Friday, May 25, 2012

The "Off" Season and David Foster Wallace

After St. George, I needed a vacation from myself. And I've spend the last few weeks generally absent. I'm still not sure what it will take to re-engage at this point, but I guess writing this blog is my attempt at a start.

In my absent time, I've been paying attention to things that might possess the ability to take my mind off the disappointing - or better, devastating - start to my tri season: reading, working, not logging into Facebook, reading, listening to music, working, reading, gardening, working... and mostly, just reading. For those of you I've not told, I've been reading ONE book. And I've been reading it for about two years. The same book. Did I mention it's been TWO years? I'm a slow reader.

The book is Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. I'm reading it because, time and again, THIS website analyzed my writing and said I write like David Foster Wallace.

Infinite Jest has almost one thousand pages and more than two hundred pages of footnotes.. oops, I mean "endnotes." The endnotes have footnotes. There are sentences that go on for six pages. Some go on for ten. Many chapters have the same title. Reading the physical book requires more than one bookmark. It barely fits in my carry-on luggage (in fact, ironically, it renders my carry-on luggage too heavy to carry on). For a while, I carried it around just to be able to say I was weight training.

Then I got the electronic version of the book. And I was able to finish almost 40 percent of it before the first year-and-a-half passed. Mostly because I didn't get lost or confused or tired from flipping back and forth.

I'm now on page 811. I have less than 200 pages to go and only two pages of footnotes - oops, I mean endnotes - left. And I fear that I'm beginning to know why David Foster Wallace "erased his own map" (so to speak). He was depressed. I can tell because he describes one of his character's depression better than any self-help book I've ever read (and I've read a lot of them). In Infinite Jest - ironically, a novel - D.F.W. nails the unexplainable better than non-fiction writers who try specifically to explain it. He clarifies the thing I find myself describing as: "something I can't explain, that you cannot possibly hope to understand unless you've been there."

Although that's not what the book is about.

Despite the fact that I'm enjoying Infinite Jest, part of my brain is worrying that this book has become a surrogate for all those things I've failed to finish. Like Ironman St. George. Is finishing this book the monumental task that I can use to prove to myself that I'm still tough? Still capable of suffering? (Did I mention it's already taken me two years?) The other part of my brain just wants a release from the suffering and beating myself up.

In the end, the one thing I'm sure of is that Infinite Jest is a book of irony. Not only within, the irony extends beyond its pages and spills out into my own realm. In fact, (spoiler alert) the book's title refers to a fictional film that renders the viewer catatonic with pleasure... which is, hilariously - and coincidentally, ironically - the exact reason why I've been reading it these past few weeks. To escape from myself. Infinite jest, indeed - because now the book, ironically, has brought me full circle - right back to what it feels like to be depressed.

Well played, D.F.W., well played.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Dominated by Disaster: Ironman St. George

On Saturday, I started and failed to finish Ironman St. George. It wasn't because of the weather. Although the weather was bad. And it may be a while before I can laugh about the whole experience but hopefully someday I can. On the way home, my husband Jim and I did find some humor (but little solace) in the amount of bad luck that befell me before and during this race. He summed it up as follows: "at least you got it all out of the way in one race."

If I were one who believed in omens, I never would have shown up at Sand Hollow Reservoir on race morning. I may not even have set foot in St. George. But I couldn't give up my dream of going back to Kona in 2012. That's what Ironman St. George was about.

It all started three weeks prior to race day, I found myself in my doctor's office with the worst sinus infection of my life (seriously, and I've had a LOT of them). Despite antibiotics and rest, it made its way to my lungs before it (seemingly) exited my system via two weeks of coughing. That was a Friday, eight days before race day. I felt slightly weaker, and I was several pounds lighter, but I was determined to stand on that starting line with no reservations.

