Friday, September 28, 2012

Hobby Hunt 2012

As I hang out in limbo in Florida, with one fairly time-consuming hobby firmly on the back burner right now, and one extremely time-consuming career also in hiatus, I've had a little spare time. So, I've spent the past 10 days or so hunting for a new hobby to fill the void.

This is not the first time I've gone down this road. In fact, the list of hobbies I have jumped into head first, often expending significant sums of money, and then quit just as quickly, is pretty long. There's guitar-- three months of lessons, actually a hobby-longevity-record. There was backpacking -- after being inspired by a book about someone hiking the Appalachian Trail, I drove on over to REI and bought ALL the equipment, sparing no expense, completely convinced that I'd found my newest obsession. That lasted for one trip. I tried knitting (got through about a third of a purple scarf). Jewelry-making (one necklace). Yoga (two classes).

Not to be deterred by my less than inspiring track record, I've jumped whole-heartedly into not one, but THREE new hobbies in the past week or so. Any bets on which, if any will last?

New Hobby #1 - Surfing

I wrote about this one already. I did one lesson and intended to get back out this week and try again. I didn't. I also intended to do some dryland exercises, per the suggestion of my instructor. I didn't. But I'm not entirely giving up hope on this one.

New Hobby #2- Scuba

I decided to get my scuba diving certification, so I used The Google to find Patrick, a local scuba instructor. Patrick's in his 40s, ex-Army, mustachioed, a strange combination between beach-bum-scuba-diver-chill and military....not so chill. It's kind of a dead time in these parts--- not a ton of vacationers, and the snowbirds haven't returned from their summer homes, so I'm getting private lessons. We move quickly through the curriculum, but still, it's taking forever.

I did not intent to squeeze myself into a wetsuit for at least another three months.
Phase One was the book learnin'. I got a textbook on Friday, and was told to be ready for an exam on Tuesday morning. I had the whole weekend to study. But of course, you can't change a zebra's stripes, so just as I did for 20 years as a student (and six years as a lawyer), I completely procrastinated. I spent the weekend playing in Miami, then shopped all day on Monday, finally cracking open the book Monday night and was hard. I thought I could flip through the text in an hour, no problem, it's just scuba. But no. It was physics and that sorta nonsense. Pressure, density, blah blah blah, stuff I haven't thought about in any way since high school. And really, I haven't done a whole lot of thinking since July. Out of my element!

I got through one chapter and my brain hurt a lot, so I went to bed, telling myself the same old story that I'd wake up early the next morning and be smarter and get through it then. No such luck, I ended up having to delay the exam, and I got yelled at for procrastinating. Back in my element!

I passed the exam, by the way, 96%. And, I argued persuasively that the questions I missed were worded very poorly. In time, Patrick ended up agreeing. So, I actually give myself a 100%. Thanks, law school.

Phase Two was a swim test. 200 yards of swimming and 10 minutes of treading. Given recent events, I was fairly confident on this one. Although I think I may have earned myself the "dorkiest scuba student ever" award when I put on my swim cap and swedish goggles and did flip turns during my little test in the tiny, 10 yard pool. In the end, I passed. Phew.

Phase Three was scuba-ing in a pool. We squeezed what is supposed to be five sessions into one long swim, working in the water for 3+ hours. The air was 86 degrees and the water was 85 degrees, and I almost quit when Patrick told me I needed to wear a wetsuit, but I decided to be a good sport and suck it up. Aside from roasting the whole time, things went well. The first time I went to breathe underwater through a regulator, I had a momentary sense of panic, but it resolved itself within seconds, and I was comfortable. Exhilarated, even.

Today, we drove 1.5 hours to a fresh-water spring in DeLeon, Florida, the famed "Fountain of Youth" discovered by Juan Ponce De Leon. Actually I have no idea what the story is behind this. Something about someone finding Florida while searching for the fountain of youth, and this was it. Anyway, the spring was 28 feet deep and not terribly scenic, but it was good practice for ascending and descending and swimming around under water (harder than you'd imagine to swim straight, and not keep going up and back down and up again). We did find a Superman figurine, though. And a Batman band-aid. I threw that one back.

Next week, we go to Palm Beach for a real dive with beautiful fish and blue water, and then I'll be officially certified and off on my own to do what I wish with this new hobby.

New Hobby #3 - Mountain Biking

It occured to me the other day that it may behoove me to start riding a bike again at some point. Unfortunately, I've left my trusty and beautiful Parlee in the care of my parents for the first part of my trip, in favor of renting bikes along the way. So I went to Bob's Bicycle Shop in Melbourne, FL to rent myself a bike. They set me up with a pretty sweet Scott mountain bike, and told me about a group that was meeting that night at a local park to do some single-track riding.

I've never done anything even resembling real mountain biking, and I'm a little afraid of strangers, so meeting up with a random group of experienced mountain bikers gave me the butterflies, but I told myself that these are the kinds of things I'm going to have to do during my travels if I want to avoid being Alone and Homesick the whole time. So I went home, carefully picked out an outfit (after asking the guy at the bike shop what people wear to mountain bike), put my hair into braids (I never do the pigtail thing, I'm not sure what it was about meeting up with a group of guys doing a rough and tumble sport that made me think a pink jersey and pigtails was appropriate), psyched myself up, and went on my way.

In the end, I'm so glad I did. The group (of five guys) could not have been more welcoming of someone who was a total noob (I mean, I was wearing running shoes!), and the leader of the group, Ben, was so kind and helpful, riding behind me, giving me turn-by-turn directions, and saying nice things like "you've got a real knack for this!" "nice catch!" "walking the bike up the hill is part of the fun!" "you're doing great!" "I'm impressed!" I'm sure he was lying but who cares. It was fun, I can see why people are hooked to mountain biking. It's a great workout, dodging trees and roots and palmetto branches, powering up hills in soft sand, descending over rocks right into ninety-degree turns. I never crashed (shock of all shocks) and emerged unscathed.

Post-ride with Ben, the leader/ cheerleader
Or so I thought, until I woke up in the middle of the next night, and couldn't get back to sleep because my ass hurt. Apparently, while biking, I bruised the hell out of my tailbone. At 4 AM, I remembered that bump, when I almost flew off the bike and landed with all my weight on the saddle. Didn't seem that notable at the time. It sure does now.

New Hobby #4- Swimming

Kidding. Kidding! I haven't been swimming! That's silly. Well, I went once. I just wanted the opportunity to post a picture of the beautiful outdoor pool in which I swam, because we Chicagoans never get to do that.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Run Like Gump

I wrote a while back, deep in the midst of my sleep-deprived, insomniac, post-Ironman funk, about how I'd lost my love of running and that troubled me. Melodramatic, yes, but an almost 11 hour race can do crazy things to your mind and body and it hit me hard. Now, a couple weeks later, I'm sleeping again and feeling normal(ish), and to the extent I complained how I'd forgotten how to enjoy running and I'm so slow and wah, wah, wah...well, I'm over myself. And I officially love running again.

