Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Losing My Sport

  Pedaling my one-speed town bike along a nearby strip of urban parkland, I recently flashed back to a park from my childhood. I remembered  that my best friend and I never walked when we came to the park's curving swath of glorious grass. Instead, we sprinted. It was always a race from start to finish, feet flying, elbows pumping. We tried to beat each other, no holding back. Our young muscles were so ready to launch, we couldn't help it. We were runners. At the end we'd break into a walk, catch our breath and continue to College Avenue.
  This had little to do with organized sport, it was simply pure physical expression. We took it for granted, sure of our corporeal potential, playing games to test our limits. Climbing, running, skating, leaping, somer-saulting. My siblings and neighborhood friends would replicate the Presidential Fitness test; setting up our own 50-yard dash, etc. Being strong was an important aspect of my identity. I studied Judo and enjoyed my strength and agility. When running, I imagined I was a long-distance messenger carrying an important dispatch, the urgency of the idea helped me add miles.

  Bicycling soon became my gateway to being physical and exploring. It started with riding to the library on my brother's bike. In high school it freed me from waiting for the bus. I got a Raleigh with Campagnolo components, started reading books on cycle racing, and keeping a mileage log. I still ran some, working up to the half-marathon distance. My first real pair of running shoes had the iconic yellow swoosh and waffle patterned soles. The day I got them, I fell asleep that night with them still on my feet.

  With a cycling federation license I began bicycle racing. I'd spent a year saving up enough money to buy an Italian racing bike in my exact size. (I eventually made a career in the bicycle industry.) After so long training alone, I discovered the powerful feeling of training and competing in a group. Riding in close proximity to scores of other athletes, practically touching elbows, cornering at high speed, holding on during tough climbs, going all out in highest gear to win a sprint. Getting up early to go on long training rides no matter the weather. Riding distances of 60 miles or more in early season endurance rides. Being accountable to teammates, having teammates to rely on. Coping with flat tires or mechanicals. I was a flat-fix champ, beating the stopwatch in order to quickly get rolling.

  During training and racing we used the magic of drafting: taking brief turns at the front against the wind, then tucking into place behind a teammate, eating up the miles, keeping a high rate of speed. An amazing cooperation that has to be experienced to truly understand. A motivated group of riders using this technique attains a higher speed than any one rider can maintain alone. A group carries you above your self-described limits. Loathe to let others down, you match your effort to the wheels around you, even if it hurts; you let the paceline define what you can do. It is huge the way this elevates your performance. There are limits; if you get "dropped," you're left to fight the wind alone.

  The years of high-level cycling were something I assumed I'd do forever. I've been able to see and do so much thanks to cycling. I told someone recently that I'd always pictured myself being a grey-haired but still ambitious cyclist, climbing the paved road up Colorado's 14,000 ft. Mt. Evans or some such, well into my later years. That may not have been entirely realistic but I intended to try.

  After over a decade of racing, including a couple of silver State Championship medals and a trip to the Women's World Cycling Trials, the endless routine of training, working, eating and sleeping left me restless for change. I retired from racing and started riding just for fun. This was freeing, but an adjustment. I missed the camaraderie and the rigor of training with others, but I felt glad to stay home on weekends and do something as banal as mow the lawn. No more long drives crammed in a van, arriving to a windy course in the dark, lining up to use the porta-potties before start time. Athletes know that sport is more than just competing; there is a great deal of meaning just in the mindful preparation, the practice of skills and long periods of physical movement. I looked forward to continuing that aspect.

  A few times during the last year or so of competition, I was hit by bouts of fatigue or ill-feeling. Odd because my training, nutrition, and recovery schedules were on target, the way they had been those (too few) times I'd sprinted away from some of the fastest women cyclists in the country on my better outings. These events didn't seem like much at the time. Then the winter after retiring, I was doing some cross-country skiing with friends. I started to feel shaky and had to stop. I wondered if I had hypothermia. It wasn't terribly cold, but we decided that was probably it. I went home and took a hot bath, shaking with full-body muscle tremors. It would be a long time before I knew the cause. 

