Sunday, July 22, 2012

Lighthouses and Fire Lookouts: A Post on Perspective

Disclaimer: This post is slightly off-topic, though not really since the group ride I joined today was the basis by which the thinking which follows took place. 

Pidgeon Point Lighthouse, which we found at about mile 34.

We began our 60-something mile (or 100-something for those that did the bonus ride) from a town called Woodside, which is located in the South Bay.  Woodside is South (if my sense of direction isn't completely f***ed) of San Mateo. It's across the San Mateo bridge is all I know: that long stretch of highway that seems to sit on the briny water of the Bay with Oakland in my rearview mirror on the way there and its dry hills calling me home on the way back.

The ride itself is best described as undulating with a big effort at the end with one of the most severe (or, noticeable) temperature differences I've yet encountered on a bike. We started in the warmth of a July morning sun only to turn a corner (after a bit of a climb) to see the ocean and its bitter wind that blasted us with a wind that gave me goosebumps. It was a chill which would more or less remain until mile 50 or so and I was once again climbing away from the sea through a grove of redwoods and ferns en route to the car, back in heat that felt like an oven set on broil.

I've always had a "thing" for lighthouses and fire lookouts. Though one is to guard seafarers from rocks and the other to prevent earth from being consumed by fire I've nonetheless seen these structures-- and the way of life they house-- as analogues for one another... and a way of life that athletics has casted me into the large production known as society (or at least my understanding of it.) 

Athletes, lighthouse watchers and fire lookouts all share solitude in common.

There are three fire lookout outposts where I am from, in the Tahoe Basin. They are nothing more than a square room with windows that offer view of every view there is to see-- just as the glass-light room of a lighthouse is windowed-round, to ward off incoming ships from the rocks. Those that people these types of outposts live lives that are mostly solitary; or so it seems from what I've read. They watch the forest; they watch the sea. A peopleless landscape, mostly. 

Sometimes I think I might understand that life when I think of the hours I spend alone in the water, on the bike and even those times I do run (or, will run once my injury has healed.) Then, I am a watcher of the landscape, observing the sorts of details you can't see from a boat or car: the way a group of ants carry leaves over their heads like surfboards or the flicker of minnows in the grainy light of knee-deep water. 

Or, I wonder if athletics might give me another lens with which to understand existence. Granted, it's a limited one, focusing on movement rather than on still life. But then, I guess we must all choose our lenses, eventually: the way we understand and interpret the world. 

I didn't do the full 97 mile ride. I stopped early; feeling hot and slightly out of shape since my two-week sojourn from my regular training schedule. Plus I've been running again which means I'm sore in places I haven't been-- yeah, yeah, I know-- I'm weak. Perhaps. But those lighthouses and fire lookouts remain with me as ways to see the world-- to understand it-- by their insistence on the self-enclosing solitude of the whipping winds that act like the water in my ears. Though peopled, my athletic world is a quiet one.

Yet, those lighthouse watchers and fire lookout-teers saw sunrises and sunsets and storms. They felt winds and sun and cloud unlike the populations in cities ever did. And perhaps athletes share this exclusive knowledge of the physical world simply due to our necessity to train in it. 

On the ride home despite my limited miles, I couldn't feel anything but gratitude that I'd been able to see so much beauty. I hope in the months to come with a few lost pounds, more cycling/swimming/running miles and an increased endurance that my horizons will expand. What will be my limit? 200 miles? 500? 1,000?  

Me, cycling, around mile 50 or so? I think... hard to tell. But I'm still smiling.

The world is a large place, admittedly. Anyone with the money for a ticket and a bag can board a plane or bus or rail car. Yet, I want to see this place with only the power in my body; to see it all like those who gazed from lighthouses, warding sailors from the shore and the dangers that rested there, as though to say: keep moving, life is out there if only you can reach it.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

The Call of the Run

Maybe Lake Tahoe at dawn is what hope looks like.
I dreamt last night that I was running. 

Not running in a race and not running particularly fast. Just running on my old trails around the Northern side of Tahoe which isn't surprising since I've been home for two weeks-- the longest I've been home in a little over two years since enrolling-- and graduating-- from a Master of Fine Arts program in the Bay Area.

So, when I woke up this morning and put my weight on my foot and it once again didn't hurt-- it hasn't hurt for a week, in fact-- I thought, perhaps it's finally time to see if I will ever run again. 

They say Lisfranc injuries are among those that may never heal. I've lived the last four months in fear that I never would, again. Or-- that's not quite true. I've been running for about four years now and have survived tendinitis of about every tendon in my legs and ankles, two stress fractures and a ruptured Achilles... so I began this recovery cycle with what you might call savoir faire. Or maybe common sense is a better way to describe it: I didn't immediately think my life was over and I didn't do a lot of crying. This time, I acted like a sane person: I started swimming nearly every day with a competitive master's team that practices near my home and joined a cycling club for lovely, long rides on weekends.

I made the best out of my injury. 

