Friday, December 30, 2011

A large serving of reality, but please hold the excuses

It's the holidays, and everyone wants them to be perfect. But in reality, they cannot always be quintessential, simply because the truth is that life will still go on despite presents and parties.

I remember working as a news journalist at The Morning Call when the publisher decided that the paper would now be printed on Christmas. Why? "Well, news doesn't stop for holidays," Gary Shorts announced. Well, neither does life.

And so maybe this has made me a bit more of a realist when it comes to the holidays. In fact, I always worked Christmas in the newsroom. I wasn't sure why until one year, a photographer - who just happened to be Jewish - walked by me on the morning of Dec. 25th and said: "Isn't it great? Just us Jews working together..." It was then that I looked around, realizing that the skeletal staff for the day was Tobias working the desk, the Fishers shooting film, Halperin manning the photo desk, and Youngwood and me making up the reporting staff.

Only problem: I wasn't a Jew, although someone in management thought I was.

Still, I welcomed the double-and-a-half pay of roughly $50 an hour. But the real gift was the opportunity to realize that, yes, news -- and life -- does not stop for holidays, as sacred as they may be, because I still had to cover fires, deaths, and suffering on Christmas.

And so this year, as one of my former student-athletes writes from his hospital bed while undergoing his third round of chemotherapy for leukemia at Hershey Medical Center, I remain amazed by the number of "grown-ups" who blog and post about their "difficult" situations during the holidays.

"It sucks to have a sinus infection on the holidays. This screws up my training. Bleh..."

"I'm exhausted from my kids, and I have too much going on..."

"I cannot seem to get out of bed to run... What can I do to motivate myself?"


Due to social networking, I am always surrounded by folks who run, bike, and swim. But sadly, I consistently trip over adult athletes either dishing excuses or seeking elixers.

Meanwhile an 18-year-old college freshman -- a competitive swimmer who has gone to states and knocks down a mile of freestyle in under 18 minutes -- sits in a hospital bed over Christmas break and apologizes for not being able to respond to phone calls and emails because the latest round of chemo has caused him to vomit, has depleted his energy, has left him with no desire to eat for his taste buds have burned out.

And as he fights for his own life, he still pulls for a 19-year-old Penn State student involved in a serious car accident, writing: "Gaby, McKean's had enough this year, I know you can pull through. Please stay strong."

So you pray that at 18, he can focus on his own strength until he writes this two days later: "An amazing PSU student passed away earlier this week, her dream was to trend on twitter; help make her last dream come true: RT #FlyHighGaby."

I saw this just an hour after I read the obituary of the 30-year-old mother who died in the hospital while giving birth to her second child the day after Christmas. Her death notice appeared next to the one marking the passing of a 17-month-old toddler whose parents wanted readers to know that Gaven "loved life, music, Elmo and Sponge Bob."

The truth is that there are too many adult athletes who become so self-absorbed in attempting to define (or perhaps defend) themselves that they use insignificant burps, such as a lapse in training or an achy ankle, as a chance to whine about the so-called complexities of life.

They allow the title of "runner," "cyclist," or "triathlete" to come before so many more things as they search for quick answers on how to motivate themselves, not realizing that motivation is truly intrinisic, that no one embraces a 4:30 a.m. run in 20-degree weather, that running until you feel the urge to vomit can be the reward of a tough tempo, that the majority of us were not born with the genetic gift of natural athletic prowess.

They want easy answers, and there aren't any.

And so when a well-educated person asked me this week for advice on how to write a blog so that he/she could be held accountable to a running plan, I had nothing to offer. If you haven't figured out how to be accountable to yourself in your 30s, blogging about it isn't going to make a difference.

Instead, what you really need to do is to belly up to a large serving of reality, open wide, and ask yourself: "Am I really facing adversity or suffering from a case of self-absorption?"

Learn that you are fortunate to have lived long enough to have loved or to have married, to have traveled, to have given birth, to have gained a career. Learn that there are people who are suffering more than your bad ankle, more than your asthma, more than your lack of motivation or lack of sleep during a hectic holiday week.

No one wants to hear trivial excuses.

These pretexts are nothing more than an annoying waste of time and a cry for attention. Instead, make it your resolution to learn to shut up, push yourself past comfort, and enjoy the fortunate ride you've been given--because not everyone can.

Because somewhere someone else has it far worse than your lack of motivation brought on by a plate of cookies or a long day of visiting relatives. There's someone who would gladly switch places with you.

Somewhere, there's an 18-year-old standout athlete -- and many more like him -- who learned early on that life is more than a record time in the pool. Life is temporary, precious. As he plods through treatment that has left him weakened, tired and vulnerable, he wishes for those "easy" days of swimming several miles twice a day that left him not nearly as exhausted as this training plan called "Leukemia."

A lot of grown, healthy adults with a lot of excuses can learn a lot from a kid whose time could end too soon.

I pray I'm wrong. Stay strong, buddy, stay strong.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Honey Badger

I love my friend Kristin's recent posting on Facebook: Swim 2.4 miles, bike 112 miles, run 26.2 miles -- NEVER question my commitment.

One of my commitments in life is to do as much as I can for myself and not rely on other people to do things for me. Do I ask for help? Certainly, but only after contemplating my options and thinking about a course of action to solving my dilemma or scoping out a situation.

So when someone recently asked me a question -- through an email sent through a phone (infer: tech savvy) -- that could be answered by a two-second Google search, it took everything within my power to not be a Honey Badger.

I wanted to reply: "You are a professional with college degrees asking me a question through email on your phone... can you not figure this out on your own? What is wrong with you?"

Honestly, people: Do the legwork yourself. You have to invest the time to reap the reward. You cannot truly appreciate things if they are given to you without some blood, sweat or tears. OK, maybe that's a little dramatic. But you have to at least invest the two seconds of time and then do a little research.

