Monday, September 07, 2015

Panic at the Canadian

I signed up to do the Super Sprint Triathlon at The Canadian a week before the race. My original plans were to do my first open water Sprint Tri in August and the second one at The Canadian but those plans got derailed when I injured my knee while mountain biking in early July. The wound is not quite fully healed yet and I will have a nice big scar to show for it and probably quite a bit of scar tissue under it! When I fell, I also injured my tibiofibular joint and this has kept me from running all summer.

My training for this race was some easy road cycling and many kilometres of harder mountain biking - harder in the hill climbing department moreso than the technical aspect of it. No running or swimming since June. I figured I would have no problem doing the Super Sprint and it would be nice to do a race just for the fun of it.

On race morning, I woke up in a good mood. I was super excited to do this race! I was a little too confident in my ability to have a good race, I think, because the swim put me back in my place. The men were starting 5 minutes ahead of the women so we stood behind them as they got ready to go. My problems started right there and then: I was standing in weeds and they were freaking me out a little. The ground was very mushy and the weeds were everywhere, touching my legs and body. I was trying not to have more than one foot touching the ground at a time, and I could tell I wasn't the only one feeling this way: most women were grossed out.

The horn finally went off and off we went. The second I put my face in the water, I was hit with the biggest panic attack you can imagine. My heart rate was through the roof and my brain stopped working. All there was was fear - irrational fear, I know, but uncontrollable fear nonetheless. I turned on my back because I felt I was going to drown if I tried to keep my face in the water. Once on my back, I told myself to breathe deeply, to just keep moving, to feel the wonderful freshness of the water on this hot day. I managed to lower my heart rate quite a bit with those thoughts, but my hands would get tangled up in the weeds every couple of meters and I would get unsettled again. It's been hard for me to swim on my back since the concussion - it throws off my balance and makes me a bit nauseous, but in that case, I had no other option. Eventually, I got to a spot where I didn't feel any more weeds and I decided to try doing a bit of breast stroke. I made it 10-12 meters before I freaked out again. Back to square one, I couldn't breathe, I was terrified, I could not think straight. I turned on my back again, focusing on just making it through the swim. This was the longest 200m of my life. I have wanted to quit at least a dozen times, but I willed myself to just keep moving and it would end. The tears were welling up in my eyes and I told myself to keep it together, that I had faced worst things in my life and that I could make it through. I told myself I was brave and I was so proud of me for pushing through.

It's a miracle, but I did make it through the swim.

When my friends saw me at the swim exit, I looked like shit. They got worried because I wasn't my usual happy self.

As I approached the T-zone, I got pissed. Really pissed. I was disappointed about how things rolled and I was in a terrible mood. I passed the OTC tent and everyone cheered for me, but I could barely smile at them!

I got to my transition area and someone had dropped their towel on my stuff. I grabbed the towel and threw it as far as I could. Some of my rage left my body thanks to that inconsiderate person who didn't care about putting their stuff on mine. T1 was fast - I was 37/37 out of the water but my swim time, which includes T1, says I was 29/37.

I applied the advice given by coach Geordie during my bike: use the bike as a warm-up for the run. My initial plan was to treat the bike like a 20K time trial, but his words made a lot of sense: I had to keep some gas in the tank for the run. I gave a steady effort, but didn't go all out. Interestingly, I managed a 25 kph average speed (same as what I did at the Early Bird in May when I pushed really hard on the bike) with that strategy. I was pissed for the first 8K of the bike, the bad feelings from the swim didn't want to leave!! 19/37 on my arrival in the T-zone for T2. I'm very pleased with being in the middle of the pack on my strongest sport.

T2 was smooth and uneventful. The run was hard. Not only had I not run all summer, but it was almost noon by the time I started the run and it was very hot and humid. My asthma was flaring up big time and I wished I had brought my puffer
with me on the run. I was still in a somewhat crabby mood, and gave myself objectives: you run until that house, you can stop and walk after you pass that cone, you gotta start running again once you run by that sign, etc. It worked really well for me. There were a lot of water stations, the course being an out and back, and I was properly hydrated and refreshed the whole time. Before I knew it, I reached the 4K mark. I decided to focus all my anger in this kilometre to give me the strength to finish strong. There's no shortage of reasons for me to be angry considering the year I just had, haha, and by the time I passed my friends again 500m or so from the finish line, I was all anger. It fuelled every step and kept me going.

