Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Gory Details: from IM to ER to OR

I'm not sure exactly how to start this post - or how to write the middle or end, actually - but I guess I better start where I left off on my last post.

I said I would write a race report about Ironman Texas.

Indeed.. so I did. Unfortunately, it got almost infinitely delayed because all the analysis in the world could not help me with those important "lessons learned" from my race in Texas. It started out so great. In fact, the beginning and the middle went surprisingly well. I just don't know what happened at the end, although I have a possible explanation now which is something I didn't have a month ago.

Ron and me - before swim start.
I really wanted to have a great race in Texas for many reasons. One of the big reasons was that my great friend, Ron, founder of Punk Rock Racing and designer of the new race kit I was wearing here, surprised me by showing up in my hotel room the day before the race. I was therefore super-jazzed to have extra support on the course and at the start that morning.

Ironman Texas started with a 2.4-mile swim in Lake Woodlands. Before the swim, I was told my more than one person that this would be a long swim and do NOT expect a fast time in this particular swim for many reasons. The swim - a rolling start - did a U-turn, then made a right into the waterway channel. I swam wide, as usual, to avoid getting clobbered, and surprisingly had a rather uneventful swim. My stroke felt great and I took it easy until the U-turn, after which I picked up my pace and passed a lot of people before - and even after - we made our way into the channel.

Swim start in Lake Woodlands
Because the swim was "long," I took it very easy, and I hadn't been able to get in the pool more than twice a week during my build-up, I was expecting to see something around 1:10-1:15 (or worse) on my watch when I stepped out of the water. The 1:02 on my watch was a blinding surprise. I tried to keep a lid on my emotions in T1.

We were encouraged to carry our bike shoes through the transition zone because of ankle-deep mud - it was gross, but we were able to rinse our feet before starting the bike leg. I knew I was in good shape when I got to the rack to see most of my age-group was still in the water. When I finally got on the bike, my legs felt great, again surprised with none of the usual fatigue after the swim.

Leaving T1
So I rode relaxed for the first 50 miles (I was told the second half of the bike course is when the hills show up) and made sure to drink at least a bottle and a half of fluids per hour. My new fuel regimen included Skratch Labs hydration drink mix and solid fuel - mostly rice-based recipes from the Feed Zone Portables cookbook.

I took in about 250-300 calories per hour and as the day got hotter (in the high 80s and very humid), I remained relaxed and didn't push too hard, even on the rolling hills in the second half. I did not feel any thirst or hunger during the ride, and much to my surprise, Texas was the first Ironman bike leg during which I had no nausea. Convinced my fueling was perfect, I was actually looking forward to a good - and strong - run.

When I pulled into T2, my time was one of my best 112-milers, my legs still felt good - albeit a little stiff - and I knew I was in the race although my husband Jim and I decided beforehand that he would withhold from me my position in the age group so that I wouldn't chase anyone.

The first mile off the bike was about 7:40 (too fast), but my legs were feeling great and I was trying to run relaxed. The second mile was right around 8 minutes (goal pace). And that was the last moment I felt good.

Inching along
Then everything seemed to fall apart. My legs started to give and I was overwhelmed with a sense of fatigue that I can't explain. It was like every molecule in my leg muscles was screaming at me that they were tired and I needed to stop. It wasn't the heat. It wasn't thirst. It wasn't hunger. It was just .. fatigue. I had no explanation and I could not will myself to go any faster or any slower.

I inched along - running, then walking, then running again - pouring water and ice on myself - and at one of the aid stations around the midpoint, someone stepped right in front of me, and I went down hard, twisting my ankle in the process. I figured that was it, but the volunteers and medical staff helped me get back on my feet, gave me ice on the ankle and I was determined to get back on the course and finish, no matter how slow.

I was angry, confused, hot, and feeling pretty woozy by the time I saw Jim with about 3 miles to go. He kept telling me that everyone in front of my was slowing down, but that did little to help because I had nothing in my legs. I stopped and proceeded to vomit right in front of him. I can't imagine what he was thinking, but I remained on the course and kept going forward. I was never so happy to see a finish line in my life, and - yes, shockingly - I managed to pull out an age-group 4th even with that dismal almost-five-hour marathon.

By that point, I didn't care about anything except getting my medal. I tried to eat and drink after the race but ended up in the med tent with severe nausea and dizziness.

For a couple weeks after the race, I was still very confused about what went wrong. Was it not enough long-distance training? I had only one 100-mile bike ride but several close to 90 - winter training was difficult in Cleveland this year because of extreme cold. And I only ran 18-20 miles a couple times. I had several confidence-boosting long bricks though. Was it my fueling? Maybe solid food doesn't process as quickly as liquid? I really had no clue.

Now I'm starting to rethink it because of a recent illness that has sidelined me. Here come the "gory details" mentioned in the title. And it's really embarrassing to talk about, but hell, it's the truth.

About 4 weeks ago, shortly after Ironman Texas, I started to get a strange pain in my butt, kind of up near my tailbone and to the right. I was also feeling extremely fatigued - so much that Jim kept insisting something was wrong because I was sleeping so much. I sloughed off the pain as being muscular in nature - maybe from riding my road bike for the first time in a while. I thought nothing of it.

A week later, when the pain did not subside, I started poking around and felt what can only be termed a "lump" - or hardness. Still thinking it was muscular, I went to Google (yep, I Googled "pain in the ass"). Googling is not something I recommend to anyone contemplating a lump of any sort in their body. GO TO THE DOCTOR.

In the second week of butt pain, there were also other symptoms - ones I did not associate with my butt. I had a headache that wouldn't go away, I lost my appetite and was constantly feeling nauseous, and I had pain in my skin (the kind of pain you might associate with a fever but my temperature was only 99ish). When I did a training ride or run, I would get fatigued and be dragging after about 20 minutes. I told Jim I would call the doctor if it didn't go away, but it felt like it was subsiding by that Thursday, so I put off the call.