How I got my groove back? I've just been getting out there and running without purpose. I've been heading out the door with no plan, just running as long as I feel like, in what ever direction I choose. I've been going slow. I'm not sure how slow, as I haven't worn my Garmin once, but I am sure my paces are nothing to write home about. I stop sometimes, just to look at things like the ocean or the river where the manatees are supposed to be but never are. I'm not running mindlessly, not at all. I'm thinking A LOT when I'm out there (I've always found that my brain works the best when I'm running. The number of legal briefs and arguments I composed in my head during runs along Lake Michigan is staggering). But I'm not thinking about running or triathlon. Big difference. And when I get tired, I stop. A regular Forrest Gump!

I just felt like runnin'

The other night, I had one of those very, very rare runs that you finish and just know you'll never forget. Not because of the speed, or the distance, or really even the destination, but just because it was one of those moments when the sun (or moon) shone just right, when the world looked beautiful and flawless, when things felt effortless, when your mind spilled over with optimism. Maybe it's just the endorphins, but if that were the case, I'd have these picture perfect runs more often. As it is, I can count on one hand the number of runs I've had when I said (and believed), "I am going to remember exactly what this looks like and feels like for the rest of my life." And I have. One was on a crisp fall day, running along the water in Providence, Rhode Island in 1999. One was a humid, dark summer night in Lincoln Park in 2009, just as I turned the corner to see the Chicago skyline all lit up (just like countless other times, but this one was different). And one was a few nights ago, in Cape Canaveral.

I headed out just before dusk with no real plan, just headed in the general direction of the ocean. I zigzagged through the neighborhoods a little, and then crossed paths with this guy:

Random, huh? Yet another bizarre animal that I've encountered this summer while running and just Minding My Own Business. Add that one to the summer/fall of 2012 Animal Encounter List, which now includes elk, deer, coyote, snake, prairie dog, and chicken. And cat and dog, but those don't count. Guess getting out of the city has changed things a bit.

I continued on after a photo shoot, heading closer to the beach.

And when I got there, it was something about the way the sun was setting, the gentle breeze, the warm temperatures, the utter quiet except for a few sea gull calls and the waves crashing on the beach.....I just had to be in that water. Improper swimming attire (i.e., running clothes), be damned. I kicked off my shoes and socks and headed in.

I thought I'd just take a dip, but once I was in that ocean, I wanted to stay in for the night. I floated on my back for a while, staring at the sky, letting the waves crash over me. Then I swam around a little. Floated some more. Then I started playing, the way I used to when I was little and down here visiting my grandparents. I tried to jump over the waves. I'd turn around, and try to get them to carry me to shore, then run back out into the surf. Then I floated a little more, letting the salt water keep me buoyant, clearing my mind, releasing all my anxiety, at least for a little.**

**(Disclaimer: I feel a little like a jerk even admitting I have anxiety about my travels and the choices I've made about my career and my life, as I know I am extremely, extremely fortunate, am living a dream right now with no real responsibilities, and I should be happy happy happy every minute, rarely works that way, and I'm sorry if I come across as ungrateful, that's definitely not the case. /apology)

Twenty minutes later, it was getting dark, and I reluctantly pulled myself from the water, put my shoes back on and resumed my run, heading a mile or so down the beach on the sand. I was dripping wet and the positioning of the sand between my toes was somewhat less than ideal, but I felt weightless, euphoric, at peace. The rest of my run, I just reveled in the sights and sounds and ran happy. It ended eventually, as all good things do, but I slept easy and well that night. It was, in short, the very rare, absolutely perfect run.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Bienvenidos a Miami!

For the latest stop in my 2012-2013 Tour de Mooch (as my brother so eloquently put it), last weekend I traveled down to Miami to visit with M, my bestest friend from law school (and one of the only people I know who doesn't want to leave a digital footprint, so we'll keep her google-proof here).

M is one of those friends that everyone should be lucky to have at some point in their life. She is truly one of the most selfless people I have ever met, a total rock in the lives of many, many people (including me). Let's just put it this way-- we lived together for two years in law school. I never found myself even the slightest bit annoyed with her. Not once! Well, maybe once. There was a time we went to New York City. She's super small and has a really speedy, efficient, New York style way of weaving and bobbing through crowds. One afternoon, we were in SoHo, she buzzed her way like a little bee through a crowd at a pace I simply couldn't match, and in my mind, I said, "geez, M, slow down a little." And THAT... was the extent of any annoyance I've ever had with her, ever, despite spending many, many hours with her at what was possibly the most stressful time of my life. That proves a lot, and I'm not sure there's anyone else I can say that about.

We really became friends at the end of our first year of law school, and I think we both brought balance to each other. That first year, I studied too little and had too much fun (defense mechanism, I was NOT the only one, and hey, it was the good ole pre-Recession days and we were all getting jobs anyway). M studied too much, and, in my view anyway, didn't have enough fun. So when we became roommates, we tempered each other. She got me to study more. I persuaded her that if we were going to do this studying thing, we needed to break it up into two hour intervals, watching a Sex and the City episode (or two) in between. We both joined In Vino Veritas, the Wine Club (I wasn't a joiner then and I'm not a joiner now, but I was all about that Wine Club). We went to the same Vietnamese restaurant two or three times a week, both ordering the same exact pho every damn time, and after two years, they still didn't know us. Occasionally we took little road trips, to New York or Providence or to the beach....anything to get out of Boston. Mostly, we just found ways to help each other survive law school, with senses of humor and outlooks on life at least slightly intact when we finished.

Mimi's cute but doesn't care for me.
Anyway, M's living in Miami now. I got there Saturday afternoon and found her fancy highrise with its beautiful view. Living in style, that one is. We did a quick catch up ("OK, explain to me just what is going on with this quitting your job and traveling bit?"), I met her new boyfriend (two very enthusiastic thumbs up, he's a keeper) and her new dog, a three-pound maltipoo who decided within minutes that she didn't care for me and didn't change her mind that whole weekend. And then, because we were in Miami, we ate lunch at 4:30. That makes sense when you're starting your evening with dinner at 9:30. (When did I get so old that 9:30 sounds more like bedtime to me?)

Her view doesn't suck.
After a nice pre-dinner nap, we got ourselves dolled up (i.e., I wore something other than spandex for once). We hit up an artsy part of town, downing tapas and prosecco in a dark restaurant decorated with murals, catching up, sharing stories, testing and comparing the quality of the cameras of our respective iPhones (M and her boy had already upgraded to the 5) by posing for picture after picture. M's boy doted on her the whole time, and would turn to me occasionally, asking "was she this adorable in law school?" I decided I needed one of those types of boys, too.

