From the Post: The Bell Lap
Passion, applied to anything, will make it stronger.
One of the things Pre (Steve Prefontaine) was best known for was his aggressive front-running style. It isn’t usually advised to take the lead in a pack of runners, since doing so drains the leader while enabling the rest of the pack to draft behind. Pre’s philosophy on running was to get the race to a place where only pure heart and soul mattered. It didn’t matter to him who was bigger or smaller, stronger or lighter, or who knew how to put together a better race. He didn’t care about the logistics of the race – he cared about the desire. There are many quotes from Pre on what drives him, but the one below is one of my favorites because I think it perfectly sums up the idea that applying passion to something gives it that “X” factor. There’s an intangible quality to things that truly have a force in the world – something about them that can’t be grasped, recreated, or extracted for safekeeping. You can be aware of it, but you’ll struggle to define it because it can’t be captured – only experienced.
I’m going to work so that it’s a pure guts race at the end, and if it is, I am the only one who can win it. – Steve Prefontaine.
You may read this and wonder what you could have in common with an iconic runner from the 1970s. Steve Prefontaine’s story isn’t just about a gifted athlete whose life was cut short. It’s the story of a man who played with the cards he was dealt to the best of his ability and along the way, showed the world a thing or two about passion, guts and perseverance. His spirit was what we should all hope to possess inside: the will to push harder, the desire to dig deeper, the courage to change something as we know it. They celebrated this spirit during Pre’s bell lap (the last lap of a distance race on a track, signaled by the ringing of a bell as the lead runner rounds the track for the last time). In his funeral service, a hearse carrying his body took that final spin around the track, as a clock counted down the minutes he had hoped to run the mile in later in his career.
What will people celebrate when it’s your bell lap?
May 12, 2009
From the Post: A Tribute to the Last 40,000 Miles
My relationship with the Junka (my used car Jetta) wasn’t all bad, we did have many good times together. I’ve traveled to almost every triathlon I’ve ever competed in and every race I’ve ever run in that car. She’s kept my hands steady many a time as I nervously drove to each event, visualizing how it would go over and over again, anxious to know if I would be able to do as well as I’d hoped. And she was there to congratulate me with a soft seat after I crossed the finish lines, practically saying “I told you so” when I’d hang an age-group award medal from the rear-view mirror. She’s waited patiently in parking lots as I called everyone I knew to tell them how it went, while my sweat-soaked racing garments soiled her fabrics in the hot summer heat.
The Junka has taken quite a bit of abuse over the years. She’s suffered through hot coffee spills on her center console as I jerked the car to work in a hurried frenzy, and spilled barbecue sauce from late-night stops to Burger King when I needed a little snack after happy hours. She’s a potpourri of stray blonde hairs, old winter road salt, and caked off mud from running shoes that are tossed into the car without care. I seldom vacuum her or wash her out because the time and effort seemed stupid to spend on an “old car.” Though I did have her detailed once a couple of years ago when I realized that there was barbecue sauce in more places than I could reach with a toothbrush.
July 14, 2009
From the Post: The Elephant in the Room, in the Running Shoes
The other night I was at the gym waiting with a group of people outside of the spinning room to teach a class. A couple of us were talking about a 15K race that happened over the weekend, comparing notes on the course and how we did. A guy overheard our conversation and decided to join in, since he too was a runner. He glanced at me in my spinning outfit – a black tank and shorts that did nothing to conceal my collection of tan lines (more like faded sunburn lines), and chuckled as he proclaimed, “Well obviously you’ve been outside training, you have the lines to prove it!” I smiled, about to politely excuse myself from the conversation to prepare for class, when he began to say something else.
“You know, it’s nice to see a runner like you that isn’t all long and lean. You always see those tall thin runners and then there’s you.”
From the look on his face I could tell that he meant this to be complimentary, and it was in its own way, but his horribly dysfunctional delivery resulted in some degree of “offended” on my part.
“Yes…I’m certainly no gazelle gliding miles upon miles over the land with ease.” I replied. As I heard myself saying this, I simultaneously recalled all of the times that my father has said that I’m “scrappy” in reference to the fact that I am 5’3” and 138 pounds of muscle. I may not be svelte, but I don’t show up to races to look pretty. I show up to kick some ass. Now I was feeling like I wanted to kick this guy’s ass. He would get his when class began.
I didn’t think the conversation could get much worse, but it did.
“So you’re married?” The guy asked. “No, no…not me,” I said.
“Really? I could have sworn that you were,” he looked off in the distance, squinting his eyes while trying to concentrate on how he knew this.