BAD IDEA. By Monday, I was in severe pain with all the other symptoms and now a larger elongated lump. Scared sh*tless about what it might be, I called and begged my doctor's office for an appointment, which they couldn't provide until Thursday. Tuesday, I called our health insurance "nurse on call" for advice - which was, duh - SEE A DOCTOR WITHIN 24 HOURS. The Cleveland Clinic has same-day appointments, so I took one Tuesday afternoon with a nurse practitioner. I didn't care. I was in severe pain.

The diagnosis? The first diagnosis was that I had a pilonidal cyst - this is basically an infection/abscess located near your tailbone usually caused by a plugged up hair follicle. She gave me antibiotics and sent me home. Two days later, I saw my family doctor. There was still pain. Some fever. Major fatigue. The lump was unchanged -- maybe bigger, it was hard to tell.

She had a different diagnosis: I had a peri-anal abscess. She gave me a different antibiotic in case the first one didn't work and referred me to a colorectal surgeon, just in case - if it needed to be "lanced and drained" it would be a simple office procedure for him. Ok, now I was freaked out - I've failed to mention in this post that eleven days from then I had a trip to Sweden to race in the ITU Long-course Age Group World Championship. My doctor reassured me that the surgical consult was "only for the worst case scenario."

Yep, I went home and Googled the hell out of this one.

My Google findings turned up the following: this type of abscess will not respond to antibiotics. It must be drained, either on its own or by lancing by a doctor.

My surgical consult was Tuesday. By Monday, I was almost comatose with an ever-expanding lump (this thing was now covering about a third of my butt cheek), pain, headache, fatigue, nausea, dizziness, and now a 100-degree fever. I called Jim, he called the surgeon's office -- they sent us to the emergency room "where it could be lanced and drained if necessary." In the ER, I was pumped full of a DIFFERENT antibiotic, pain killers, anti-nausea drugs and given a CAT scan for more information. The ER doc said no way was he touching this thing because of its location - better leave that to the colorectal guy.

(JUST A QUICK ASIDE: while we were chatting with the emergency room doctor, we found out that he was in attendance at my first Ironman, Ironman Utah in 2002 - his brother raced - and he happened to be one of the medical personnel trying to revive the man who drowned in Utah Lake that morning. Talk about bizarre coincidences!)

So... after reading the scan, he gave me the third diagnosis. I had an ischio-rectal abscess that was no longer full of fluid but now had blossomed into a case of cellulitis. It "had not become gangrenous" (yeah, i know, WTF!?!?). I was sent home from the ER with more instructions and info to deliver to my colorectal surgeon. When I got home, my fever went up to 101 degrees.

I had the worst night of fitful sleep ever.

Tuesday morning, I saw the surgeon and found myself in tears just telling him how bad I felt. He took one look, checked the CAT scans, and sent me to the hospital to prep for surgery in the OR at 2pm. No problem, he even said I'd be able to race in Sweden the next week. REALLY?

When I woke up from surgery, the overall feeling of illness was gone. Seriously. The drugs were not masking it.. my headache and nausea and fever were all gone. I still had pain, but now it was from three incisions and drainage tubes sticking out of my butt cheeks.

Jim gave me the lowdown - the abscess was much worse than even the surgeon expected - hence it wasn't a simple lance-and-drain kind of thing. It was deep and extended to my left side (they call it a horseshoe abscess). No, I wouldn't be racing in Sweden - no lake swimming with open wounds.

I didn't care. I was so happy to be free of this thing - and I spent the next three days in bed. We contemplated still taking the trip to Sweden, but I couldn't envision sitting on that plane for many hours and spending the entire trip worrying about gauze and drainage and - omg - what if there were complications?

So, it was a drag to do, but we canceled the whole trip, and I've been recovering from this surgery for one week as of today. I saw the surgeon this morning and - yay! - my drainage tubes have been removed and he hopes it will heal up in 4-6 weeks. But no swimming (Boo!)

I can't help but wonder if my fatigue in Texas might have been the beginning of this illness. Either way, and true to my nickname, I seem to have picked a great way to start out a new age group.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Death: the Gift that Keeps on Giving (or, How I Met My Brother)

I realize the title "sounds" sarcastic, but it isn't really. I also realize people might be more interested in reading about my race at Ironman Texas, but I need to write this post first. My apologies. There is something else at work here.

It all started when I told my mother I was going to a race in Houston.



"Is that anywhere near Houston?" (Yeah, I know, but give my mother a thumbs-up for actually hearing me say the word "Texas" before you pass judgment.)

"It's IN Houston, Mom - well, actually, it's in a place called The Woodlands."

"You know who lives in Texas, don't you? ......Mark Carboni."

"Yes, I know, Mom. What do you want me to do about it?"

"He would love to see you."

Mark Carboni is my half-brother. He's the son of my father and his first wife. The last time I saw Mark, I couldn't have been more than six or seven years old. He was probably in his 20s. And then he disappeared from my life. I may have asked about him, but there was no real answer. My father said he hadn't heard from Mark and that birthday cards were always returned. No one ever talked about it much... until he was mentioned in my father's will. That was the reason my mother got back in touch with Mark, and they have been talking regularly ever since.

But to me at this point, Mark was just another family member who my mother has said would "love to see me." Did my mother realize I've tried to keep in touch with my other two brothers? Did she remember that they have never seemed to care I existed? Did she remember we almost had to beg my brothers to come to my wedding (and they showed up late to the church)? Did she remember most of my aunts, uncles, and cousins couldn't find the time? (even though I was at all their weddings) Did she remember that every time I drove home to Connecticut from Ohio, my siblings never could find the time to travel a few miles to see me? Did she remember that my father told me I would "never understand this because [I] didn't have children" (apparently, when you have children, you have a blanket excuse to never see your family).

My father's funeral was ten years ago, and that was the last time I saw or spoke to either of my brothers.

Oh yeah, about my father. Ten years ago, my father was diagnosed with liver cancer. He was diagnosed and gone in less than two months. It may have been the worst two months of my entire life. I know it was probably the worst two months of my mother's life. I don't know if it was the worst two months of my brothers' lives. But for me, it was THE worst. And not for the reasons you might think. The fallout after he was gone was nothing compared to the dying part.