From my ancient iPhone with the inferior picture quality
Checking out the art galleries
A few cocktails and many dollars later, we took our talents to South Beach, walking right in to a new and trendy lounge (no lines at 11:30, still way too early!). We laughed and danced a little, then moved out by the pool. I started to remember what this felt like, these nights when I would go out and wear my 4-inch stilletos, when I let my hair down and stayed out past midnight and drank, without worrying about a long run or ride that had to get done the next morning, whether my shoes were giving me plantar fasciitis, whether the drinks were just going to make it that much harder to try to get to something resembling race weight. Honestly, THIS was the life I lived for a lot longer than I've been taking sports seriously, and I missed it a little.

Finally, at 2:30 AM, postively geriatric for South Beach, we called it a night and headed home and then slept in past 9:00 the next morning. Again, flashback to a previous life.

The next day, it was raining, but we were going to the beach, dammit. So we drove through flooding streets and torrential downpours and then sat in our car, beachside, until the rain cleared. It was cloudy and still a little drizzly, but we grabbed out towels and headed to the sand. We walked miles in the surf, then laid in the sorta-sun, just talking and catching up on the last 18 months, which have been full of changes for both of us. As always, M knew all the right thing to say, offered advice that was spot on, even about things she had no reason to be able to relate to. Among other things, we talked about my trip, and the anxieties I have about whether I'm doing it "right," whether I'm going to regret this, whether I'm using my time wisely, my fears about what other people think of my decisions. She said the perfect thing: "this is your Year of You. You do it the way YOU want to do it, whether anyone else would do it the same way, whether anyone else thinks it's smart, or not. It's YOUR year." She's right.

We are getting to that damn beach

When it came time to head back home, I was both happy and sad. Sad to be leaving a friend who I know I may not see for a while, but so comforted and happy about our weekend. There's something very soothing about sharing time with someone who has known you for years, through good times and bad. The memories start flowing, the inside jokes and the laughs return. And you know that while some things, lots of things, may change, your lifelong friends (and family) will be there. And in the end, that's really all that matters.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Surf's Up!

When I first got down to Florida, I wondered just what I was going to do with myself with the days I have until I head overseas. I couldn't fathom just laying on the beach, that's fun for a while, but only a while, and my albino skin has been through enough this summer. So instead, I took to the internets and started finding myself some activities. Activity Number One- surfing. I found a great company in Cocoa Beach (School of Surf,, and they were able to fit me in for a lesson on short notice.

Friday morning, I was up and at 'em and headed into downtown Cocoa Beach to meet up with my instructor. I didn't have a whole lot of optimism about my chances to truly become a surfer girl-- after all, I lack both youth and coordination. Some might say I'm a klutz. I like to say, however, that I am underdeveloped in the proprioception department. That sounds better, right?

I chose the School of Surf for lessons based on stellar reviews they received online, and I must say, I completely agree with all the five-star raves. This is a family-owned company that Lauren, my instructor, opened with her husband (both former professional surfers) about a year-and-a-half ago. You can just tell they truly love what they're doing and are busting ass to compete in a city that is dominated by some massive, established surf stores (ever seen the Ron Jon's Surf Shop t-shirts?). Lately, I've been really inspired by small business go off on your own requires a courageousness and work ethic that is really admirable. Now....if only I could find my own idea!!!
Small business, decorate your office however you want
But back to surfing. I showed up to meet Lauren, and she's exactly what you'd picture of a surfer girl. Tan with sun-bleached, blonde hair, super fit, super comfortable in her own skin. We started off with a quick intro to the hazards of the ocean ("if you see one of these big, blue jellyfish....those are bad."), and I practiced laying on the board, and then "popping up" into a standing position. After a few tries, it was off to the beach.

Here, Lauren prepares my board while I pose for the camera
First you gotta learn how to surf on the land
Once we got there, we practiced the pop-ups on a ground a couple more times, but it was quickly into the water. Not too much talk, not too much analysis, just go! Lauren had me get on the board, then turned me around, gave me a little push when the wave got close, and just said, "now pop up!" And the very first time I tried....I got up!! Barely, and I fell back down a few seconds later, but I was up and surfing!

Sorta getting it
It got a little harder after that. My success was short-lived. There were so many things to think through in just a few seconds every time I tried to catch a wave-- proper starting position of the hands, eyes up, wide stance, feet centered on a board, chest up, top arm out, back arm close to body, even distribution of weight between the legs, etc. etc. etc. Most of the times, I'd move from laying on my front to standing up, and then wipe out just a moment later. There were some spectacular belly flops and back flops, but truly, every time I wiped out, it cracked me up. I kept a smile the whole time.

This is a more accurate representation of how my day went
Lauren had only known me an hour, but her insights were, I dare say, right on and applicable outside of surfing. At one point, after I'd fully gotten up standing, but then lost my footing just two seconds later, she said, "you met your primary goal, and then you gave up a little instead of going for more." Uh, yeah. Welcome to my life. Or, "you may be just a little lacking in balance." Check (dual interpretations there, both of which seem accurate at times). And, "it's possible you're overthinking things." Yup. But she was incredibly patient, funny, and observant ("you've got some strange akimbo thing going on with your back arm") and I made far more progress in two hours than I ever thought I would.
This may have been the best one
In the end, repetition was what I needed, and after a couple hours I was moving a little more instinctually. I got up and rode a couple waves all the way in! I certainly didn't look like a pro, but I got some cheers from the little old lady snowbirds who'd been watching and a fist pump from a vacationing couple just walking by. It was probably my goofy old grin that tipped them off as to what I'd just done was remarkable for me. I finished up with a few bruises (courtesy of wipe outs into very shallow water), a slightly sunburnt nose, salt-encrusted hair, adrenaline pulsing through my veins, and feeling awfully proud of myself for trying something new and totally outside the comfort zone.

I'll be back, trying again, for sure. And hey, I'm headed to some pretty sweet surf locales, so come February or March, after some practice, I may be just like Lauren....tanned, relaxed, hair bleached by the sun, totally comfortable in my own skin, surfing every morning. I wouldn't put money on it, but that'd be pretty awesome!

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Manatees are Mythical Creatures

OK, moving in a TOTALLY new direction, here.

I'm down in Florida now, Cape Canaveral, to be precise. My grandparents have always wintered in the area and my parents bought a condo last year. My car is going to stay down here while I'm traveling, so my mother and I took two days to drive down here from Ohio, adding in at least a half day of shopping. That was the ONLY time I've had pangs of regret about not working this fall, and it was only because I was lusting a little over all the cute fall work clothes on sale.

But anyway, we're here, and I'm going to chill out in these parts for a little, finalizing my packing and planning, visiting with the few Floridians I know, and doing some gloriously non-triathlon-related activities like surfing and get certified in scuba diving. I'm sure there will be stories. And soon I'll leave for Iceland which will be a meteorological shock, to say the least.

But now that I've been down here a little, I need to vent. I have determined that “manatees” are nothing more than mythical creatures. They do not exist. And the world is just playing a big huge trick on me by pretending otherwise.

