2015 ended with some new art and five straight days of swimming (which might be a record for consecutive days of swimming since 1987). 2016 began with a moment of insanity.
The art: I finally got around to executing and printing two collagraphs that were planned sometime in November. The first one is a stalk of grass that I picked up on one of my runs in the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. Here are the print and the plate:
|Winter Grass, (unsigned) collagraph print, December 2015|
|Un-inked plate for above print.|
|Sand and Water, (unsigned) collagraph print|
|Un-inked plate for above print|
The insanity: a bike ride with my great friend Sam in 30 degrees with 20mph headwind followed by a "polar plunge" in Lake Erie. It's been quite balmy on the north coast this winter - not the frozen tundra of years past - so we have no right to complain. Here's the video.
2015 ended with some new art and five straight days of swimming (which might be a record for consecutive days of swimming since 1987). 2016 began with a moment of insanity.
I have several friends in England and find myself journeying there on a regular basis, especially around Christmastime when London streets are festive and brightly lit. This year, my husband Jim and I needed to use the airfare we banked when our trip to Sweden was canceled after my surgery. We chose to use it on a trip to the UK in December.
Monday, 7 December was the first day we had no specific plans in London after arriving from Liverpool. After some thought, the location and time available made the Olympic pool the one to do first. It required no acclimation and Jim also viewed it as a tourist destination. We did laundry that afternoon and then headed to the Olympic Park.
I swam for about 40 minutes - about 2500 meters. I want to note that above the diving well at the far end of the pool were two huge digital pace clocks - not with numbers but with digital clock "hands" - it was all.. just.. so.. state of the art. When I jumped out, I told a fellow swimmer in lane 5 that I was visiting from the USA and would love to dive off the blocks just once. Another swimmer heard me and suggested I do it even thought it was against the rules - he said the lifeguards may yell at me but what's done would be done. They egged me on, so I climbed up on the block and instantly drew a whistle from the lifeguard. I pleaded my case but was denied. Thus endeth my quest for the Olympic starting blocks. (I was also told the pool has never been drained, and it's entirely possible that Michael Phelps' DNA is still floating around in it.)
Here are a video and some photos that Jim took:
|Check out the digital pace clocks!|
|In there is the warm-up pool, also 50 meters but set up for 25-meter lengths.|
Michael Phelps might have stood here too.
|London Aquatics Centre from the outside - looks wavy.|
|The Olympic stadium.|
The next day - Tuesday, 8 December - I set my sights on a second pool. I didn't want Jim to have to spend our entire vacation on a swim search, so I found one near the day's planned events and carried my swim stuff with me. That day, we had a late-morning reservation for the Crime Museum Uncovered at the London Museum. It was a fascinating exhibit of crime history, noteworthy criminal cases, and the Metropolitan police, and by the time we got out, it was well after 2pm. We grabbed a late lunch and hurried to take photos at St. Paul's Cathedral before it got dark.
It was still early, and even though I still planned to swim, we were very close to a pub recommended to us in Liverpool - The Old Bank of England. The interior was beautiful and their menu looked amazing. But I promised myself only one pint, and then we made our way to one of the best-rated outdoor pools in London - the Oasis Sports Centre in Covent Garden. Jim could hang out and/or shop in Covent Garden while I was swimming.
The Oasis Sports Centre was about an eight-minute walk from the pub. It was cold and rainy, and the closer I got to it, the less I wanted to swim. The thing that kept me going was the knowledge that this pool was heated. The Oasis pool cost £5 to swim, and there are TWO pools - one inside and one out. Both were a good size with three lanes each.
I gathered my strength and walked outside in my swimsuit. The outdoor pool - 27.5 meters in length - was busy with four or five people per lane. I noticed swimmers were huddling down in the shallow end to stay warm. When I got in, I understood. It was warm water! I swam laps in the middle lane - they were also alternating circle-swim direction per lane. Again, I was one of the fastest people in the pool. I swam for about 40 minutes and found I was never conscious about the water or air temperature. About halfway through my swim, a new lifeguard came out and started shouting and moving people into different lanes. I got moved to the "fast lane."
Overall, the swimmers in Covent Garden were not nearly as aware of other swimmers' speeds as they were in the Olympic pool. One male swimmer with a horrible stroke refused to back off every time I tried to pass him. He would just clobber me until I could get in front of him. It seemed a bit rude, but everyone was speaking different languages in this pool, so maybe I was having a bit of a culture clash.
Getting out of the water was a shock. The air was in the 50s but it felt frigid - thank heavens for hot showers! I changed quickly, and before I left, I took a quick photo of the pool from inside the building (Note: the lifeguard yelled at me for taking this photo but no-one in it is recognizable.)
|It doesn't look big, but this pool in Covent Garden is 27.5m in length.|
Pool swim 2: done. My hands and feet took a while to warm up after getting chilled from the air after my swim. Jim and I ducked into several bookstores before I could feel my fingers again. I now started to question whether I really wanted to swim outdoors in an unheated pool.
Wednesday, 9 December, we planned to visit the British Library - a place Jim has been promising to take me ever since he went there a couple years ago on a business trip. Our good friends Andy and Caroline would also be arriving in London that day so we made plans to meet them at the Library at noon. Thus, I would have to swim that morning. And, it just so happens that there is a unique swimming location just up the street from the Library.
This next swim would be so much more than just a swim. It was an opportunity to be part of a living art installation. It's called King's Cross Pond Club, and it's a temporary man-made pond in the middle of a very busy construction zone. When I first googled "winter swimming in London," this place came up at the top of the list. As a location, a work of art, and a swimming destination, it didn't disappoint.
We arrived shortly after 10am, but no one had been swimming yet. I asked the ticket-taker/lifeguard if people really swim in December - he said they did. The cost was £3.50. The water temperature was 7 degrees C. I looked at Jim - he did the calculation in his head (one of his many talents): "45 degrees F." I looked at the lifeguard again: "Can I wear a wetsuit?" He said "Sure. I recommend it." He also said all I would need was a five-minute dip to get the "full effect."
(Whatever THAT meant.)
I paid my entry and went to the changing rooms. While putting my wetsuit on, I heard someone in the changing room next to me. The person was there for only a few seconds and then left. I yelled to Jim, waiting outside the door, "Is there someone else here?" Jim said "Yes, there's a guy." He changed pretty quickly, so I asked: "Is he wearing a wetsuit?" Jim said "No, he's just in swim trunks." Yikes! My first encounter with one of these crazy cold-water-loving English people. I thought about it for a second... and then remembered the lifeguard's recommendation to wear a wetsuit. I, for one, certainly wasn't going to question his expert opinion. That other guy wouldn't last more than a couple minutes.
At least five minutes had passed by the time I walked up to the pond. I even put on two swim caps to avoid head freeze (remembering how bad my face hurt when I swam in 56-degree Atlantic water). When I got up there, the crazy English guy was actually swimming - in 45-degree water without a wetsuit. He wasn't just in for a dip. He swam around and around and around... moving normally - you know, as though he WEREN'T actually submerged in icy water. Was I a complete wimp? I put my foot in. Yep, it was an ice bath. Wait, no it wasn't. It was MUCH COLDER than an ice bath. I rethought the wimp statement and climbed in.