You see, my father and I never got along. Ever. I spent all my formative years trying to make him like me. But I was never good enough. Valedictorian of my high school class? Great, but not good enough. It felt like I always let him down, no matter what I did. I excelled at swimming because he paid more attention to me the better I got. One of the worst moments in my swimming career was losing the state championship by a tenth of a second. ONE TENTH of a second and I was back to being a nobody. I tried to make up for it. I went to the college he wanted. I got a degree in engineering. I got a job at NASA. And yet, every time I did something that didn't fit into his plan (dating the wrong guys, not wanting to stay at NASA, not wanting to get married in Connecticut, etc.), the answer was always "shape up or ship out" - or worse: "I wash my hands of you."

Did he say these things to my brothers? I don't think so - but I really don't know. I stopped asking why, assumed it had something to do with being a "girl," and stopped trying to make him happy. I spent the last ten years of my father's life arguing with him and having him tell me I was "put on this earth only to disagree with him." Once, he even told me it was a travesty I never had children because I'll never know what it's like to have a bad kid (i.e., me). It makes you wonder how it was possible that my father's death became the worst two months of my life. I should have been happy to end the strife, right?

Family is weird, though. And my dad was the epitome of "tough love." He truly wanted me to be happy. When I wasn't, he didn't have a clue how to fix it. And, as most fathers are, he was a "fix-it" kind of guy. Car problems? He fixed it. Apartment problems? He fixed it. When I was in college and needed a lofted bed in order to put a desk in my bedroom, he build the most amazing put-it-together-yourself-it's-all-labeled wooden bed structure that surpasses anything IKEA ever created.

So yeah, he loved me. He just didn't TELL me. My mother used to say we fought all the time because we were exactly alike. Stubborn. Idealistic. Perfectionists. Thank you, Dad.

When my father was diagnosed with cancer, I flew home weekly, took him (and my mom) to the doctor. I talked to the doctors, did the research, called cancer treatment facilities, and ... in the end, watched him die. I watched the illness take over his body. I watched the strongest, most organized man I ever knew, lose his mental faculties when the liver toxins spread. I still cry over things that happened during the decline. Once, he got very frustrated and started ranting because the TV remote didn't work. I popped the back off to find the batteries installed improperly - I turned them around and it started working. He looked at me in shock (that I could fix something he couldn't). He asked me what I did, and I had to tell him he put the batteries in wrong. It. Broke. My. Heart. I ran upstairs "to my room" and cried for several hours. It still hurts.

When he was in the hospital, I kept it light when I was with with him. I was a cheerleader when he was afraid and in severe pain (gut-wrenching to witness). The last words he ever spoke to me were the following: "I don't want to leave you without a father."

I can still hear those words and see his face as he said them. It was a moment right out of a movie. And when I was home, or at work, or running, or in the hospital but not in his room, I cried. I cried non-stop to the social workers. When he was in hospice, I added the nurses to the list of people with whom I couldn't keep-it-together. Every time they asked what bothered me the most, the same thing came out: "Does he know that I love him?" Because I wasn't sure I ever told him. The other reason I cried was from emotional pain of watching him suffer. I would have given anything to make it go away. Until my father got cancer, I never truly understood that scene in the movie "Terms of Endearment" during which Shirley MacLaine is screaming at the nurses to "Give [her] daughter the shot!" Often I wanted to grab my father's doctors and yell: "Kill him if you have to, but make the pain go away!" (Don't judge me until you've been in my shoes.)

In the end, the one thing I could do for my father (and my mother) was to be in the room when he died. There were three people there that night: my husband Jim, my mom, and me. No, not one of my brothers.

And then something weird happened. The next day, I stopped crying. It was over, the pain was gone.

When we had to make funeral arrangements, the gift-giving started. Unbeknownst to us, my dad had already taken care of his own funeral arrangements. We knew he would have a military burial in a national cemetery (he fought in the Second World War). We didn't know that he had decided on the type of coffin, the clothing, the funeral home, and even the music (yes, there was an audio tape labeled "Funeral Music"). The funeral director read over his documents, looked up at us in amazement, and said: "This is a gift. Your father left you an amazing gift."

Over the years, there have been many more gifts. You never realize a person's influence on you until they're gone. My mother's ability to organize herself and finances after he passed is the result of his direct influence. I've begun to appreciate the hard-work ethic he instilled in me. Even the things that annoyed us about him have now become hilarious jokes to Jim and me - we can laugh and not be angry.

And the biggest gift was still yet to come.

Which brings me back to The Woodlands, Texas. I hadn't said anything to my mom, but my plan was to go there and do an Ironman. Only. I didn't have time to worry about anything else. Then, the day before we left, I got a text from Mark Carboni's wife, Betty. She and their daughter wanted to hook up with us if possible while we were in town (Mark was in Dallas and wouldn't be there).

I panicked for a split second, but, seriously, there was no reason not to. Besides, it would make my mother happy. And I realized I had the ability to choose my attitude toward this - and for once, I decided to stay positive and do it with love. I let go of all my family and sibling disappointments of the past and went in with no preconceived notions.

Then Mark decided to come home from Dallas to be there. I would now be meeting my brother. Betty and I texted times and locations, and Thursday evening, I called her to confirm everything, and she said "Do you want to talk to Carboni?" (I love that she calls him by his last name, MY last name.)

"Sure." (Sh*t just got real.)

And she put him on the phone: "Hi sis!"

I think I cracked up laughing. What an awesome, lighthearted way to begin our relationship after a 42-year hiatus. I loved him instantly. He described himself as "the only Italian with a Fu Manchu" (see photos).