I thought that maybe he was confused because I was engaged before and he may not have heard through the grapevine that the wedding was called off. Even though the class I was teaching that night was not my own, the gym is a small place where news travels fast and this had happened more than a year ago.
“Well, I was engaged but we called the wedding off.” I told him. He looked at me, still confused that his intel was wrong.“Wow, well I just assumed that you were married and had children,” he replied.
I paused on that statement, unsure what he meant by it. Just a few weeks ago I had been carded at a convenience store while purchasing a case of Corona. When I showed the woman my ID, she gasped in shock to learn that I was 30. Her and her son could have sworn I was just 19 and I was asked to show alternate forms of ID to prove them wrong. Now I was standing in front of a guy that must have assumed that I was “at that age” that I should be married with children, despite the fact that all of my fingers were bare and nothing about me says “maternal.”
“No, no children here. I’m only 30!” I said this as if everyone knows that 30 is still young and there was plenty of time to have children if that’s what I wanted one day, but I forgot that I was in upstate New York where it seems that many women want to be done having children by 30.
I could see from the man’s face that my response was confusing him, which made sense since he mentioned he had two teen-aged daughters and I would guess that he himself was in his early 40s. By my calculations, he probably started making a family in his early 20s. In my early 20s I was living in Manhattan and unknowingly dating an attractive Irish lad from the IRA. Ah, the good days.
Deciding to add an element of humor to our dialogue, which was clearly becoming awkward, I offered my sentiments on myself as a mom.
“I think I’m much too selfish to have children right now. I have a lot of things I want to do before I have to devote my time to raising kids.” I laughed as I said this, batting my hand lightly on his shoulder as I tried to lighten the mood.
“Yes, well, it’s good that you have things you like, you know…” He trailed off with his words, but his facial expression and tone said the rest. This guy seemed to be speaking with me as if I were some candidate for the Make a Wish Foundation, and soon my opportunity to be a mom would wither up and die with my 30-year-old ovaries – but no matter, even if I could never be a mom, I would have plenty of time to do crossword puzzles and shoe shop.
“I’ll be an aunt soon,” I said.
I have no idea why I said that, but I think that some part of me felt like I had to prove to this guy that I was cognizant of the circle of life – that I was human and capable of showing some enthusiasm for babies and birth despite the fact that I was not yet experiencing these things with my own body.
One of the things I like to do to remind myself that I still have time to be a mom is read US Weekly and learn about the celebrities that are pregnant. They always put the person’s age in parenthesis after their name and lately that age has been well over 30 – moms that are 35, or even 38! The shame.
On that note, we started to walk into the spinning room and I went to set up my bike and prep the music for class. The conversation left me feeling confused and angry. How did any of that even come up? It was like a “your life sucks” bomb was being dropped on me from out of nowhere. What’s worse is that I had arrived to the gym feeling really great. I got home from work and was able to start laundry, vacuum, dust, take the garbage out, and figure out what I’d make for dinner later on all within an hour. Who was this guy to come in and dilute my “multi-tasking” high?
Fueled by irritation, I punished the class with challenging cadences and frequent increases in resistance, favoring a drill sergeant interpretation of each track over my usual motivational tone. My legs were sore from the race I completed the day before, but I needed to work hard as my soul was sore from yet another conversation about my shortcomings as a 30-year-old woman. The self-pity was short-lived because the exercise high always trumps all and by the end of the workout I was relaxed and feeling very good. The lactic acid from Sunday’s 15K left my legs and I was easily hammering through each song on my workout mix. Everyone was energized and responding well to my coaching, and the guy that was talking to me in the hallway was barely reaching pace in the last 20 minutes of the workout. Ha.
“I’ll show you long and lean,” I thought to myself as sweat coursed over my brow, through my eyes, around my nose and over my lips like white-water rapids.
We hit the last song for cool down and proceeded to the floor for stretching. By then, I had totally separated myself from the earlier conversation in the hallway. As class came to an end, I thanked everyone for coming and started to pack up my things to leave. My mood skyrocketed when I remembered that I’d completed all of my chores before getting to the gym so all that was required of me when I got home was the consumption of a cold glass of wine and hitting “play” on my DVR to watch “So You Think You Can Dance.”
In my peripheral vision I saw the man come toward me. Sigh.
He wrapped his towel around his neck and stood over me as I jammed my water bottle into my gym bag.
“I was thinking…I hope I didn’t offend you before when we were talking, I didn’t mean to say that you were overweight or anything…” he seemed genuinely concerned. “Obviously you are in great shape and I didn’t mean for it to sound like you should be skinny to be a good runner.”
