Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Doing Things I'm Bad At

Last week when I stumbled upon Syd Schulz’ “Here’s What You Learn When You Do the Things You’re ‘Bad’ At” and “How to Get Better at Being Bad at Things”, I thought I was embarking on what was merely an inspirational but not particularly surprising tale of a self-described klutz that also happened to be a professional enduro racer. I say not particularly surprising because I know all too well what it means to be “better on the bike than off the bike”, as Frank once described me. If you tally my number of injuries per minute of riding a bike in comparison to the number sustained per minute of trying to run with a bike, I’m probably 4000% statistically more likely to end up bleeding the moment that I unclip during a cyclocross race. I’m not good at, you know, athletic things, and yet when it comes to the narrow focus of riding bikes, I do much better when it’s technically challenging than when it is not.

The point of the posts was however, both more inspiring and surprising than what I had expected from the first paragraph. I guess my one-sentence interpretation would be that you might end up being better at things you don’t expect to be good at because you focus more on the enjoyment/process of improvement when you have no expectations than when go into a new activity expecting success.

This is where our stories diverge, because I would describe myself as a bit enduro-curious, and it is admittedly because I think I might be good at it. It’s not that I think I’d immediately be able to jump in and start winning races, because I know there are many areas in which I would need to put in some dedicated work if I wanted to be successful in that discipline. However, pointing a mountain bike in a downward direction is one of the sharper tools in my somewhat understocked cycling toolbox, and this ability often seemed to bring me more frustration than success during my cross country racing days, so it would be nice to use it in a situation where beating people to the top of the hill is irrelevant.

Last year the Mid-Atlantic Super Series (MASS) introduced a seven-race “all-mountain” series, as one of the races was a Super D instead of an enduro. I didn’t try any of the races out last season, because I was so disgustingly out of shape for most of 2015 that I was worried about simply being able to ride to all of the stage starts without total exhaustion. Now, with five of last year’s seven races apparently not returning in 2016, the future of the discipline in this region is unclear. I am hoping to try out the two races that are currently scheduled for June while accepting the limitations that my Lust might have in that area. With the Wilderness 101 looming as my big goal for the summer, I don’t see myself being able to commit any more time, money, or bike resources into a discipline that I’ve never tried, but think I might be good at.

Someday I would like to ride an Intrigue SX on something gnarlier than the Pine Loop at BCSP.

I think track racing would be ultimate discipline that I would completely suck at when I started and still stick with until I was able to get kinda sorta okay at it, but I’ll never really know unless I ever move close enough to a velodrome to find out. For now, I suppose that my goals for the first 2/3rds of 2016 mostly count as doing things that I am bad at.

While I hoped that my fat bike racing plans would fall into my beloved category of weird, hard, obscure crap that no one’s really good at and thus I’m relatively not bad, the long, flat races so far are proving to have a roady bias that still might not be overcome by weird, hard, and obscure. Even if I do continue to be bad at it, it’s given me a valuable boost in my winter training that I simply would not have had the motivation to pull off if I weren’t currently in the midst of the training equivalent of cramming for finals. Also, the likelihood that I’d ever invest in my long, steady pedaling ability (the dullest tool in my cycling toolbox) without being pushed to do so by the weird, hard, and obscure demands of winter is quite low, so I’ll definitely end up a better cyclist from this winter’s pursuits, regardless of how I place in the rest of the races.

As for my Wilderness 101 plans, I once thought that endurance racing would be a thing that I was good at partly because of the weird, hard, and obscure element, and partly because I loved logging as many LSD miles as possible during my college running days. Of course looking back I realize that weekly mileage totals weren’t the panacea I once thought they were, and I missed out on so much time that I could have been racing by insisting on weeks and weeks of rebuilding “base” after each injury, such that I would end up injured again or fit at the completely wrong time for it to ever pay off. I’ve also since come to understand that endurance is not long and slow but instead just really, really extended discomfort, and that the time demands of high volume running miles for a college student vs. high volume cycling miles for an adult with a job are quite different. I’m much more of a get in, go hard, and get out girl than I used to be.