This photo (taken by Betty) kind of says it all.
Without going into detail, the rest of this story is a lesson in the strength of family ties. In our first embrace in the parking lot of the Macaroni Grill, I felt a bond that one can only know as a loved family member. Mark has my - I mean, our - father's smile (even though I hadn't seen it in a long time). He has a lot of my - I mean, our - father's mannerisms. But that's where the resemblance stopped. He's easy-going, smiles a LOT, and is quick to show love. His face has laugh lines, not frown lines like his - I mean, our - father. His daughter Kasey is a beautiful, talented woman that I am thrilled to have as a niece, and I look forward to following her adventures in life. Mark's wife, Betty, is one of the most peaceful, loving souls I've ever encountered. It's easy to see why they've been together for 40 years and also why my mother loves them so much. I couldn't have asked for three more dear and loving humans to have as my family, and I am very thankful for whatever force brought it about. The only negative thing about the evening was that it had to come to an end. I found a great treasure in Houston and it was hard to let go so soon.

But there was that Ironman thing looming... although the difference now was that the success of our trip no longer depended on my performance. It was already the best trip.

On race morning I got a text from Mark telling me to be safe and that he loves me. It kept me smiling through the entire Ironman swim and bike legs (more on that in a subsequent blog).

As we were leaving Texas yesterday, I heard an echo of what my dad said to me before he died, that he didn't want to leave me without a father. I now have a reply: Dad, you didn't leave me without a father. You LEFT me with a brother. And that is, perhaps, the greatest gift of love you ever gave me.

Two more photos (stolen from Mark's Facebook page):

Sister and brother together after 42(?) years.

Can you tell Mark and I are related?
It's all in our facial expression - eye-closing must be a Carboni thing.
(L-R: Jim, Betty, me, Mark, Kasey)

Monday, April 20, 2015

No Regrets

Recently, I came to the realization that my 50th birthday was less than a few months away, and I've completely stagnated (mostly at work but somewhat in life also). Coinciding with this realization was a series of what seem to be cosmically-related events:
  • My path crossed with several people I greatly admire who are working as artists. They've encouraged me to consider doing the same - that I "have what it takes."
  • I've been welcomed into a group of self-employed creatives - artists, designers, writers, musicians - who share information, tips, help and support on their work and business at Creative Juice.
  • I accidentally came across THIS blog post (note: the blog is pretty amazing to begin with, you might want to bookmark it for future reference).
  • And I read THIS article (containing what might be my favorite line ever: "Pressure a creative to finish a piece in a timeframe with which he or she isn't comfortable, and you better be prepared for a nuclear explosion.")
  • A former art school mate and friend I've not seen in almost 20 years got in touch with me through this blog. He has his own studio and gallery and is self-employed selling his ceramics.
  • I ran into (literally, bumped into during a weekend run) a good friend from the Zoo who reminded me of what it was like to have a job I was really passionate about (at the Zoo) - when I felt I was making a difference in the world.
I had to descend into some serious soul-searching. My current job (web developer at the Cleveland Museum of Art) is awesome for many reasons: the institution is great, the work is steady and oftentimes engaging, and the pay and benefits are generous. But there are no growth opportunities in the near future and my creative side is longing for an outlet. Real development projects at work are few and far between and my job rarely finds me problem solving or utilizing my more-than-fifteen years of web development experience. Boredom has set in - the monotony of the daily grind. There are no perks: I rarely get away from my desk (the unfortunate life of a computer programmer), I spend about two hours a day in the car during rush hours, I only get two weeks of vacation per year, and my hours are, you guessed it: nine to five. I worrying about time for training. Or for art. Or, most importantly, for my family.

Frazzled one night at my drawing desk, I blurted my anxieties out to my husband Jim. My potential solution was simple: to quit Ironman (maybe quit racing altogether). It seemed like the logical solution in this consumer-driven work-yourself-to-the-bone-retire-and-die world. Keep your day job, right? I'll never change the world as a triathlete. In the end, no one cares where, when, and how I raced. And I was tired of only taking vacation time to go to races. No time to relax. Something had to give, and I had to make the "right" choice. Geez, I sound like my parents, don't I?

Jim wasn't thrilled to say the least. He reminded me that triathlon is something I love. (He's right.) And I had just bought a new bike. I spent the rest of the night crying and arguing with him.

We both knew that there was another choice: to quit my job. (Giving up my art wasn't a choice - it's always been something I have to do. Denying it wouldn't solve anything and it would keep me awake at night.)

Thus, we entered many weeks of struggling with what it meant for me to quit a full-time job and income and become a self-employed artist and web consultant. I confided in my closest friends, especially the ones who were working as artists. They listened to me rant: about not yet giving myself a chance as an artist, about my misgivings of not having a steady income and living off my husband, and about my fears of trying to sell myself. (Note: selling myself is the scariest thing in the world because I rarely find reason to even LIKE myself.) And yet, my friends and Jim continued to lend support and advice. One of the things everyone told me was that I could "be thankful [I] have a supportive partner."

Strangely, what this life-changing decision came down to was a bunch of cliches posted by friends on my Facebook wall or muttered during the struggle - things like "Making a big life change is scary. Regret is even scarier." That's what it kept coming back to. I never want to know that I was afraid to take a risk because it was just too risky. And so I took the leap. And I resigned from my (awesome) job. And now I'm nervous - no, terrified. And I keep asking myself that same question over and over - what if I fail?

But there's also one question I keep forgetting to ask: what if I succeed?

Here are my two latest lino prints:

Morning Inspiration 1

Morning Inspiration 2

Friday, March 27, 2015

Change Up

These days, soaking in ink is my usual state of being.
Just because I've not posted in a while - not posted in this blog space, that is - doesn't mean I don't have something to post. In fact, I'm crazy busy. But I'm desperately trying to be LESS crazy busy. I'm trying to get to a place where I can sleep at night without worrying about how I'm going to get everything done. And strangely, the things that I worry about getting done are things like my art and my training. I worry about work too. But my "work" worries have become things like: "How am I going to make it through the day on four hours of sleep?" and "Is there anything in my programming future that's more exciting than what I'm doing now?"

Thus, my work worries are also worrying me.

It's a vicious cycle that needs to stop.