Speaking of blood, sweat, and tears makes me think of the person who wants to be a "marathoner" but doesn't want to run four days a week, who doesn't want to run a few 20 milers, who simply doesn't want to train yet still wants to put a 26.2-mile sticker on the car after walking a marathon.


You should've been in pain a few times during training. You should've sweated so much over 16 weeks that feral cats ran away. You should've worn through two pairs of shoes before earning the right to cry at the finish because you left all you had on the course physically and emotionally because you sacrificed time away from the comforts of the couch. But you didn't.

One of my favorite mantras is: "If you fail to prepare, prepare to fail." And so if you are too too lazy and you fail again? Well, Honey Badger don't give a crap because Honey Badger told you so.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

And so this is Christmas.

We climbed the mountain. We conquered the tree. But not before we honored its life until the axe took her down. Oh, Christmas tree...

December has arrived

Today marks our annual pilgrimage to chop down the tree at Crystal Spring Christmas Tree Farm, which last year was selected as the official provider of the holiday tree at the White House. We've been heading up the mountain in Carbon County for a few years, despite the infusion of cars from New York and New Jersey where, I guess, they don't grow fir trees.

But of course, the trickiest part of this rite involves not the hike with two young girls, nor the impasse that I will most likely make as I debate whether the 9-foot fraser fir before me is the one to be sacrificed. No, the hairiest decision will be where to move my bike that is currently perched upon my trainer.

Can it stay in the library with the tree, as it did last year?

No. I concede that I was selfish, although we did move it out of sight on Christmas Eve.

Can I mount it in the cellar, with its dust and cobwebs?

No. My allergies will revolt.

Can I place it in the master bedroom, in front of the 40-inch television and right next to the bed?

Well. Sometimes we all need to make sacrifices.

I'm no Martha Stewart, so there is shall sit, totally ruining the feng shui that I've attempted to master.

Spatial complexities aside, I look forward to riding in a new spot, particularly as we buckle down for weather that simply is not suitable for my liking, particularly when I'm moving at 17 miles per hour. Instead, I am actually anticipating the holidays as a way to reboot my current state of fitness, which has been slowed down as I recovered from my Ironman and began a rebuilding program. Hopefully there are other aspects of my life that I can rebuild as well.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

I belong here.

Fire in the belly

It only took a year of planning, a year of training, a year of adjusting, a year of defining.

And in 15 hours and 54 minutes, it came to an end.

My journey to become an Ironman concluded last weekend in Panama City Beach, Florida, and with it went the anxiety that often crippled me emotionally and mentally as I experienced a milestone that I can only define as surreal and highly rewarding.

First, there was the beginning.

Shortly after I completed my first half-Ironman of 70.3 miles in the summer of 2010, I wondered if I could push myself to cover the distance of a true Ironman: 140.6 miles that breaks down into a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike, and a 26.2-mile swim.

Honestly I had no real burning desire to become an Ironman, but the idea intrigued me. I can only compare it to doing my first half marathon: once I raced 13.1 miles, why not race 26.2? Same thing with 70.3. What's another 70.3 miles? So, I decided that I would try one; if I finished, great. If not, at least I wasn’t on the couch.

When registration opened last November for Ironman Florida (known to triathletes as IMFL), I perched in front of my laptop, armed with a credit card, my US triathlon number, and my health insurance information. Surprised by my own conviction, I signed up. The disbelief lasted for a while. Was I, indeed, crazy? Perhaps. But soon, I bought into my goal, even if the fire in my belly had not yet been lit.

Then, there was the training.

I bought books. I read online plans. I considered hiring a coach. I flirted with various options to help me cross the finish line. In the end, I went with someone who knew pretty much how to help me: Mark. He created a plan that respected my bad knee, the one that an orthopaedist told me should force me from running permanently. Hell, this guy worked with Olympian Marty Nothstein, so I was a bit concerned. Still, I forged ahead with the plan that incorporated an Olympic race in Philly, a half-Ironman in Providence, and a full marathon in the Poconos, my 8th one that I would do to test the limits of my injury and to run with my running partner Jamie and my new friend Elizabeth.

As the plan progressed, the swims got longer. I wound up doing 2.4 miles in a practice swim at Lake Nockamixon during a swim camp. That alone boosted my confidence for swimming in the Gulf of Mexico. Then the runs got longer. This, of course, never bothered me because running is my first love. And in that marathon, I was happy with running a 4:39, far from a PR but she was done.

But then the bike rides got longer.

This was the tricky part.

I confess: I probably cried on at least two rides -- a rainy 102-mile century on unforgiving hills through Doylestown and western New Jersey and a bitterly cold 92-mile ride along the Schulykill River Trail that forced me to keep my toes pressed against the car heater half-way through. Each time, my knee got angrier, cursing me for hours afterward. Granted, I had several other rides of 90+ miles that were very manageable.

Yet, I wondered if I could ever finish 112 miles without burning and crashing, without falling and losing my front Chiclets, without getting the dreaded flat.

With three weeks out, I started a serious taper, which meant a sharp cutback on my mileage. I had logged several weeks of pushing 170 miles of workouts. Now? I was logging a mere 40 to 60.

Anxiety began to disrupt my sleep, decrease my hunger.

One final saving grace was Renee, a woman I met at the Rodale Aquatic Center a year earlier. At the time, she was training for Ironman Lake Placid, which she later owned with an incredible time.

Well, Renee wrote to me: “Call me NOW.” Otherwise, she threatened to drive to my house to shake some sense into me. Mind you, she's the tiniest little thing with the heart of a lion. I have about 30 pounds on her, but she motivates you like no other mother.

I called, armed with paper and pencil. I began writing down everything she said: "Don’t let your nerves get to you. It’ll waste your energy." "Something will definitely go wrong, and when it does, let it go. Accept it." "Focus on each leg as it happens. When you swim, think about swimming. When you bike, only think about biking." "Finally, go and have fun. You’ve done everything before."

Her words stuck with me the entire week.