Monday morning - three days later, and five days before race day - my cough came back with a vengeance. After a desperate (read: begging) phone call, my doctor prescribed another antibiotic, but I still ended up in bed with a fever of 101 degrees. Tuesday, after another desperate (read: frantic) phone call, my antibiotic was switched, but at that point, I could already see the curtain rising on the final act. I had to decide whether to board my plane to Las Vegas on Wednesday. Jim - who was now coming down with similar symptoms of illness - convinced me that we should go and make the final call on Saturday morning (reminding me that Chrissie Wellington waited until the last possible moment to drop out of the Ironman World Championship due to illness in 2010). His argument: "If you wake up Saturday morning and feel good, you will wish you were there."

Fair point.

Jim and I spent most of our free time in St. George in bed in our hotel room. The antibiotic wreaked havoc with my GI system, and Jim was feverish to say the least. But we both approached race morning with high hopes and a willingness to give it a go. If there was anything I was sure of, it's that in Ironman, anything can happen, and I wanted to at least say I tried.

Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other intentions. And not just for me.

I suspect many blogs will describe in great detail the horrific weather conditions that all St. George athletes had to endure on May 5 - mine won't be one of them. During the swim I had a vivid flashback to Utah Lake in 2002 at the inaugural Ironman Utah in Provo - my first Ironman and the race responsible for acquiring me the nickname "Disaster Magnet" (thanks to Mickey Rzymek). But this time, the waves were larger. I got through the swim by reminding myself that my former life was that of a fish (true story).

The wind that whipped up the surf was also a nightmare on the bike leg - for the first 45 miles, we had to fight 30-40 mph headwinds and crosswinds that were responsible for blowing the eventual winner, Ben Hoffman, off the road. I was fully determined to fight through the wind and the continuous bouts of coughing... right up until my right shifter cable broke between 70 and 80 miles and landed me in permanent high gear on the notoriously hilly course. Thanks to race support, a bike mechanic eventually made it to me and replaced my cable. He did it miraculously fast while telling me a story of how he was fixing my bike with the same wrench that his dad used to pull one of his baby teeth in 1959 (I am NOT making this up). The mishap cost me 30 minutes and the age-group lead.

My shredded enthusiasm for this race was now hanging by a thread, but I felt obligated to finish after that mechanic came all the way out to help me. And I wasn't going to let that Kona slot slip out of my hands so easily.

I started the run with sincere hope that it would get better. But in the first mile, I realized the effect of compromised lungs at an elevated heart rate as I had to keep stopping to cough and catch my breath. By mile 3, antibiotic-induced GI distress hit, and I found myself in a porta-john wondering if all my fluid intake had gone directly to my intestines. But I kept running (because if there was one thing I worked hard at this year, it was my running speed!) - and despite ALL of this, Jim informed me that I had actually begun making up time on the age-group leaders. Was it possible that I could overcome the odds and put together a last-gasp bid for a Kona slot?

By mile 16, I had my answer. It was: "keep dreaming, kid." My pace had slowed to a crawl, and I was sick of porta-johns and tired of having my body ravaged with coughing and not getting enough oxygen while trying to run. I've overcome adversity to finish Ironman races before. This was no longer about finishing. It was about minimizing the damage. I had to ask myself and honestly answer the following questions:
  • [Seriously,] what would be the point of continuing?
  • [And more importantly,] will the regret of not finishing be worse than the physical fallout of nine more miles in a compromised state?
The questions came while heading out for the third and final loop of the run. I saw Jim. I told him I really just wanted to call it a day. I sat down. He heard me try to breath and cough. There wasn't much discussion - physically, I spiraled downward and my race ended right there. An ambulance took me to the finish.

It didn't come without regret. It didn't come without feelings of wasted training time and money. And failure. And embarrassment. And sadness. And envy at seeing others' with their medals and finisher goodies. But perhaps the hardest thing of all - the thing that I've never, EVER, been very good at, is accepting that the decision I made was the right one. Without hating myself.

And now, hating myself, I have to rethink the rest of the year. Because Ironman St. George was never just about the finish.