I knew his intention was never to offend, and he didn’t realize that my issues with the conversation had more to do with his reactions to my being single and childless at 30, than with my ability to run while carrying a few extra pounds. So I gave him the reaction he needed to feel better about it all.
“Are you kidding me? Don’t worry about a thing – I was flattered by what you said!” I plastered the most gracious smile on my face that you’ve ever seen. It was as if someone had just mistaken me for a movie star (albeit a sweaty one).
“Really, it was such a nice thing to hear! Who wants to be long and lean?” I continued on for full effect, shrugging my shoulders at the very idea of having zero body fat to worry about.
While there was a part of me that was slightly taken aback by the notion that I am somehow not a real runner because I am not tall and skinny, that was never the part of the conversation that pushed my buttons. What really got to me was the idea that I’m somehow not a real woman without a husband and a baby and that this guy didn’t even realize that his comments conveyed that loud and clear. It’s like the elephant in the room, in the sneakers. I’m this obviously present woman living my life the way I want to. I’m not committed to a marriage; I’m not responsible for children. I’m not what you’d expect a marathon-running, Ironman-finishing woman to look like, but I’m not what you’d expect in many areas. And why should I be?
December 29, 2009
From the Post: Old Resolutions for the New Year
Over the years running and writing have started to become intertwined like a pair of best friends that are never apart. A steady pace over twenty miles of running would seamlessly flow into a steady stream of consciousness on paper, or vice versa. My mind seems to be connected to my feet and when one starts to go into gear, so does the other.
This became very apparent to me when I became a fitness instructor four years ago. I was a regular cardio junkie at the gym, taking step aerobics and weight-lifting classes, and doing spin classes to cross-train on days when I wasn’t running. The spinning instructor suggested I get certified in a new type of cycling fitness class called Group RIDE that Gold’s Gym was going to offer. I passed my certification test and started teaching my own class two times a week.
Becoming a fitness instructor has allowed me to wear almost every hat I’ve ever tried on (or pretended to try on). The 11-year-old girl who used to wear her swimming suit over tights and jump around the bedroom to “Like a Prayer” with a sweatband on beamed with pride as I took my place in front of the class for the first time. The up-and-coming track star that was buried beneath the softball-team-reject jumps with joy now that I can wear a microphone and share what I’ve learned about discipline and perseverance with the masses. And the writer in me glows with enthusiasm now that I’m a Contributing Columnist with the local paper offering weekly tips and advice in my very own column about triathlon training.
We dream about being many things when we are young. Armed with toys and imaginations and all the time in the world, we’re free to see a future that can’t hold us back. As we get older, the realities of life set in. Budgets, rules, limits. Self-esteem, insomnia, peer pressure. We learn the art of “the excuse,” and rationalizing why things must be the way they are. We forget that somewhere deep down, there was a dream. A seed that lies within the soul waiting to find light…waiting for us to till the land and tell the dream it’s okay to come out.
With just six days to go before Ironman Mont Tremblant, I have begun to do some soul-searching to push my mind into the right place for race day. In some ways training for this race has been so much easier than it has been in years past (I’ve completed Ironman Lake Placid in 2008 and 2010), but in other ways it has been the most challenging experience to date. The easy part is the discipline. I can set an alarm clock and bolt out of bed at 4:00AM for a workout like nobody’s business. When it comes to time management around my career and training, I can stack my priorities up like a perilous game of Jenga and move things around with nary a teeter in my tower. I’m good at getting things done—a coworker once told me that the secret to my success is making everything into a finish line. If it looks like a finish line, I’ll do what it takes to cross it.
If you think that sounds like the “hard part” of an Ironman, you’re right. Crossing the finish line at the end of a 140.6-mile race is no joke. You get 17 hours to do that, but not everybody makes it. You can have all the heart in the world and still fall short. You can be in the best shape of your life and wind up with a DNF rather than a finisher’s medal.
The problem I’m having with my third go at this distance, is getting the mojo to sync up with my defined quads and TT bike. I’ve got the gear, I’ve prepared the body, and I have experience to push me through the inevitable challenges I will face on race day. But my mental game has seen better days. I know, I know. “Lisa, you write the Tri Mojo blog. You do mental skills training workshops! You are the person WE talk to when WE can’t get our mojo, whaddayamean you ain’t got the mojo?”
Sigh. It’s true. This mojo gurista has been stumped after 15 years of training and racing, and I think I ‘ve figured out why.