The first thing I noticed - besides the unbelievable cold - was that this was THE cleanest, clearest water I've EVER swam in. Even now, I can still taste it. It was extraordinary. I swam around a little, not quite ready to put my head in (just a note: crazy-English-guy was not submerging his head either). I had to work up to it... and then I was able to swim for a bit. The pond is oval-shaped - 10m wide by 40m long - with plants on one side and a main swimming area. We asked a lot of questions, impressed with the lifeguard's knowledge of how it all works (more information online). The plants actually act as a filter for the pond, and there's a limit on the number of swimmers daily so that this small ecosystem continues to work. I imagine it will attract crowds next summer, and I really hope it becomes a permanent fixture. Despite the cold, this place is a treasure, and I'm unable to conjure up the words to fully describe how completely amazing it was to swim there. The water was so so SO beautiful.
The cold eventually started to get to me - my fingers and feet were not going to last long. I was determined to stay in at least as long as crazy-English-guy-without-a-wetsuit. I can say that after being in the water for a bit, my body didn't go into shock. In fact, I started to get used to it. It hurts for the first couple minutes and then everything starts to feel ok. Numb fingers and toes were the biggest issue for me and I lasted about 12 minutes - for the record, I'm saying I got out because we needed to get to the Library.
While changing, I saw another swimmer on her way to the pond - she wore swimming gloves and booties and a neoprene vest over a regular bathing suit. Now THAT was a SMART crazy-English-swimmer. Surely, I could have been in there for HOURS had it not been for my extremities. Anyway, Jim took some photos and video at King's Cross Pond Club. I highly recommend going there before it closes if you get the chance. Maybe wait until it warms up... like in February, perhaps?
|The water was ridiculously clean and clear.|
|The plants are not only filters, they provide natural beauty to the installation.|
|From the observation deck.|
|Zoomed out to show the entire set-up
I like the striped motif on the temporary buildings too.
There it was: three swims in three days. We spent the rest of the day catching up with Andy and Caroline and visited the Natural History Museum. I didn't even TRY explaining to the bag inspector at the museum what I was doing with a wet wetsuit in my backpack.
Thursday would be difficult to get in a swim. We met Andy at the Imperial War Museum while Caroline had a work meeting, and by the time we said our goodbyes and saw them off on a train back to Exeter, both Jim and I were exhausted from being on our feet for so long for two days. We had plans to have dinner with another great friend - Sam - who lives in London (she writes a very interesting blog about London cemetery residents). Thus, my goal of five swims in five days came to an end. I wasn't too disappointed after a four pints and two pubs and great conversation with Sam.
But Friday morning, I was determined to do the one thing that would haunt me if I didn't do it: act like a proper Brit and swim outside in an unheated pool in December. I had to find the right place - something within walking distance from anywhere we needed to go that day. Friday had been set aside for shopping and the National Gallery. But my swim was first priority.
There were three places I had in mind, but only one of them would actually be feasible. The first was the Serpentine Lido in Hyde Park. It wasn't possible because I was not a member of the Serpentine Swim Club (and it took more than a morning to join). The second was the Tooting Bec Lido - the most historic (built in 1906) and second-largest (91m long by 30m wide) of the outdoor pools in the UK. Again, not possible - besides being over an hour away, in the winter it was only open to the South London Swim Club. The third was Parliament Hill Fields Lido on the outskirts of Hampstead Heath. Score! This one was possible - less than an hour away and I could swim for a measly £2.50.
Jim figured out how to get me there in 40 minutes: the Tube and a bus to Parliament Hill, then walk to the Lido. I packed my wetsuit but on the way, I told Jim I made a decision: "If just ONE person is not wearing a wetsuit, I'm going in without it." My fate was sealed, because... you KNOW there would be at least one crazy-English-swimmer. In fact, there were several. And yes, some were men in only Speedos.
Parliament Hill Fields has the true "Lido" experience. It's a huge outdoor pool surrounded by a concrete deck with a cafe. The lifeguard told us the pool is 61m long and 27m wide. This is what we saw when we arrived:
|Chilly and rainy. Not really swimming weather - but this is England.|
|That's Celsius - pool temp in Fahrenheit was 48 degrees.|
This experience would be one for the ages. In the change room, I met a girl who was donning a full wetsuit. She told me she swims for 30 minutes and just a week ago she switched to a wetsuit because she couldn't take the cold anymore. I put on my bathing suit (here they call them "swimming costumes") and walked outside to meet Jim on the deck. The air was chilly enough.
The lifeguards at Parliament Hill Lido were the friendliest of all - they were all smiles and gave me tips on how to get in the water. In a nutshell: "start at the shallow end and do it very gradually." They also told me not to overdo it since I had not acclimated yet. The lifeguards were dressed more for winter than for pool weather, and they stayed inside. They were definitely the smart ones, I noted, as I began to doubt my intelligence - or maybe my sanity - when I stepped into the water.
The water was ice-cold, but the pool was gorgeous and really clean and clear. It had a stainless steel liner with little perforations so you didn't slip. I got in up to my knees at the shallow end, and slowly walked towards the deep end. It hurt. Once I waded in up to my thighs, I had to wait for about a minute for the pain in my legs to go away. Then, I took the plunge.
I was in up to my neck for a split second before I lost my breath. It was like having the wind knocked out of me - like being punched in the chest. I remembered the same feeling when I jumped in the reservoir at Ironman St. George in 2011. That water had been in the high 50s - and I was wearing a wetsuit. This was MUCH colder. And there was no neoprene to save me. It took a bit of time, but I was finally able to swim - actually SWIM - for six laps before my fingers (yep, fingers again) had enough. I was actually getting used to it, and, surprisingly, my face didn't hurt this time. While getting out, I looked around. There were women and men in only bathing suits, some with neoprene gloves and booties, the girl in just a wetsuit, and an elderly lady with a full wetsuit, neoprene cap, gloves, and booties. All types. All crazy English swimmers. I loved them all. And I was one of them.
I swam. In London. Outdoors. In December. In an unheated pool. Without a wetsuit. Mission accomplished. Jim took a few photos and video at Parliament Hill Fields Lido.
|It's hard to see, but that is me in the shallow end.|
|Yep, I'm swimming.|
|I can't talk because my lips are frozen.
I can only gesture. This means "I have NO feeling in my hands."
After my London swimming experience, I understand how people who swim in winter can do it. They swim year-round and slowly acclimate their bodies to colder and colder water. I like to believe they do it because they love swimming. But there may be some benefit to this cold-water life. I found this notice on the way into the locker/changing room at Parliament Hill Fields Lido:
I have several friends in England and find myself journeying there on a regular basis, especially around Christmastime when London streets are festive and brightly lit. This year, my husband Jim and I needed to use the airfare we banked when our trip to Sweden was canceled after my surgery.
|When Hurricane Patricia hit the west coast of Mexico,
San Jose del Cabo had amazing surf for two days.
I've been struggling with this post for a long LONG time. Not on paper, but in my head. Something happened in Mexico. And I can't shake it.
In a word: I changed.
I changed from the person I was into the person I keep wanting to be. I started to ask myself those deep soul-inquiring questions. Why? Why are you doing this?
I had no answer.
For the past several years, I've become a slave to Triathlon (capital T) and the Mdot. These are the Lifestyle Corporations that induce me to shell out enormous amounts of cash chasing something that is supposed to make me feel good about myself. Yet, the more I tried to be a Triathlete, the worse I felt about myself. And the more Triathlon friends I surrounded myself with, the more I started to hide from them.