Then, there was the trip.

Heading to Panama City, I confess that my stomach was as calm as a defendant waiting for the jury’s verdict.

Fortunately, I knew that I would meet up with people that I befriended on Facebook and Daily Mile. There was Sidney, a Brazilian living in Ireland with a torn meniscus, a charming pluck, and the drive to finish. There was Kristie, the powerhouse from Florida who continued to hammer the miles each week in her quest to qualify for Kona. There was Jen, who got bedridden with pneumonia two weeks before the race. There was Rhonda, a mother of three who shared some of the same feelings as me. There was also Felipe, Anthony, Trevor, Doreen, Cindy, John, Sean, and others, mostly first-timers who had similar fears, but still they all seemed stoic.

Several of us met up at the pre-race dinner where race officials warned us about the pink meanie jellyfish that would sting like a bastard. Seek medical attention if you got stung, we were told. I gave Sidney a look of fear. "Don't worry," he said, "they'll swim away." I hoped he was right.

The next day I tried to swim in the Gulf, but the strong waves and current kept me from a clean entry. However, once I cleared the surf, I managed to swim for about 15 pink meanie-free minutes. Afterward, I took Stella, my bike, out for a six-mile spin, just to make sure that nothing happened on its drive with the transport crew from Philly.

After a massive lunch of waffles, bacon, and hashed browns, followed by a dinner of chicken, rice, and pasta, I spent a few hours organizing my remaining bags and hit the pillow at 8 p.m. I think I slept for five restless hours.

The next morning, I awoke at 4 a.m. to shower and down a banana with peanut butter, some oatmeal, and a cup of coffee. I visited the loo so many times, just to be sure, because I do own one of the world’s smallest bladders. Then we headed to the car where I realized that neither of my Garmins would turn on And it was then that I thought of Renee.

“Prepare for something to go wrong because it will…”

She was right. There was nothing I could do, so I let it go. I would run a marathon without knowing my pace or my mileage. I’d have to rely on my Timex and the mile markers. I’d have to hope for the best.

We boarded a shuttle bus that was filled with nervous chatter. I spoke very little, instead, trying to think inside my head about how I didn’t want to let anxiety steal my energy. I dropped off my two special needs bags, which are bags kept at the halfway points of both the bike and run. You place items in there that you may possible need or want to help you move forward.

And then I headed to transition to fill my bottles, pump my tires, climb into my wetsuit. Finally, I walked to the beach, seeing Mark on the way.

Thank goodness for the wetsuit. I was so nervous that I peed in the darn thing and no one was the wiser. And not once, not twice. At least three times before I even got into the water.

Then, there was the race.

The swim scared me, simply because of the current and the sea creatures—not to mention getting my goggles kicked off. While I’m not a strong swimmer (it takes me about 30 miles to swim a mile in the pool), I feel confident in the water. But with Van Halen’s “Panama” blaring in the background, a cannon shot off and I simply stood there with a group of other older women.

We knew better.

We watched as this mass of wetsuits took the water, creating a broad stream of black that parted the near calmness of the surf. It looked like poetic madness.

Finally, I entered the warm water and I started repeating my two mantras with each steady stroke:

One was: “You belong here.” And I believed it.

The other was: “You got this,” which I heard many times in training. And I did.

The swim was quite relaxing, although I drank quite a bit of salt water. I never pushed myself, I never panicked. I saw the jellyfish. I think that I may have seen the two sharks that everyone else did, but I was afraid to look back to verify. One of my DM friends, Michael, was volunteering; he later told me that scuba divers swam beneath the water. Hopefully, they didn't see the yellow trail behind me.

After the first 1.2-mile loop, I ran on to the beach and checked my watch: 7:44 a.m. Considering that I started about 3 minutes after the crowd, I was pleased with a 41-minute leg. So I grabbed a cup of water, spotted Mark, gave him a high five, and headed back in.

This one felt even easier., although my mind kept wandering to the bike ride. "Gosh, that's a far distance and the wind seems bad..." Then I started thinking: "How will I run a marathon tonight? I'm used to taking a nap every day...Will I have time to sleep somewhere for 20 minutes?" But then Renee’s voice kept coming back: "Focus on one leg at a time." So I went back to my mantras to keep me grounded: "You. Got. This. You. Belong. Here." One arm. The other. Breathe. Repeat.

After the swim, I took a prolonged freshwater shower right off the beach. People around me yelled to move. But I knew my eyes would burn if I didn't wash away all of the salt. A few minutes later, with some help, I found my bike bag and ran into the changing tent where women were just about naked as I could have imagined. Now, I am not overly prudish, but I am rather shy. So this was something out of my comfort zone. But I still stripped down to nothing, threw on Glide, tried to find all of my clothing.

We all made small talk., and the woman next to me noticed that I had severe chafing on my neck from my wetsuit. I said she had the same thing! So I applied Vaseline and passed my jar to her, hoping that the large red welts wouldn’t burn against our bike jerseys.

Now, the ride is never my favorite part of triathlon, and this was no different. The plan was to mentally break it down into 11 sections of 10 miles. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. For the first 50 miles, I felt as though I was fighting a 25- to 35-mile per hour headwind. I kept cursing out loud every time the wind increased. My speed fluctuated between 16 and 21 miles per hour, but it would suddenly drop to 10 with the wind, and I felt that I could never escape it. I could not maintain a consistent pace.

Take that bad pacing and then throw in a weak bladder (I stopped at 8 of the 10 rest stops to pee) and I was losing a lot of time before even getting to the halfway point. Thus, I began to worry if I'd make the cut-off. In fact, I had already seen some people turn around and quit. But I was not quitting.

Once I got my special needs bag at mile 56, I chugged the frozen Coke Zero (Renee's brilliant idea) and read a note from Kendall, who is 6. I immediately started to cry as I noticed the intricate little hearts that decorated the paper from my baby girl. The volunteer, a kid about 25, held my bag open, leaned into me, patted my shoulder, said I’d be fine.

