Thursday, March 31, 2016

My Perfect Zwift Avatar...and Me

I've spent a fair amount of time on Zwift this year - the immersive online cycling environment that has drawn pro cyclists, pro triathletes, and a large international community of riders. I've had a great time riding, doing programmed workouts, chasing down Sprint and QoM jerseys, and being part of the community of riders.

There's so much realism in Zwift, with one significant exception: no matter the effort, and very unlike my messy real self, my virtual cycling avatar always looks GREAT!

She is perfectly smooth and laser-focused, she never sweats, and she never complains! She doesn't fumble with her water bottle, needs no food, and never stops for a "bio break." You won't find her blowing snot rockets or burping, or shifting in the saddle from chafing. The girl needs no chamois cream riding that immaculate bike with the perfect fit. She never flats and never hits a pothole (causing expletives to leave her mouth). Her kit is spotless and stays put. She clips in smoothly without fail, and shifts gears imperceptibly. She never groans or sighs or shows any signs of distress.

She is totally cool.

Me? Sweaty, messy, and groaning.

The photo at the top was from an FTP test today at Coach Jim's (photo credit: Coach Jim). I had about 3 minutes left (out of the 20) and he captured me very deep in the pain cave, on the suffer bus. I was heads-down focusing on cadence and power with a puddle of sweat below me.

I'll take the sweat and mess of the big effort. The sweat and mess are all part of the "fun."  (May I add that I did totally surprise myself and add 12 watts to my FTP from January - #ZwiftEffect + great coach.)

Just the same, I'm glad my online avatar is not a realistic depiction of me. Thank you Zwift.

Ride on!

Monday, March 28, 2016

New racing year, new challenges

Over the past week, USA Triathlon has been sending out 2015 All American certificates to those who finished in the top 10% of their age group.

I got one too, for finishing 54th in my age group (45-49) out of the 1908 athletes who had completed 3 or more triathlons. This was my sixth year in a row receiving recognition. I dipped my toe into the sport with a single race in 2009, then dove in fully in 2010.

To me these certificates represent six years of challenges overcome:

  • daily challenges to make the time to train
  • challenges to balance training with work/life/family
  • physical challenges (2 broken fibulas, drop foot, TLF injury, IT band, posterior tibialis tendonitis, iliac artery surgery and all the other little things that pop up)
  • motivational challenges

Of course, it does not come without ample rewards - of the good feelings of movement, the excuse to get outside, and the wonderful community of endurance athletes.

The challenge facing me this year feels a little different. Racing takes a lot of positive emotional energy, desire, hunger, and focus. I'm not feeling very strong in those areas right now. There's been more "going through the motions" these days than I'd like. But that's OK. This is part of the journey. Life is echoed in sport. 

Coach Jim reassures me that my workouts are just fine. Swim speeds, power numbers, pace:heart rate - the data confirm that. 

This time it's my spirit that will need to find its way through. The best fuel for that is gratitude, perspective, and happiness.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Training through loss

Yesterday marked three weeks without my dad. It was really my first time losing a very close loved one. I don't even have the words to describe it - crushing, life-altering, searing, overwhelming... It's likely you know the feelings as death and loss are pretty much a universal experience.

What I want to write about (since this IS a triathlon blog), was the weirdness of trying to figure out how/if training would fit with the process of grief and loss. And the weirdness of realizing that I could even be thinking about that at a time like this.

But I know that for me, nothing untangles emotions better than a sweaty workout. Training to me is normalcy. It's structure. It's (the illusion of) control.

So when I left my Virginia home February 28 to travel to Pennsylvania to the side of my suddenly widowed mother, my packing included things to swim, bike, and run and I felt a pang of guilt about it. I felt conflicted. Was this dishonorable toward my dad, and my love for my dad? But then I thought about how when my mom was sick this fall, my dad continued with his faithful trips to the gym. I think he'd be telling me to keep going.

That week, nearly all the hours of the day were spent with my sister attending to my mom (who ended up in the hospital for two days with a GI issue), making decisions and more decisions, writing the obituary, gathering photos, making calls, sorting through paperwork, cleaning things out, receiving guests, answering calls and emails, and attending to all the "business" of death that I had no idea about. I was also doing what I could to keep up at least my minimal work responsibilities. My sister and I got a lot done (one night until 2:30 am) but it was exhausting.

After two days off of training (scheduled, ironically), I vowed to do something active each day, whether it matched the training plan or not. I guess this was my way of coping, but so be it. I needed something to help me wrangle the overload of emotions and information coming from every direction.

Coach Jim and I were in communication and without my saying so he understood I needed the "security" of seeing the unchanged schedule on TrainingPeaks whether I did it as written, or did something else, or did nothing. I needed that schedule there.

The week after my dad passed away, I ended up on the bike trainer in my dad's basement office (top photo) on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday morning, and doing a combo treadmill then pool workout Wed and Friday at the rec center. This is what I wrote to Coach Jim in my training logs:

Tuesday, March 1: Brain clearing ride. Got one QoM (75 min Zwift ride)

Wednesday, March 2: nice to go from treadmill to pool in the same building. only cried once, during the swim, so that's progress. the wind has gone from my sails a bit right now, but it feels good to go through the motions at the very least. (45 min run, 30 min swim)

Thursday, March 3:  won three sprints and was second in two QoM. I ride HARD for those polka dots. Anyway, proud of myself for getting on the bike. Tough day, not feeling great (tired, headachy, floaty) but I did SOMETHING. (90 min mix effort ride)

Friday, March 4: Did a pyramid 100 to 500 and back down and mixed up swim and paddles/buoy. I could tell from the last swim to this one my head is in a MUCH better place. (50 min interval run, 2500y swim)

Saturday, March 5: quickie pre-trip ride. (60 min)

Sunday, March 6: Since I didn't ride long yesterday, I let this be what it would be. Amazingly my legs felt good and somehow this run just flowed. It never felt like a huge effort, I didn't care what my HR was, I just ran...sobbed a few times...and kept running. I finished feeling good, not overspent. It wasn't much slower than the 10-mile race. I wish I could figure out why some days it just comes. (11-miler, a run I did NOT NOT NOT want to do that day)

I'm sharing this because no one really talks much about training through grief. It's different for everyone, of course. Triathletes can be thought of as "selfish" with regard to their workouts so there's a lot wrapped up in the decision. Was I selfish to train during this time, or was I preventing major emotional wreckage from a sudden cessation of the activities my body was accustomed to? I believe that for me, the training time offered a momentary respite to collect my wits and it served as a barometer to show that I was indeed just a little stronger each day.

I was happy to get a supportive email from a tri coach/friend who shared, "I remember going straight from my dad's funeral to the pool. Deep google marks in a swollen face." Another friend/coach lost her father a few weeks before I did, and I remember thinking how impressed I was that she kept training too! By their examples I felt that my decision to keep up with swim/bike/run was okay.

My mom and I returned home to VA on March 5 and I got back in sync with the training schedule. I won't lie, it's more of an effort to motivate myself right now, but I know I need this. I also know to have, as Ryan Hall has said about his running, "grace for the pace." I'm not going to put undue pressure on myself in training or early season racing because what I want most from the sport right now is the happiness, the peace, the belonging, the grace. Some times that might mean a few days away from training to attend to other matters, but if I can keep moving, I shall.

One mile at a time.
One day at a time.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Goodbye, Dad

Early last Sunday morning, February 28, I got a call from my mom. "Cortney, your father is dead," I heard her say with a shaky voice from 300 miles away. She had found him on the bedroom floor, clutching a library book (he was a voracious reader).

It was most likely a heart attack - sudden and unexpected. He'd had a valve replacement (brutal surgery) two years prior, but at 78 years old, he was doing great. No one saw this coming. He was a regular at the cardiac rehab gym at St. Clair Hospital, was faithful to his walks, had retired but worked part-time as an equipment appraiser (J.D. Balsarini and Associates), and was so active and vibrant! My parents had been married 55 years.

I hopped in the car and headed home to meet up with my sister Kristen at my parent's house. It's been a tough, tough week. But death, loss, grief - it's a shared experience with no playbook and no way around but through.

My dad was universally loved. He just had a way with people, borne of his genuine interest in others, and his humble desire to serve. He was a "rising tide lifts all boats" kind of guy who could solve/fix/paint/refinish/sort through anything. He could strike up a conversation with anyone and went the extra mile on relationships and helping others.

Cort the Sport - it's what my dad called me as a kid. He became my horse show dad, then co-District Commissioner of our Pony Club, and ran our summer Pony Club camp. He was the guy who drove me many, many times 5-1/2 hours to college and then 5-1/2 hours back home the same day to get back to my mom. He didn't get upset when I drove over a paint can in the driveway and it splattered all over the car. He spent his visits repairing, painting, and cleaning things at my house - anything to make my life a little easier.

He was a big fan of my triathlon racing. If he could come to a race, track me online, or stream a race, he did. Post-race, my first call was to my parents.

He was involved in the Three Rivers Corvette Club with his beautiful C5 convertible. We shared a love of speed!

I've really appreciated hearing from so many people about how wonderful my dad was. I heard time and time again that he was one of their "favorite people." He sure was mine.

I truly think that being a triathlete has helped me through this tough time. We see examples all the time of athletes overcoming challenges, setbacks, and emotionally difficult times. We know that in every race, the dark moments come, but they don't last forever. We can and do get through them!

In the fog of my grief last Sunday, I packed my bike and trainer, running shoes, clothes, goggles, and swimsuit to take to Pittsburgh. Even in the midst of very troubling times, my dad was faithful to his walks and gym workouts. I wanted to follow his example...and I did. A good sweat untangles the brain and releases emotion. I cried on the bike, treadmill, and in the pool. But as the week progressed I felt the sorrow begin to make way for gratefulness for having the attentive, loving, positive, dependable, amazing father I had.

Goodbye, Dad. You left us too soon, but it was a great ride!
You are forever in my heart and memories. I love you.