It comes down to one "ism": "Comparison is the thief of joy."
All I've done is compare myself to others and I keep coming up at the bottom of the list. Never good enough. Never fast enough. Never cool enough. Never good-looking enough. Never having the best gear. The newest gadget. The fastest clothing. I was afraid to talk to any of the Triathlon people because I would seem like the "low-income ugly red-headed cousin who ran in cotton sweats." (Why this is bad, I have no clue, as I used to embrace that part of me, the part that was different and unique.)
But I kept trying - if I was faster, people would like me, right?
The problem is, I didn't like myself. I didn't like what I'd become. I resented the Lifestyle Corporations that existed only to take my money, and sell me overpriced races and stuff that would make me "faster" or look "cooler" and tout my accomplishments. Triathlon is all about gear and bodies (note, please don't hang me, Triathlon friends, I'm interpreting the 95%). I found myself in forums where people said things like "how many bikes is too many bikes?" walking around at races with too much skin on display (which, obviously, always looked better than mine), and being on a team where my cohorts say things to me like "going to Kona is great, but how does it help our sponsors?"
I spent a lot of time with my mouth agape at things Triathlon people said, a lot of time being disgusted with the commercialism of the whole thing, and a lot of time worrying that I would never measure up.
Most importantly, I forgot the Number One Fundamental Reason For Doing Something: because I enjoy it.
This past weekend, I watched a movie called "The End of the Tour." It's basically one long conversation between two men: acclaimed writer David Foster Wallace (one of the people I am apt to name when asked "If you could meet anyone, living or dead, who would it be?") and Rolling Stone journalist David Lipsky. They spend five days together in 1996 during the last week of Wallace's book signing tour for Infinite Jest. It begins with Lipsky learning of Wallace's suicide in 2008. I don't know why this movie affected me so much, but it precipitated an almost four-day soul-defining time-out. It made me realize I have become a drone. I've defined myself by outside standards instead of inherent inner value. I've stopped caring about making a difference and started accepting failure. This has happened in life as well as sport.
I was reminded of a time when I never needed to race. I could go swimming or biking or (especially) running just because those things gave me myself. When I challenged myself with additional miles, I did it not because someone else was doing it, but because, simply, I wanted to challenge myself. Seriously, the reason I started distance-running in the first place had everything to do with self-help. It cleared my mind. It gave me peace. It just felt good. And I never told anyone I was doing it because I never cared what anyone thought about it. I even liked doing it alone.
Now, I read everyone's daily updates on Facebook and rate myself. I stopped doing sport for the pure joy of it and started doing it for external affirmation. Getting the medal became important. Winning was important. People would like me more if I won, right? I started (harshly) judging myself by everyone else's accomplishments. Daily. I would, and will, never measure up.
I've been fighting against this attitude my whole life - this hypocritical dichotomy. Deep down, I believe people have worth just because they exist, and I deeply value my friends because they're my friends, whether they have achievement medals or not. But, over the years, my OWN worth has stemmed from my school grades, my swim finishes, my track finishes, how prestigious my college was, how prestigious my job was, how much money I made, whether I was married, whether I had kids, how many marathons I did, how many Ironmans I did, and finally, the dream I've been chasing for a few years, whether I can finally make it back to Kona and have a good race there.
I've nothing to prove. Lately, it's not like everyone hasn't done an Ironman. I've become a drone to the Triathlon Lifestyle. To the Corporations who know how much money I (don't) make but will find a way to make me fork it over. I do it year in and year out, and nothing changes. They get richer and I'm still the same person I was. With more stuff. And less worth.
Something has to change. I have to change.
|I was smiling during and after the rough IM Los Cabos swim.
I was sad it ended so quickly.
And now, I can say without doubt, that instead of learning nothing in Mexico (note: I started Ironman Los Cabos, I didn't finish), I learned everything in Mexico. I learned that I love Mexico. I love the food. I love the people. I love the landscape. I love the water. I LOVED the water. Not the drinking water. The ocean water. While I was out there fighting the chop in the 2.4-mile swim of Ironman Los Cabos, I was having the most fun I've had in a race. Ever. And now, I want to do that. For no reason but because it's fun, I feel challenged, and I want to.
I think I want to swim. In the ocean. Long. Distances.
Thus, I may have something new to write about. Let the adventure begin.
Here are some of our photos from Mexico.
|First place we ate in San Jose del Cabo was a little hole-in-the-wall
called El Mesón del Ahorcado (The Hangman).
The tacos were to DIE for. Look at all the salsas!!
|Cabo Pulmo National Park|
|Coastline of Cabo Pulmo National Park, we snorkeled here.|
|Cloud Gate (Anish Kapoor)
The giant reflecting "bean" in Chicago's Millennium Park
I found out I was a runner when I was ten years old.
Throughout the years, running has been my go-to therapy for all that ailed me. It was the one sport I fully understood. I knew how to train. I knew how to race. And I knew how to get injured. When I switched to triathlon after my fifth stress fracture, I had a distinctive advantage as a fast runner. My race didn't start until I was off the bike. I rarely worried about getting passed on the bike because I knew I would be feeling good when the great cyclists were struggling to get to the finish line.
But that's all in the past - when I was young. And fast. For the last three years, I've been struggling with an injury that threatened to once and for all end my days of being a (good) runner. I've been told my hamstring tendon will never be 100%. And despite working like crazy on the bike, I can never keep up with the really fast women in my age group. I've gotten a little closer to them, but never close enough to put me within striking distance on the run. It doesn't help that I haven't looked forward to the run leg either. Coming off the bike has been akin to a funeral march and I've lost the killer instinct that made triathlon racing so enjoyable. I have been going through the motions hoping something - anything - would change.
And finally, this year, I entered a new age group, and things were on the verge of getting better. I was ready to train hard. All the painful and difficult therapy had finally begun to pay off, and my running became mostly pain-free. I started to enjoy running for the first time in three years, and my speed was slowly coming back. I was thrilled.
Then came my infection, surgery and down time - right at the beginning of racing season - and all my hopes for this new age group year evaporated. I damned myself as the disaster-magnet I was and wrestled with throwing in the towel on the whole year. Dropping out of several already-paid-for races, one of them the ITU Long Course World Championship, and the fear of throwing money away was weighing heavy on my shoulders - especially after giving up my full-time income for a career as an artist (read: no income). Stress got the best of me, and I suffered with insomnia and anxiety for many weeks.
By the end of July, my surgeon still hadn't given me the green light to get back in the pool, but I was still entered in the ITU Age Group Standard Distance Worlds in Chicago on September 19. I was panicking. I kept asking my husband Jim, "How am I going to race a World Championship in the shape I'm in?"
I secretly hoped he would say "drop out," but his answer? "Speed work."
I couldn't come up with a better idea, so I decided to suck it up and make my best attempt to speed up my 10K run with weekly short hard intervals in August. Time was running out and my expectations were low. Two weeks after I started swimming again, I raced the USAT Age Group Nationals in Milwaukee. The snail-like swim pace didn't bother me nearly as much as my run time. I couldn't get a single mile under seven minutes. It was embarrassing to know I once ran a marathon at 6:30 pace.
Although I had been working hard on the bike, I didn't hold out hope to ride with the "big girls" in Chicago. All I wished was to avoid losing time on the run, and at the very least, I knew I could speed up my swim time from Milwaukee's all-time-slowest. This had become a rescue mission. For my mental health, I needed to salvage something from this triathlon season and prove to myself I could still work hard and get results.