In my life, fitness showed up in middle school as a sort of “friend” that let me sit at her lunch table in the cafeteria when nobody else would have me. I was the slightly overweight girl with the blonde bowl cut and eczema, who played the piano and third clarinet in band. I had a crush on Luke Perry only because I saw pictures of him hanging in the cool girls’ lockers, but I wasn’t allowed to watch Beverly Hills 90210 on TV. I lived in the middle of nowhere, so afterschool activities consisted of lip-syncing to Paula Abdul and Madonna in my bedroom, instead of playing Barbies with the neighborhood girls. Somewhere along the way, I started wearing my bathing suits over tights and pretending I was Jane Fonda, while making up aerobic routines to everything from bossa nova to Duran Duran. I suppose at that point I came to a crossroads—either go and truly embrace fitness, or find an audition for Saturday Night Live.
Eventually I became a great sprinter in high school track, slimmed down, and started to feel myself becoming an athlete instead of an awkward teen with no clique to call home. It seems from age 16 to 25, at least one mile in every workout was devoted to my frustration with boys. Despite my best attempts, I never dated seriously until I was well out college. While my closest girlfriends were always celebrating this or that anniversary or milestone in their relationships, I was out blasting through 10ks and learning how to dead-lift with the company of my journal and eclectic music in the evenings. So it was in these candle-lit introspective evenings whilst penning my feelings in fine-point Sharpie with Fiona Apple in the background that I began to realize my relationship with fitness was my way of growing into myself as a woman. Fitness became a priority to me the way other people’s significant others were a priority to them. I celebrated milestones in my running because they represented progress in my relationship to the sport and within myself. I left high school as one of the fastest 200-meter sprinters on the track. I took up cross-country in college. I left college and mastered the 5k and 10k distance. Before long, I jumped up to the half-marathon. And then five full marathons. And when running and I tired of one another, I took a date with triathlon. I did sprints, Olympic-distance, and the 70.3. And then, as a woman secure in her body and soul, I signed on for the Ironman. Twice. Through that first 140.6, I processed a broken engagement. In the second Ironman two years later, I was in the most stable and secure relationship of my life. Shortly after signing up for my third Ironman, I got engaged.
The last 12 months has gone like this: Say yes to surprise engagement from long-time boyfriend; marry fiancé four months later; buy house with husband six months later. Throw in a few promotions at work and some incredible freelance writing opportunities, and you have yourself a pretty self-actualized woman. In the midst of celebrating all of these traditional milestones, I’ve lost sight of my old flame, Ironman. I’ve been putting in the training hours, and I’ve had some moments of total connectedness between body, mind and workout…but for the most part I feel like I’ve been regarding Ironman as a chore, or an obligation. It isn’t the oasis of peace and reflection that it has been in the past.
I haven’t needed that as much these days.
So, in order to try and reconnect with that part of myself, I thought I would go back to some old journal entries for a dose of vintage mojo. Reading these passages from the past has definitely helped me to tap into that hot core of can-do attitude down in my soul, and revive my enthusiasm and drive for this race. Yesterday I had my last long run before race day, and I was blown away by how effortless it felt as I covered eight hilly miles in my fastest average pace so far this season while staying in Zone 1 (the least aggressive of the heart rate zones which means the runner will be moving at a speed that is far slower than he/she is capable of but able to hold for a very long time).
There was a time when I contemplated getting rid of my old journals, as a symbol that I’ve moved on from the pain and depression of the past. I have more than 15 books filled with writing and keepsakes from college, my years of working and dating in New York City, my move back to Syracuse and all of the dysfunctional careers and boyfriends I’ve had along the way. There was a time when all of those experiences made me prioritize training and racing as the only sure thing I had. Those were the years that developed my brain as an athlete. Those were the times that cultivated the mojo that armed me with mental skills. I fought through obstacles and found progress finish line after finish line because dammit, Lisa Barnes needed a success story in her life.
And now, at 33, I’ve found my success story. I’m happier than I’ve ever been. I’m married to the man of my dreams, living in the house of my dreams, surrounded by family and friends that I adore and working in a career that challenges and excites me. It only took twenty years, but I’ve arrived. I’ve learned how to train for an Ironman while living a happy and fulfilling life—something I haven’t ever done. I know that if I don’t pull off this race with a PR or even a finish, I will walk away smiling because Ironman is but one blip on my radar right now. I have never trained for a race without making it my priority before. That has been the challenge for me this year.
I’m looking forward to next Sunday and seeing how it feels to push myself through something in this new mindset, but I never want to forget what the road looked like along the way to my third Ironman. That’s why I can’t get rid of the journals, because they represent the road—and the hundreds of miles I’ve completed to get where I am today. Here are a few of the snippets I found that made me smile.