And I was. The last 56 miles flew by quickly, although I suffered a nasty bee sting at mile 68. I ended up breaking the stinger off inside my leg, which caused a massive swelling that still lasts a week later and still remains lodged in my leg. Finally, as I hit 100 miles, I kept praying: “Please no flat, please no flat, please no flat...” I shaved more than 30 minutes off my second 56 miles.

Heading into transition, I remembered a line that someone once told me at the pool: “You’ll never be so excited to run a marathon as when you’re finishing that 112-mile ride.”

So true.

I passed my bike off to a volunteer (talk about valet service!), changed clothes in transition, talked to another volunteer who helped me organize my supplies. She said she wanted to do IM next year but was worried. I told her that I was having a blast, and I truly was. My parting words to her: "Do it."

As I headed out, the sun was still up. I tied my long-sleeve reflective shirt around me waist. I felt good for the first three miles, but I remember seeing people already coming back to the finish and thinking: “Damn, I still have 23 miles to go…” The unknown scared me.

But the miles passed quickly as nearly every rest stop had a theme: Hawaii, North Pole, the color blue, rock and roll, the Van Morrison house, crazy dance party with women dressed in leather... By mile 6, I started my run-walk, which I had initially planned to do earlier. But I was stubborn and tried to run for as long as I could. Not a good way to manage a run-walk plan. The only stops I had been making was walking through water stops and visiting a portable john at each one as well.

Somewhere around mile 7, I was exiting a bathroom when I heard my friend Jen call my name. She had finished after me in the swim and bike, but with my plodding and bladder breaks on the marathon course, she had caught up to me. Together we ran for a couple miles before she stopped with stomach issues. I kept going, knowing she’d catch me again. She did, just around mile 12. Together we hit the halfway point where I turned to get my second special needs bags as I saw dozens of people heading to the finish.

It was here that I read Grace’s letter to me, but fortunately I held in the tears: “ You may not be first, and you may not be last, but you’re first at being my mom,” she wrote. She may be autistic, but she's damn strong. And I had to be as well. I glanced at her initials, as well as those of my other three children, that I had written on my wrist. I started to run again.

But at that point, I realized that I was in it for the long haul. The sun was setting, and I knew we’d be soon running in the dark. Jen thought she’d have to walk the rest of the way, but we started to run together again. However, she managed to keep the pace, and my hamstring would have nothing of it. It was here, probably around mile 15, that I knew I’d be walking more than I wanted.

I resorted to counting: run to 100, walk to 50, repeat. If I felt good, I’d run to 200. I increased my cups of chicken broth and cola. Still, I had to drain the bladder at every stop, realizing later that I simply drank way too much.

The sun fully set before the 20-mile turnaround, and at times, I felt very alone in the darkness. I didn’t have a headlamp, and the portable boomer lights weren’t enough at some points. One stretch of the marathon winds through a park with signs of "Alligators" and "Don't feed the wildlife." Not very comforting. Through here, I took careful steps in the night, fearing that if I landed wrong and fell, that I wouldn’t make it. I knew, however, that I had enough time in the bank to walk the rest of the way if needed—even if I didn’t want to do that.

On the way out of the last turnaround, with about 5 miles to go, I watched the zombies enter. These are the poor souls who probably won’t make it. I had seen enough people vomit, collapse, cry, and quit throughout the day. Watching these worn athletes with pale faces and blank stares walk almost sideways saddened me. I wondered if they knew they’d get pulled from the course with its time restrictions. They had until 10:30 p.m. to get to mile 19 or so, and they weren’t going to make it.

As I headed back, the supply tables dwindled. Volunteers started packing up. The broth was getting cold. My stomach was beginning to revolt. The belly cramps I felt on the bike returned.

But residents remained outside to support us.

They cheered. They danced. They played music. (I even remember fist-pumping to Shakira...How odd in retrosepct.) They still demanded a high-five.

With only a few people around, I spotted a young Asian guy with a video camera for the third time that day, and he yelled to me. (I had seen him on the bike once and earlier on the run.) We started talking and he walked/ran with me for about a half mile, filming our conversation. He had done two Ironman races as well as a host of marathons. He was there to cheer for 18 friends, and 2 of them were close to getting cut off.

After a while, I told him to go back and find them, that I’d be ok.

And I was.

I kept up my walk/run, wondering how safe it was in the dark. Fortunately, I'd stumble across someone or the same stray cat that I had seen four times. But soon I got to mile 24, and that was it. My energy returned, and I started to run stronger. As I rounded the corner to Front Beach Drive, I could hear the music. I could see the lights down the road. I knew it was coming.

A large blue inflatable arch stood at the final turn, and I thought it marked the finish. I clearly remember yelling: "Where's the damn clock?" Someone shouted for me to keep going, but by that point, my tears flew swifter than my feet. I wondered who was watching me stream online, and I wondered if they could see me crying, and if they cried for me. (I later found out that they did.)

Suddenly, I heard: “Hey, it’s my buddy!”

To my left, my Asian friend appeared out of nowhere. How he got from mile 21 to mile 26 perplexed me, but he was cheering for me, telling me to take it home, filming at the same time. At the same moment, to my right, Mark finally spotted me, and he began yelling my name and running alongside the metal barriers. I could hear the crowd chanting. Then I could see them.

And then the man who I had been waiting to hear all year greeted me.

Mike Reilly, the official Ironman announcer.

“All the way from Pennsylvania….from Macungie… Denise Reaman, you ARE an Ironman.”

I wept the entire way in. I forgot to lift my arms in victory. Instead, I cried for all of the sacrifices I had made, for all of the moments that I lost in a year, for the times that I came off as selfish to my friends and my family, for all of the pain, sweat, and effort that I gave to fulfill this goal.