Hear me out, now. I love “manatees”. To the extent a grown adult woman can have a favorite animal, mine is the manatee. I watched some Jacques Cousteau documentaries on manatees as research for a “report” I had to write in the fifth grade, and sort of fell in love. They’re (purportedly) big 'ole lazy animals that hang out underwater all water all day, just Minding Their Own Business and nom-nom-nom’ing on seaweed. I can sort of relate.

So I've always wanted to see a manatee, and it has just never happened. In all of my trips down to Florida growing up, there have been numerous times that we heard from others that the manatees were in the area, swimming right by the shore. We'd be at a restaurant, and a waiter would say, "go to such and such park, just heard there were 8 manatees hanging out right there." We'd hustle over, run out of the car....and no manatees. Just a fisherman, saying, "they were just here. Sorry." This happened so many times.

Took a picture with a plastic manatee that holds menus because I figured that's as close as I'm ever getting.

I've even gone to zoos a couple times, in various areas, just to see the manatees. And every time, it's been "oh, they're in the back tank, out of view, resting." Or..."sorry, they've been temporarily relocated to Tampa while we fix this tank." Frustrating!

This spring, I did a half Ironman in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and was thrilled when researching the course to hear that last year, there'd been manatees spotted in the bay in which the swim took place. We even got an email before the race from the race director, saying something like, "if you see a massive grey animal floating under the water, don't freak out, it's just a manatee and they won't hurt you." I anticipated that swim more than I ever have before....excited to race, but perhaps MORE excited to finally see a manatee.

And of course, no dice. No manatees. And I swam in that harbor 3 times over the weekend.

The straw that breaks the camel's back. My parents' new a half mile from a park named "Manatee Park." There's a big dock, overlooking a river, with signs indicating that manatee spottings are frequent, and here's a little info. Every single time I've come down there, I've gone to that park and sat for at least 20 minutes, looking for a dumb manatee. No luck. I tried again today, during my short and very slow jog. Not a splash, the whole time.

Manatee Park. A big fat joke.

So, is it possible this is just a huge joke and I'm the only one not being let in on it? Are manatees mythical creatures? Has anyone ever ACTUALLY seen one?


Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Ironman Wisconsin 2012

Well, here it Ironman Wisconsin Race Report. I've procrastinated on writing this for a while, mostly because I needed some time to decompress, get the emotions under control (OK, in all my pre-race online reading, why didn't I hear about Post Ironman Depression Syndrome until I was in the midst of it? It's absolutely, totally real), and get an objective view on the whole thing. The short story-- I had a fantastic first Ironman race that really, was just the cherry that topped off what was a very meaningful, even transformative year for me as an athlete and person. Not everything went perfectly, and there are certainly some pangs of regret about certain parts of my day, but I really can't complain about my result, and now "get" this race distance....which will be nothing but helpful in the future.

But, I'm getting ahead of myself. Backing up....

I headed up to Madison on Friday, hit up the athlete check-in, threatened bodily harm (jokingly) to the poor volunteer who weighed me in if he told me my weight (I learned my lesson at Buffalo Springs on that one needs to know what their weight, right in the midst of carbo-loading!), and got the helll away from the expo as quickly as possible. I've got to say, in the days heading into this race, my mentality was way different than I've ever experienced. In one word, I was SCARED. Not just nervous, not just anxious, but straight-up scared. I'm not sure what I was afraid of. Maybe the pain, maybe things going wrong, maybe failure, who knows, but I was scared. Throngs of anxious athletes around did nothing to relieve that feeling, so I got as far away as I could, starting assembling my bags of gear, tried to drive the run course, and eagerly awaited my parents' arrival. Because when you're 32 and really, really scared, all you want is your parents. Or maybe that's just me.

Me and my dad, checking out the swim course
Saturday, up early to get in a little swim, bike, and run. The swim felt great, so did the run, and as for the bike....well, I didn't crash:) That's actually a big thing for me. Last year, during my pre-race workout the day before my last race of the year, the Austin 70.3, I crashed HARD. As in, busted my helmet and my bike, scraped my sunglasses from sliding on the concrete, and caused numerous bodily injuries that resulted in a trip to the ER. So now, every time I'm warming up on the bike the day before the race, my primary goal is to not crash. Success, this time.

Checking in my bike. LOVE my Parlee TT.
The rest of the day was pretty uneventful. I previewed the part of the bike course I wasn't familiar with. I ate a massive brunch in Mt. Horeb (the best part about the day before a long course race is permission to brunch, and I love me some brunch!) I checked in my bike and my gear. I panicked a bit about stupid stuff, because that's what I do. I got more and more scared, and finally, around 9:30, tried to fall asleep.


I woke up a couple minutes before my alarm (always), choked down my breakfast, filled up my water bottles, briefly contemplated just crawling back into bed and skipping this whole Ironman thing, and then, at 5:15AM, headed on down to Monona Terrace. I figured arriving at transition at 5:30 AM for a 7:00 AM start would be sufficiently early; I was wrong. There was a back up at the entrance to the transition area, with seemingly every athlete having brought their entire support crew with them to take pictures as they got the numbers written on their bodies. By the time I worked my way through the crowd and got to my bike, I was starting to really stress about time. I quickly pumped my tires up, loaded my bike up with calories, and hustled back out. Through this, I still felt terrified, unhappy, a little tearful. This negativity was new for me, usually I'm somewhat calm on race morning, but not today. There were no smiles, just dread. And fear.

At 6:30AM, according to plan, I got into the water and slowly made my way towards the front. My plan was to start near the front of the pack, but over to the right, away from the buoy line. Then I got in there, the crowds didn't look too bad, and I adjusted my plan, moving farther left. And shockingly, getting in the water actually calmed me down quite a bit. The anxiety melted away, I felt calm and ready, and I just focused on conserving energy and floating for the 20 minutes before our start. 5 minutes to go, I spotted a pack of women (pink caps) also lined up close to the front, and I moved towards them, figuring that we ladies would be more gentle with each other during the mass start.


At 7:00 AM, the cannon fired, and I took off, fully expecting to have the crap beat out of me. After all, there were 3,000 people starting at the exact same time and I'd chosen to line myself up towards the front, in the line of fire. Surprisingly, the first couple hundred meters were relatively contact-free. I found open water, took a couple hits to the face and head, but that was it, and started thinking, "this is it? This isn't so bad at all!"

Of course, those are the types of thoughts that only precede a turn for the worst. Oddly, as the swim went on, the contact intensified. The most open water I found was in the first couple hundred meters, after that it was grabbing, hitting, dunking, etc. And here's what I noticed.....I was surrounded mostly by dudes. They'd hit me, and I'd hit them, but we'd all go along on our way, no harm no foul, just part of the game.