More cheers from the OTC gang, a great smile from a volunteer and the finish line was in sight. There was nothing left in my legs, but I didn't want to walk, so I focused on Joe who was at the finish line taking pictures.

Another miracle - I made it across the finish line.

This race was the toughest I have ever done. My body was undertrained but it could handle the distances without problems, but my mind was not ready to face such a massive panic attack and it tired me out. I am very proud of myself for facing the panic and making the best I could in the circumstances. I was terrified and it brought out the brave side of me. I see good things in my future and I can't wait to make them happen.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Getting the Job Done at Ottawa Race Weekend!

I have a love-hate relationship with running. I love running because I feel so good after a run, and sometimes even during the run itself. However, running is hard for me. Maybe that's because I only have one speed and I always push too much, so I end up hurting all over when I do it. Regardless of my feelings for running, I'm grateful that I am able to run and because I love the Ottawa Race Weekend, I decided to register for the 10K again this year.

I can't say that I followed a training plan. Following the events of the past months, I've learned to respect my body more than I did before. There were days when I experienced debilitating concussion symptoms and, on those days, I learned not to push it and get some rest. On the good days, though, I have been out exercising as much as I could to keep the dark beast of depression at a distance. You see, I've felt pretty useless in the past months. I don't contribute anything to society because my full time job is to get better. I have been limited in what I can do and it has been really hard for me to commit to activities because I never knew if they would happen on a good day or a crappy one. Socializing has been difficult - it required too much attention, focus and energy and I could only be around people for a limited amount of time. So yeah, my FB activity does not tell the whole story of my dealings with post-concussion syndrome and I feel the need to set the record straight here to illustrate what made me the runner I was when I got to that start line on Saturday. That runner has developed a huge amount of self-control and mental strength at the same time as she built strength and endurance in her body. She learned to take things one at a time and not to look too far into the future. She knows she can handle physical and mental pain. She has finally fully comprehended that she is capable of more than she thinks. Limits exist for a reason, but she learned not to pay more attention to them than what is needed.

The day before the race, I felt a stabbing pain in my right calf while going down the stairs. This freaked me out because it felt the same as when I injured my psoas years ago and was benched for many months. Sure, I was worried about my 10K race, but I was even more worried about everything else I want to do this summer. I decided that this 10K race was not my priority and that I would DNS if needed to protect my longer-term goals. Thankfully, it didn't come to that, but I was at peace with this decision.

The race itself went well. I am still making my way through a modified Learn to Run program and on race day, I was up to running 5 minutes, walking 1 minute. I have been running really fast lately during my running intervals and I can't seem to slow myself down for the life of me. My plan for the race was to do 3:1s and I followed it for 80% of the race. I ran my 3 minutes intervals at a 6:20 to 6:40 pace and the kilometres flew by so fast! It was hard but totally manageable. When I got near the 5K mark, I knew a 5K PB was possible and I kept pushing despite having to go up a small hill. My Garmin says 35:38 for the 5K and the Sportstats mats say 36:26. I guess my new official 5K PB is 36:26, but I'll have to enter a 5K race later this summer to officialize it. Following the run to the 5K mat, I developed a side stitch that refused to go way for over 6 minutes. I walked for that long, trying to lose the stitch without success. I was also starting to feel a blister forming on the left arch of my foot. I also got passed by the 75:00 pace bunny, which I was very disappointed about, so I thought maybe running would rid me of the stitch and it did! So I got back to my 3:1s and got it done. By the time I reached the finish line, everything was hurting and the tank was empty. I'm very happy because I left everything out on the course and I completed the race 5 minutes faster than last year, and only about 35 seconds off my 10K PB.

I'm so proud of myself! Running, I love you again for now. :)

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Friending The Mental to complete my first Sprint Triathlon

This is the story of my first Sprint Triathlon: a story of a dream that started many years ago when some friends instilled in me the desire to do triathlons. They inspired me to dream big and to work hard to achieve my goals. I had to learn so many things to get to that start line: swimming, riding fast on my bike, pacing myself, running off the bike, hydration and nutrition for performance, how to train and how to rest, and above everything else, I had to learn to believe that I can do this. There were many obstacles along the way: injuries, self-doubts, accidents, lots of heartbreak, job changes. There were moments of over-the-top optimism and many days of discouragement. There were times when I put my triathlon dreams on a shelf and decided that I was not disciplined, talented, speedy, determined, strong enough to achieve them. There were other times when I picked myself up and reminded myself that I was the one in charge of what I can and cannot do. And then, there were times when life reminded me that I was lucky to be alive, to have the use of all my limbs, to be so resilient and to have such an ability to connect with people and surround myself with an awesome support system. The road to the start line of my first Sprint Triathlon was not a straight line. It was bumpy and full of obstacles! In hindsight, I now know that this road was my journey to get tougher so that one day, I would fully understand that nothing can stop me.  