When I toed the line in Chicago last Saturday, I knew it would be an all-out effort. I would race with everything I had that day and be happy knowing I did as much work as I could with the hand I was dealt this year.
As usual, my legacy as the Disaster Magnet was on the horizon.
It started with rain and wind in Chicago that was bad enough to alter the races on Friday and move our bike check-in to race morning. My wake-up time and morning nutrition was already less-than-ideal because of a wave start at 12:20 pm. Now I would have to be up and in downtown Chicago for more than seven hours before my race. Ugh.
|Race morning was beautiful.|
The only thing that made race morning enjoyable was the ease in which we could get into transition and prep our stuff. On the way in, I was met by a smiling volunteer who I failed to recognize as our USAT Mideast Regional Vice-chair Mike Wendorf. I must have looked a little anxious and he said to me "Today, you ARE Gwen Jorgensen." (I would see him again at the finish line where he recognized me and gave me a huge hug. It's always amazing to connect and reconnect with people all over the world in this sport.)
After bike prep, I had to figure out how to spend the next several hours and plan my nutrition to avoid stomach issues during the race. Jim and I relaxed in the car, in the Team USA hotel lobby, wandering around the race site, watching start waves, and figuring out where to hang out between bathroom stops. It seemed like forever. Finally it was time to put on my wetsuit and make my way to the staging area.
Disaster number 2 came - yep - just in time for my start wave, age group women 50-54. We were herded into the start corral, given final instructions on the swim course, and marched toward the starting dock. Except..... WAIT! Something has gone wrong with the pontoon dock! We were herded backwards into the corral, and along came a forklift to fix it. No, I am NOT making this up. We waited, and waited, and waited... trying to laugh about baking in our wetsuits in the sun.
Then came the announcement - the dock was fully broken, and conditions were deemed unsafe to proceed to the start. There would be a modified swim. We waited some more. Then came another announcement. The swim had to be shortened to less than sprint distance. There were outcries. One woman even asked if we could swim further by getting in the water upstream of the start. The slow swimmers were ecstatic. And we waited again.
Disappointment set in. I wanted that 1500m swim. I needed as much help as I could get, and the longer the swim, the better it would be for me - I was born a distance swimmer. But there was nothing to be done. It would be a 700m swim.
|See? I wasn't kidding about the forklift.|
|Waiting... waiting... and waiting.|
We had to wait while officials prepped the altered swim course, and around 1:00 pm, about 40 minutes after our official start time, we were finally in the water. The start horn signaled a mad all-out sprint unlike any race I've ever done. The course followed the marina wall at the edge of Grant Park. I did the best I could with my one-speed distance stroke, but I knew I was well-behind the leaders. Jim said I started catching people in the final yards - probably because everyone else went out sprinting. Oh, how I wished we had the whole 1500m.
It was a long run to transition - almost 400m - and I got out of my wetsuit faster than usual and was on the bike course in about three minutes. I knew I had to go hard from the start - so that's what I did.
The 40K bike course was underwhelming for a world championship. There were four hairpin turns and much of the course was in the underground tunnels known as Lower Wacker Drive. Low light made it hard to see road hazards, but I still rode as hard as I could and played leap-fog with the same few women for most of the bike. My speed on the flats was 24-25mph - really fast for me - and surprisingly (to me), I managed to keep myself in the race on the bike. The bike course was slightly short, and the finish came quickly after one turn-around. There was such a frenzy at the dismount line that a woman in front of me went down hard with her bike. I stopped for second to make sure she was ok, then took off on another long run to transition. Transition was a bit slow when I struggled to rack my bike from the handlebars (usually not a problem), but my shoes went on quick, and I was about to find out the worth of a month of speed training.
|On the bike course when it wasn't underground.|
Except, NO! Instead of hitting the split button, I hit "stop" on my Garmin out of transition. I didn't realize it until mile 2 of the run because I was intent on running down all the women I was with on the bike course.
For the first time in three years, I felt good - really good - on the 10K run leg. That killer instinct came back and I just ran. I WAS Gwen Jorgensen. Once I restarted my Garmin, I was clocking well under a seven minute-per-mile pace - without any of the usual fatigue. I don't know how many women in my age group I ran down, but at the finish, I was only 11 seconds behind fourth place, and I heard the announcement for third.
So. Close. (If only I had another K. Or that 850m back in the swim.) But I wasn't going to lament this. Live and learn. My run was back.
I got that feeling... you know? That feeling you get when you're running well? Like you've broken through some kind of barrier. I had it the year I ran my first sub-2:50 marathon in Duluth, MN. I had it when I ran the eight-mile leg of Hood to Coast at a sub-6-minute pace. I had it the day I ran down the previous-year's champ to win the Quad Cities Marathon. I had it when I ran down all the age group leaders off the bike at the 2011 Ironman 70.3 World Championship. And I had it Saturday in Chicago. No, it wasn't my fastest 10K, but felt damn good not to be crawling my way through the fog of fatigue for the first time in a very long time.
Imagine my surprise when I looked up the results to see my run leg at 45:45. How could that be? Was my Garmin wrong? I KNOW one of my miles was a 6:32 - and the last four were sub-7. Could I have run the first two over a minute slower? My elation turned to devastation. How could it feel so fast when I was running so slow?
I was in a daze. The walk back to transition to pick up my bike was now the funeral march. Jim was desperately searching for something to say - to cheer me up. I don't remember much until I heard the the question... Someone in transition.. asked.. "Was the run...... long?"
Others had the GPS run distance of 6.7 miles. That would put my pace at... 6:49! Devastation turned back to elation. I couldn't wait to tell Jim! The drive home that night would be long, but it wouldn't be tough. My run was back. And next season looks a lot brighter.
I've raced twice since my last blog post, but I've been feverishly working on other projects and web sites and haven't had time to reflect and post anything meaningful. Here's my latest attempt at that (and perhaps at pulling something meaningful out of a seemingly-lost racing season).
The first of the aforementioned races was the USAT Olympic-distance Age Group National Championship in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It came about two weeks after I was able to start swimming after my surgery and while I was still desperately trying to get my running legs back. I had no idea how I would perform overall, but at the very least, I was expecting a decent split on the bike. Cycling was the only sport for which I was able to solidly train. And as luck (?) would have it, the location of my surgical incisions forced me into doing 99% of my riding in the aero position - JUST for comfort. Could I be the first person ever to utter such a statement?
My race expectations were fulfilled: it was my slowest swim split - ever, my fastest bike split - in Milwaukee, and a very slow run - by my standards. Looking for positives, I can say that despite being exhausted after the swim, I "felt" strength in my legs on the bike AND on the run. And I do wish I had pushed harder in the bike leg because, despite my snail-like running pace, my legs felt much fresher than usual in T2.
Photos from USAT Nats in Milwaukee:
|Swim wave start, age group: women 50+|
|Let's get this thing going.|
|Starting the run.|
My overall time - 2:20:46 - was good for 6th in my age group - my best placing in Milwaukee in their three years of hosting the event. Disappointingly, it wasn't my fastest time on the Milwaukee course.