In fact, I have to say that, of all the times I've been injured, this season has been the most productive. I've learned the butterfly stroke and can do it for 50 meters-- in a 50 meter pool which is something I never EVER thought I'd be able to do. I've ridden 90-100 miles every Saturday in a spring and near-summer full of Saturdays, seeing some beautiful country with an amazing group of people. In all, an injured runner could do much, much worse.

But today, I felt it. The call of the run. The overcast conditions made the green of the evergreens beckon me, somehow. The chipper call of squirrel cast me back into those 10-mile days when I ran 70-mile weeks as though the distance were nothing. I slipped into a pair of trail shoes-- the same Salomons I started running in four years ago, and set off into the quiet, dim morning.

Unlike so many runs leading up to races and in various training cycles, today I had no expectations. No pace to keep. No time to meet other than to turn around at the ten-minute mark (advice from an old Runner's World Magazine, quoted by a BYU Cross Country coach who suggested not running more than twenty minutes for several weeks after returning from a long absence from the sport.)

To the familiar beep of a Timex watch, I began my journey.

At first, it was not the most comfortable thing I've done.

Some joints were stiff. Others, too loose. I found cycling has made my quads quite strong, an imbalance that made my stride not what I remembered it to be. My upper body has also acquired strength from my training sessions in the pool. And yet, after one half mile I'd found it: that old running cadence. Not a fast pace, but a rhythm of breath and step where movement feels as though it's the most natural thing in the world.

I found my running again. 

The quality of light; the flicker of shadow and tree; the slight heat of the body as a halo from the elements; the in and out of breath. I lost minutes, I lost myself in the run.

I had no ipod tucked into my shorts or music in my ears (other than the music of me); it was just me and running and I lost track of time-- something I haven't done for four months.

While running, I became that version of myself again I've been missing. I became beautiful and young and full of hope for what might be. I was not fat and not a failure and not too old and not too short or too slow or too ugly. I was exactly as I should have been, in that moment.... and that was a thought and a feeling I have missed for longer than this injury. I remembered my first run, my first twenty-mile run and my first marathon... four years ago, I was lost and I found myself in the miles.

My writing career, I believe, began when I decided not to be afraid of running-- when I decided that excuses such as "I wasn't built to run" were no longer valid ones.

Today, I only ran for 25 minutes, but somewhere in there, I found the best part of me, tucked away and hiding.

Perhaps I will never actually be the things I imagine when I run-- but the point is that I feel them. I am beautiful no matter what the world says, when I am covering miles with the power and strength in my own body.

I hope this is the first run of many, many more... that I will run 26.2 miles after a 2.4 mile swim and a 112 mile bike ride.

Mostly, though, I've missed the part of me that runs, the silent but persistent warrior who recovers the memory of the person I was and who I wanted to be: me who believed that dreams were worth their pursuit.

And me who pursued them.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Roads We Follow; The Roads that End

NV Hwy 338. Where my journey began.
This weekend I went to Smith Valley, Nevada, to visit my mom who was celebrating her birthday. For those of you who don't know (and it's OK if you don't) Smith Valley is basically one of those places that is in the middle of nowhere. The nearest town is a quarter of gas tank away. The major industry is alfalfa farming with a sprinkle of cattle ranchers to make things interesting.

I'm not sure which one of us had the idea. It might have been me because I've been reading a lot about the Eastern Sierra these days and anything having to do with them has me fascinated. When I learned my mom's house is not "far" from Bridgeport, I decided-- or, proclaimed: "We should all ride there!"

Of course I should have realized this is Nevada and distances here are unique, as distances are in any place. I've gotten used to the way I can ride 80-90 miles in California, going up and down hills, through groves of oak or redwood or tall grasses. Roads meander in California. Roads go up, then down and then up again. You can't see 80 miles in front of you. Distances, therefore, are judged with time and effort... but certainly not with visual perception.

In Nevada (or so I've discovered in my two-week stay) roads tend to do one thing for a very long while. They go up.  And up. And up. Or they go straight. And keep going, going, going, going, going in a seemingly endless undulating landscape of low-lying brush framed by jagged mountains in either direction. Which is a nice way to say I don't know why the statement: "It's a straight climb for the first 15-miles" (spoken by my mom's husband) didn't dissuade me. Up at 5:30 am and on the road an hour later, I found myself riding West to Bridgeport, alone, on my Specialized Roubaix, recently adjusted to fit my short body.

I quickly found up for 15 miles was an understatement. From the starting point on the first paved road from the house, I would discover the climb was 19 miles to Sweetwater Summit, not 15. An added bonus: a special headwind (unusual since mornings are typically calm) made the 2,000 vertical effort more of an effort than it would have been.

I stopped at the sign announcing I'd reached the summit and sucked down a sport gel.

Then, it was down a winding road (not too winding, this is Nevada, remember? :-)  until mile 30 or so when I rode across the state line. I must have been excited: after I sipped a squirt of water, my bottle ended up in the willows lining the road and I had to go back and search for it.