But any little tussle with another female, and it got personal. Ladies, what is it? Why do we get personally offended when another girl hits us? Or is it just me? All I know is that I was swimming next to a pink cap for a while, until she decided that she wanted to wallop my head not 3, not 4, but 5 times in a row. So I may or may not have momentarily switched into beeyotch mode and thrown a hit back that way. Then, it was ON. She switched into MEGA beeyotch mode and came after me. Tried to dunk me. Grabbed my shoulder. I tried to move right....she followed. Just throwing punches with every stroke. Grabbing my legs. Eventually I stopped, turned almost 90 degrees, and swam away from that crazy lady. Wow.

But that was about the most eventful part of the swim. It felt long, especially the 1700 meter back stretch, but I was enjoying myself and kind of reveling in excitement of it all. During the swim, I had all those positive emotions you hear about during Ironman. So happy to just be out there, to have made it through the summer of training intact, to have my goggles still on my face. I loved it.

I came out of the water almost exactly at 1 hour, which was my aspirational goal.


The transition from the swim to the bike at Wisconsin is long but chill-inducing. You run up the helix--- basically the corkscrew going up into a parking garage, and it's lined with crazy cheering fans. It was like nothing I'd even imagined. I had a big ole goofy grin on my face and was seriously overwhelmed. I jogged up, continually scanning the crowd for familiar faces. Coach Keith gave a cheer, and it gave me a lift. A little later, there was Liz, with a thrilled look on her face. She ran right next to me for a moment, giving me an update on my place that I couldn't understand over all the yells, but she seemed excited and I became so as well. That helix was so amazing, I didn't even notice that it was a long, long hill.

The rest of T1 was uneventful and efficient. Somewhere around 5 minutes, which given the length, was perfectly fine. I headed out and made a long, long run across the parking garage to my bike, which a volunteer had waiting for me when I arrived. That's service for 'ya!


Off we went on the bike, and I still had a big ole grin. The first 16 miles, or the "stick" out to Verona, I tried so hard to hold back. I spun easy, tried to get started on my hydration and nutrition, and just kept saying to myself, "chill out, chill out, chill out." Pretty soon that became "chillax, chillax, chillax," because 'chillax' is such a cool word, right? I did everything in my power to ride easy, but it was hard. There were dudes just FLYING by me. Over and over and over. I tried to remind myself that this was the plan and I was fine, but my mantra got a little more serious..."Chill the f---k out. Ignore them. Chill the f--k out."

Moving into the Verona loops, and I felt in my zone. I knew this course. I rode this 40 mile loop 10 times this summer. It was familiar. Like clockwork. The winds were a little worse than usual but I kept an eye on my power, and it was fine. My legs felt a little more tired going up the hills right outside of Verona, but I didn't dwell on it. Guys kept passing but I stopped caring because there weren't many women passing me, so I knew I was OK.

Photo (c) Dan Lee

We got to the three big hills in Cross Plains, the ones that seemed so tough in training, and they were absolutely packed with spectators. Climbing up the first hill, I saw Sharone, who used his bull horn to alert several scantily clad members of the Well-Fit Elite team, positioned further up the hill, that I was on my way. I got some high-fives and some laughs at the speedos and bikinis and that hill was over before I knew it. The second hill, I knew my family and my friends, Andrea, Kristin, and Chris would be there, and I rode up with that big ole fat grin, scanning the crowds for familiar faces and seriously, almost crying when I saw them. Then it was a short break until the Midtown Hill, where I knew Liz and Lori would be. I got part way up, spotted Liz who screamed her lungs out and ran up with me, and hardly even felt that hill either.

Second loop, just like the first... after a very, very quick stop at Special Needs to replace some nutrition that I'd dropped. It got a little harder and I was a little worried that I'd been riding too hard, so I pulled back on a reigns a little and tried to relax. The wind was annoying, the stretch into Mt. Horeb a little quieter, but every once in a while I'd see something that made me laugh. Like the guy dressed like a banana. Or the man, likely a local who pulled up a chair and a radio and sat on a corner to watch the race, but both times I went by, was completely and totally engrossed in his newspaper and seemed to have no awareness of the race going on around him.

Around Mile 80, as I've been told would be the case, I started to feel a little tired, bloaty, just ready to be off the bike. But this course is laid out just perfectly for that 80 to 90 mile lull, as the three mega hills with the spectators pop up just in time. This time, the hills felt a bit harder, but again, the energy I took from my friends and family was invaluable. Again, first hill, the now-drunk-Well-Fit friends, including Henry, who told me I was in 4th. I had no idea if that was 4th in my age group or 4th overall (aside from the pros)....and actually, at that time, it may have been one in the same. Hooray for the stacked 30-34 age group! Second hill, family (snapping photos) and friends. Third hill, Liz and Lori and now Jen, who said, "you're in fourth. Don't panic, but they're right there and you've got this!"

And for the rest of the bike, I did just that. I tried not to panic, tried to stay calm. Things were going well. I was in the thick of it, and felt strong. Until around Mile 95 ( I think), when I had that thought you never should have--- "well, I've made it this far without a flat tire, I think I might make it." About 4 seconds later, I hear a bizarre, extremely loud honking/ squeeking noise. It sounded like an alarm. More than 5 and a half hours into the race, my mind wasn't right, and I panicked that something on my bike had broken. I had new tires and had never had a blow out--- maybe there's some sort of alarm-sounding noise when you have a flat??? (yeah, that thought actually entered my mind).

Then, Erik, a Well-Fit athlete I've known for a few years, jumped out of a bush, dressed in a creepy Joker-meets-clown outfit, honked his clown horn, and screamed "go, go, go, go, go!" Scaring the crap out of me for a second time. The infamous creepy clown. I'd seen him the night before and knew his clown costume plans, but all I could do was whimper and yell back, "Erik, you just scared the living shit out of me!" It took a few miles to bring my heart rate back down after that one.

With the Creepy Clown after the race
Coming back into Madison, I caught back up to a girl in my age group who'd passed me early on, and we traded positions multiple times in those last ten miles. I consciously decreased the effort, started to think a little about the run, and really, felt an overwhelming sense of relief that I'd gotten through the bike without incident and was actually, a little ahead of schedule.


I tried to dismount my bike and almost fell on my face. But for the kindly volunteers, I would have. Yeah, not that most coordinated one, right here. But they just yelled, "shake it off," and I was on my way.

Uneventful T2 except I saw Bernadette. Along with Erik (creepy clown), Bernadette was one of just five members of a training group I joined in 2010 in preparation for the Steelhead 70.3. It was my first real triathlon experience, and our little training group was so tight. We all varied so much in ability and strength and age that there was no one iota of competiveness among our group and we became really, really good friends. Anne, another participant, was out doing Ironman as well. Erik was, of course, scaring everyone in his Creepy Clown get up. Bernadette just adopted two children, but she'll be back triathloning soon, and it was so good to see her! And Ryan...well, he fell in love and got married and fingers are crossed that he finds his way back to the sport.