Immediately, I went back to the grind to spend a few weeks whipping myself into swim shape and lengthening my longest run to 14 miles. I needed a test, and I longed to have something - anything - to hang my hat on this season. I decided to register for a half-ironman distance race - but where? Heading into Autumn (or as my husband Jim "Stark" would say: "Winter is coming."), we were running out of places that were not only drive-able but also made good vacation spots. The latter was necessary just in case the race is a total fail (obviously, you learn these tricks when your nickname is Disaster Magnet). Since my income is almost nonexistent, the location also had to be affordable.
The event appearing to fit the bill was Challenge Maine, a Challenge Family race in Old Orchard Beach, Maine. Many things could be accomplished by a trip to New England. We could visit my mom in Connecticut. We could sight-see. We could go to the beach. I could satisfy my yearly craving for fresh fried clams.
Thus, I registered and started researching Old Orchard Beach (a.k.a. OOB). Yes, this was indeed the place of my New England dreams. There was a boardwalk and pier. There was an amusement park on the beach. There were clam shacks. There were lighthouses on the coast. (In fact, some of the best-known Edward Hopper lighthouse paintings were just north of OOB.) The hotels in OOB were old-style and handed down through families - not a single chain hotel among them. And the kicker - my mother told me it was my grandparents' favorite vacation spot when they were young.
We drove to Connecticut, spent two days, then drove up the New England coast with stops in Salem, Rockport, and Gloucester where we ate dinner. When I stepped out of the car in Salem, my first thought was: Oh, how I've missed the smell of the ocean!
Salem, Rockport, and Gloucester are old-style New England fishing towns:
|Nathaniel Hawthorne's "House of the Seven Gables"|
|There are piers like this everywhere|
|Lighthouses on Thatcher Island off the coast of Rockport|
That night, when we pulled into the town of Old Orchard Beach, Maine, I was instantly transported back in time. To the time of my youth spent on New England beaches. To my grandparents' time, when the hotels were grand and had large common rooms and screened decks where guests could commune or just relax and read a book. I imagined people sitting on their hotel porches in the morning and strolling the boardwalk in the evening. There were no cell phones or air conditioners or TV. There was sun. And sand. And salt water. That was all WE needed for a vacation. Handheld technology did not interfere. Is it coincidental our hotel clerk gave us real keys and the room had only old-style tube TVs (no flat screens here) and no TV remotes? I hope not. I was determined to be renewed on this trip.
|The strip of old hotels along the main drag in Old Orchard Beach|
|The view of the beach from our hotel|
|Our hotel, the Ocean House Hotel, taken from the sandbar|
|The ferris wheel at Palace Playland|
The weather in Connecticut and Maine - including race day - was unbelievably nice: clear skies, 80s by day, 60s at night. The water temperature was in the 60s. It was perfect!
On to race morning....
Challenge Maine took place on Sunday, August 30. The morning was clear and in the 60s. The 1.2-mile ocean swim was a point-to-point that started on the beach with a run into the water. It was low-tide at race start - 6:30 a.m. - so the race organizers drew a giant starting line in the sandbar (how cool is that?). My wave (women 40+ and relays) was the last of four for the half. There was also an olympic-distance race that started after us.
Here are some great race morning and swim start photos that Jim took:
|Sunrise was beautiful|
|Yes, we have to swim all the way to that pier|
|The line-drawn-into-the-sand, a.k.a., The Start|
All I have to say about the swim leg is this: I love ocean swims! The best part is diving into the waves at the start. Because of the waves, I found myself laughing my way through the first few minutes of the swim, but once I got into a rhythm I was able to focus on the task at hand. The deeper water was relatively calm by the time we turned parallel to the beach, and the swim went by lightning-fast. One of the great things about Challenge Maine is that when you make the final turn towards the swim finish, you no longer have to spot buoys. There's a huge ferris wheel at that amusement park - Palace Playland - and all you have to do is align your swim with that. It leads you right in to the finish.
Swim finish photos:
The low-tide situation on Sunday unfortunately added more running time to an already-ridiculously-long transition run. The transition zone of Challenge Maine was on the road alongside the OOB Chamber of Commerce grounds. To get there we had to run quite a long distance from the beach - past the Palace Playland arcade and grounds and several concession stands and clam shacks. There's even a Dunkin' Donuts along the transition run (we are, after all, in New England - no Starbucks here).
By the time I got to my bike, my legs were toast. But I had a quicker-than-normal exit from my wetsuit, and I was on my bike quickly. The organizers almost made up for the long transition run by putting the bike-mount line only a few yards from the exit of transition.
What I didn't realize was that I put my bike helmet on crooked and I looked like an idiot. I never did fix that. Go ahead, you can laugh.
The 56-mile bike leg was amazing. It took us through rolling hills of Maine - nothing major in terms of climbs, but significant enough that you had to be prepared to deal with hills. The air temperature was still cool and comfortable and cloudy conditions for at least the first half of the bike. It also helped that most of the roads were shaded by trees. My nutrition on the bike consisted mostly of about 30oz/hour of Skratch Labs pineapple hydration drink and a couple gels. I didn't need much more than that and I didn't use any electrolyte supplements until the end of the ride when things started to heat up a little. To my surprise, I was able to maintain a speed between 20 and 22 mph for the entire bike course. I was also impressed that all the 10-mile markers were dead-on accurate.
I played leap frog with a few women on the bike. One of them must have stayed in my slipstream a little too long because as she passed me, I heard the familiar motorcycle sound of a USAT official... I looked to the left and saw that her number was being noted for a penalty (at this race, time penalties are allotted after you finish, no serving penalties on the course as in Ironman brand races). Then she finally gave me the slip and I never saw her again. The other one was the girl who would eventually win the women's race. At one point, a guy managed to get away with drafting off her for about five minutes. I couldn't stand that anymore so I sped up to pass them, and as I did, I told him he was "cheating" by drafting off her. He looked at me and yelled "HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!" then took off. Don't worry, I made sure to beat him in the race. In fact, I caught him before the bike leg was over so I didn't even have to run him down.
The bike leg was a little short (maybe also making up for the marathon run out of the water), so it caught me completely off-guard when I rounded the last corner and saw the crowd on the lead-in to transition. I was like "wha?" and then realized what was going on... and somehow by the grace of God, I managed to get out of my shoes in time to not launch myself over the handlebars at the dismount line. It was really close, and I saw fear in the eyes of the volunteers yelling "DISMOUNT!" while ducking out of the way.
|Bike finish - yep, my helmet was still crooked|
I had to regroup mentally once I was off my bike. Seriously, I usually have time to prep for the dismount so I was a little shook up. I racked my bike and struggled a bit to get into my running shoes while a spectator coached me through the transition. She noticed my Punk Rock Racing kit and said "I have a Punk Rock Racing t-shirt!!!!" (Seriously, Ron, we are EVERYWHERE - shameless note to my sponsor).
Once again, I screwed up the splits on my Garmin in multi-sport mode as I was leaving transition, but then I saw Jim and all was ok. He cracked me up when he said "I have NO idea where you are, just RUN YOUR OWN RACE." (He usually tries to keep count of where I am in the age group or overall race). It was getting hot, and I had no idea how long I could last on this run, but my legs felt good, so I just settled into a pace and hoped I could hold it. I passed a few women at the beginning of the run, and the eventual winner went blowing by me like I was standing still.
|Starting the run, I was pretty happy to be feeling good for a change.|
The 13.1-mile run took us through slight rolling terrain before turning onto a dirt-and-gravel road around the 3-mile point. Temperatures were in the 80s but there were some great cool breezes. I dumped ice and ice-water on myself and drank what they were handing out. My mile pace was relative steady, near 7:30s, until about mile 8 when everything started to fall apart. At that point, it was all I could do to just keep running, and I walked the aid stations. At every mile marker I reminded myself "It's only 4, then 3, then 2 miles to the finish." At the last two aid stations I grabbed coke because my stomach was a little woozy, and I felt much better in the last two miles, which were mostly downhill.