October, 6, 2003
I am happy with my time (4:00:06 hours). The six seconds are a little annoying, but four hours is better than I expected to do in my first marathon. I am only 20 minutes away from a Boston qualifying time, which is very achievable for me. All finishers got a glass medallion with the Wineglass Marathon logo and the date on it. It hardly seems possible that it marks the completion of my first marathon. I had wanted to run one for so long, and even though I knew I had it in me to run the whole thing, I considered the fact that I might be crazy to sign up for a marathon on a whim, just three months ago. I have heard that some people never want to do a marathon again after their first one. I already know that’s not true for me. Even though I’m sitting here the day after my 26.2-mile adventure, in more pain that I’ve experienced since my car accident years ago, I can tell you that I will be a marathoner for life. Maybe you’re not a runner, or you’d rather push yourself as part of a team rather than on your own, but I would encourage you to run at least one marathon in your life. I was beaten by 70-year-old men and women, by people who are overweight, and by people whose strides were quirky and inefficient. It’s not about being a star athlete or in the best shape of your life. It’s about setting a goal and knowing that you can reach it. The marathon has nothing to do with running. It’s about turning yourself inside out as a person and seeing what you’re really made of.
October 24, 2003
Am I a runner? Or just a broken heart with Nikes…
I have run plenty of miles with my legs, with tired muscles and the desire to win. I have thought of negative splits and minutes and seconds while moving from mile to mile. I know how to think like a runner and run like a runner, but am I a runner? Are you a runner when you have to run to feel less insane? If the adrenaline that you feel from a run sedates you enough so that you can rationalize your feelings and restore a sense of calmness in your life, are you running? Or are you drugging yourself with endorphins?
I can’t imagine where I would be without running. If I didn’t have a release from the “What If’s?” and “Why hasn’t he’s?” I’m sure I would be in a padded room somewhere chanting, “I’ll never tell…” But I do have a release and it’s a damn good one. I have realized a lot of things while running. I have accepted realities, admitted faults, forgiven and forgotten over years of miles of running. There are no secrets with myself when I run. I can’t choose what I will think about or what conflicts I will acknowledge when I go for a run, but I know that once those shoes are on, I will have to confront them.
August 3, 2004
The running continues to go well. I’m having a harder time training for this marathon than I did for my first one. I think it’s because I’m so much busier this summer than last summer and trying to fit my long runs in is a pain sometimes. But I still do them and I still love this. I’m a runner for life, it just makes me feel so empowered to set goals and then reach them. Like anything is possible and I can do anything if I put my mind to it. I know that sounds cheesy, but it’s really true. Running is the one thing I have that is all mine and that I can have for better or for worse. When relationships end, when the economy sucks, when I’m out of money, when I lose my job, when best friends drift away, when there’s boredom, when there’s misery, insanity, hard times or empty thoughts…running is there to bring me to a better place. Nobody can take your miles away. Nobody can shorten your stride. Nobody can close the world off to you and your left, right, left, right. It’s a time to reclaim yourself and drag yourself up out of the black hole that life can sometimes be. That’s why I’ll always run, because it’s ingrained in me to do better, to find better, to know better. On that note, I think I will end this entry and go run my hill workouts. The joy! Precisely.
September 11, 2004
Time to go to bed, I think. Tomorrow I have a 24-mile long run and I’m excited! Less than a month to go until my second marathon. Twenty minutes to a Boston qualifying time, but only one minute to achieving a sub-four-hour marathon. I can’t wait!
It’s the ninth season of the Emmy-winning dance competition program, So You Think You Can Dance. I have been watching the show for a few years now, and have always felt somewhat connected to the dancers competing on the show. I lust after the ability to dance contemporary, krump, or nail a hip-hop routine that would earn me the “buccccccck” feedback of judge Lil’ C, in the same way a young boy lusts after the magical powers of his favorite superhero. But alas, I wasn’t born to move that way—I was born to swim, bike and run.
The motions of a triathlete are predictable, forward and linear—whereas the motions of a dancer break planes in imaginative ways. What was it that I thought I had in common with a dancer? Sure, there’s the drive, discipline and passion that is required to keep one’s body in shape for competition—but this isn’t unique to just dancers and athletes. There had to be something else. And then it hit me:
The musicality of athleticism.
Head judge Nigel Barker recently said in his critique of a performance that the dancer had great musicality, and that in order to dance well, one must use both hemispheres of the brain. His description of musicality included the idea that one must be creative, but also be able to control the body. The dancer is simultaneously a technician and an artist.