Anyway, back to my race.


I took off right at the same time as a girl in my age group, and I believed we were running in 3rd and 4th. She took off like a banshee and I tried to follow....which was a bad idea. My legs felt horrible right from the get go, but I didn't slow down enough to let myself settle in, instead chasing Adrienne and clicking off a couple 7:20ish miles....way, way too fast for me at the beginning of a marathon. I kept telling myself to slow down, slow down, but I didn't, and that is my number one regret about this race, as it came back to haunt me in the end.

By mile 6 or so, I'd finally settled into my goal pace, but it didn't feel great and I was, frankly, a little panicked. I tried not to think about the fact that I still had 20 miles to go, but I couldn't escape the reality. I saw Liz in that mile and she told me I was doing well, that all the girls in my age group were within striking distance, but all I could say was, "Liz, this does not feel easy." I really wanted my run to feel easy for the first 8 miles or so, that was my plan....and it didn't.

Photo (c) Dan Lee
Liz and Lori and Andrea and all the friends and family I saw on State Street gave me a bit of a push, and by Mile 7 I was back to the "OK, I can do this" mode. That lasted until about Mile 11, when my pace fell off significantly, sort of without warning, and I panicked again. I walked the aid station, which was not in my plan (I wrote, very adamently, in my race plan "you will not walk at all"). Suddenly, I felt like I was failing. I saw Liz again in the 12th mile (this course is set up so well for spectators!) and almost broke down-- "I'm walking already! What do I do?" She told me it was in my head (she was right) and to keep moving forward. A block later, I saw Karin, and asked her the same exact question: "What do I do?" Her answer: you just keep moving forward. I knew that. I so knew that. But to hear other people say helped, and I got back under control for the next few miles.

The rest of the race, things got slower. A lot slower. I was frustrated, but I just couldn't move faster. The Kona slot, which was well within range, slipped away, and there was just nothing I could do about it. There was more walking, mostly through the aid stations, but up a few hills, too. There were extra bathroom stops as I foolishly ditched my fuel plan and started chugging coke, which my stomach did not like. To the people who tried extremely valiently to pull me out of the funk, to get me moving well again, believe me, I appreciated it beyond words, but I couldn't really physically respond. I just couldn't get into that next gear very easily, and didn't have the mental willpower to force it. Something to work on before the next one of these. But I did keep moving forward. Not all that quickly, slower and slower throughout the race, but I never truly quit, and for that, I am very proud. This could have ended badly. I could have walked it in. I could have melted down mentally, like I did in Lubbock, and stopped and cried on the side of the road. But I didn't. And that is growth.

Finally, I got to the last mile (right after tripping on a curb, wiping out, and having YET ANOTHER volunteer tell me to "shake it off") and just ran it in as best I could. I got to the finish chute and relished every second of it. I gave high-fives to the spectators (including Andrea!) and crossed the line at 10 hours, 45 minutes, and 00 seconds. Before the race, I told my parents that my "ideal" time was 10:45:00. Doesn't get much closer than that:)

Chip on the wrong leg, coulda slipped under 10:45

I finished, and I was so happy, yet at the same time, so sad. The rational part of me kept saying, "Amanda, 10:45 for your first Ironman, that's great, that's EXACTLY what you wanted!" The emotional side...didn't like how that run went down, and felt like if I had just been mentally tougher, I could have gotten that Kona slot. Or at least finished stronger. I had a lot of friends and family at the finish line, and I wish I'd shown more pure joy and happiness. It was there. It was just....there was frustration, too. I have a habit of blaming myself for a lot...beating myself up for mistakes, for not being tough enough. That's always my go-to--- I'm just not mentally tough enough. That's a lot of harsh judgment I'm puting on myself. And now, I wish I'd cut myself a break for a little, allowed myself at least a few moments of pure celebration, satisfaction and pride after the race, which really did go very, very well, instead of immediately pulling out the iPhone, looking at results and saying, yeah, Kona slots are never going to roll down that far.

Final takeaways--- I am really very happy with my debut Ironman. Sometimes, I forget about the process, but this time, the process was everything. I don't talk about it much, but almost exactly two years ago, I had knee surgery following a really, really bad (and somewhat mysterious) injury. My surgeon told me I would never run again. Everything I read also indicated that there was no way I was going to be able to come back from it and get back into endurance sports. After a very, very, very long rehab process, I decided to give it a go. Foolhardy, probably. But to go from two years ago, being convinced that I'd never run again, to finishing an Ironman in the top 10 Overall Amateur...that's huge. And I, frankly, forget to give myself credit sometimes. It's been a long journey.

And just in the last year, since I started working with Liz as my coach, I've made huge, huge strides. I'm a different athlete and a different person. In a good way, I think:) Liz has been absolutely invaluable, is a freaking genius, and got me in absolutely the best shape of my life. To get me to the starting line without injury would have been huge in and of itself, to get me there feeling ready to really throw it down with the best girls in my age group is humongous. I think there are more good things to come, and though I may whine a little too much or complain or try to make her explain to me why I'm not, I hope she knows how much I appreciate how much she's done for me in so many ways and how cognizant I am of how far she's taken me.

And to the friends and family who came up to Madison to support....seriously, it meant absolutely the world to me and gave me a huge, huge boost to see you. And to those who cheered from afar, tracked the race, sent me messages, or even just showed a whole LOT of patience when I fell off the face of the earth socially due to just being, well, tired from all the training, I'm so, so thankful.

So, I've ruminated on the race a little more than is healthy. I'm hoping by putting this Race Report up, I can "close the chapter" and move forward. Because there are exciting things to come! Next stop--- Florida! Then....Iceland (random, right?), then London. Then... a few more places, followed by Ironman New Zealand. In March. OF 2013. Yeah, I already signed up for another one, and one that's less than six months away, no less. YIKES!

Sunday, September 16, 2012

In re: Running

Yes, I'm working on a race report for Ironman Wisconsin.  It'll be up soon.  Maybe.

In the mean time.  I'm back in Ohio for a brief stint, staying with my parents in the house in which I grew up.  Usually, my Ohio trips are quick in and outs, for holidays or a wedding or what not.

OSU game- essential to any fall visit
But this time, it's been slower.  I've had time to lounge around and visit with friends.  I'm working out very little, allowing myself to recover.  There's been a little biking, and that's about it, unless you count walking.   I'm at that point where, yeah, I most definitely count walking.   I've been told not to run yet, not this soon after Ironman.  I've listened.
Visiting with Meg, who has been a friend since 1996 and just got engaged, woot woot.

It wasn't necessarily a smooth start.  Seventh grade, I joined the track team, convinced (like everyone else) that I was going to run the 100 meters.  And maybe the hurdles (yeah right, says anyone who has ever met me).   A face plant or two later, the hurdles were ruled out.  Then, after a workout comprised of a 30 minute continuous run on the track in which I lapped the boys multiple times, the 100 was out, too.  I was deemed a "distance" runner.  I started running the 800 and the mile, "distance events" when you're in middle school.

