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-