My greeter hugged me, wrapped me up in a space blanket as the shivers set in. She steadied me and prepped me for my picture. Afterward, I realized that I missed my friend Sidney, who came in just a few minutes after me to the beat of YMCA by the Village People. I guess I missed him due to my own self-absorbed glory. I called my mom to tell her that I was finished: 15 hours and 54 minutes.

I have never been so exhausted in my life. And the beauty of it? I have never had such a thrilling, amazing time either.

In hindsight, I realize that people who compete in an Ironman race are a different breed. People talked to one another throughout the three legs. During the bike, someone offered to stop and give me Pepto when I complained aloud about an upset stomach. People threw tubes and tires to people who needed supplies. People helped change flats, pull others up from the ground who had collapsed, check on those who seemed about to, offered spare goggles, shared food, aspirin, Bio-Freeze.

And we talked to one another, constantly. Never have I spoken to so many people in a race, including marathons with four times as many people.

I think we realized how much we had all given to be there, and how fortunate we were. And are.

The whole experience made me believe: “I belong here.”

And so that's why I will hear Mike Reilly call my name again...

The Finish

“Endurance is one of the most difficult disciplines, but it is to the one who endures that the final victory comes.”

After a week of illness, exhaustion, and disappointment, I am finally ready to complete my blog.

But before I publish it, I wanted to include the link that marks the end of this journey, one made possible by the support of my closest friends and family, not to mention the little girl inside of me who is tired of carrying the label of "victim".

Friday, October 7, 2011


I hear the funniest things in the hallways of school. I usually just soak them in, plow ahead, smile or shake my head internally.

You never know what you're going to hear, but every morning proves to offer a morsel of insight into the teenage mind. And you wonder: "Was I ever like that in school?"

So on my way in today, I saw this tiny little bird, a small brunette who was probably 14 and weighed in at maybe 85 pounds, if she was wearing her backpack. And I walked past in the midst of her conversation, and this was all I heard:

"And so I farted in the box before I realized that there was a crack in the bottom. So I got some tape and fixed it, and then I farted again..."

You can't make this stuff up.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

30 days to go

Exactly 11 months ago today, I poised in front of my laptop and waited for noon to arrive. I clearly remember counting down the minutes, making sure that my Visa and my USAT card sat next to me.

With great trepidation and an excited fear, I cued in on the address for Ironman Florida and said a little prayer. Would I be able to secure a spot to compete in a 140.6-mile race that sells out within hours? I had doubts.

As soon as high noon arrived, I tried to log on to the site. Fail. The website had trouble processing the hits as they came across. Repeat. Fail. Repeat. Fail. But within five minutes or so, I was in and hit “register.” I frenetically typed in all of the vital information requested, scanned the release about the health risks, signed off that I knew I bordered on crazy, and hit submit.

Within a minute, my $625 was gone.

And like that, I registered for something that would consume a large part of my life for the next year.

Here it is now, Oct. 4, 2011.

It’s been a long journey, one that’s not yet over, but one that has forced me to be a queen of time management—management that has often sacrificed my commitment and responsibilities to others.

At this point in my life, I have run eight marathons, so I know how much training for 26 miles can sap you of your energy. But this is different. This is a beast unto its own. The running? Doesn’t scare me. It’s the other stuff.

By now, I’ve swam beyond the distance of my race. The cost has been a few swimsuits, two ear infections, lots of water up my nose, dry hair, hours alone in a pool that hasn’t completely cooperated with my schedule.

I’ve biked distances that have made me cry: a painful 102-ride on rainy technical hills the day before a hurricane, a freezing 91-mile ride in the wind and rain that forced me to heat my toes on the car’s vent, an 80-miler on the trainer during which I watched three chick flicks and developed saddle sores that seemed to linger on for weeks.

But it hasn’t all been ugly.

The water has become a calming haven for me, a place for reflection and focus, a discipline that has sculpted my upper body and arms more than any P90 program ever did.

The bike has become an escape, a machine that has allowed me to see the patchwork of farmland across Berks County where I pass the quiet Mennonites who guide their horse-led buggies to church, a device that’s allowed me to ride along the green Schuylkill where the water serenely flows into a city that I love.

This has all been with sacrifices, however.

During many of these hours away, I’ve thought about my girls and my son, and I silently lament about the hours I miss with them, with my family. Time that's slipped away. And I’ve turned down offers to have lunch, dinner, and drinks with my friends. I’ve been remiss in returning phone calls, in replying to emails. I’ve turned down invitations to parties. The closest alliances that I’ve maintained have largely been with my constant running partners, women who have supported me through many hours, many miles. They've filled the voids of others.

For them, I’m grateful. For those who’ve understood, I’m thankful. I just need people to realize that this, this is about me. This is something I need to do.

Friday, August 5, 2011

Reaching beyond limits

When we raise children, we often have certain expectations. We expect them to be healthy, we expect them to be happy, we expect them to be like most other normal kids on the block.

We don’t expect them to be disabled, a factor that alters the rules of the game.

And so when our expectations aren’t met, we go through a sense of loss, a sense of depression, a sense of why me, why us, why her? But once you get through the murky waters, we often discover that certain rewards await in this journey as we try to find strategies to cope with modified expectations.

July brought one such reward.

Over the winter, I researched different programs for Grace to join. She had done Scouts, art lessons, running races. None stuck. She was in the midst of Parkettes, but I didn’t want to be inside the humid facility over the summer. I stumbled upon a small local swim team, the Macungie Bears. She doesn’t like high-pressure situations, but I broached the idea with her. I showed her team pictures online, talked about how fun it would be being a Bear.

“I won’t wear a cap.”

“I don’t want to race anyone.”

“I only swim underwater.”

I silently nodded. Without much discussion, we signed up one evening in April. We shelled out more money than I wished. I secretly began to regret it, figuring I just donated three Benjamins to a non-profit. She'd spurn this, as she promised.