The idea of musicality strikes me as a mental strength, in that a strong athletic performance isn’t born simply from the body’s physical ability to execute movements, but that it can do so with conviction. Think of a song that you enjoy. When you imagine it, can you break it down to the series of elements that attract you to its sound? Is there a riff that stands out? A melody that is being sung? Do the lyrics move you? Can you pick out the bass line from the other instruments that are playing? Ultimately, the song moves you because of the combination of sounds that come together. This “movement” can manifest itself in a variety of ways—singers passionately belt out words, dancers strike a pose, musicians accent notes, each of them amplifying their connection to the song through their particular medium. This translates to “musicality.”
But what about athletes? Our instruments are our bodies, trained to articulate distance using speed, technique and form. Does this differ from the way a pianist’s hands cover the keys of a piano, or the way a dancer moves across a stage?
If you were to hear the song that you most enjoy while cycling or running, would it change the way you go through those motions? Would it enhance the experience? From the outside, it might not appear so. After all, there’s only so many ways cycling and running can “look” to someone. But think about how it would affect your thinking, your pacing and your overall mood while doing the exercise. Many athletes claim that they get a better workout when they listen to music. In part, this is because of the way music enables us to visualize our performance—one of the tenets of mental skills training.
Professional Triathlete Logan Franks, 24, uses music to summon strength from past training sessions. “There are certain songs that I can tie back to very specific training periods. When I hear them, I remind myself of those workouts—those cold runs in the morning when it was only five degrees—and I remind myself of how far I’ve come,” he says.
Conjuring up past strength isn’t the only way athletes can tap into the power of music, Franks says he also uses it to define the mood for a workout. “I use different genres of music for different workouts, or different times of the day,” he says. “For example, I like to listen to The Fray on a morning run…the piano music keeps things nice and light.” Franks saves all of his intense training for later in the day, when he trades piano music for something a little more intense. “I train with music 90 percent of the time,” says the Marine-turned-triathlete, whose tattoos include the lyrics to a song he wrote across his chest. Franks has been playing the guitar since he was six years old, and competing in triathlon since the age of twenty-two.
Does one have to have a musical background to experience musicality as an athlete? I don’t think so. If we think of music as an aid to athletic performance, most of us can come up with at least one song that gets us hyped up for a workout or a race. If you’ve ever been to an Ironman-branded event, than you’ve been privy to the looping stronghold of bass-blasting, excitement-revving tunes pumping through the transition area as athletes work their way though the M-dot experience. After all, we have 140.6 miles of stage to cover. A little “Eye of the Tiger” at 100 decibels might make the difference between the athlete that merely covers the distance, and the one that executes a career-changing performance.
I’ve always been a loner when it comes to working out, save for the few weeks during the off season when I bee-line to any Step aerobics class I can find to sate my need to feel “dancer-like” while working out. (It’s a Flashdance fantasy that I still haven’t put to bed, don’t judge). As I’ve made more friends in triathlon over the years, I’ve found it challenging to find this beloved alone time while training—people seem to have a natural tendency to get together for workouts, opting to pass the hours on foot or pedal in the company of someone else to make the training less boring.
The problem is, I never get bored when I’m training alone.
I’ve often asked myself why some people are comfortable spending hours and hours on their own, and why others prefer to have company. Not just in training, but in general. I’ve always been content to sit in my room and be introspective. Whether it was rearranging my furniture, or coloring with pastels, or organizing the shoes in my closet…I would turn up the music on my stereo, and spend entire weekends in the company of myself. I can recall one summer, where I spent a week sitting in my room carefully stringing an assortment of glass beads onto fishing line night after night, making a beaded curtain to hang in my window. Outside of my mom’s voice calling up the stairs to come and eat dinner, the only other voices I heard were Madonna’s singing “What’s up Buenos Aires?” on the EVITA soundtrack, and the U2 Rattle and Hum album on repeat (I was obsessed with it).
As an adult, it seems impossible to find that kind of alone time anymore. At work, it’s all about collaboration and working in teams. In relationships, it’s all “sharing is caring.” When it comes to training? Well most of the year I share my workouts with dozens of athletes as we train together through the winter months. When spring rolls around, I begin to crave the long solo rides on the bike…the 20-mile runs to “who knows where.” I become giddy at the notion of five hours alone, weaving my thoughts into a background of shifting gears and shuffling feet. It’s not because I don’t like the people I train with, but that I’m missing those opportunities to give myself my undivided attention.
What I like most about these solo sessions is the unknown nature of my thoughts. It’s sort of like putting your brain on Pandora and letting it choose the “theme song” for the station, and then you get to experience it as it rolls out into a delicious stream of consciousness that you can’t quite predict along the way.
