Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Race: Balance - On the Bike and Beyond

"Life is like riding a bicycle.  To keep your balance you must keep moving." -- Albert Einstein

It's one of the first things we learn as kids - how to balance.  We pull ourselves up along side the couch and wobble. Eventually we let go and stand for a few seconds before falling down. Gradually, we come to stand on our own for longer periods of time and one day, boom - we take those first steps - wobbling like a drunken sailor, but nonetheless, learning to balance.  As we grow older, our parents finally throw us on our first bike - without the training wheels - and send us screaming down the sidewalk as our little lives flash before our toddler eyes.  Ok, well maybe some parents didn't do it that way.  But you learn to find your balance on the bike and keep it centered under you.  Then, for the rest of our lives, we constantly hear that XYZ is just like riding a bike - you never forget.  How is it then, that it's so easy as we grow older to forgot how to keep one of the first things we learn - balance?        

In triathlons, balance is key:  You must have good body position and balance to move through the water efficiently (which I do not - my butt sinks like a rock).  On the bike - especially on a triathlon bike with aero bars where you're hunched over in an aerodynamic position going anywhere from 17-20 mph or more - you have to trust your balance as you soar around corners, down hills, and maneuver over seemingly endless miles of asphalt. Finally, on the run - well that's the most basic balance we have. I'm an extremely clumsy runner - I'll step on an acorn and twist my ankle in a heartbeat, or trip over some imaginary bump in the sidewalk and go flying forward.  (See Exhibit A below evidencing my bloody knee from one of my clumsy runs).  I'm getting better though and my running form has changed dramatically over the past nine months, which has helped with my balance.  So yes, balance, balance, balance - it pervades every minute I'm racing through a triathlon.  

What happens when you lose your balance on a run...

Balance in the rest of my life, however, is much more difficult to come by, as I'm sure it is for most of you.  Balance clearly is difficult and important - there already are a ton of blogs, articles, etc. written on the topic, so let me jump on the self-help bandwagon and impress upon you the following:  When you lose your balance in life you could end up with a lot worse than just a bloody knee.  

I've definitely lost my balance the past year - actually, it probably happened way before that.  I first started losing my balance in life when I left my awesome government job and went to work at a law firm.  I quickly started to be consumed by the pressure to meet billable hours and the atmosphere in the firm - the forced socialization, the sucking up to partners, the competition - drained a lot of life out of me.  I stayed for about 2 1/2 years and then I was lucky enough to have a position open up in my old government job, so I went running back.  But about the same time I went back to the government, I started doing triathlons. In 2010, I signed up for a TON of duathlons and triathlons - about 15 or more.  So I spent a lot of time training and racing, and instead of billable hours, triathlons became my focus.  Then, in November 2010, I signed up for Ironman Arizona this November 2011.  Needless to say, triathlon training took over.  In addition, I bought my first new house a year ago. So although I had a lot going on in life (clearly not as much as some people do) - work, triathlons, house - there was no balance.  I felt like all I did was sleep, wake up, work out, go to work, come home, work out, eat, shower, go to bed.  On the weekends, I did long workouts, ran errands, and maybe some stuff around the house.  That's it.  I spent considerably less time with friends, virtually no time reading or doing things that helped recharge my battery, almost no time traveling, and not as much time as I'd like trying to make my house a home.  I felt outta whack.   

As our lives evolve, it seems we have a harder and harder time trying to find our balance.  Most of my friends have kids, and I've watched their lives and our friendships change dramatically. Our relationships are still strong, but we definitely see each other much less than when no one was married or had kids.  Priorties shift - that's just how it goes.  But I do hear - mainly from my girlfriends who are mothers - how damn hard it is to be a parent and try to find balance.  The biggest concern I hear from them is that they don't have any time to work out or take care of themselves.  They get up, get the kids ready for school, go to work (either at home or in the office), pick the kids up from school, get dinner ready, eat, get the kids to bed, clean up the house, and go to bed.  I also hear from a lot of my parental friends how they miss spending time with their friends.  Finally, although less frequently, I hear how the parents miss spending time together as a couple instead of as parents.  As parents, their lives revolve around their kids - which is what makes them all great parents; but, it also causes them to be out of balance with other aspects of their lives - the other parts that make them who they are besides just parents.  

Aside from my friends with kids, I know some people whose lives revolve around work.  Get up, go to work, work well over 8 hours, come home, eat dinner, and go to bed.  Then they go back to work on the weekends.  These people also feel like they're out of balance because, like the parents, they miss out on the other parts of who they are besides a worker bee.  

We are busy people in a chaotic society that demands more and more of us every day.  We're supposed to "have it all," but what the hell "all" means I really have no idea.  I'm sure for everyone it's different.  Regardless of what you want your "all" to be, however, you must be balanced or your "all" will fall to pieces.  