The print production process
Anyway, I HAVE been posting... on Tumblr. Mostly because it's images and mostly because it involves very few words. I post my art and the process of creating my prints because that's the singular thing I'm passionately involved with these days. I've mustered the courage to enter two of my prints in a local juried art show of works on/with paper. Although I forced one of my best friends to go with me to the gallery because I knew I would chicken out if I went alone. (Currently sitting on pins and needles wondering if my pieces will be accepted.) I've also registered on Etsy, but I've not had time to price my work and build the shop.

And I would be remiss in not mentioning that I am grateful for the support of a few very dear friends and my husband - and their encouragement to pursue my art as a possible career. I'm getting there (mentally and physically). It's all quite scary to me.

Oh, and I also bought a new bike (thanks Bike Authority!). This is Nigel, my new P3. I named him such because he "goes to eleven" (gears, that is).

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Artistic Inspiration Trumps Training

My training is so inconsistent lately that I have very little news to report, but here's a quick overview followed by something else I've been doing lately that I feel like blogging about.

On the injury-front, I've been working hard on healing my hamstring tendon and strengthening other muscle groups with the goal of no more hamstring problems. Ever. There's still a long way to go. My relentless pursuit of squats and bridges and planks is - I think - finally forcing my glutes to take the workload off my hamstrings. My latest revelation is that when I focus on good form while running, I can ward off the hamstring pain for a progressively-longer time. I managed 11 miles two weeks ago and 14 miles on Saturday without serious pain. I might be willing to celebrate when it gets up to 20.

January sent me onto the bike trainer where I've slowly worked my way up to 3:35. Riding long on the trainer is a bigger struggle this year than it has been in the past. One of the reasons may be that I'm trying to ride too hard. Sunday, I focused on keeping my heart rate low which seemed to alleviate some of the struggle. Swimming - although inconsistent - seems to be the one thing I'm NOT struggling with.

When I look at the big picture, the problem has been getting more than one workout a day. There are two main reasons. The first is that my [regular] job has me working late on weekdays and weekends. Not because I'm slow, but there's just a LOT to get done and only one programmer (me). We just hired another so I'm hoping it will help with the workload in the future.

The second reason is that I've recently been hit with inspiration to create new fine art prints. As an artist (or someone who wishes she could be a working artist), I have learned one thing: never f*ck with inspiration. If my art were a source of income, I'd probably suffer from debilitating artist's block 80% of the time. But when uninspired, all I do is flip the switch and running, biking, and swimming become my physical and mental outlet for stress. So, when the rare event of true inspiration happens, I must follow it. It's not like I even have a choice. And I have absolutely no control when and where it happens. All I know is I have to drop everything and "get it out" to avoid becoming agitated, edgy, and losing sleep.

My latest print was inspired by an iPhone photo I took of a bunch of snow-covered trees in University Circle - the "museum-university-hospital" area of Cleveland. I don't know why, but I felt compelled to take this particular photo from the fourth floor window of my workplace (the Cleveland Museum of Art). And then I felt compelled to turn part of the photo into a three-color block print. Strange that I didn't want to do it any other way - not as a painting or etching or drawing. The image just appeared in my mind as a three-color block print. This is usually how these things happen.

Early last year, I bought some new printmaking material called Clear Carve - it's "transparent" linoleum made by Richeson Art. It's billed as "easy to cut" and doesn't require the design to be transferred to the linoleum block because you can put the design underneath as it's see-through.

I cropped my photo to the size of my purchased linoleum block, played with colors in Photoshop, and got to work. Here's is a photographic progression of the process - how I carved the block and printed it. It was done using a "reduction" process - which basically means the same block is used for all the colors - each color is carved away and the next is printed on top of it. There are several layers of ink on the finished piece, but it has a very nice, almost embossed, relief quality to it. The paper I used is the best all-cotton machine-made paper you can find on the market these days - it's called Stonehenge and it's made by Legion Paper. I use it almost exclusively for all my printmaking projects.

Here is the original photo -- thanks to the Cleveland weather, it was pretty much a black and white scene (although taken with color). For the print, I chose and added my own colors to it:

The first color (actually the first two colors, the other one being white) was a light pastel orange, here is the linoleum block and the printed color:

The second color was a blue-green. To some, it looked finished at this point (because most of the tree shapes were carved) - I have always been very precise in carving linoleum, but this new Clear Carve stuff was a more difficult to work with because the "carved" pieces don't break away nicely, so I was expecting some major issues ("easy to carve" isn't how I would describe it, as I have several v-shaped scabs on my fingers after stabbing myself several times with linoleum cutters), but was happily surprized with the result after this color:

And the final color was an almost-black with violet added:

I made only ten prints. But I was very happy with the result, and I'm already working on another one with the other piece of Clear Carve that I bought.

Friday, January 2, 2015

Be The Change...

I came up with New Year's resolutions, but I'm going to call them "Second Half-century resolutions" because this is the way I want to live.

Here they are:
  1. Stop giving a sh*t what other people think.
  2. Say f*ck 'em, and do what makes ME happy (thanks for this one, Ron).
  3. Laugh out loud for no reason (or, more likely, for EVERY reason).
  4. Create more art.
Happy New Year! to anyone who still reads my blog.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014


I may be quiet these days but I'm certainly not idle. My training has taken a backseat during the holiday season because of personal commitments and also to try again to heal my injured hamstring tendon with modern medical procedures.

Thus, I had my third PRP shot about a month ago and it was more painful than ever. I was in agony for several hours and then sore for several days afterward. The good thing about the pain is that it probably means my doctor hit the "right spot" with the injection. The bad thing about the pain is that I couldn't use any anti-inflammatory methods to make it go away because the inflammatory response is exactly what we wanted (more blood = healing).

After Thanksgiving, I jumped into my yearly design and printing of Christmas cards. This year, the design dictated the choice of methods -- the colors were very flat and bold, and the design was very hard-edged, so I chose to attempt a hand-cut stencil with screenprinting once again (after 10 years of lino-cuts). Unlike usual, the screenprinting process started out great with color registration working well. Then after printing three colors quickly and without incident, I botched the last color and the whole thing almost ended up in disaster.