But the weeks passed, and soon enough, practice for the experienced kids started in early June. She didn’t need to report for duty until the month’s end, after school had ended. We didn't discuss it. I just kind of took her. The first day, she cried, quietly protesting. Her anxiety was winning. But I assured her that I would wait on a nearby bench while she joined the 7 other kids as “cubs,” inexperienced Bears not yet ready for prime-time competition.

Give it a day, kid, I asked.

That first morning, under the guidance of Coach Sue, she learned freestyle. The second, breaststroke. The third, backstroke. It all seemed very natural to her. By the fourth day, the coach got her on the diving block. I cringed. She had never dove before. But there she went. It was mostly a belly flop, but she was fearless. I watched as she not only kept up with the other kids, she swam faster than most of them.

After practice, the coach pulled Grace to the side to talk. Soon, Grace ran over to me: “Coach Sue wants to talk to you.” I thought it’d be bad news: Grace wasn’t listening, she needs to practice more; maybe she needs lessons. So I trudged over.

“She’s ready for her first meet,” Coach Sue said.


“Yep, let’s get her in next week, freestyle and backstroke.”

My jaw literally fell open.

“You cannot be serious.” I shook my head.

“I am.”

“You need to know: she’s autism spectrum. She may not handle this very well.”

The coach seemed surprised: “Really? I teach special ed. I can’t even tell. She just fits in so naturally.”

After she left, I had to convince Grace that “racing” would be fine. She didn’t think so. I had to throw out a hook: “I’ll give you five dollars for every swim meet.” She bit.

The next week, we found ourselves in Quakertown, trying to figure out how this whole swim meet thing was going to work for her. I hadn’t been to one in years since Andrew was the last competitive swimmer in our family. It surely would be different with her.

At the meet, she found the interaction with her teammates to be socially awkward, a characteristic of the autistic. She needed to hang with family. She needed reassurance. She needed to see us throughout the event. She needed reminding of what to do and when.

But when it came time to go, she went.

She was last off the block because, well, she didn’t quite get the whole concept of “go.” The fact that she was racing did not sink in. Still, as we yelled and cried tears of joy, she reached and reached, pulling up from 8th place faster and faster as we ran down the side of the pool. Thirty seconds later, she came in third. Had that pool been one meter longer, she would’ve won 25-meter backstroke.

It wasn’t the last time she came from behind.

She continued to place at other meets, taking some firsts and seconds in various strokes. The coup of the season was that, in her first race in Quakertown, she swam fast enough in backstroke to qualify for “Best of the Best,” the suburban league’s district championships.

Who knew that the cub had it in her, beating out girls who had already been on the team in previous years, whose parents spent money on private lessons since they were four?

Still, the truth was that she didn’t want to go championships. She fought the idea and told the coaches she wouldn’t compete. She couldn't face the pressure. She worried about being last. However, I wasn’t going to accept her answer; I knew that all she needed was reassurance. “She’s going,” I quietly mouthed. “Put her down.”

The hook? Ten bucks and a large soft-serve twist.

When championships arrived two weeks later, we didn’t care how well she swam. She could’ve been last. For us, the fact that within a month she overcame some fears, pushed aside her anxieties, and kicked self-doubts to the curb made everything worth it.

As she waited for her heat, I sat in the bleachers and silently wept behind my sunglasses. Kids from her team yelled her name. Coach Sue called to her. Coach Phil rubbed her shoulders, gave her a thumbs-up and a high-five before she plopped into Lane 5 and cued up under the block.

After the gun sounded, she was far behind. Dead last again. But like before, she motored on--reaching, reaching--and ended up in third, missing second in her heat by a half stroke. It didn’t matter.

She did what she needed to do: earn 10 bucks, score some ice cream, and be proud of what she can do.

She was still a champion.

As Emerson wrote: “The reward of a thing well done is to have done it.” We will do as much as we can to help her discover not only who she is, but experience the rewards of reaching beyond the imaginary limits placed before her. My hope is that every child with a label can enjoy such moments.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Butterfly moment

The Jersey Shore premieres its fourth season tonight.

I don’t know this from personal obsession. I know this from all of the Facebook posts provided from former students and from my niece—a stunning little sweetheart who shouldn’t be watching such brain poison. But there was one post on the social network that stood out. It came from Ryan, a former student who graduated years ago. He’s creative, introspective, outgoing. And he isn’t afraid to say it like it is, and never was.

Ryan took a risk and wrote something a tad critical of people who are absolutely consumed with the show, people who schedule vacations around dime-store celebrities with two-can ‘do’s and fake bakes. Well, people attacked him, called him a hater. The list of comments was pretty long.

But his honesty gave me a glimmer of hope that not all twenty-somethings are wasting away their lives with this Jersey circus. Maybe some realize that life is invaluable when you’re 20. It’s a time when you aren’t burdened with a laundry list of responsibilities, that before you settle down with a partner, with kids, with a mortgage, that you shouldn’t be at home tied to cable.

You should be living.

Later, I headed to Wawa to get gas and coffee. And while there, Snow Patrol’s "Chasing Cars" came on. Of course, this is the song that makes me think of Tyler, who was friends with Ryan. I wondered what he would think about people’s fascination with the clowns. And, as I had written to Ryan, I thought that maybe I have no idea about what Tyler would think. But in my mind, I can only imagine him telling people to live their own lives, to not experience it through the exploits of others.

And then suddenly, as I began to well up with the thought of Tyler in his coffin—a confining end before being set free—a yellow Monarch butterfly came out of nowhere and landed on the window of my car, right in front of me. It flapped its wings, turned—almost as if it looked at me—and then flew off into a grey-filled sunset.

Monday, June 27, 2011

Chicken connection -- aka a poultry post

Today marks the first full week of summer vacation, and already I am antsy.

Granted, my days are not wasted in a hammock, dreaming of greener pastures. They are, indeed, filled with lists of to-do and not-to-do, places to see, people to visit, projects to collaborate. And yet, I remain restless. As always.