That next summer, I got the idea that since I was now a "distance" runner, maybe it would be a good idea to do a little running on my own.  But I had no idea how one really went about running outside on sidewalks, away from the confined space of a track.  I figured the first step, naturally, was acquiring the appropriate clothes.  I'd seen people out running--  adults-- and none of them seemed to be sporting the Umbro shorts and oversized t-shirt-the-size-of-a-dress uniform all us 7th grade girls rocked.   I needed some fancy running duds.  So off to the Nike Outlet store we went.  I picked out some shoes (Air Pegasus's--- remember those?? They were purple and teal!).  Some running tights (never mind that it was June).  A pretty teal jacket that matched the shoes (still, June).  And of course, shorts to put OVER the running tights, because.....well, just because.  

A few days later, on a very, very humid, summer morning, I set my alarm for early in the morning (all the adults seemed into early morning running), put on my running tights, my shorts over those tights (duh), a long sleeve shirt, my running jacket, my new pretty shoes, and went on my way.

I started running, at almost a full sprint, because I didn't really know better.   Then I saw a car, and was intensely embarrassed.  I must have looked so silly out there, just running for no particular reason!  So I stopped, and walked, and pretended to be looking at some flowers.  When the car passed, I tried to run again.  Until another car came within my eyesight, and I stopped.  Then, I realized this was dumb, who cares what these other people think?  So I told myself to just keep running, which I did....until about 3 minutes later when I realized I was incredibly overdressed.  So again, I slowed to a walk.  I think I got in about 3 VERY slow miles around Northam Park that first day.

But I kept at it, and tried again a few days later, wearing appropriate clothes and disregarding what I was sure were judgmental stares from folks in the cars.  Quickly, I got hooked, and learned to love running.  Years went by, and I ran longer, faster, more frequently, expanding my running horizons from the area around my home to the surrounding suburbs.  I started to challenge myself-- can I run an hour without stopping?  How about two hours?  More? And I began using running almost as an escape--- when life stressed me out, no matter the time of night, no matter how many miles I'd already run that day, I laced up my shoes and got back out there.  I craved the endorphins.  And yeah, at times the love turned into obsession-- I ran myself until I was injured, emaciated, broken.  But I always found a way to eventually right the ship, re-find my way, regain the love.

Running in the formative years.  Nice scrunchie.
Now, I drive around my hometown, and every street has a memory of a run.  I remember the streets I ran on the day before the State track meet, when I felt like a million bucks and just knew I was going to run out of my mind the next day (I did).  I remember the run I did in the middle of a blizzard, when snowflakes froze to my eyelashes.  I remember that run on Christmas day, right after I'd gotten some cool, boot-leg running pants, when I tripped on my pant leg and wiped out not once, but TWICE , within a single mile.  I remember that perfect fall day, when the leaves had all changed, the sky was blue, suddenly, everything felt effortless and I just kept running, around and around and around the same block because I never wanted to stop.  I remember the time, days after I'd broken up with the man I thought I was going to marry, when I cried during the entire last 5 miles of my run, snotting and choking and not caring who saw me, but finished feeling so much better, so ready to deal with my new situation.  I remember (even a little fondly) the summer before my freshman year of college, when, scholarship in hand, I was so desparate to impress my new track/ cross country coach that I promptly threw away his pre-season plan and ran 395 miles in ONE month, never with fuel, never with water, just stopping at a library here and there when I was thirsty.  One guess how well that little experiment worked (hint: it did not).
These memories, however, make me a little sad.  Because a week after my last race of the season, and I'm very well aware that right now, the running leg of the triathlon is my weakness.   The run training is that which I dread the most, that which causes me the most anxiety. It no longer feels natural.  I no longer derive any joy.  I wear my Garmin, obsess over my splits and often bring music to block out my own thoughts.  In races, I get to the last few miles of the bike, and I'm scared of what comes next.  I train (relatively) fast, and then, for whatever reason, probably mostly mental, race (relatively) slow.  I tell myself that I can't keep up with the other girls, that they're REAL runners and I am not.  For someone who truly was once a runner, who used to love to run, need to run, and run...well, a whole lot better than I do now.... that's a hard place to be in.

So I think tomorrow, against all advice to the contrary, I'm going to get out there and do a little run on the roads where I first started. No Garmin.  No plan.  I need to channel that 13-year old, the one who had no clue about running, who did everything wrong, who didn't own appropriate clothing for the weather or know ANYTHING about pacing, but just got out there to run because it felt good and seemed like a decent idea.  I need to remember those days when I started a run with no destination and no watch--- I'll just head that-a-way, until I get tired, and then I'll run home.  I'm going to seek out the joy, try to regain the love that I first felt almost 20 years ago.

And then, maybe, I'll finish up that damn race report. &nbsp

Friday, September 7, 2012

Not the Turtle

In a couple hours, I'm hitting the road and heading to Madison, WI, where I'll (finally) get this Ironman party started.  I haven't talked a lot about Ironman lately, here or on social media, mostly because there's been an increasing level of anxiety about the whole thing that, hopefully, peaked this morning.  One lesson I want myself to remember next time I do one of these things....stay off the blogs (for a little while).  I've read tons of race reports and  frankly, a lot of them have scared the living snot out of me.  Hallucinations?  Walking 8 miles straight and "falling asleep" while walking? Vomiting every mile? I know these are the worst case scenarios and may be exagerrated for the sake of drama....but yikes!

So yeah, I've imagined every bad thing that can happen during this race.  But at the same time, I still have a (perhaps naive) optimism that my day is going to go well.  I've dialed in the nutrition, I know the course, I've done the work.  Now just time to execute. 

But in my prep, I have been looking for inspiration everywhere.  A lot of the people in my Ironman training group have been all about the idea of being an "Iron Turtle."  You know, slow and steady.  Their mantras are things like...."be the turtle," etc.  I get the concept, don't worry about speed, but it hasn't spoken to me as much.  For one, I find turtles sort of creepy.  That's just me.  Second, I am a little worried about speed.  Yes, I know very, very well that the success of the day will depend on proper pacing early on.  I can't overdo the swim and absolutely have to chill on the bike.  But, in the end, I don't really want the word that describes my day to be "slow."  Or, "turtle-like."  Controlled, yes.  Courageous, yes. Tenacious, yes.  Steady, sure.  But overall, slow? I hope not. 

So last night, in the least likely of places, I found my own mascot....a two-year old.  Max.  Last night, I walked to the neighborhood park with Liz, Max, and Liz's mom.  It was about a half mile away. Max started out sitting in a wagon, which Liz pulled.  That lasted about half a block.   Pretty quickly, Mr. Max was climbing out of that wagon, and insisted on pulling it the rest of the way to the park.  

