Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Full Suspension

Last night I stayed up too late, sitting on the couch with Frank and during what essentially turned into a strategic planning meeting regarding the management my mental health for FY16. I awoke this morning to realize my major dream of the night had been about me giving birth in our kitchen floor while he attempted to help me and I refused to go to the hospital. Well played, subconscious, well played.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the connection between depression, sleep, and dreaming lately, as I read yet another article the other day about the correlation between depression and short REM latency. Basically that means that it is a pretty well-established fact that people with depression skip right past the deep sleep phase of the night, where HGH production and physical recovery are the highest, to the REM phase, where most dreaming occurs. As someone who has spent pretty much her whole life as a frequent and vivid dreamer, who is perpetually tired even when I’m consistently getting “enough” sleep, and who has had to manage bouts of moderate depression taking up big chunks of my life since I was 9, this fact is super relevant to my interests.

Unfortunately, while the correlation is well-established, the causation is not. I like the theory that this phenomenon is the brain’s attempt to heal itself rather than the cause of the depression, even though that would basically mean that my brain’s need to repair its own emotional centers is stealing from my body’s much-needed physical recovery. I guess I secretly hope that it will someday lead to my getting a doctor’s note saying that I’m actually required to get 10-12 hours of sleep to stay healthy, and that I’m not just weak or crazy. Because, honestly, I think that would do so much more to help me than anything “modern medicine” has to offer.

It’s always a tough decision about whether to discuss my struggles with depression and anxiety in this blog, because I don’t want to write something just for the sake of whining. I do, however, want to give an accurate picture of my experience as an amateur athlete and human being without glossing over the ugly parts. I do work very hard to frame experiences in a positive manner, as this is a useful exercise for me, as well as more enjoyable to read on a weekly basis.  At the same time, I do this for me, and I don’t have any sponsors for which I have to constantly put on a mask of perfection, so I occasionally do like to broach the topic mental health within the amateur adult athletic community through the lens of my own experiences. As always, I hope that my honesty might make someone else’s struggles a bit easier.

The past few months have been able to focus my writing on race reports from my cyclocross season and my growing relationship with my new team. I’ve had some awesome things going on in my life, while still having some pretty terrible things going on in my head. As I pointed out during my talk with Frank last night, when you have anxiety, everything that isn’t staying home and watching TV is scary, even good things. Although the balance of my life since the beginning of ‘cross season has been positive, the associated anxiety with racing, travel, and change has led to some pretty severe meltdowns.

During one of my low times a few weeks ago, Facebook reminded me of my first “honest” post on mental health from two years ago, which many people talked about and thanked me for writing. I re-read it, and thought, “Damn, I was smart back then.” The only problem is, much like re-reading my old training-related posts that are full of good plans and intentions, two years have passed and I haven’t really seen the improvement that I was expecting to come when I wrote it. I did like my comparison of emotional skills to bike skills, seeing as I still can’t really bunny hop after 10 years of mountain biking, either. Some people just pick up certain skills easier than others, and some try for years without really getting it. That doesn’t mean that you can’t invest in some suspension and learn to monster truck your way through rockier situations than you thought possible.

And I suppose that is what came out my talk with Frank the other night. While I’ll continue to practice positive psychology skills that I know are beneficial but sometimes hard to completely pull off, it’s okay if I need him to help me absorb some shock. Mostly that means talking to him about my anxiety more before it builds up, even if there isn’t much he can do about it. (Eating in restaurants doesn't scare him, apparently. Silly sane people.) At least he can provide a clearer perspective on some situations, and try to do things to help ease my stress in other areas. While I haven’t improved as much mentally or physically as I would have liked during my time on this blog, they are both things that I am not willing to give up on, so I’ll keep tweaking my methods until I find something that works.

Monday, December 7, 2015

The End and The Beginning

Time turns flames to embers
You'll have new Septembers
Every one of us has messed up too
Minds change like the weather
I hope you remember
Today is never too late to be brand new

It was a tough call between these lyrics and “You better kiss me, ‘cause you’re gonna miss me when I’m gone.” I guess right now “new Septembers” has a stronger pull.

December ‘cross is always tough unless you’re trying to lock up a series placing, and even then it isn’t easy. Eight months of my year is spent waiting for ‘cross to come, then it does, and it’s awesome, but after a while not being gone for 12 hours each Sunday sounds appealing and I get the urge to move on to the next thing, be it Death March, fat bikes, or the like. At the same time, there is a certain satisfaction in finishing a series finale and knowing that I made it to the end, even if my overall placing wasn’t that great. Either way, “next year” is always lingering in the back of my mind even before I ‘cross the finish line of my last race every season.

I did manage one December race for the season, since one of my favorites, Rivertown Cross, was pushed back to the last season this year. Unfortunately, December plus Central PA meant low turnout. There were only five girls in my race, and was correct in its prediction of me as DFL. I went off the line hard and hoped for the best, but things split as soon as we started to climb the levy. I thought I a saw a girl or two coming back as we dropped into the woods, so I bombed hard, started to slide out of control, and by the time I put my foot down and kicked myself back on track, they were gone. The next 3.75 laps were pretty uneventful as I pedaled along and thought about the end of my season. I’d already decided that as excited as I was about the fat bike category at the PACX finale, that I’d rather spend less time in the car and more than 30 minutes on my fat bike that day.