Coming into the finish, I out-kicked the guy in front of me - don't ask me where I got the energy - to finish just under 4:46. And it was over. I managed to clock a 1:42 on the run - looks like I still have a lot of work to before I'm happy with my running, but I had eight promising miles in there.
|Butt shot, only for showing the back of my awesome PxRx kit.|
I saw Jim at the finish line. He told me I was 3rd overall. Whoa. Really? I knew there were women in front of me, but I didn't realize there were only two "ahead of me" and I always forget that I started behind everyone else, so I had a 5-minute lead on any women under 40 that I passed.
I also have to mention that this race has one of the best finisher medals I've ever received - it's the KRAKEN.
We hung around at the finish to grab some food and drinks, and while I was waiting to get into transition to pick up my bike, I noticed legendary pro triathlete Karen Smyers was standing in front of me. I got up the nerve to talk to her - she raced in the Olympic-distance race but had some problems with her lungs so I think she dropped out. She asked me about my race, and it came up that I was from Connecticut. She told me she grew up in Weathersfield (I did not know that). I told her I grew up in Meriden. A lightbulb went off... who knew? Of course Karen Smyers swam for the Meriden Marlins - the best AAU swim team in Connecticut back in the day. Everyone who was anyone swam for them. We rattled off names.. recalling some of the great swimmers from the region including Megan Wright and Lisa Zeiser. It was just before my time as a swimmer (Smyers is 4 years older than me, I started swimming in high school just after she would have graduated).
Do I even need to say? It's a very, very small world.
|The women's podium|
It was a short walk back the hotel to take a shower and run back out to gorge myself on New England fried clams before the awards ceremony. Jim and I spent the rest of the day sightseeing up the coast of Maine and playing skee-ball at the arcade. Jim hit the skee-ball jackpot on Saturday, but all we managed to afford with our ticket winnings was a souvenir mug. Here are photos of food and the spoils of the coastal Maine skee-ball follies of 2015:
|Fried clams - they always remind me of my dad.|
|OMG look at all these tickets.|
|What do I do with all these?|
|Buy this lovely souvenir mug, of course.|
Anyone who's grown up and moved away from a place they loved when they were young knows what it's like to feel a longing for home and a great sense of nostalgia upon return. This trip hit me inordinately hard and I don't know why. Even though I had never been here as a kid, when I took a final walk onto the beach in OOB, the tears welled up and I had to fight them off. I didn't want Jim to see me like that. I didn't want him to think we can't come back here or that I had a bad race. I'll have to live with the knowledge that New England is in my blood and even though we live in Ohio, I always know where home is in my heart.
|The lighthouse at Two Lights (Hopper painted this one)|
|Cove at Two Lights|
|Lighthouse at Portland Head (Hopper painted this one too)|
|"I still have some sand in my shoes"|
|Stupid giant iPhone ruined this shot.|
Indeed.. so I did. Unfortunately, it got almost infinitely delayed because all the analysis in the world could not help me with those important "lessons learned" from my race in Texas. It started out so great. In fact, the beginning and the middle went surprisingly well. I just don't know what happened at the end, although I have a possible explanation now which is something I didn't have a month ago.
|Ron and me - before swim start.|
I really wanted to have a great race in Texas for many reasons. One of the big reasons was that my great friend, Ron, founder of Punk Rock Racing and designer of the new race kit I was wearing here, surprised me by showing up in my hotel room the day before the race. I was therefore super-jazzed to have extra support on the course and at the start that morning.
|Swim start in Lake Woodlands|
Because the swim was "long," I took it very easy, and I hadn't been able to get in the pool more than twice a week during my build-up, I was expecting to see something around 1:10-1:15 (or worse) on my watch when I stepped out of the water. The 1:02 on my watch was a blinding surprise. I tried to keep a lid on my emotions in T1.
We were encouraged to carry our bike shoes through the transition zone because of ankle-deep mud - it was gross, but we were able to rinse our feet before starting the bike leg. I knew I was in good shape when I got to the rack to see most of my age-group was still in the water. When I finally got on the bike, my legs felt great, again surprised with none of the usual fatigue after the swim.
So I rode relaxed for the first 50 miles (I was told the second half of the bike course is when the hills show up) and made sure to drink at least a bottle and a half of fluids per hour. My new fuel regimen included Skratch Labs hydration drink mix and solid fuel - mostly rice-based recipes from the Feed Zone Portables cookbook.
I took in about 250-300 calories per hour and as the day got hotter (in the high 80s and very humid), I remained relaxed and didn't push too hard, even on the rolling hills in the second half. I did not feel any thirst or hunger during the ride, and much to my surprise, Texas was the first Ironman bike leg during which I had no nausea. Convinced my fueling was perfect, I was actually looking forward to a good - and strong - run.
When I pulled into T2, my time was one of my best 112-milers, my legs still felt good - albeit a little stiff - and I knew I was in the race although my husband Jim and I decided beforehand that he would withhold from me my position in the age group so that I wouldn't chase anyone.
The first mile off the bike was about 7:40 (too fast), but my legs were feeling great and I was trying to run relaxed. The second mile was right around 8 minutes (goal pace). And that was the last moment I felt good.
Then everything seemed to fall apart. My legs started to give and I was overwhelmed with a sense of fatigue that I can't explain. It was like every molecule in my leg muscles was screaming at me that they were tired and I needed to stop. It wasn't the heat. It wasn't thirst. It wasn't hunger. It was just .. fatigue. I had no explanation and I could not will myself to go any faster or any slower.
I inched along - running, then walking, then running again - pouring water and ice on myself - and at one of the aid stations around the midpoint, someone stepped right in front of me, and I went down hard, twisting my ankle in the process. I figured that was it, but the volunteers and medical staff helped me get back on my feet, gave me ice on the ankle and I was determined to get back on the course and finish, no matter how slow.
I was angry, confused, hot, and feeling pretty woozy by the time I saw Jim with about 3 miles to go. He kept telling me that everyone in front of my was slowing down, but that did little to help because I had nothing in my legs. I stopped and proceeded to vomit right in front of him. I can't imagine what he was thinking, but I remained on the course and kept going forward. I was never so happy to see a finish line in my life, and - yes, shockingly - I managed to pull out an age-group 4th even with that dismal almost-five-hour marathon.
By that point, I didn't care about anything except getting my medal. I tried to eat and drink after the race but ended up in the med tent with severe nausea and dizziness.
For a couple weeks after the race, I was still very confused about what went wrong. Was it not enough long-distance training? I had only one 100-mile bike ride but several close to 90 - winter training was difficult in Cleveland this year because of extreme cold. And I only ran 18-20 miles a couple times. I had several confidence-boosting long bricks though. Was it my fueling? Maybe solid food doesn't process as quickly as liquid? I really had no clue.
Now I'm starting to rethink it because of a recent illness that has sidelined me. Here come the "gory details" mentioned in the title. And it's really embarrassing to talk about, but hell, it's the truth.