Here are some photos of the process.

I started out by putting all the stencils on one screen
which was great until the last one with the largest print area
(stencil in the foreground). By that time, the screen tension
had decreased, causing ink to bleed under the stencil.

The first color (smallest area) was red. It took about an hour to print 106 cards. My husband Jim and I measure the time we spend on each color in terms of number of albums that we listen to while printing. Red was a one-album color. I think we listened to a Counting Crows CD. Red also had a near-disaster as I tried to fix one part of the stencil and accidentally stuck my exacto knife right through the screen itself. Lucky for us (and unusual), it held up until the last card was printed.

The second color was yellow. Yellow was also a one-album deal. I think yellow was printed to OK Go.

Third was blue. The blue was a two-color blend, and surprisingly, NOT a disaster as expected (because any time you mix two colors in real-time during printing, something goes horrifically wrong). Blue was also a one-album color - I think it was Travis's "Where You Stand."

And finally green. It took two tries, and two stencils, and two screens. And several albums. Too many to be sure. Here's the can of green and the wrecked first screen which I just tore off the frame and threw away because it had already become a victim of the exacto-knife faux pas.

And... the finished product. It took an additional cut stencil and a brand new screen to get through the green. We lost about 20 cards and about 20 more were barely salvageable. The design is based on the Tree of Life window/sculpture that is part of the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor.

My other art project of late was a new drypoint print that I wanted to make to give away as part of a Facebook "pay-it-forward" post I made in early 2014. I decided to try out a new very thin plastic plate made by Akua that I bought earlier this year. Here is the plate and the finished print, titled "Scenes from the Towpath: Fitzwater Bridge View."

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Importance of the "Glory Days"

My "Glory Days" gang
I have a running friend who used to declare: "You're only as good as your last race."

Granted, it was mostly in jest, but sometimes I actually used it against myself to support my claims of unworthiness - to bolster my my argument during the times I saw myself as a complete failure in my sport of triathlon. My claims are usually met by my husband Jim cursing the ground that said friend walked on, declaring that this was a complete fallacy, and: "Why do you even listen to him?!?" But I want to point out the following: according to this declaration, one can never hang his/her hat on the "Glory Days."

And yes, I mostly agreed with that sentiment... until yesterday.

Yesterday started out as an ordinary day. I got up, went to work, came home, started making dinner... and was just about to sit down to eat when my phone rang. It was buried somewhere, vibrating away. I would have let it go to voice mail, but Jim went digging for it. Before he handed it to me, he looked at the caller-ID, looked at me, and said: "Debbi Kilpatrick-Morris." I grabbed the phone immediately, afraid that I when I put it to my ear, Debbi wouldn't be there because she had been diverted away... to voicemail-land.

To my delight, she WAS there. Her first words: "I was expecting your voicemail." I don't know if that meant she wanted my voicemail or if it was just a statement of fact, like, "it rang so many times, surely the voicemail will pick up." She was obviously unaware of my frantic phone-grabbing-and-answering.

Why does this all matter?

I guess it starts with this: I don't have the opportunity to talk to Debbi much, but she is an integral part of my past.

And it goes back to the beginning: Debbi was my running inspiration from the day I first heard her name (this was well before I became a triathlete). At that time, all I knew - all I wanted to know - was running. In the late '80s and '90s, Debbi was one of the best runners in the U.S. She ran in three Olympic Marathon Trials, finishing 6th - an alternate to run in the Olympics - in 1996. That same year, she won the US Women's National Marathon Championship in Houston. And, perhaps most importantly, she was (is) a Northeast Ohio native - a local girl.

Being the hero-worshipper that I am, meeting Debbi was beyond anything I could imagine. RUNNING with her was, well, something I could never even dream about (or comprehend). But one day, in late 1997, when I started running on Saturday mornings with the Cleveland West Road Runners, I was invited to run with a group starting early from a different location. Debbi would be there. The scene that Saturday morning was chaos - a near-disaster in my as-yet-to-be-nicknamed-Disaster-Magnet existence. Strangely enough, I can't even recall the details. It involved my car - either not starting or not being able to navigate a snow-covered driveway hill. What I DO remember was frantically waking Jim up to help me. I remember panicking - and probably hysterically crying - I couldn't dare miss this. I may never get a second chance. "I'm running with Debbi Kilpatrick today! I have to get there!" Yeah, I made a big fat scene, man. At 6am.

But that's how I felt. And I made it just in time. And I never regretted it. Because knowing Debbi has been one of the great things that has happened to me in this life. Not because she was a great runner, but because she is a great person. She proved to me that it's ok to put people on pedestals - that they can and do live up it. She proved to me that injury is not the end - and showed me how to never stop trying. During the years we ran together, her career as a runner was in decline because of a chronic hamstring injury. Yes. That's right. A hamstring injury. Similar to what I'm currently dealing with.

I call those days - the days I ran with Debbi - my running "Glory Days." She inspired me to work harder. To train smart. To race smart. To rest hard before races. And to shoot for the Olympic Trials. And after I qualified, she even threw the send-off party (in 2000).

I remember stretching myself to my limits to hang with her on hill repeats and muddy bridal trails. I remember being in oxygen debt for all 20 miles of a 20-miler, wondering in who's universe is this "conversational pace"? I remember comparing where our legs got got muddy (she always had mud where her heels hit the inside of her legs). I remember sitting in freezing cold water in a wading pool to lessen the pain in our legs after those ridiculously-hard long runs. And I remember one of my fastest-ever 10K races with Debbi right on my shoulder, actually letting me set the pace, coaching me through the turns ("run the tangents"), and, of course, blowing me away in the final mile. I still loved her, even for that - it taught me the importance of having a finishing kick. And until yesterday, the biggest compliment I ever got was when one of her friends mistook me for her while I was running in one of our local hilly-workout locations.