I remember a conversation with Frank early on in our relationship when I was discussing my past cycling accomplishments and failures, and I said that I would be perfectly happy if I lived out the rest of my life without ever finishing a 100 mile mountain bike race, despite my history of failed attempts. At the time I never really expected that I would live so close to the course of a NUE series race, in an area that requires me to be so much of a better rider than I was in Indiana just to function. This is the first time that I’ve set my sights on a 100 mile race and actually understood what I needed to do to be prepared and saw it as a reasonable possibility. It won’t be easy, but it’s definitely doable. When it’s over I’ll have reached a new level as cyclist that couldn’t find for all of my years riding around without a map, trying to go around the mountain when over was the only way.

I guess that before I even read those posts, I’d already made plans to do things that I’m bad at this year in the hope that they’ll make me good at other things later. I’m not sure if I’ll take this so far as to start running with a bike more often, as I’m not sure that I can take the blood loss, but I think that in a sport as diverse as cycling, taking time to do things you’re bad at is a good idea.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Marty's Fat Fifty

As of this weekend, I am officially a fat bike racer. Of course, I’ve been joking since at least September when I found my first East Coast fat bike race on Bikereg, that I am an undefeated fat bike racer. The weekend rendered the latter no longer true, but it was worth it to see months of anticipation finally come to fruition.

I was so stoked that I got a Hellga-colored manicure before the race.

Since fat bike race courses are usually designed to be easy enough that several inches of snow won’t render them impassable to mere mortals, the lack of snow so far this winter basically turned Marty’s Fat Fifty into a fat bike road race. The course was an out-and-back of mostly flat gravel multi-use paths, broken up by 2-3 miles of rolling pavement and 2-3 miles of singletrack with a big climb in the middle. Since long, flat, and non-technical are all words that would go into the description of my personal cycling kryptonite, as the race neared and it became clear that there would be no snow, I lowered my expectations quite a bit. I just didn’t want to get dropped from the “neutral rollout” like at Iron Cross.

Luckily, that did not happen. When the race started, I attempted to set a strong, steady pace, and while I was further back than I might have hoped, I wasn’t completely dropped by any means. Around the time that I started to settle in, a group caught up with me and we pretty much stayed together until the singletrack. I’d already been working a bit too hard on the pavement, but I wanted to break out on my own on the singletrack. I jumped into the woods first and rode as hard as I could to break away. A couple of guys passed me, but I succeeded in breaking up the group.

Some would call this a pretty terrible tactic with the amount of straight, flat riding ahead of us, but being the utter non-roady that I am, I simply wanted to focus on my own rhythm and not have to sit through 40 more miles of listening to, “Gate! Hole! Slowing! Speeding! Blah, blah, blah…” If I had three more hours of suffering ahead of me, I wanted room to see the trail ahead of me and silence except the rumbling of my tires and the demons in my head.

Once I hit the flat trail again I settled into a hard, steady rhythm and worked on reeling in the guy ahead of me. I observed my heart rate sitting at a stable 178, which is solidly into Zone 4 for me. After several minutes of cyclocross-level anaerobic effort in the singletrack, I wondered how long I would be able to keep that up, but knowing that there was at least one girl from my category only a bit behind me, I knew that backing off would result in being passed. I kept the pressure on the pedals and decided to ride that train until it crashed. In the words of Daenerys Targaryen, “If I look back, I am lost.”

That didn’t mean that I couldn’t look at the traffic in the other direction. As I approached the turnaround, I counted five girls in front of me. Things got tougher after the halfway mark, as it switched from a 1-2% downhill to a 1-2% uphill. I passed fifth place who was stopped with a flat, and I was temporarily motivated by the thought of prize beer and podium pictures. Then I was passed by another girl with a Hellga the same color as mine all the way down to the sparkly purple rim tape. For some reason, I thought she was in the non-racing class, though, perhaps because she’d come into the turnaround with a big group of guys from that class. Competition or not, the slight uphill grade was wearing on me and there wasn’t much I could do to keep up.

As the second half wore on, I could feel my body starting to crack. The fat bike does weird things to my sit bones in hard efforts and it was getting really hard to sit comfortably on the saddle. I was scooting around a lot, clenching my abs, and just trying to find a way to get comfortable while still making my legs pedal hard. I even resorted to doing Kegels to try to take pressure off my sit bones while still holding my core steady enough to pedal. It was pretty brutal.