Now Max is a little guy with little legs, and that wagon probably outweighed him.  It was no easy task to drag that wagon to the park.  But he was absolutely insistent.  Max-plus-wagon-speed was a little slower that comfortable adult speed, and there were repeated pleas that Max call it a day and get back in the wagon.  "C'mon Max, at this rate,  it's going to be dark by the time we get to the park."  "Max, it'd be much more fun if you were sitting in the wagon."  He ignored us, and kept on keeping on.  He'd stop occasionally to look at a stick, or a little puddle of water in the sidewalk, but quickly got back to the task.  We tried to help him out a little....I went back and using just my index finger, tried to take on a little of the weight of the wagon.  Two squawks later, and it was clear he was having none of it.   Max just kept on moving forward, at his speed, at his tempo....slow for us, not that slow for him.

When we finally saw the park, and the playground where the fun stuff is, it was SO far away.  I figured that'd be the moment Max gave in.  I mean, the playground was visible!  We could hear the kids playing!  He could have hitched a ride and been there so much quicker!  But no dice.  He just put down his head and kept on walking, pulling that heavy wagon behind him.   All the way to the park.  
Since of course, I'm relating everything in my life to Ironman right now, I was inspired.  I think Max has figured out what Ironman is about.... staying the course, and moving forward, no matter what.  There may be external or internal forces telling you to stop, give up, get back in the wagon.  And you've just got to ignore them, and keep putting one foot in the front of the other.  Until the very end.

So that's what I'm hoping I can do on keep my eye on the prize and just keep going.  Hopefully, I'll be able to just keep going at a pace that isn't necessarily turtle-like, but who knows?  I've certainly thought through all the scary scenarios and considered how I'd handle them.  I'll control what I can control, and then be mentally tough...just like Max.       

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

The Brudder Graduates

Hello, reader(s)! Sorry for the radio silence in these parts...not due to lack of excitement or interesting goings one (yes, I went to a carnival in the suburbs THREE NIGHTS IN A ROW and that's definitely worth its own blog post which I will make every effort to complete soon), but more due to my own laziness and, perhaps, a mental focus on another, upcoming little event.

But I'd be remiss not to talk about my recent little trip to middle-of-nowhere-Southern Missouri....Ft. Leonard Wood, to be precise, for my brother's graduation from Basic Training.

I wrote a while back about my younger brother and his decision to ditch the easy life and join the Army. In late June, he shipped off to Ft. Leonard Wood to start 10 weeks of Basic Training / boot camp. I can't say I had an idea of what he was in for, but based on what I've seen in movies, I knew it would be bad.

When we started getting letters from him, we realized it was really bad. As in, in my view, sort of like prison. They had absolutely no freedom whatsoever. Their cell phones were confiscated and they were allowed one phone call a week (my parents reported that every week, my brother sounded a little more and more broken).  A little letter writing (on paper!) was the extent of their recreation. The Olympics came and went, and all they knew was what they were told in letters coming from home. They had to sleep completely under the covers during one of the hottest summers on record, and would be woken up in the middle of the night if they failed to comply. Days were filled with....I don't know exactly, but I gather lots of physical training, shooting of guns, and being yelled at. Apparently not a lot of eating, based on the fact that my brother lost something like 40 pounds, at least, in ten weeks.


On Wednesday evening, we drove to the military base to pick up my brother, who was allowed 4 hours to hang with his family, so long as he stayed on the base. This puzzled me a bit. I don't have a great working knowledge of things military, so I sort of pictured a military base as a few dorm-like barracks, a few office buildings, and not much else. I envisioned dinner in the mess hall, which was somewhat less than enticing.

Not so. This military base was like a full city. One of the first things we saw when we got there was a go-kart track and water park. And a mall. I started in on my smart-ass comments about how Basic Training can't be that bad if they have go-karting and shopping. Turns out the first time my brother saw that pool was that very day, when we were visiting. "We'd heard it existed," he said. I guess that's least they didn't make them run laps around the pool, in 100+ degree temperatures, just as a tease. Anyway, big base equals dining options, and we found a fun bar and grill that had ample sized burgers and karaoke. Winning.

This Isn't So Bad
When we first saw my brother, it was a shock. It wasn't just the weight loss (one of my mother's first questions upon seeing my brother was "where did you go?"). It was just that he looked so....different. In a way, he resembled his old high-school swimmer self. His head had been shaved, and with the weight loss, he looked so much like when he was 16, shaved and tapered for the State swim meet. But he also had a maturity about him that made him look so much older than he'd looked just 10 weeks ago. The Army hadn't broken him; not at all. He didn't look older in a haggard, or defeated, sort of way. He looked older in a way that suggested he'd really found himself. He looked confident, self-assured. Like a leader.

And that's exactly what he'd become. My brother won the Commanding General's Award for leadership. We heard he'd won a few day before graduation, but didn't know what it meant. I remembered those days of summer swim team, when there was the "Coach's Award" given to the kid who wasn't necessarily the fastest, but worked really hard and had a good attitude. It wouldn't have surprised me if this Commanding General's Award was along the same lines....after all, my brother did ALWAYS win the Coach's Award growing up. (**cough, brown noser, cough**)

But this time, the award was much, much bigger. After being nominated by his drill sergeants, my brother had to go through an interview process with all the commanding officers. He was then selected as the very top soldier of his entire company of about 150 soldiers. It was, in short, a very big deal.

So the actual graduation ceremony on Thursday was his big moment. He wore a very handsome dress uniform. He led the whole company in. He stood alone on the stage, in front of a massive American flag, as he was introduced as the very top the Valedictorian of his Basic Training company (but with no speech, which I think probably made him happy). Afterwards, he had to stick around and stand in a receiving line with the other special award winners to accept congratulations. We were so, so proud.

Major Award Winner

Afterwards, we got to take him off the base for the rest of the day. His first time back in the real world! First, we fed him. A lot. I've never seen someone so happy to drink a Pepsi. He got reacquainted with his cell phone, and later, his laptop. He updated his Facebook status (essential). We lounged in the hotel. His jokes came back. He started quoting movie lines to me (that's how we bond). We fed him some more. He told war stories of his ten weeks. He wouldn't say it, but he seemed almost a little sad that it was over.

Allowing himself half a smile. Since they're all graduated now.

Most of all, he just had this presence that was absolutely inspiring. You know sometimes when you're around someone, and it's just like they've found their place in the world? They seem at ease, comfortable, self-assured? That was him. He'd just been through hell, but came out the other end far stronger. And he's good at this military stuff....his award proved that.

Of course, hell's not necessarily over...he's heading to San Antonio for another six months of training. He is pretty confident that while there will still be a lot of restrictions, he's going to be able to live a bit more like a normal person now. His life won't be normal, per se, but closer. Which makes me happy. And then, after six months, he'll go somewhere else for even more training. Hawaii's been thrown out there. And if that happens, and he's allowed visitors....well, then I'll be really happy.