I admired her so much and was so thankful for our friendship that I made sure I was involved in planning and throwing her first baby shower. I even personalized the invitations with a drawing I made just for her:

The original drawing for Debbi's baby shower invite
All of this only begins to explain why I didn't want Debbi to "go to voicemail." Its been many years - more than a decade since we ran together. One of the last times we ran together, I remember her son being fast alseep in the running stroller. Yeah, now he's in high school. When I do get to see her, it's usually a gathering of that "Glory Days" group of runners at someone's 50th or 60th (70th? 80th?) birthday party.

Then, a few months ago, out of the blue, she texted me about getting together - and brought her son, her daughter and a friend, and mother-in-law to my workplace - the Cleveland Museum of Art. We met for lunch and a stroll through some of the galleries. I would have liked to take the rest of the day off and spend it with them. I was very impressed with her son who is interested in everything and incredibly bright. I texted her afterwards to let her know she has a near-if-not-genius level kid on her hands and I loved her approach of exposing him to many different experiences, including art. I must have said more, because it was one of the reasons she called me yesterday.

So the conversation began with great advice about hamstring rehab (again, passing on her wealth of knowledge) and then an admittance of not being exactly why she called. She called to thank me for something I said at the museum that day.

I must have mentioned the lessons I learned during my own soul searching for a career - that in choosing a path, we need to consider our interests in addition to our skills. My parents and teachers did only the latter in pushing me into an engineering degree - because I was excellent at math and science and, of course, I'd could "make a living" as an engineer. I wanted to study astrophysics - a theoretical science - but in the end, terrified of disappointing everyone, it was easier to foreclose on what my parents wanted and pursue a skills-based career. The result? Seven years after landing a job as a wind-tunnel test engineer at NASA, I left in search of an art career.

Debbi was calling to thank me for that advice... that she should consider her son's interests in addition to his skills in helping him choose a path for higher education. Whether it was true or not, she felt she and her husband were "pushing" their son in a certain direction based on only half the information. She's changed that approach and wanted me to know how big an influence I was.

But there was more... the trigger to call me was a reaction to a Facebook post I made after a bad race. Something about being a failure. She wanted me to look at things differently - to realize I had succeeded in other, more important, realms. And then she said something many MANY people have said to me in the past, and for the first time in my life, I actually HEARD it. She said:

"Jeanne, do not tie your sense of self-worth to your athletic achievements."

And just like that... my perspective changed. Forever. How do I know? Because a great weight was lifted off my shoulders. I've heard this phrase said in so SO many different ways, but I continued to do exactly that - judge myself by my performance in my last race. Assume that the only reason people will ever "like" me is because I'm a good athlete. It's just. Not. True. Hearing it from Debbi was the snap-out-of-it wake-up call - it was important enough that she went out of her comfort zone to tell me.

The Glory Days may be past, but we CAN hang our hats on them. We were young and we didn't "get it" at the time, but they didn't make us better people because we were great athletes. They made us better people because we learned about our strengths and our weaknesses. We learned how to approach life daily with everything we have. We don't remember the splits. Or how many time we won races. What we remember are the smiles. The shared joy. (The shared misery.) We have the stories - of those hours and hours grinding out miles together in all weather conditions. We have those friends for life. Friends we always look up to - who will always have an impact. Friends who know exactly what we're capable of.

And that's why they're the Glory Days.

Pre-Olympic Marathon Trials 2000,
with two of the greatest athletes I've ever known:
(left) Peggy (Fortune) Yetman and (middle) Debbi Kilpatrick-Morris

Saturday, October 18, 2014

It IS What You Make it: 2014 Ironman Kona Race Report

It's a struggle to figure out what to write about my race in Kona that hasn't been written before because I seem to be plagued with disastrous races in Hawaii and this was my fourth time there. Because I wanted to thwart disaster this time, I knew I had to do some things differently. I trained differently. I mentally prepared differently. And I raced differently. And yet, the result was the same - actually, it was worse in terms of overall finish time and place. What was different this time was my attitude.

First of all, I never expected to be in Kona this year. My age group win in Ironman Coeur d'Alene was a bigger surprise to me than anyone who knows me. I even considered giving up my Kona slot because it was not in the original plan for 2014. The plan was to get my hamstring tendinosis healed and my body healthy enough to be a major contender in my new age group (50-54) in 2015.

After Coeur d'Alene, there was a major restructuring. I decided to train more seriously for Kona, and for the first time ever, I bought a 12-week training plan - an advanced program from Dave Scott. As a self-coached athlete, in retrospect I probably stuck too close to the plan and didn't adapt it for my needs, strengths, and weaknesses. However, by the time I toed the line in Kailua Bay on October 11, I felt I was in THE best athletic shape of my life. I had dropped about ten pounds and was finally feeling lean and strong. I felt like I finally deserved to stand among all the amazingly fit athletes there (this was a new feeling for me - in the past, I have felt out of shape and that I didn't belong).

Everything else in my life was in less than stellar shape. During the last three months, my stress levels had reached an all-time high. With a full-time job and a worse-than-usual construction-ridden daily commute, I struggled (and usually fell short) of getting the prescribed 19-21 hours of training per week - and I was stressed out about that. My workload had increased and I often worked late and had to get on my trainer after 8:00 pm - which meant riding until after 10pm and skipping valuable time for eating and sleeping. My work stress was at an all-time high because I was (and still am) doing the work of about three developers (if you don't know, I'm a computer programmer by trade).

So yeah, I was in the best physical shape of my life, but I was an emotional mess and mentally frazzled.

Checking the bike in.. after getting the coveted Cervélo shirt
I truly believed things would fall into place - both physically and mentally - when I tapered. And overall, my body did start to feel rested and I was less stressed (once we got to Hawaii - let's be real), but I had worrisome pain in my hamstring that worsened as I tapered more. I convinced myself it was normal. Athletic friends reassured me this was normal during a taper, so I ignored it. But something wasn't right, and even during the easy days of running, riding, and swimming in Kona, things were far from perfect. The hamstring pain just would not go away. But I refused to believe it would become an issue.