About 4 weeks ago, shortly after Ironman Texas, I started to get a strange pain in my butt, kind of up near my tailbone and to the right. I was also feeling extremely fatigued - so much that Jim kept insisting something was wrong because I was sleeping so much. I sloughed off the pain as being muscular in nature - maybe from riding my road bike for the first time in a while. I thought nothing of it.
A week later, when the pain did not subside, I started poking around and felt what can only be termed a "lump" - or hardness. Still thinking it was muscular, I went to Google (yep, I Googled "pain in the ass"). Googling is not something I recommend to anyone contemplating a lump of any sort in their body. GO TO THE DOCTOR.
In the second week of butt pain, there were also other symptoms - ones I did not associate with my butt. I had a headache that wouldn't go away, I lost my appetite and was constantly feeling nauseous, and I had pain in my skin (the kind of pain you might associate with a fever but my temperature was only 99ish). When I did a training ride or run, I would get fatigued and be dragging after about 20 minutes. I told Jim I would call the doctor if it didn't go away, but it felt like it was subsiding by that Thursday, so I put off the call.
BAD IDEA. By Monday, I was in severe pain with all the other symptoms and now a larger elongated lump. Scared sh*tless about what it might be, I called and begged my doctor's office for an appointment, which they couldn't provide until Thursday. Tuesday, I called our health insurance "nurse on call" for advice - which was, duh - SEE A DOCTOR WITHIN 24 HOURS. The Cleveland Clinic has same-day appointments, so I took one Tuesday afternoon with a nurse practitioner. I didn't care. I was in severe pain.
The diagnosis? The first diagnosis was that I had a pilonidal cyst - this is basically an infection/abscess located near your tailbone usually caused by a plugged up hair follicle. She gave me antibiotics and sent me home. Two days later, I saw my family doctor. There was still pain. Some fever. Major fatigue. The lump was unchanged -- maybe bigger, it was hard to tell.
She had a different diagnosis: I had a peri-anal abscess. She gave me a different antibiotic in case the first one didn't work and referred me to a colorectal surgeon, just in case - if it needed to be "lanced and drained" it would be a simple office procedure for him. Ok, now I was freaked out - I've failed to mention in this post that eleven days from then I had a trip to Sweden to race in the ITU Long-course Age Group World Championship. My doctor reassured me that the surgical consult was "only for the worst case scenario."
Yep, I went home and Googled the hell out of this one.
My Google findings turned up the following: this type of abscess will not respond to antibiotics. It must be drained, either on its own or by lancing by a doctor.
My surgical consult was Tuesday. By Monday, I was almost comatose with an ever-expanding lump (this thing was now covering about a third of my butt cheek), pain, headache, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, and now a 100-degree fever. I called Jim, he called the surgeon's office -- they sent us to the emergency room "where it could be lanced and drained if necessary." In the ER, I was pumped full of a DIFFERENT antibiotic, pain killers, anti-nausea drugs and given a CAT scan for more information. The ER doc said no way was he touching this thing because of its location - better leave that to the colorectal guy.
(JUST A QUICK ASIDE: while we were chatting with the emergency room doctor, we found out that he was in attendance at my first Ironman, Ironman Utah in 2002 - his brother raced - and he happened to be one of the medical personnel trying to revive the man who drowned in Utah Lake that morning. Talk about bizarre coincidences!)
So... after reading the scan, he gave me the third diagnosis. I had an ischio-rectal abscess that was no longer full of fluid but now had blossomed into a case of cellulitis. It "had not become gangrenous" (yeah, i know, WTF!?!?). I was sent home from the ER with more instructions and info to deliver to my colorectal surgeon. When I got home, my fever went up to 101 degrees.
I had the worst night of fitful sleep ever.
Tuesday morning, I saw the surgeon and found myself in tears just telling him how bad I felt. He took one look, checked the CAT scans, and sent me to the hospital to prep for surgery in the OR at 2pm. No problem, he even said I'd be able to race in Sweden the next week. REALLY?
When I woke up from surgery, the overall feeling of illness was gone. Seriously. The drugs were not masking it.. my headache and nausea and fever were all gone. I still had pain, but now it was from three incisions and drainage tubes sticking out of my butt cheeks.
Jim gave me the lowdown - the abscess was much worse than even the surgeon expected - hence it wasn't a simple lance-and-drain kind of thing. It was deep and extended to my left side (they call it a horseshoe abscess). No, I wouldn't be racing in Sweden - no lake swimming with open wounds.
I didn't care. I was so happy to be free of this thing - and I spent the next three days in bed. We contemplated still taking the trip to Sweden, but I couldn't envision sitting on that plane for many hours and spending the entire trip worrying about gauze and drainage and - omg - what if there were complications?
So, it was a drag to do, but we canceled the whole trip, and I've been recovering from this surgery for one week as of today. I saw the surgeon this morning and - yay! - my drainage tubes have been removed and he hopes it will heal up in 4-6 weeks. But no swimming (Boo!)
I can't help but wonder if my fatigue in Texas might have been the beginning of this illness. Either way, and true to my nickname, I seem to have picked a great way to start out a new age group.
I realize the title "sounds" sarcastic, but it isn't really. I also realize people might be more interested in reading about my race at Ironman Texas, but I need to write this post first. My apologies. There is something else at work here.
It all started when I told my mother I was going to a race in Houston.
"Is that anywhere near Houston?" (Yeah, I know, but give my mother a thumbs-up for actually hearing me say the word "Texas" before you pass judgment.)
"It's IN Houston, Mom - well, actually, it's in a place called The Woodlands."
"You know who lives in Texas, don't you? ......Mark Carboni."
"Yes, I know, Mom. What do you want me to do about it?"
"He would love to see you."
Mark Carboni is my half-brother. He's the son of my father and his first wife. The last time I saw Mark, I couldn't have been more than six or seven years old. He was probably in his 20s. And then he disappeared from my life. I may have asked about him, but there was no real answer. My father said he hadn't heard from Mark and that birthday cards were always returned. No one ever talked about it much... until he was mentioned in my father's will. That was the reason my mother got back in touch with Mark, and they have been talking regularly ever since.
But to me at this point, Mark was just another family member who my mother has said would "love to see me." Did my mother realize I've tried to keep in touch with my other two brothers? Did she remember that they have never seemed to care I existed? Did she remember we almost had to beg my brothers to come to my wedding (and they showed up late to the church)? Did she remember most of my aunts, uncles, and cousins couldn't find the time? (even though I was at all their weddings) Did she remember that every time I drove home to Connecticut from Ohio, my siblings never could find the time to travel a few miles to see me? Did she remember that my father told me I would "never understand this because [I] didn't have children" (apparently, when you have children, you have a blanket excuse to never see your family).
My father's funeral was ten years ago, and that was the last time I saw or spoke to either of my brothers.
Oh yeah, about my father. Ten years ago, my father was diagnosed with liver cancer. He was diagnosed and gone in less than two months. It may have been the worst two months of my entire life. I know it was probably the worst two months of my mother's life. I don't know if it was the worst two months of my brothers' lives. But for me, it was THE worst. And not for the reasons you might think. The fallout after he was gone was nothing compared to the dying part.