Following my concussion last July, I was not able to exercise because any elevation in my heart rate was accompanied by terrible headaches. In October last year, I was given the yellow light to start trying to exercise again. Biking was fine, as long as I didn't push too much. At first, I was just riding around the bike path system on my hybrid bike. In November, I got on the mountain bike again, but stayed away from any technical trails because rolling on roots and rocks made me dizzy and I could feel my brain moving in my head (huh!). I also started spinning with the Ottawa Triathlon Club (OTC) in November. At that time, I attempted a couple of runs, but they made my concussion symptoms worse so I didn't push it and stuck to walking and biking. I got back in the pool at the end of January this year. At first, I was a bit dizzy from bilateral breathing, but I quickly got used to it and a month later, I was swimming 1-2 times a week. In March this year, I decided to attempt another return to running and was successful. No real concussion symptoms from it. Yay!

If you've been following along, you know I've dreamt of completing my first Sprint Tri for a very long time but I was so scared I would not be able to do the swim that I kept to try-a-tris for many years. Well, enough with the doubts, I thought during one of my swims this spring. I'm going to get this Sprint done at the Early Bird! So, I did.

I was wide awake at 5:30 on the morning of the race. I was feeling more excited than nervous and it was a nice change from my usual "oh my God, I don't want to do this!" race morning routine. It was then, just before getting out of bed, that I had an epiphany: the day was not going to be about 'beating' or 'shutting up' The Mental. The day would be about trying to work together with The Mental so that I can have a good race. The Mental seemed to agree with my strategy because I was soon filled with positive and happy thoughts.

When I got to the race site, everything became chaotic for me: a sherpa would have been very handy at this point, if only to take care of standing in line for me to pay for parking! I didn't want to leave my bike on the car rack as I was going to pay for parking, but I didn't want to bring it with me either. It was at that moment that I saw my friend Suzy and had a mini freak-out on her. Poor girl! The lines were so long to pay for parking that I decided to go get my T-zone set up and come back after. Best decision, even though it ended up making me run all over the place for the next hour.

I saw many OTC people as I was setting up and everyone seemed to be in good spirits. There is such great camaraderie at triathlons and for someone like me who likes to chit-chat with people, it is not difficult to find people to talk to. Once I was all set and parking was paid, I headed out for the pool and this is when I started getting a little nervous. Positively nervous, I would say, but nervous nonetheless. I met a man in OTC uniform and we chatted for a while before going inside for the long wait before the start of our swim. As we were waiting, Coach Mark came out of the swim, looking strong and happy. We wished him well on his race and off we went to get ready for our own.

I got in line for the swim and started chatting up a man who was standing behind me. It was his first triathlon and it was nice to hear someone else's story, their motivation, their nervousness. Soon, I was talking to everyone around me in order to seed myself properly. Unsurprisingly, many women underestimated their time and ended up passing me in the pool. On the other hand, I was right where I said I would be and the men also generally were seeded properly too. I went into the pool in the warm up area to pass the time, but also to get some stretching done and a feel for the water. As I was swimming, I felt so calm and noticed how nice it was compared to my usual over-stressed state just before race start.

It was finally my time to get in the pool sometime after 9:30am. At that point, I was more than one hour behind the fastest swimmers! I got in and followed the plan: 50m front crawl, 50m breast stroke. I did that for the first 300m, but after that, I switched to breast stroke whenever I was out of breast and front crawl as soon as I felt recovered enough. I tried the unilateral breathing but I have a very hard time with it since the concussion, it is making me very dizzy and disoriented. I think the breast stroke solution was the best option. It was a hard swim. I felt a little panicky and out of breath a lot of the time. I asked The Mental to help me and it did! Thoughts of how awesome I was, how amazing it was that I was finally doing this race, how I could do it flowed over me and helped me through the hardest part of my race. Soon, i was out of the water and walking towards the exit with a huge smile on my face. I did it! I swam the 500m of a Sprint Triathlon! :)