  The episodes eventually increased. Off and on I did rides of reasonable distance with decent capability, riding for enjoyment with other former racers. Sometimes I'd be an instigator, I was always known as a good sprinter. Other times I'd start out, only to have to turn around after a couple of miles, go home, and lie down. This eroded my confidence.  I searched for reasons; maybe I was coming down with something. Maybe I'd eaten the wrong thing.  
  Increasingly severe symptoms took me to the ER.  I never was found to have much other than an odd EKG (but not classically worrying cardiac signs) and low levels of potassium.  ER visits started happening several times a year, with less dramatic episodes of weakness in between. Doctors told me they could find nothing specifically wrong. I went without a diagnosis for a long 7 years, making the most of my energy when I could, and feeling compromised the rest of the time. In the interim I was tested for many things but the cause remained a mystery.  Finally, a doctor in a new town decided that my recurring low potassium needed further study. This led to a nephrologist's diagnosis of a rare kidney defect, which was causing me to dump essential bicarbonate and vital potassium. My body was going into acidosis, my electrolytes were off, causing arrythmias. My kidneys were trying to compensate for the defect but became progressively less able to cope. 

  It was a relief to finally get a diagnosis and to start treatment, which is lifelong. Though mostly effective I still chase feeling well, versus occasional but less severe malaise. But I don't dwell on the lost time. I decided to write this just to name the elephant that has been in the room for so long. The greatest adjustment has been trying to regain an identity as a strong, active person. Part of me hoped treatment would reset things to "normal," I'd hoped I would be taking on real physical adventures again. Some days, I do alright. I ride my mountain bike more often than my racing bike. I twist the throttle on motorcycle rides to get the feeling of speed back without exhausting myself. But active efforts often dig a hole for the following days; a day of physical work or focused exercise can mean days of down time. On outside appearance I may seem ok. I wonder when I turn down invitations from others to ride or do an adventure, if it appears as a lack of commitment or willingness to try.  Not liking to make excuses, I usually just let people think that's the case. It's not the same as feeling a lack of fitness. A healthy person doesn't experience this systemic flaw I'd wish on no one.
  Surrounded by athletic friends and family, I have learned to mostly be the facilitator, instead of the athlete.  I drive the shuttle car, maintain the bikes, wax the skis, repair the boats, screw studs into running shoes for winter. I capture their adventures as photographer. I do shorter distances and turn around early. I don't talk a lot about sport tactics or training regimens anymore.

  But I did have some glory days. I'm grateful I had many years of pursuing a sport. I'd made sport and being physically strong a big part of who I am, or used to be. In the end, I think of myself as very fortunate. I find it hard to take myself or my condition too seriously. There are so many worse things that people go through.  And while I may have lost riding as a sport, cycling is a lifestyle. That's something I'll never lose.

-all photos author's-

Wednesday, August 22, 2012



What’s your area of expertise?  Likely you have a job or a pursuit that you’ve spent a great deal of time honing. Most of us eventually focus on something in our lives that gives us a relatively high level of proficiency.  How many in the crowd regret not broadening their pursuits? Or, conversely, regret not having time to delve even deeper into one true interest, whatever it may be? To recognize that 100% expertise is always a bit beyond our grasp, and learning is without end. 

I think about specialization when I ponder our rat-race method of choosing a profession, taking it on, and spending years at it. When we divide our time into narrow chutes of performance, this allows us to reach a specific understanding of one part of complex issues. Such as:

  • a branch of medicine or other science
  • a wealth of literary knowledge 
  • the finer points of, say,  blacksmithing 
  • everything about 1957 Chevy automobiles, cars in general
  • the development of a steady hand, an artistic style (and a portfolio)
  • human development; raising a family
  • physical prowess at a sport
  • talent & expertise with a musical instrument

You name it, we can find so much detail in nearly any avocation or subject, enough to consume us and leave little time for other things. Devotees of one may argue their subject’s merit over anyone else’s subject, sure that theirs is the most difficult or worthy or interesting.  

Time is the driver of this tendency to specialize. Not having time enough. Individual interest draws one, where it leaves another cold. We wouldn’t follow each other into every possible pursuit even if we had time--our natures and drives vary in a wonderful way, making each of us unique.  We do seem to have strong suits, different talents, that are unevenly distributed. Makes for a more interesting village. 

Sequoiandendron Gigantea
But I suppose that many of us would be broader and expand more on our interests if we lived as long as a Sequoia tree. (2,000-3,000 years.) The ticking clock and the frailty to come instead can make us hunker down at something, and not much more. Yet, when we let our curiousity wander, aren’t most of us able to imagine many more things we would entertain? Things we’d make time for, if we had a second life to live?  Or perhaps we’d bring specialization to new heights, and become expert at one thing to an unheard-of degree. 

This ability to conceive of more speaks of hidden potential and of some unknown development that we aren’t able to achieve before time runs out. Leading us to be satisfied with less, or at least see that what we do accomplish is enough. Perhaps it’s better for our psyche to be topical or casual with many things, while being detailed and expert with a prime pursuit. 