Finally, at about 12 miles to go I was passed by the girl that I’d been trying to hold off for the whole race. It was disappointing, but I was proud of my hard-fought effort. I drug my sore, sore butt to the finish for what turned out to be 7th place, as “Other Hellga” was in my class after all. Basically, I think it was the hardest race of my life.

Trying to smile...

I was satisfied enough with my finish, knowing that the race didn’t play to my strengths, and that I will have time to get a little more fitness before the next one. My biggest frustration of the day was that the organizers refused to staff the finish line for more than an hour after the first men’s finisher. Their logic was that only the first 15 men would get NJ Fat Bike Series points, so that was all they bothered to record results for, but since only 10 women entered, all were eligible for points. It caused me a lot of anxiety knowing that there was a good chance I wouldn’t make it back it time for my finish to be recorded, and how that would affect how my points reported for the series.

Even though Frank raced his own race, he came back to the finish to shepherd me the two or so miles back to the shop to try and ease my fear of getting lost before the check-in and not getting my placing recorded accurately. When I did get back to the shop, the woman just put a check by my name and didn’t write a place or time. The director came over, but he only seemed concerned about recording the top 5 so that they could do podiums. He wrote my number down in 6th place, but seemed pretty dismissive about the whole process.

I broke down and cried on the way back to the car, because I was in so much pain and had worked so hard only to have my effort blown off. I didn’t care about whether I got a prize or not; I cared that my placing would be recorded accurately for the series, which was my bigger goal. I was just really angry that they considered the women’s placings so unimportant that wouldn’t monitor the finish line until all the female racers were scored.

The results were published with me in 7th and I guess that is probably accurate. It’s not the best start on the series, but it’s something. The next race is 80 miles and pancake flat, but I have four weeks to work on my endurance. Hopefully some perseverance and a couple of four-hour races on mountain-bikey trails at the end of the series will improve my placing by the end. If not, at least I can say I’m already in better shape than I’ve ever been in January and will inevitably be a bit closer to overcoming my bike kryptonite by spring.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Skills Clinic

A few days ago when I actually began the brain dump that I posted yesterday, I intended to tie in my experience at a Team Laser Cats-hosted women’s beginner mountain bike ride on Sunday. However, as I wrote through my descent into feeling hopeless/helpless in my relationship with food and thus life in general, I realized the post was already too long and either needed to stand alone or be thrown out altogether. While I wasn’t sure if a long retelling of things that I’ve discussed in the blog before and conclusions that I’d already come to would be interesting or useful for anyone else, it helped me to write it all out into one big three-year story that I figured that there was at least no harm in publishing.

Anyway, Sunday my team hosted a mountain bike mini-clinic and beginner ride in Philadelphia. Taylor and Taryn were the ride leaders, but I made the trip to spend some time with the team and lend moral support. Before the ride I thought about the instruction I’d received at clinics before and the best way to teach mountain biking to complete beginners. My conclusion: it’s hard to do. While I’ve benefited from shared tips and tricks along the way, most of my learning was by my own trial and error.

It was a fun day in the woods, and it was so great to see so many women mountain bike for the first time and come away wanting more. It reminded me of my first summer of mountain biking and I remembered how scary it was at first. I was also super proud of the newbies, as the “easier” trails in Wissahickon Park were still so much harder than the Indiana trails where I learned to ride, and they still did great. Still, as I observed their fear going over rocks and steeper downhills, I sort of wished that could just download my muscle memory into their brains and make it immediately more easy and fun for them.

Photo Credit: Team Laser Cats

This reminded me of my metaphor about how telling people to change their attitude is sort of like telling people how to mountain bike. It’s something which can only be relayed so much by normal forms of human communication, but I guess the telling is a good start if it’s done in helpful, considerate manner. I was very aware during ride to really try to communicate technique without ever sounding bossy or condescending, because I know how hard the things that are easy for me now once were. I hope that I was successful in my attempts.

A lot of my depression and anxiety lately has been due to feeling like I can’t get certain aspects of my life on track, especially eating. For months now, perhaps even since I moved to State College, I’ve been struggling to get back the “magic” that helped me make so many positive life changes before. However, it felt like every time I tried to get on the right path, I encountered another obstacle that I wasn’t equipped to handle. These days I can barely handle any sort challenge that might put my eating, sleeping, or training in jeopardy, and I’m so tired and frustrated at my lack of strength and/or my inability to cultivate the strength and resilience that I had three years ago.

This is where the easy to say but harder to execute change in attitude comes in. I saw some quote the other day that said something like, “Right now someone is praying for you what you take for granted.” Its sucks when you don’t have something you desperately want, but it’s a good reminder of what you have. Many of the challenges that I’m facing now are the result of getting the things that at one point in my life I desperately wanted. The stress of having to plan and cook meals for two people when I don’t feel like dealing with food at all is because I wanted to be with a guy who liked my cooking. When I get stressed out in the afternoons at work and want sugar to get me through, it’s because I have a stable job that pays pretty well, which I was without for quite a while in my early adulthood.

After some reflection it became clear that I had worked really hard to get to the current circumstances in which I sat, and I needed to learn to be successful in them instead of trying to change them more in an attempt make things easier on myself. If my time in Rothrock has taught me anything, it is that there comes a time when you just have to ride the trail in front of you until you start to love it (and that suspension helps). I needed to stop worrying so much about the perceived reasons that I could not get the things I wanted and just figure out how to get them.

I couldn’t simply be told to change my attitude any more than the girls on the ride could be told how shifting their weight would makes things easier. We both had to ride over some scary stuff and put ourselves in uncomfortable situations to understand what those instructions really meant. Now I’m starting to let my butt leave the saddle a bit and play with my balance. With those skills finally coming around, perhaps I can finally start riding over the rocks in my path instead of letting them knock me down.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Brain Dump

I understand the things that keep you up
And I know that you still feel
And I know your heart is hemorrhaging
And needs some time to heal
And now the traffic lights there on your street 
Flash yellow all the time
And that mirror in your bathroom 
It looks cracked in the wrong light
But walk out through your threshold
Fill your lungs up and move on down the stairs
And let the things you love come back to you 
In time we'll all get there

It would be real nice just to fly a way
And escape everything
But little bird looks like you've got a broken wing
Now anything so easy
It might not make you weak
But it sure won't make me believe

Christmas break has come and gone, and having returned to real life and kicked off 2016 training, I’ve been feeling weird about the contrast between my last two posts and the fact that I’ve let it sit on a bummer note for three weeks now. There’s the obvious answer of having traveled to Oklahoma for a week of that period, but a lot of it was just not being back to a place having something nice, or at least coherent, to say. I still don’t know if I do, but perhaps a brain dump is what I need.

The underlying theme of my recent breakdown is much the same struggle that I’ve had the whole time since moving to State College. Basically, it’s that I can’t have all of the things that I want at once. Three years ago, I realized how badly I’d let my life become devoid of human connection and started fighting to change that. Since more or less the only people I knew were through bikes, all of my efforts to reach out to people involved riding.

I had a new found determination and a plan to improve myself. Even when I didn’t have plans or people to ride with, I was very good about keeping up my training and eating well, so that I would feel good when the opportunity to ride with others came up, rather than falling into my old depressive behavior when I was alone. After years of struggling with inconsistent training and binge eating, which made me feel gross and shut myself off from the world, I ended up getting in better shape and getting leaner than I’d ever been while training to make friends than I ever did training for a goal race.

When I started relying on people and bikes in tough times instead of food, I started to make friends quickly and have a much busier social calendar than I ever could have imagined. And I handled it so well! Late nights, exposure to “trigger foods”, and overnight travel used to be big fears for me, but they were suddenly minor prices to pay to spend with all of my new found companions.

The one thing I was missing was a romantic relationship, which was an important thing motivating my change. The realization that 32 was still too young to give up on love and sex was what gave me the courage to leave a comfortable but disconnected marriage rather than just living out my life trying to get what I needed from platonic relationships only. However, I was definitely not expecting commenting on a stranger’s dinner on Instagram to escalate into true love within three months of moving into my own place.