I ran/walked to T-zone with a smile on my face until I saw coach Mark and a few other OTC members with medals around their necks: they were finished their races already and I was just getting started! The Friendly Mental jumped in and said "they may be finished, but you still have the fun part ahead of you!".  ;-)

T1 went fine, nothing to report. It was my first time doing a race since I started riding clipless last summer and I hoped that the clips, along with the OTC triathlon training program and the handful of time trials I've done in the past year would help me have a strong bike. I'm very happy with my performance. I feel I've given an even effort throughout the 23.6km bike leg of the race. I maintained an average speed of 24.9km/h (which includes the run to and from the mount/dismount line) which I believe is my fastest average speed in a triathlon (I have done a bunch of try-a-tri, super sprint and the bike leg of many relay races both at the Sprint and Olympic distances). Thanks to coach Mark for the great workouts over the winter. They paid off in that I felt strong and confident on the bike. I knew how much energy I could expand and I would say I spent the race between the bottom and the middle of zone 4. The bike was pretty lonely, which had its pros and cons. On the one hand, I had the road almost to myself, especially during my second loop, but on the other hand, I like the energy of having to watch for others, passing and getting passed, cheering one another on as we push on. I missed this part of the race, but such is life. Thankfully, I saw a lot of OTC'ers on the run course as I was still riding and we cheered on each other. And above all, I had my own personal cheerleader! My friend Rae-Ann came to cheer on me and she even made a sign just for me. This nice gesture was much appreciated each time I rode by. :)

I made a point of eating on the bike even if I wasn't really hungry. I had brought energy balls with me. They had peanut butter in them and by the time I opened up the ziploc to eat them, they had melted into a giant 'energy turd'. This made me laugh a lot, but it made consumption a bit trickier than I had planned. Note to self: stick to salted boiled potatoes next time!

When I got to the 2nd turnaround during the first loop, the volunteer there asked me if I was hurting, to which I responded "just enough". This was a very accurate answer. Everything hurt somewhat, but it was all tolerable. For the first time ever, my glutes hurt on the bike. I suppose it has to do with the swim or maybe they were just tighter than usual that day. I tried to stretch my legs and lower back a few times during the race by standing on my pedals and it helped a bit, but the pain always returned. I was glad I only had a bit over 23K to cover, otherwise the whole thing would have been way more painful. Anyway, I got it done and was dreading the run a little because I felt I was starting to run out of steam.

I got to T2 and my friend Maria, who was done her swim-cycle race, came over to ask how I was doing and make sure I was doing well with my nutrition and hydration. How sweet of her! I drank half my bottle of eLoad, and it was seriously the best eLoad I have ever drank. The run to the trafic cone that marked the 1K mark felt a lot longer than 1K (and maybe it was). My right calf was very unhappy and so was I. The run course sucked! We were running on the grass by the side of the road for about half the distance of the run. Thankfully, there weren't many people still out on the course so it was manageable. I can only imagine what it must have been like for people who were going all out among a big group of people.

I ran by perceived exhaustion. I ran when I could and walked when I needed to. I pushed myself to keep up with a few people who had passed me and I was successful at keeping them in my sights until the end. At one point, I saw a beautiful lilac and decided to stop to smell it. What's a few seconds off my race time when nature is so generous with us? ;-)  When I got to the place where the run course was right beside the road, I saw that the kids run was on. It was really cute to see all the toddlers and young children run with their parents, until they merged with me about 200m from the finish line. They were all cheerful and energetic and were running/walking in every direction and stopped unpredictably. Honestly, this was awful. I didn't need that. My brain was becoming foggier by the minute and I was not feeling great at this point. A kid stopped in front of me and I'll be forever grateful to the dad who looked behind, saw me approach and made space for me to pass them. My eyes saw what happened, but my brain could not tell my legs what to do. As I approached the finish line, I became very emotional. If my brain was working properly, I would have thought of all the things I went through and how great it felt to be back doing things that challenged me. Instead, all I did was feel. I felt the things I could not put into words at the moment and that I'm struggling to put into words now: gratefulness for being alive and for my body to be functional enough that I could achieve this, sorrow for all that is behind me, grief for all that I have lost, fear for the therapy for PTSD I now have to face in order to finally get better, hope for what lies ahead of me and pride because in spite of everything, I am still standing and getting stronger.