I'm not very knowledgeable about the Bible, but everyone knows this:  "And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation."  Genesis 2:2-3.  For Pete's sake, even the good Lord took a break!  So I think you're entitled to a break - or at least to something that brings you joy and a little balance. Without balance, it's very hard to appreciate the "all" that we're supposed to have.  If all you do is work, you can't appreciate the blessings of rest or vacation.  If all you do is take care of others, you can't appreciate how hard your body works and how much it needs you to take care of it.  If all you do is spend time alone, you can't appreciate everything that other people have to offer.  As Forest Gump said, "Life is like a box of chocolates."  So stop picking the same damn piece of chocolate every day!  Even if it's your favorite kind of chocolate, spice things up a bit and pick a different piece of chocolate tomorrow.  (For what it's worth, I think that God and Forest Gump could actually be the same person).    

Finding balance doesn't mean you have to slow down.  The point is this:  If you continue to be out of balance, you'll eventually fall down.  Our lives aren't meant to be one-dimensional.  You are more than a parent.  More than a worker bee.  More than a triathlete or runner.  Try to get back to what you learned as a child - you have to balance or you'll fall flat on your face.     

You may be saying "Easier said than done."  I agree.  So the topic of my next blog will be about creating more efficiency....Hopefully, through finding even the smallest changes we can make, we can start to be more balanced.  But in the meantime, ask yourself whether your life is balanced.  Have you fallen down and skinned your knee because you're out of balance?  Take the survey below to see if there are areas of your life that are out of balance.  How would you like to become more balanced?  I look forward to hearing your thoughts, so please feel free to post.        

Saturday, October 29, 2011

THE RACE: First Installment - An Apology to My Family and Friends

For the past year, I've been a self-absorbed jackass...And I'm sick of it.  So this blog is my attempt to turn that around and get back to the person my mother raised me to be.  Before I can do that, however, I need to apologize to those whom I've been the biggest jackass - my family and friends.  So even if you think blogs are ridiculous (I certainly used to), I ask that you please at least read this one...And then you can be done if you want. 

In November 2010, I made a decision I never thought I would make.  After two years of triathlons and fourteen years of running, I decided to sign up for an Ironman triathlon.  For those of you who are not familiar with the Ironman, it consists of a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike ride, and 26.2-mile run, all of which must be completed in under 17 hours.  I signed up with some trepidation and fear, fully anticipating the world of hurt that I was going to inflict upon my body by training for and attempting this race.  What I never envisioned, however, even in the slightest, was mental and spiritual toll it would take.  After nine months of training, I am physically stronger than I've ever been; but, for every ounce of physical strength I've gained, I've lost twice as much mental and spiritual strength.  So now, with less than one month to go before Ironman Arizona (November 20th), I finally have realized what I learned from this process, why I decided to do an Ironman race and commit to the training, how I would hope to do it differently next time, and - most importantly - how I can try to provide some inspiration to other people through what I've learned. 

People kept asking me for the past year "Why do you want to do an Ironman?"  Until a couple of weeks ago, I didn't have a good answer.  Most people who do an Ironman have a variety of reasons for doing so:  they like the challenge; they want to see how far they can push their bodies; everyone else they know has done one; they've done every other distance so there's nothing else left; they want the Ironman tattoo; they actually think it might be fun; they want to do this distance to honor someone or as a fundraiser; or, they just want to do something that's totally and completely for themselves.  Each person's reason(s) is his/her own and is personal.  But none of those reasons - except for maybe "I've done every other distance," really answered my "Why."

A friend of mine at work recently said to me (after I'd skipped a happy hour to go home and work out) that they were talking about how "triathlon Michele isn't as much fun as regular Michele."  He meant it in jest and it was funny - but the notion that other people had picked up on a change in me really bothered me.  Normally, I'm a very social person.  I'd organize happy hours and lunches at work.  I'd throw parties at my house.  I'd visit friends at their houses to spend time with them and their kids (except if they live in Maryland - y'all know my stance on trekking to Maryland!).  I went to a lot of concerts.  I traveled and took awesome vacations.  And birthdays - birthdays were my THING.  I loved celebrating everyone's birthdays, decorating their offices, buying them gifts, organizing parties or dinners.  The past year though, all of those things I love to do not only fell by the wayside - the fell completely off the map! Plus, to top it off, I bought my first house last year, so trying to make it feel like home has taken up whatever time I'm not working, training, sleeping, running errands, or lying on the couch like a slug.  

I knew my family and friends were all being de-prioritized as I focused on training and my new house.  I didn't do a damn thing to fix it though.  I started feeling very selfish...Here I was training for this stupid race that most people don't know or care about, and neglecting everyone in my life in the process (except my boyfriend who trains with me).  My doing an Ironman certainly wasn't going to benefit anyone else or be a sacrifice on my behalf for anyone.  It's not like I'd joined the military and was being deployed.  I CHOSE to do an athletic event that was turning into a very self-centered, self-absorbed, self-important undertaking.  Instead of spending time with my family or friends, I was spending time by myself - swimming, biking, and running.  "I" became the center of my universe - and it didn't sit well with me.  In fact, it was isolating and depressing.  Unlike other people I know who were training for Ironman races and whose core group of friends are other triathletes, my family and best friends don't do triathlons.  So for other triathletes, training provided them an opportunity to spend time with their friends. For me, training took time away from my friends and family.    