This past weekend I had the great fortune (and I do consider myself fortunate) to compete in the Philadelphia Insurance Triathlon, Olympic distance. After a tough race last year, I prayed that my body would improve from injuries, and it has. Thanks to cooperative weather, I managed to decrease my finish time by 24 minutes, bringing my final time to 3:06. I went in hoping to beat 3:15, so I was pleased.

But the best part, however, was meeting new folks who also embrace multi-sport. I’m not saying that running people are much different, for they aren’t. But triathletes are not only about performance. They are also all about the toys. And I secretly drooled over quite a few. I know that I will never shell out more than I already have for a bike, and I am rather happy riding a road bike instead of a tri bike. But along with the wide range of machines, the people are just so easygoing and outgoing.

Both at the expo and during the race, I met up with several folks who were just positively keepers.

Some included Chip, a true dude that I met through Facebook since we had mutual friends and mutual interests. He, too, is a runner as well as triathlete. And he's quite an interesting and charming fellow - with an affable pooch appropriately named Kona - who invited me to crash the food soiree at the Philly Tri tent after the race. (Didn't he realize how much food I consume?)

And then there were two absolute angels in my age group who immediately sensed how cold I was before the swim. (A warm-up swim had given me a serious case of the chills, and my teeth were literally chattering.) Without saying more than 30 or so words, they sat next to me before our wave took off and both started rubbing my arms to ward away my goose bumps. And then right before we went off, the race director yelled that some woman broke her goggles. Did anyone have a spare pair? Immediately three people volunteered.

After the race, I met up with Sharon, a pro racer, whose name I know from the circuit. As we spoke, I told her of the common man in our lives: Bill.

I love Bill. She loves Bill. What’s not to love about Bill. Bill is our butcher. Mr. Bill. Organic, free-range chicken man about town. A-town. Bill sends chicken to Sharon. Bill hands me chicken over the counter. Anyway, we had a bit of a conversation about her connection to Bill. It made me crave one of his spinach-feta chicken burgers. But in the end, I congratulated her on her race, she did the same to me.

It is a small world, indeed. And maybe that’s why I’m so antsy, because there’s just not enough time left before all of our eggs hatch.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Cavy Nation

I confess: I may have been wrong. OK, let’s strike “may have been.” I was wrong.

About two years ago, I stumbled upon a cavy convention in downtown Macungie, a gathering of individuals (mostly middle-aged women who eschewed Michael Kors for elastic-waist shorts) doting on dozens and dozens of guinea pigs. They dolled some in clothes, led some on leashes, prepped ‘em to strut their small-mammal stuff down the cavy walk.

It was a Twilight Zone experience, to say the least.

Walking away, I couldn’t help but shake my head, roll my eyes.

You see, growing up, I never was an animal kind of girl. We bred spaniels, and I owned a few box turtles, salamanders, a hermit crab. But fluffy animals that wore tiny hats and vests? Creatures that I’d be more likely to eat than treat? It wasn’t happening.

Fast-forward 18 months. Christmas, 2010. Annie’s friend couldn’t afford to regularly pay her heating bill. Thus, Michelle began seeking temporary homes for her collection of pets, lest they freeze in her frigid apartment. Somehow, I was selected for cavy duty.

Within two days of my reluctant shrug, Mr. Cuddles arrived in his cage. I snarled at the package and made the girls double pinkie-swear that if I paid for the rodent’s food and bedding, they were wholly responsible for his feeding and upkeep.

Yep, they agreed.

Their promise lasted a week.

Soon, I began to notice Mr. Cuddles’ little turds pile up. He ran out of water. He started squealing for food. I felt as though I was continuously texting Annie: “Clean the animal.” Somehow, she was always busy. She’d promise to stop by the next day.

But the truth is that the next day rarely came, and I have a highly sensitive sense of smell. I can detect a noisome aroma with the smallest of whiffs. And damn, I could smell the lingering and festering stench of the hay that lined the bottom of the cage.

I closed the door to Annie's room, but I knew the truth.

I had to clean his cage.

And on that first day of mucking the stalls, the chocolate-brown ball of hair ran in crazy circles. It skittered away, kicked the mess on to the floor, head-butted my hands. This went on for weeks. It bit me whenever it could, and so I started to despise it. I cajoled the girls into giving it carrots, just so that I wouldn’t have to see it. They agreed, but the novelty soon wore off. I’d have to be the Queen of the Cavy.

By February, I stopped referring to the critter as Mr. Cuddles. My nose and I became so frustrated with the situation that I couldn’t even remember that it was a guinea pig. “Guinea pig” sounded so cute and playful. By March, I was calling it “that rat.” By April, I referred to it as “that thing.” Sometimes, I called it “that hairball.”

His newness disappeared; no one paid attention to it. Slowly, however, I began to feel bad for it, especially after Annie said that no guinea pig had ever lived under Michelle’s care as long as Mr. Cuddles had.

So one day, I tried to pick him up. He panicked. In circles he sprinted as I tried to grab his silky body. Finally, I spooked him into a corner, scooped him up, brought him close to my chest. He began to purr as he closed his eyes. It wasn’t too bad, I figured. I looked for some advice online. I asked for ideas from a friend whose sister has a bevy of cavy. I offered it kale. (He turned his nose.) I offered him treats. (He pushed them aside.) I offered celery. (Major snub.)

I even took the advice of cleaning the cage more often, in a way I never imagined I would: scooping out his daily droppings with a plastic spoon. How did I ever end up here, scouring Timothy hay for morsels of waste? Heck, how did I even know about Timothy hay?

I don’t know.

But I think it started the day when I was petting him and he turned his head, as if he wanted his ears scratched. And so I gently scratched them. Then he turned around, as in “rub my rear.” And so I did. He lifted his hind quarters in seeming bliss. After I stopped that day, he ran to the side of the cage, stood on his hind legs, and watched me leave. When I was just out of view and nearly out the door, he began squealing loudly. As I peaked back in, he stopped. We played this back-and-forth peek-a-boo for a few minutes.