It dawned on me the other day, that I have rarely disliked any of the “tracks” my brain chose to pursue in these long, solitary periods of time. I look forward to the inner most thoughts that seem to surface only when you are isolated from potential distractions and functioning in a state of raw, unbridled emotion. For example, think about the kinds of admission people make when they are in the middle of a “big cry.” The dramatic inhales and exhales are connected by a string of sobbing, broken dialogue that usually spews forth some truth about something. The way we actually feel about a person or a situation. The reality of a situation setting in…we are unable to reach for any of the filters that usually keep these feelings at bay. Instead, we are forced to confront who we really are, and what we really feel. We see the man in the mirror…
Training on your own will inevitably put you in front of this looking glass, and it’s here where you begin to see who you really are as an athlete.
These moments don’t come from group rides, or lunchtime runs with your friends, or sharing a lane with your peers at the local pool. There are too many distractions this way. It’s too easy to chat about your day, or make quips on current events, or just let your gaze fixate on what’s around you while your mind sort of coasts through a handful of random thoughts. To go deep, you must go solo. But to do that, you have to be willing to schedule some alone time with yourself.
I believe that one’s ability to buy into that alone time is based on one’s chemistry with himself. You have to like yourself and how you function to sign up for an afternoon of introspection. You have to be interested in what you have to say…what you REALLY have to say, as opposed to what you tend to say when in the company of certain people. You have to be willing to have a conversation with yourself that you are willing to sit through…that you would grab a bottle of wine to continue, rather than looking for the first opportunity to get out of there. For some of us, hearing our innermost thoughts and focusing on who we are at the core is too intense. It takes what you might perceive to be a “physical outlet” and tricks you by making your Nikes into the proverbial “shrink’s couch.” You might find yourself thinking, “I didn’t come out here to tune into these feelings…I came out here to tune out of them.”
That’s all well and good, but don’t expect those workouts to change you in any fundamental way. You might enjoy your mile splits or appreciate the labored breathing that comes from a strong push at the end of a 10K, but like any “physical relationship” you won’t be building any real chemistry with yourself through quantitative glories alone.
Mojo is kind of like developing a crush on yourself, and courting that person on the inside in a way that convinces them it’s okay to let go a little bit. It’s like finding that fire in your belly, and poking it with a stick.
If you’re always shoulder-to-shoulder with someone in your workouts, you’ll have a hard time spreading those wings to see what their true reach could be.
Earlier this week, a friend sent me the link to an article titled, “30 Things Every Woman Should Have and Know at 30.” Originally featured in a 1997 issue of Glamour magazine, the article looked familiar to me. I remember reading it in the privacy of my bedroom at the age of 18, thinking, ”I am going to be an utter failure at life. All I’ve got so far is a black lacy bra…” Now that I’m 33, I’m happy to report that I have accomplished nearly everything on this list. (I still need to figure out who the best tailor in town is, but I don’t much care since my mom has hemmed every pair of pants I’ve ever owned).
With my womanhood taken care of, I started thinking of the other ways I should be accomplished by now. Naturally, my progress as an athlete came to mind.
In many professional sports (including triathlon), the twenties are regarded as the prime years for athletic success. But for most of us, we’ve spent that time finding the right work/life balance that lets us be Ironman, Family Man and Go-To Man all in the same day. Alas, here are the 30 things I believe every triathlete should have and know at the age of 30.
By 30, you should have…
1. A bike that has been with you through at least one race—from your first training day to the finish line.
2. The ability to recite a quote from memory that makes you feel inspired.
3. At least one piece of workout wear from your past, that everybody in your life is grossed out by and believes you should throw away.