I crossed the finish line with tears in my eyes. I had to fight my way through a crowd of kids to get the bagel and gatorade I desperately needed and to receive my medal. I found my friend Suzy and I burst into tears. She hugged me and said many soothing words to me. I could not explain why I was crying - the words don't come to me easily anymore, especially when I'm tired. I hope I get better someday, because words have always been my way to make sense of this world and when they refuse to come, it's really hard for me. This race report took days to write because there comes a time when the brain shuts down and I can't, for the life of me, write another sentence. This remaining effect of the concussion is extremely frustrating and I wish it would go away. Patience... it is what I need to learn from all this.

All this said, one of my dreams has come true. I completed my first Sprint Triathlon and I have never been more proud of myself. I'm one tough chick! What's next? More triathlons and a full recovery from the concussion and PTSD from the rafting accident.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

The Long Way Back

I have been meaning to write this update for quite a while now, but I didn't seem to have the brainpower to get the ball rolling, so I waited for a better time to do it. Waiting is something I have been doing a whole lot of this winter. I have waited to get better, waited to see improvements with my concussion symptoms, waited for my next appointments, waited for this shitty day to be over, waited for the snow to fall so I could go play outside, waited until I recovered from an outing so I can have another one, waited to hear back from a special someone who remained silent... For someone who has always been impatient, I sure have demonstrated a lot of patience in the past months!

This concussion has kicked my ass! I was going full speed towards the life I wanted to live and then I hit a wall - a wall of rocks and water, actually. At the same time as my brain was trying to figure out what happened and the extent of the damage sustained, I was imploding and taking note of all the work I had to do to get back on my feet, both physically and emotionally. It has been quite the journey and I have made many discoveries in the process. The main one being that despite my world collapsing around me, I was OK. I could take care of myself. In the worst of times, there was a will to live in me that pushed me to get help and support, to remain hopeful and to work towards feeling better.

More specifically, I have been doing vision therapy since January. I go to the eye doctor once a week and we do all sorts of stuff to get my eyes working properly again. Vision therapy is hard. The first few weeks were hellish - my headaches increased and my quality of life deteriorated. The eye doctor had said it could happen, so I kept pushing and I went outside in nature as often as I could, because it seemed to be the only time when I was truly calm and balanced. Some exercises she has me do are fun, like the ones when she throws balls at me or I have to put pins on a rotating panel. Some exercises are excruciating: there's one when she has me working my eyes really hard so I can bring an image into focus and it gives me nauseating headaches. Others are just difficult or challenging in one way or another. We have done a mini assessment after 10 sessions and progress was noted. I'm still on for at least another 10-15 sessions, but they are worth my time, money and energy. 

I've also been working with the physiotherapist on the vestibular symptoms. He is having me do all sorts of balancing exercises, some with my eyes open and some with my eyes closed. I can't say that I am seeing much progress there. I still rely heavily on my eyes to know where I am in space and to keep my balance. Eyes closed? I fall to my right side. Too much visual stimulus? I lose my balance. Fatigued? Same thing. I fell a few times on my right side this winter while cross-country skiing, either because I looked to the side, someone skied next to me in the other direction or someone talked to me. Yup! Talking to me while I'm struggling with my balance will make me fall to my right side without fail. How weird is that.

I'm still struggling with light and noise sensitivity. Not much has changed here. A part of me is worried that I will never get back to normal, but I refuse to let myself believe this. I have improved somewhat as I am now better able to isolate sounds so I can follow conversations, but noisy places are still challenging to me, especially if there are a lot of lights and movement around me.

I have more endurance in social situations since I have decided to accept and respect my limitations. I went from crashing after 90 minutes with people to being able to spend 3-5 hours with people depending on the setting of the place where we are meeting. The less people the better, although one on one is harder for me than, say, a group of 3 or 4 people. I think it's because there is less attention on me when there are more people. The best social situations are when I meet people outside and we do something active that doesn't require or allow us to talk too much.

My memory is slowly coming back! I remember more stuff, although I'm still more forgetful than before the concussion. I have come a long way!

I'm working with my therapist on the emotional aspects that are painful in my life, whether they are related to the concussion or not. It's like spring cleaning, really, facing the past hurts so that I can move on. This work is surely as hard as the vision therapy, but like vision therapy, i know it will pay off in the long term.

There is more I could say, but I've been writing for 30 minutes and my head is threatening to explode! Time to go to bed. Night, night!