Meanwhile, I seem to be prone to pursuing all trades, and being master of very few. 

Friday, March 23, 2012

Carpe Diem

Carpe Diem

There are things in life that make our sense of time more acute. If we live for today as sages suggest, we can't stop to rue the things we may not accomplish today, much less things we won't get done tomorrow. We won't stretch the hours given. Priorities, though, can change. We may be given new mandates by forces and circumstances encountered in our lives. The turns in the road may or may not be welcome, but they become our course.

If ambitious, you may take stock regularly to see if you are where you intended to be from the start. If you are instead whimsical, you may simply reflect on what has passed and carry on to see what tomorrow brings. Either approach provokes me to think about those tomorrows: meeting big goals, or simply arising to a new day, requires an appreciation for each new day. Take notice. While you still can. Carpe Diem, that is.

I've had a recent journey of observation down the path that awaits many in the latter part of life. Beyond frailty, illness, loss of independence, and outliving ones' peers, there is the cruel possibility of suffering the decline of ones' mental faculties. In caring for an elderly family member, I saw this firsthand.

You might assume that someone suffering cognitive decline is perhaps unaware of the fraying edges of their mind, exactly due to that altered grey matter. If this were completely true, it might be comforting; it might mean that a person doesn't have to be present, or accountable for their descent into becoming mentally 'damaged goods.' I think we'd like it to be true, we'd like to escape the embarrassment and loss that awaits.

What I observed instead, was a see-saw between complete inability to see in themselves their deficit, contrasted with other moments of very canny cover dialogue or irritated behavior when the frayed edges cropped up, and they knew it. Over weeks, months, and years, the person in my care coped with the difficulties that grew and encroached on their identity and the capabilities that had made them who they were.

The inability to reason, remember, focus, or complete a task, completely changes the order in ones' life. The idea of order becomes mostly foreign. Strangely enough, the personality I was working with had always had a very rigid routine, and this was a benefit in coping with the surprises and difficulties of their cognitive lapses. When you can no longer plan what comes next, but your habits have never been too spontaneous, for a long period it's possible to fall back on a well-worn pattern. It requires less thought to just do what you've always done. And in this case, that worked for a while, for most things. But eventually they were virtually "at sea" as to knowing how or what to do to get through a simple day. They had to be led through the dance, which became less vital and more banal every day. Even with efforts to enliven and enrich each moment, the ability to tap into life was deadened.

Something we may not account for in the waning years of our lives is the tenacious strength of our assumptions about what we can still do. We acquire our catalogue of knowledge, our practiced capabilities and talents, and assume they are ours for life. It is difficult to accept that we will inevitably lose some of them. Our patterns will be many decades long in the making. How do we imagine we will abandon those patterns? Is there a date-certain? Will we anticipate and delegate away the fabric of our lives with aplomb when we must? We know that we won't, not so easily. Our identity is made from this fabric, we value ourselves largely through our capabilities. And we cling to the notion that we are as we were before, even if nothing supports that notion.

There are the logistics of replacing our failing patterns with new approaches, a new prop, accepting some help. This goes against the grain, especially for a creature of habit. An "early adopter" might embrace new adaptive ways of doing things, but that still pre-supposes they'd know when it was time to adopt a new method. It may lead to abandoning activities altogether when we can't do them anymore. Driving a car is an iconic example. In our case there was that period of a few dodgy driving episodes, even after a lifetime that had included very skillful driving of difficult and exotic cars. Fortunately for my charge, there was a sudden loss of interest in driving, and we never had to have an actual intervention.

Other losses were harder to accept. It's too depressing to list all of them, but cooking, walking, hearing, creating, and being at all motivated were among the casualties. There is a real old-age dynamic of being "too tired to bother" that no amount of vitamins, care, or inspiration can fully offset. When arthritis dulls your hands, frailty robs you of surety in movement, and lost cognition shutters your awareness of all but the instant you are in, the world shrinks immeasurably.

My philosophy has always been one of living fully, appreciating things along the way, and not wasting opportunities to pursue meaningful things. The journey alongside someone who was approaching, and then arrived at the end of their road, was meaningful, but draining and confining as well. It was an impertinent mirror of what lies ahead. For someone decades younger, it seems too soon to become so familiar with that path.

And so, I purposely release my mind and thoughts from the excruciating details of life's finality. I discard the wearying role that went with supporting another in that stage of life. And I go outside, and smell the roses. I suggest you do, too.