4. A go-to playlist that can energize you through any run.
5. Friends that you only see when you’re training.
6. A kit that makes you feel like a superhero whenever you wear it.
7. A preferred lubricant for the various parts of your body pre- and post-workout.
8. Someone that you’re trying to get into triathlon.
9. War stories about your best and worst races.
10. A race that you’ve registered for more than three times.
11. Sneakers that don’t give you blisters.
12. A back-up plan for every workout that is supposed to take place in a pool.
13. At least one horrible picture of yourself, taken by the photographer on the racecourse.
14. The ability to skip a workout without feeling guilty about it.
15. A race goal on the horizon that is yet to be fulfilled.
By 30, you should know…
1. How to walk away from a bad race without letting it ruin your day.
2. How to change a flat tire on your bike (and how to remove the back tire from the bike).
3. How to make a race be about something more than winning.
4. Where you’re getting your first beer after you cross the finish line.
5. How to circle swim.
6. Who Mike Reilly is and why he matters.
7. What T1, Z3 and VO2 stand for.
8. Your position on M-dot tattoos.
9. How to pee in public without making a scene.
10. The difference between Sprint, Olympic, 70.3 and 140.6 races.
11. How long it takes to set up a transition area.
12. How to get a wetsuit on and off without any help.
13. How to hydrate and fuel properly while training and racing.
14. That spinning is actually a cycling term, not a cardio class.
15. That triathlon is the real fountain of youth.
I had an epiphany last night while talking to a friend who is a bodybuilder. She trains me once a week and as fellow athletes, we often share updates about our workouts and progress toward goals. She’s at her peak right now, competing in figure competitions where the attire consists of bedazzled floss, clear plastic stilettos, and bronze “basting” paste. The contest probably covers a grand total of twenty square feet, and is fueled by bright lights, loud music and a cheering crowd.
It is perhaps the exact opposite of an Ironman venue, where the contest covers 140.6 miles, music is prohibited, and nipples bleed rather than glitter…but I realized something as my friend described the outcome of her recent show.
“The judges told me that I was every bit as fit as the woman who got first place, but that I didn’t have confidence. I wasn’t smiling.” She ended up placing fifth as a result.
Imagine that. A woman voluntarily struts onto a bright stage wearing enough fabric to cover a tube of Chapstick (maybe), posing in front of people to music she has chosen, and someone has the nerve to say that this woman has no confidence? I guess I should never feel self-conscious in my wetsuit again!
As it turns out, my friend is going through some stressful life events and despite the fact that she physically had the presence of a champion-caliber bodybuilder; her mindset had let her down. The absence of her attention to the moment on that stage let her mind wander to concerns that were “off stage” and it robbed her of the energy she needed to activate her mojo.
This idea was familiar territory, as any endurance athlete can tell you that one must be able to manage their emotions over the course of a race in order to find success. Four-time Ironman World Champion Chrissie Wellington is famous for employing “the smile” as a means to get through her toughest races, and tap into the confidence needed to endure the rigors of competition.
It never occurred to me that in a sport like bodybuilding (where one spends most of their time standing still in the height of competition), that mental skills would come into play. It solidifies what I already believe about the power of the mind—that it can make or break you, but your chances for success are exponentially better if you can learn how to wield this power as if it were a mighty sword.
If you don’t know how to use a sword, it’s nothing more than a heavy burden you’ll fumble around with until ultimately wounding yourself. If you do know how to use one, you can slay dragons.
Ironman tends to lead you to a dragon or two over the course of the day.
Curious, I asked my friend what she did the morning of her competition. I wanted to get an idea of what could cause her to go from first place to fifth place in the judges’ minds. She confessed that a brief phone conversation earlier that morning had unraveled her. Of course the first thing I said was, “weren’t you using mental skills to refocus the mind?” She looked at me for a second as if I had engaged her in a Star Wars conversation about “the force,” and then admitted that she could use some help in that area. In my nerdy enthusiasm, I mentioned my affinity for the mind and how there are oodles of things one can do to essentially close off the brain to anything that might deter you from reaching your goal.
I’ve come to the conclusion that another aspect to the power of the mind is to NOT wear your heart on your sleeve. For people who are honest and outgoing with the way they feel, this is not an easy thing to do. I consider myself to be one of these people. Not only do I often wear my heart on my sleeve, I make sure that it’s day-glow pink and big enough for the world to see. Also, it sounds like a car alarm is going off. You can’t miss it!
This is a bad plan when it comes to staying strong in competition. For one thing, it gives away your emotional state. In his book, “I’m Here to Win,” Professional triathlete Chris McCormack shares Wellington’s advice to keep the emotions neutral, lest you divulge any intel to competitors who may see your sagging face as a sign that you are tired and easy to take down; or your wide eyes as a sign that you fear the course ahead. “Give your opponents nothing,” they say.
Letting your emotions have free reign not only jeopardizes your ability to mentally convince yourself and others that you are capable of the challenges at hand, it compromises your physical ability to manage energy in a way that allows you to execute a strong performance.
Triathletes and bodybuilders might not seem like they have much in common, but here’s what it comes down to. Whether we are faced with the reality of the clock, or the reality of the scorecard in a judge’s hand, we look for certain numbers to appear as we go through the motions of the craft we’ve mastered. But the motions alone cannot carry us all the way to success. It is the mojo that must cross that bridge.
It’s time to wear our mojo on our sleeves. Let the world see the athlete that is present, devoid of emotion or concern. Give your audience an undiluted specimen of pure focus, as if snared by your goal in an invisible tractor beam. This is what the heart of competition is about, no matter what your sport is.
For a moment in time, suspend the delicacy of being human and give yourself completely to the goal. May the mojo be with you…