Thankfully, Sunday was neither too late nor too early to be brand new. Being officially done with ‘cross meant that I could fully commit to preparing for my impending fat bike season. The ride went really well, so much that the planned 40ish mile ride did not take me over the elusive 4 hour mark, and I was still feeling decent, so I let Frank drive the car home from the gravel road entrance where we had parked while I rode down the mountain and back home for 47.4 miles at an 11.3 mph average. I know that doesn’t sound impressive, but I use 10 mph as my baseline when planning gravel rides on my fat bike. I was glad to see that I easily exceeded those expectations, even with a ‘cross race still fresh in my legs.

I realized that I’m excited about fat bike racing for a couple of reasons. The first is that it’s a completely new thing on the East Coast, so there is no reigning East Coast Fat Bike Queen to be conquered or really any sort of indication of who will race or how fast they will be. There are nine women registered for the first race, but there isn’t a to tell me how things are going to play out. I also don’t know how many of those nine will return for the other races in the series. It’s all brand new and I get to be there from the beginning!

Fat bike racing has a similar appeal to Death March in that it’s a somewhat obscure, niche thing that requires training hard in the worst part of winter and gives me plenty of excuses to look at maps and plan routes, even if they just for training and not so much for racing. Basically, it comes down to the fact that I may not naturally be the fastest person, but with enough obsession, I can occasionally pull off some success in races for which faster people just don’t care to prepare that well. Sure, the soon-to-be coronated East Coast Fat Bike Queen may be rolling hard through New Jersey as I type, but until February proves me wrong, I’m going to keep giving it my all and believing that I have a chance.

I’ve got plenty to look forward to before any new Septembers roll around.

Friday, December 4, 2015

No Scrubs, Lots of Fatties

I’ve been remiss in my blogging the last couple of weeks, having not had any races on which to report. The weekend before Thanksgiving was the “state championship” race in the Pittsburgh area, which I believe only one PACX regular from my category attended. With Frank out of town at a conference, I just wasn’t inspired to drive three hours into unfamiliar ‘cross territory to race alone. It worked out better, anyway, as the two-week break from the “normal” PACX schedule was dedicated to preparation for #NoScrubsCX, Team Laser Cats’ first attempt at hosting an alley cat race.

I wanted to help as much as I could from my non-Philly location, so instead of racing on November 22, I had my first venture into Philly as an adult, not counting the unfortunate number of times that I’ve passed through the Philly airport since moving to PA. This allowed me to pre-ride most of the checkpoints with the team and get a better idea of what kind of challenge to present to folks at the cave checkpoint that I would be manning. For a lot of the following week, I was dedicated to making wizard hats and glow-in-the-dark Nerf bullets.

I can’t give too much of a race report, as I only witnessed the events of Kelpius Cave, but all other reports agree that the event was a resounding success. We had 59 racers attend, and I believe that a good time was had by all. Frank did the race while I was supervising my cave, and he seemed to enjoy it.

More at

The other big concern for me during my racing break has been preparation for the New Jersey Fat Bike Series. With a 50 mile race looming on January 9 and my endurance capacity plunging down further and further with every weekend of ‘cross, I really wanted to use the break to reverse that trend. Thanks to two race-free weekends, Thanksgiving break, and an extra PTO day this week, I now have several 2-3 hour fat bike gravel rides under my belt.

However, cracking the 4-hour barrier continues to elude me. I’ve planned longer rides several times, but getting my hands used to long rides on flat bars and my sit bones used to the “horseback riding” position of a fat bike have proven tougher than I thought. The good news is that each of these shorter rides returned valuable information about the best training routes to prepare for the series.

Trying to explain route plans to Frank.

While my gravel riding last summer was all about the climbing, for now I’m trying to keep my training as flat and steady as can be accomplished by State College standards. The first two races of the series are a 50 mile race with about 1500 feet of climbing followed by an 80 mile race with about 500 feet of climbing four weeks after that. Long, steady, and fast should be what I’m simulating in preparation for these races, but you have to work with what you have. This comes down to a 52 mile, 4000 feet of climbing “flat” route that I’ve settled on as my goal to finish before I leave for Christmas break. Also, I still haven’t actually ridden in snow, so there’s that X factor still looming.

Tomorrow will be the slightly-early end to my ‘cross season at Rivertown, which should have been my best race last season if I hadn’t accidentally kicked my brake open, lost my temper, and lost the part that held it closed, resulting in a DNF. It’s always hard getting back to racing after Thanksgiving, but I need to at least come back with disc brakes and a vengeance for such a combination of a close location and a good course. It’s unfortunate that this race was pushed back so late in the season, as pre-reg closed with 5 girls signed up in my race and me ranked DFL, but I’ll give my best shot and hope the singletrack helps me exceed’s expectations.