So what the hell was the point?  Why cast my family and friends aside for the past year to do something that, at the end of the day, probably won't even make the Top 5 List of Most Important Things I Accomplish In My Life?  Well, I've finally realized that there are two answers.  

First, I've realized how much I thrive on and enjoy trying to motivate and inspire others.  I'm certainly not even close to the most inspirational person walking around, but I've learned that we often are setting examples for people even when we don't know it. I remember several years ago after I finished a 10k race, a woman came up to me and said that she'd been struggling through the race when she spotted me.  She thought I had a pace that she could keep up with, so she focused on keeping behind me to get through the race.  "So thank you for setting the pace," she said.  I obviously had no idea she was behind me and was just focused on doing my own thing to get through the race myself; but, it made me realize that even when we're just going robotically through our day, people see us and, for better or worse, learn from us.  Haven't you ever seen someone walking down the street and that person just looked happy, so it made you smile a little?  Or someone held the door open for a woman struggling with her baby stroller and it caused you to do the same thing next time?  Or, conversely, you're struggling with a bunch of bags and someone in front of you doesn't even bother to hold the door open for you?  Good or bad, consciously or unconsciously, we're constantly setting examples for those around us.  Since I've been running and doing triathlons, I've had so many people come to me for advice - everyone from the beginning runner to those attempting to do their first marathon. There is no greater compliment someone could give me than to ask for my advice or say that I've inspired them to try something new.  So if my doing a marathon or an Ironman can make someone else say "If Michele can do that, I can do a 'X'," then I'm thrilled!  

Second, I do this because I can.  I'm not saying I'm 100% confident that I will finish the Ironman - I certainly pray that I will.  What I'm saying is that I'm physically capable of trying.  I feel very blessed to be healthy, cancer-free, and have the ability to walk, run, swim, and bike.  I saw a man in a wheelchair on the metro one day and it made me think how difficult every day, simple things - like getting to work - would be if I couldn't use my own two legs, especially in a place like Washington, D.C. I can bolt out my door in the morning (which doesn't have to be specially widened to fit a wheelchair), run to the bus stop, climb up the bus steps (without having the bus driver roll out the wheelchair ramp), dash off the bus and run to the escalator (which I always walk down), jump on the metro (without having to move people out of the way to make room for my wheelchair), then hop off the metro, back to the escalator (which I always walk up), and walk to work.  Those little things I take for granted every day.  How much more inconvenient would your day be if you couldn't just hop in the car and go?  Or just run up your steps to the bathroom?  Or take your dog or child out for a walk?  I'm not trying to sound patronizing or trying to pity anyone with a physical disability because there are certainly people in wheelchairs or with prosthetics whom I've seen who are much more mobile, healthy, and active than other people I know.  What I'm saying is that I personally feel like if I don't try to utilize my physical blessings to the biggest extent that I can, it's like sitting on a winning lottery ticket without cashing it in. You don't have to run a marathon or even run a 5K to give thanks for your physical abilities; but, ask yourself this:  Do you really do all you can with what you've been given?  Do you drive to the store when you could actually walk?  Do you park closest to the door when you could actually park farther away to save that spot for someone else who may need it more?  Do you walk when you could run?  I read a quote from Mother Theresa that I think sums it up (at least it's reported that she said this):  “God doesn't require us to succeed, he only requires that you try.”  So, I do this crazy stuff because I can at least TRY to do it.  I'd rather try and fail than never have tried at all.   

Realizing those two things have finally given me some peace with what I feel has been a very selfish process.  So although these reasons don't excuse my neglect of my family and friends, I hope it at least helps you understand it.  I also hope that you haven't written me off, that you can forgive me, and that you can trust that I'm going to try to do things differently.  Without my family and friends' patience, love, and support, I wouldn't be where I am and I wouldn't have the mental and spiritual courage to try to push the envelope.  Most importantly, I also couldn't try crazy new things if I hadn't been inspired by someone else.  My mother is the strongest, most hard-working, self-motivated person I know. My brother is the most patient person I know when it comes to caring for others and teaches me to be yourself, no matter what.  My father has shown me that love can be expressed in unexpected ways.  My grandpa - Papa Norman - was a Marine in WWII, so say no more.  My Uncle Bud showed me that it's never too late in life to turn over a new leaf and make amends with those whom you've hurt.  My two cousins (Kurt and Goob) have humbled me with their relentless work ethic and devotion to family.  Also, Goob and my cousin Sarah have filled me with pride over their sacrifices for and service to our country more times than I can count.  Finally, my friends have taught me that family isn't limited to blood relatives, and that although life may change, those changes, if given the chance, can be better than you ever expected.  So I want to officially thank all of you just for being in my life, and formally apologize for taking you for granted the past year.  I promise to do better...

Thanks for taking the time to read this. I know many of you probably rolled your eyes when I mentioned the word "blog."  It may not be your cup of tea, and that's fine.  I'm going to give this a try for awhile though, so that maybe I can provide some inspiration and laughs to other people...Future blogs hopefully won't be so "heavy" and will try to plant a few seeds for folks to think about.  If you like this or know someone who may like it, please spread the word.  The ideas have been a-flowin', so I hope to have the first official blog published in the next week or so...

I love you all...