The canyon was spectacular: cut by the East Walker, eventually I saw the jagged Sierra Range, still slightly snow capped and the sight alone pulled me forward, up another rise to Bridgeport reservoir and the town of Bridgeport itself.

In all, the ride was beautiful.

Canyons carved by river.
Valleys fed by unlikely sources of water to make green oases in the midst of a barren landscape.
And the thought, in the back of my mind, that this was all under an ocean, once.
Thoughts broken by a the smell of a cigar from a man fishing the East Walker River.

No one rode with me: I met my family in Bridgeport and we ate breakfast together at a cafe that honored my request to have no dairy.... amazing for a small town. Before they arrived, I bought a cup of coffee in a building that had once been the town jail.

I wish I'd been able to do the ride faster; maybe I will next time. I'm always wary when I'm on the road, alone. Maybe that makes me a bad athlete; or an out-of-shape one... but what a beautiful ride.

Scenes from one of the most beautiful places on earth, in my humble opinion:

River Road, Smith Valley.

A ranch off River Road, Smith Valley.

On the road to Bridgeport, near Wellington, NV.

It makes me want to be better... which is what sport is all about, really. You try to be your best each and every day. And what a best--- celebrating my mom's birthday with her in the place we are from. There's nothing better.

Thursday, July 12, 2012

The Importance of Practice

For the first time in four months, I can walk for over an hour without pain.
I'm no stranger to injury. In fact, I've been injured for an equal number of years that I have been an athlete. During my first long bout sans running, I remember being very depressed and wondering how on earth I was going to find meaning in my life without the sport that made each day endurable. (That was the year of the stress fractures.)

Now, however, I've come to understand my sports not as a win/lose, do-or-die activity, but rather as a "practice"-- akin, perhaps, to yoga or meditation. No matter what I do--whether it's swimming, cycling or running-- it is my two hours to give my body a chance to perform or recover, depending on its needs. 

I admit: I miss running. 

In my day, I was pretty good at it. Not the best; but over the course of three years, I watched my marathon and half-marathon and 10k times drop by minutes. At my best, I ran a 2:47marathon, narrowly missing my chance to go to the Olympic Trials. Granted, a minute is an eternity. But for someone like me, well, it was pretty close to the 2:46 required to make it to the Trials (which has since been altered, I know, to a 2:43.)

After my latest bout of catastrophic injury--a ruptured Achilles followed by a sprained Lisfranc joint in my right foot-- I've joined a Master's swim team and a cycling team to keep myself sane. Of course, I'm not very good at either of these other sports, not really. But what I have discovered is far more valuable than any fast PR running time or any first-place finish: the importance of a practice. 

Taken from Mt. Judas, overlooking Donner Lake where I have competed in an Olympic-Distance Tri and mile-long open water swim.
In February of this year, my foot hurt so much I could hardly walk. So, I decided to swim every day for 28 days (the entire month, in other words.)  I am not a fast swimmer. I have improved since I started, true, but I'm still about three to four lanes from the fast folks. At first, this was a depressing realization: I was never going to be competitive. But then, one morning around 5:30 am under the dark sky and stars and steam coming from the pool, I had a crazy thought: what if I just swam for me? 

Forget times. Forget placement in the lane. Forget everything but the hour and a half in the water when I get to swim freestyle and feel the strength in my arms. Or when I can practice my other strokes and learn better technique and watch my body learn the way to move in a new medium. Maybe I'm nuts, but after I shifted my mindset, swimming suddenly became fun. I suck at backstroke-- oh well! Each day I go to swim practice, I do exactly that: practice. Each day, my times come down, and my arms are less tired. Am I fast? I have no idea. What has changed, though, is my attitude. I do best each and every day: sometimes that means a PR, but most days it doesn't. What is consistent, however, is the feeling of accomplishment I have when I scale the pool wall after another practice. I am better than I was an hour before. How can that not make you smile? 

Cycling, too, has taught me the lesson of practice. I have so much to learn and so much fitness to gain. However, each time I ride, I tell myself I need only do my best. Maybe my best is slower than all the other riders. Maybe it is faster. Maybe it is same speed they are. No matter. My cycling, like my swimming, is my own. 

I thought of all this today when I stepped on the treadmill for my first "run." It wasn't really a run per se-- a 30 minute walk with three one-minute jogs spaced equally throughout to help my joints and bones re-adjust to the demands of running. Walking on a treadmill in a gym immediately made me feel awful about myself and I couldn't help those thoughts of "what are all those people thinking about me? They probably think I'm fat, or ugly or obese of pathetic." I longed for those days when running was as natural as breathing. 

But then those feelings faded. Perhaps it's age or wisdom or some combination of both: but I realized that running, too, is a practice. I may be slow. I may not win a race again, ever. But after today, I know I'll run again. Just as I'll swim and cycle again, too. 

After all, those are the joys that make up my day-to-day life; that give me peace and happiness. No matter the speed, I live to push myself as hard as I am able.