You see, my father and I never got along. Ever. I spent all my formative years trying to make him like me. But I was never good enough. Valedictorian of my high school class? Great, but not good enough. It felt like I always let him down, no matter what I did. I excelled at swimming because he paid more attention to me the better I got. One of the worst moments in my swimming career was losing the state championship by a tenth of a second. ONE TENTH of a second and I was back to being a nobody. I tried to make up for it. I went to the college he wanted. I got a degree in engineering. I got a job at NASA. And yet, every time I did something that didn't fit into his plan (dating the wrong guys, not wanting to stay at NASA, not wanting to get married in Connecticut, etc.), the answer was always "shape up or ship out" - or worse: "I wash my hands of you."
Did he say these things to my brothers? I don't think so - but I really don't know. I stopped asking why, assumed it had something to do with being a "girl," and stopped trying to make him happy. I spent the last ten years of my father's life arguing with him and having him tell me I was "put on this earth only to disagree with him." Once, he even told me it was a travesty I never had children because I'll never know what it's like to have a bad kid (i.e., me). It makes you wonder how it was possible that my father's death became the worst two months of my life. I should have been happy to end the strife, right?
Family is weird, though. And my dad was the epitome of "tough love." He truly wanted me to be happy. When I wasn't, he didn't have a clue how to fix it. And, as most fathers are, he was a "fix-it" kind of guy. Car problems? He fixed it. Apartment problems? He fixed it. When I was in college and needed a lofted bed in order to put a desk in my bedroom, he build the most amazing put-it-together-yourself-it's-all-labeled wooden bed structure that surpasses anything IKEA ever created.
So yeah, he loved me. He just didn't TELL me. My mother used to say we fought all the time because we were exactly alike. Stubborn. Idealistic. Perfectionists. Thank you, Dad.
When my father was diagnosed with cancer, I flew home weekly, took him (and my mom) to the doctor. I talked to the doctors, did the research, called cancer treatment facilities, and ... in the end, watched him die. I watched the illness take over his body. I watched the strongest, most organized man I ever knew, lose his mental faculties when the liver toxins spread. I still cry over things that happened during the decline. Once, he got very frustrated and started ranting because the TV remote didn't work. I popped the back off to find the batteries installed improperly - I turned them around and it started working. He looked at me in shock (that I could fix something he couldn't). He asked me what I did, and I had to tell him he put the batteries in wrong. It. Broke. My. Heart. I ran upstairs "to my room" and cried for several hours. It still hurts.
When he was in the hospital, I kept it light when I was with with him. I was a cheerleader when he was afraid and in severe pain (gut-wrenching to witness). The last words he ever spoke to me were the following: "I don't want to leave you without a father."
I can still hear those words and see his face as he said them. It was a moment right out of a movie. And when I was home, or at work, or running, or in the hospital but not in his room, I cried. I cried non-stop to the social workers. When he was in hospice, I added the nurses to the list of people with whom I couldn't keep-it-together. Every time they asked what bothered me the most, the same thing came out: "Does he know that I love him?" Because I wasn't sure I ever told him. The other reason I cried was from emotional pain of watching him suffer. I would have given anything to make it go away. Until my father got cancer, I never truly understood that scene in the movie "Terms of Endearment" during which Shirley MacLaine is screaming at the nurses to "Give [her] daughter the shot!" Often I wanted to grab my father's doctors and yell: "Kill him if you have to, but make the pain go away!" (Don't judge me until you've been in my shoes.)
In the end, the one thing I could do for my father (and my mother) was to be in the room when he died. There were three people there that night: my husband Jim, my mom, and me. No, not one of my brothers.
And then something weird happened. The next day, I stopped crying. It was over, the pain was gone.
When we had to make funeral arrangements, the gift-giving started. Unbeknownst to us, my dad had already taken care of his own funeral arrangements. We knew he would have a military burial in a national cemetery (he fought in the Second World War). We didn't know that he had decided on the type of coffin, the clothing, the funeral home, and even the music (yes, there was an audio tape labeled "Funeral Music"). The funeral director read over his documents, looked up at us in amazement, and said: "This is a gift. Your father left you an amazing gift."
Over the years, there have been many more gifts. You never realize a person's influence on you until they're gone. My mother's ability to organize herself and finances after he passed is the result of his direct influence. I've begun to appreciate the hard-work ethic he instilled in me. Even the things that annoyed us about him have now become hilarious jokes to Jim and me - we can laugh and not be angry.
And the biggest gift was still yet to come.
Which brings me back to The Woodlands, Texas. I hadn't said anything to my mom, but my plan was to go there and do an Ironman. Only. I didn't have time to worry about anything else. Then, the day before we left, I got a text from Mark Carboni's wife, Betty. She and their daughter wanted to hook up with us if possible while we were in town (Mark was in Dallas and wouldn't be there).
I panicked for a split second, but, seriously, there was no reason not to. Besides, it would make my mother happy. And I realized I had the ability to choose my attitude toward this - and for once, I decided to stay positive and do it with love. I let go of all my family and sibling disappointments of the past and went in with no preconceived notions.
Then Mark decided to come home from Dallas to be there. I would now be meeting my brother. Betty and I texted times and locations, and Thursday evening, I called her to confirm everything, and she said "Do you want to talk to Carboni?" (I love that she calls him by his last name, MY last name.)
"Sure." (Sh*t just got real.)
And she put him on the phone: "Hi sis!"
I think I cracked up laughing. What an awesome, lighthearted way to begin our relationship after a 42-year hiatus. I loved him instantly. He described himself as "the only Italian with a Fu Manchu" (see photos).
|This photo (taken by Betty) kind of says it all.|
Without going into detail, the rest of this story is a lesson in the strength of family ties. In our first embrace in the parking lot of the Macaroni Grill, I felt a bond that one can only know as a loved family member. Mark has my - I mean, our - father's smile (even though I hadn't seen it in a long time). He has a lot of my - I mean, our - father's mannerisms. But that's where the resemblance stopped. He's easy-going, smiles a LOT, and is quick to show love. His face has laugh lines, not frown lines like his - I mean, our - father. His daughter Kasey is a beautiful, talented woman that I am thrilled to have as a niece, and I look forward to following her adventures in life. Mark's wife, Betty, is one of the most peaceful, loving souls I've ever encountered. It's easy to see why they've been together for 40 years and also why my mother loves them so much. I couldn't have asked for three more dear and loving humans to have as my family, and I am very thankful for whatever force brought it about. The only negative thing about the evening was that it had to come to an end. I found a great treasure in Houston and it was hard to let go so soon.
But there was that Ironman thing looming... although the difference now was that the success of our trip no longer depended on my performance. It was already the best trip.
On race morning I got a text from Mark telling me to be safe and that he loves me. It kept me smiling through the entire Ironman swim and bike legs (more on that in a subsequent blog).
As we were leaving Texas yesterday, I heard an echo of what my dad said to me before he died, that he didn't want to leave me without a father. I now have a reply: Dad, you didn't leave me without a father. You LEFT me with a brother. And that is, perhaps, the greatest gift of love you ever gave me.
Two more photos (stolen from Mark's Facebook page):
|Sister and brother together after 42(?) years.|
|Can you tell Mark and I are related?
It's all in our facial expression - eye-closing must be a Carboni thing.
(L-R: Jim, Betty, me, Mark, Kasey)
I realize the title "sounds" sarcastic, but it isn't really. I also realize people might be more interested in reading about my race at Ironman Texas, but I need to write this post first. My apologies. There is something else at work here.
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