It’s almost as if success came too quickly to last. In less than a year of the vague realization that I was putting my energy into the wrong things, I suddenly had my own place, a tiny lime green car, a badly-behaved kitten, lots of friends and things to do, and a dude who I was madly in love with, while also managing a previously unknown-to-me level of fitness and 14% body fat on the side. I found it hard to maintain as the months wore on and more and more of my energy went into driving back and forth to Pennsylvania, and less of it went to other friends or bikes. My friends all had lives and significant others of their own, and Frank was by far my favorite person to spend time with, so the friendships that hadn’t yet had time to establish deep roots started to suffer.

Then, after less than a year in my own place, I made the jump to come live in State College with Frank full-time. It was basically the culmination of what I’d hoped to achieve when I first set out on my journey, but I’d had no idea of the other things that would be gained and lost along the way. I quickly lost touch with my friends in Indiana beyond the occasional text, and I no longer wanted to reach out when I was feeling down for fear of being seen as a drama queen or crisis-only friend. For a variety of reasons, my fitness plummeted during my first year in State College, and the binge eating started to reemerge shortly after the move and continued in new and varied forms to be as bad as it ever was.

I’m glad I moved to State College, because ultimately I’m better off here and my relationship with Frank has been everything that I’d hoped it would be, but I’ve admittedly spent a good chunk of the last year and a half mourning the things that were lost along the way. Obviously, I feel bad about the friendships that blossomed and then withered so quickly because I didn’t put enough into them, and I miss the way my body felt those months of my life. Mostly I miss how emotionally strong and resilient I felt, and I guess I’m kind of mad at myself not being able to maintain that level of stability through a cross country move, the change in lifestyle that comes with actually *living* with another person rather than just sharing a house, and working in a job that, while much more intellectually stimulating than the one I was in when I had all that capacity for self-improvement, also takes up a lot more of my energy.

The last few months have provided some glimmers of hope that I might, in fact, be able to restore balance among the things that I care about once again. Learning to climb all of the things in Rothrock last summer was a big inspiration for me training-wise, although it didn’t seem to help my ‘cross season much, and I started to regress as my weekends were taken up by racing and weekday evenings turned dark. Now that fat bike season is giving me not only the freedom to do long rides, but the necessity, my biggest challenge is making something useful of the dark weeknights between now and daylight savings time. Getting to know the Laser Cats has also been a huge help in starting to establish a much-needed East Coast bike family, and I still get enough reminders that Frank and are never forgotten amongst our little clan in Illinois. It’s a good reminder that even though I can now see my favorite person without ever leaving the house, there are important rewards to finding the energy to venture out and see the other worthwhile human beings in the outside world.

I guess the biggest struggle these days is really that I’ve full-on regressed to abusing food a coping mechanism for whatever else is going on my life. It’s not just about my weight and health, although it is a lot nicer living my body when I’m treating it well. I think it’s really about not wanting to be dependent on something that is bad for me, and feeling in control of my actions and life. When I began my positive changes before, getting my eating until control was actually the first thing I accomplished, because I found that reaching out to people felt good and eating for comfort felt bad. Then not feeling crappy from binge eating was what gave me the strength to achieve even more positive effects.

The problem is that when it happened before it was sort of like a magical switch was flipped for me. One positive interaction killed my desire to binge eat for a couple of days, which made me feel better physically, which further made it easier not to binge eat. The successes built one brick at a time. Once I moved to State College, it was almost a reverse effect. One slip-up lead to another, and another, and I kept hoping to find that old magic switch again to make it easy, but I never did. My old tricks for getting by don’t work as well in my new lifestyle, and I have yet to find any new successful coping mechanisms. Right now I’m a few days “clean” by white-knuckle power alone, but that’s never really held up long term in the past, and typically when I do fall into a bout of depression or anxiety a big part of it is because I’m afraid that I will never be able to handle life without abusing food again.

So it’s clear that I won’t be really be happy until I’ve fully and successfully got binge eating’s butt kicked again. Without that magic switch that I’ve been waiting on, I’m still not really sure how, but I need to figure it out.