I knew then that I love this cavy.

Now, five months after his arrival, I hear him call me as I lumber up the stairs. (Yes, he knows it’s me.) And I’ll peak in. And he’ll stick his front paws out of the cage, beckoning for ear scratching and rump rubbing. And I’ll give in like the ladies at the convention, doting on him for all of his fragility, his quick feet, his warm eyes.

Granted, I won’t be dressing him up in a cowboy hat and vest, but I will love this little man until I can love him no longer.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


"There are some things that cannot be learned quickly and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. . ." Ernest Hemingway.

All too often, I think I know something. And then I realize that I was sadly mistaken, mislead by my own blindness, my own hubris in feeling confident that things will go as planned. I am not certain of many things right now.

Pay heavily, I fear I shall.

For, I am not as strong as Catherine in A Farewell to Arms, but I do know that when I believe in something, I support it with all that I have. Perhaps this is what I need to do. And that is to believe in myself. Thus, I shall attempt to think more like Hemingway as in his approach to writing.

"Use short sentences. Use short first paragraphs. Use vigorous English. Be positive, not negative."

Tuesday, May 3, 2011


This weekend I finally conquered one of my three goals: to break 24 minutes in a 5k. I did it in 23:58 while still fighting off ear infections, sinus issues, and congestion. But the best part about it was sharing the moment with my friends.

I feel so fortunate to have people around me who truly care about me feeling successful in my goals. Unfortunately, some of them only talk the talk. Their words are merely words. They are not genuine.

No one came to see me race, but I can handle that. I've done numerous races on my own, including triathlons. But when i realized that I beat my PR by 50 seconds, I felt hollow for several minutes. I wandered around a bit, went for a run, and then finally I reconnected with Christine who was with her family. And then I stumbled into Chris, and then I stumbled into Rob. And their kind words validated my first-place finish in my age group (as well as all women ages 35 to death. Of course, the young chicks ran faster, Christine included).

Thus, I felt extremely thankful that I have friends who are true, who don't look for excuses, who don't quit me.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Double Trouble

Yesterday was Easter. The re-birth. The start of something new.

Right now the only thing that I've been starting is exhaustion from being sick for nearly five weeks. My double inner ear infection spread to the middle ear, which spread to my sinuses, which spread to my lymph nodes, which has spread to my motivational level. Thus, I'm not feeling it.

Never have I felt such exhaustion from an illness other than H1N1, which knocked me out for at least three weeks of recovery.

But I am on two more new medications, and I hope this is the beginning of the end.

I feel as though a lot of changes are on the horizon, and a lot of them begin with me.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Overlooked by all but me

The poor monkfish. What did he ever to do receive the ugly stick? Why was he not blessed with the beautiful graces of the squirrel, the chipmunk, the deer?

I felt bad for him today. No one wanted him at the fish market. The others, they wanted tilapia, salmon, swordfish. I took the monkfish home. I massaged him in olive oil, soothed him some chunks of garlic, bathed him in lime juice, tickled him with freshly ground pepper. And then I coated him with an eclectic robe of riches: salsa that I made with mango, cucumber, sweet red pepper, cilantro, and this overpriced pineapple core that came from Wegman's.

Upon his completion, the once plain swimmer now stood on the winner's circle, basking in his glory.

He was, indeed, divine in all of his paleo-centricity.

Speaking of which...I had a neat experience at Mr. Bill's where I was trying to find organic turkey bacon. Unfortunately, no one at the Farmer's Market carried the brand which I wanted. But the butcher noted what types of meats I was requesting, to which he asked if I did endurance sports. Yes. Ah, he says he could tell because he provides the same organic, free-range products to numerous Ironman competitors. And then he said he was friends with Sharon Mongrain, a woman from Philadelphia who I know by proxy. Small world, it is. And it was a sign, I think, that I am moving in the right direction.

Friday, January 28, 2011

I am an avocado.

If I return as a fruit, I will be an avocado.

A versatile fruit, the avocado provides one of the smoothest and flavorful centers. It’s not sharp or bitter. Rather, it’s beyond mellow. Plus, it’s inclined to warm weather. It’s productive when treated properly. It was worshipped by the Aztecs who considered it a fertility fruit.

Not that I want to be worshipped in any fashion relating to fertility. But I want to be treated well by the people in my life.

We all do.

Unfortunately, I don’t always feel that way, and so I continue to take measures to eliminate negative people from my surroundings. Recently, however, I spent several hours with a well-respected professional with an arm’s length of credentials.

However, he was clearly outspoken in his criticism of my training and my goals. Even though he doesn’t know me, his comments stung for days, and I can still clearly hear his toxic words piercing my hopes. Fortunately, I don’t have to listen to him again, but the pain that I internalized still lingers.

Coupled with that incident, I am dealing with the stresses of overhauling my nutrition plan, which has its flock of skeptics. As a former vegetarian and animals rights zealot for most of my 20s, I found the prospect of becoming a subscriber to the Paleolithic plan rather ironic. Still, I have not felt as healthy and as clean in a long time, and that includes my years as a strict vegetarian.

Despite continuous reading, researching and talking with other Paleos, I feel as though I have to defend my choice to question whether I consume too many cereal grains that contain the toxic protein gluten. No, I don’ t need to eat a bowl of Kashi or fusilli to get my carbohydrates. But people will still insist that I do.

Since my switch, I am cooking with new approaches, embracing kale as my partner. Coconut and grapeseed oils have added new flavors to my fish dishes and vegetables. Organic bison has replaced all other beef. My chickens roam free!

Yet as content that I am with my decisions, I still feel as though I am finding my way to becoming the person that I am meant to be. Right now, with a few injuries not completely healed—physically and emotionally—I am a one-oared rowboat, circling, circling. What I need most is to be with other avocadoes—smooth, mellow, worthy of being treated well.