Pre-race in the King Kamehameha hotel
So race day came and there were many things about it that went well. Although I had trouble falling asleep, I still managed to get about three hours of shut-eye (that's three hours more than usual). I didn't panic when it took me about a half-hour to get through body-marking because of inefficiencies in the way they were doing it. I was able to get to the bathroom with time to spare and I was also able to get a wide-left spot on the swim start. But most of all, I was able to remain in good spirits throughout the morning and the day.

But I'm too mentally exhausted at the moment to write up a play-by-play of my race. If you've read anything about Ironman Kona this year, you already know that swim conditions were less than ideal (i.e. the swim was rougher than usual and therefore slow) and the cross-winds on the bike have been quoted as "the worst they've been in the last 15 years."

For the swim, I was about five minutes slower than expected. But, because of the rough water, you know I had a blast in the bay that morning. Right up until I climbed out of the water, I was actually expecting a time of about an hour. I was surprised and a little bit disappointed when I saw 1:05 on my watch as I ran to grab my transition bag.

On the bike, everything seemed to be going well despite the horrific cross winds (starting around 20 miles into the bike leg). My nutrition was good (timing was the only issue because it was hard to take my hands off the handlebars because of the wind). By the time I hit mile 90 - where I dropped out in 2012 - I still felt things were going well, albeit slow.

Starting the bike
It was in the last two hours of the bike leg that I realized things were, indeed, NOT ok with my left hip and hamstring. I started feeling pain and weakness on my left side, and all I can attribute it to is having to fight the crosswinds. This was never an issue in Coeur d'Alene as the wind was either in our faces or at our backs and rarely from the side. My left hip joint still has some kind of mechanical problem that still fails in the presence of side-forces (as we assumed in 2012). And my biggest fear was that major damage had now been done.

Around mile 100, I started to ponder the upcoming marathon. Depending on whether things continued to go downhill (they did), I had to make a decision getting off the bike:
  • try to run (possibly limp) the whole marathon, potentially cause more damage, and/or have to drop out
  • walk the marathon and secure the finish
Starting the run
When I got off the bike, the pain in my hamstring was excruciating and I could barely take a step forward. It started to work itself out during the long transition run - it was enough that I was able to get somewhat of a running gait going out of transition. But I was was having trouble taking normal steps with my left leg and when I saw my husband Jim, I let him know I was in pain.

I shuffled along for the first few miles, making sure to attend to nutrition at the aid stations. During this time, I was also fighting with myself about whether it would be better to stop and walk the marathon. Because it was much less painful, I knew I could finish if I walked. At mile 8, I saw Jim - he said he was there to convince me to walk the marathon. There was no reason to keep running because I wouldn't catch enough people to get on the podium anyway, and thus, it was better to avoid injury and finish. I knew he was right and I was terrified of losing another year to injury. After a panicked "am I going to disappoint everyone?" mental struggle, I made the call to walk the rest of the marathon. It would take a while, but at least I would get the medal and not feel empty handed on the trip home like last time. Besides, it might even be fun.

Once the decision was made, everything got a little easier. And, surprisingly, everything got a little more fun. I now had nothing to prove. I made a conscious decision, one of self-preservation. Seriously, why risk my next season by being stubborn? And now I knew I would finish. It was up to me to make this thing whatever I wanted to make it.

So I started taking in the scenery. And I found my smile. I watched people surfing in the waves. I laughed with the people at the aid stations who thought I was suffering (I wasn't). I walked with other athletes while they were struggling. Sometimes I jogged a little. I met a man named Tom who was retired from the Navy and lives on Oahu working in sports medicine. I met a woman from the Netherlands who qualified in Sweden and was having serious cramps in her calves. I met a woman who had to ride the last 60K of the bike in a single gear because she was having mechanical problems with her derailleur. After she told me she was from South Africa, she and I discussed a documentary called "Searching for Sugar Man" about an American musician named Rodriguez who sold millions of records in South Africa (go figure, and on a side note, if you get a chance, WATCH the film, it's an amazing story). Before sundown, I saw a stunning rainbow looking west on the Queen K. And probably the most incredible thing that day, I took in the elusive green flash while watching the sunset on my way down the road to the Energy Lab.

Finish chute
Once it got dark, it was less fun, and it even got a little tedious, but I arrived at the finish line, smiling, well after 13 hours, with my worst time ever in an Ironman. But I finished. And I think (hope) I avoided a serious re-injury to my hamstring. And I learned something new: it's NOT EASY to walk a marathon. I have terrible chafing from my triathlon shorts and blisters on my feet in places I never had blisters before.

All in all, I'm at peace with my decision. I'm not happy about it, but I accept it. It's not the race I wanted to have. It's certainly not the race I trained for. Hopefully, I can regroup and deal with all of that in the coming months. I certainly would NOT have been able to deal with another next-season-ending injury. I did that in 2012-13, and I'm not in a hurry to do it again. I may be crazy, but I'm not stupid.

And despite a sub-par race, Jim and I had an amazing time in Hawaii once again. We visited the island of Oahu this time - the weekend before the race. Going to Pearl Harbor and the USS Arizona Memorial was an emotional highlight of this trip. My father was stationed there in the later years of WWII (he was one of the young men who enlisted in the Navy as a result of the Japanese bombing). He had never been back there, even to take my mother, and I hope that in going there, his spirit was finally smiling on me and I could be at peace.

Here are some photos from our trip.

In Honolulu and around Oahu:

There's a lighthouse on the flip-side of Diamondhead

Looking down the beaches from the Halona Blowhole
Hanauma Bay

Beaches on the North Shore of Oahu:

Waikiki Beach:

Morning shot - looking toward Diamondhead
Statue of Duke Kahanamoku

In front of the Royal Hawaiian

Pearl Harbor and the Arizona Memorial:

Road to the Sea Beaches on the Big Island (green and black sand) -
it took us over an hour to drive 6 miles on this road, but the
beaches were incredibly beautiful and worth the drive:

And an amazing sunset: