Mountains and Ironmans

It is dark but I feel the mountains around me.  The highway is still quiet at this early morning hour and the headlights illuminate glimpses of rock faces on the road edge.  As the sky turns from black to gray more comes to life around me.  A smile creeps across my face and I can’t control it.  Whenever I feel lost the mountains ground me.  Full of wisdom and older than I can imagine, I feel safe in their presence.  They’ve seen it all.

The sun yawns and stretches its rays up above the mountains and faint light wakes the trees.  I can see the fog nestled in the valleys like a cold blanket covering slumbering fields.  As we speed down Interstate 81 toward Chattanooga, Tennessee, I try to take everything in because my camera can’t do the scenery any justice.  In the rearview mirror I can see the sky on fire with stripes of orange, red, yellow and pink as the sun rises higher.  The world is finally awake.

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Dave and I are headed to Chattanooga to see Erin race her first Ironman.  As we roll up to the hotel a few hours later the atmosphere is laced with anticipation.  More and more athletes arrive as Dave and I unload the car and wait for Erin, and I watch triathletes roll their expensive bikes into the lobby.  I feel like I am caught up in another world, a world of organized chaos full of nervous energy shaking and rattling my psyche.  The calmness of the mountains is gone, evaporated into the sky like the morning fog I spied earlier floating across the landscape.

Race day calls for record high heat, yet I don’t feel nervous for Erin.  Not only has she been living in Texas all summer long, but when I hug her in the hotel lobby I sense a feeling of readiness.  She is an island of serenity in the sea of madness only an Ironman event can create.  She is my mountains – all knowing and calm.

On Saturday morning, the morning before the race, we head out for an easy bike ride and I follow cautiously behind Erin and her friend.  I’m riding her other triathlon bike and it’s so light I feel as if I might blow away in the next wind gust.  But as we ride out of downtown and into the countryside I can feel my confidence building.  I feel weightless and free speeding down the hills and I feed on the energy radiating from the green mountains around us.  It’s quiet enough I can hear the birds chirping in the trees and it reminds me of being a kid again in Robbinsville, NJ,  when Erin and I would wake early on muggy summer mornings and speed down the hills in our neighborhood on our matching bikes.

Race morning arrives before I know it and I spring out of bed at 3:50 AM like it’s actually a normal waking hour.  Everything is done in the dark: body marking, final checks of the bike, riding the bus to the swim start – and again I feel as if I am immersed in another world.  I’ve run hundreds of road races, a few triathlons, marathons, and championship races but nothing compares to the start of an Ironman.  I watch all the triathletes sitting around me waiting for the swim start and wonder what’s going on in their heads.  How does one prepare for a 2.4 mile swim, 116 mile bike ride (bike course was long in Chatt – it’s usually 112 miles) and then 26.2 miles afterwards?  They have to believe.  And as cheesy as it sounds, I knew before Erin even started she would finish, because she believed so deeply in herself.

Other than the finish, my favorite part of spectating Erin’s Ironman was the swim.  After they jumped into the river I ran down the river walk to get a good view of the water.  Separating myself from other spectators, I found myself surrounded in the beauty of a race unlike any other.  Hundreds of swimmers headed downstream in a wide line, and the sound of their arms hitting the water reminded me of the sound of delicate wings fluttering endlessly, softly dipping in and out of the water.  For a moment, I watched silently as the swimmers migrated downstream together under a watercolor sky.  Together they had one goal: to be an Ironman.  It sent chills down my spine.

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About 12 hours later I am standing at the finish line.  I’ve spent all day tracking the merciless sun across the sky and finally we are immersed in  a darkness bringing much welcomed coolness.  Erin will be finishing any minute and the announcer’s voice booms at the finish line as other athletes cross and throw their arms up in triumph.  Music blares and as each athlete passes we slap the cardboard signs tied to the barriers, screaming and creating a thunderous applause.

When Erin approaches I feel my heart skip a beat only to then beat what feels like a million times per minute.  As I scream, “you are an Ironman” a smile splits across her tired face and her eyes sparkle with happiness.  I feel tears well up in my own and my heart swells.  To stand at the finish line of an Ironman is to experience more emotion than I can usually muster up in a month.  Watching her run into the finish line spotlights I know I’ll remember this moment for the rest of my life.

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After the race we find Erin and walk away from the intense energy at the finish line.  Sitting on a bench in pseudo darkness – the glare of the finish line behind us, the announcer’s voice thundering through the air – my sisters, mom, husband, friends and I crack open a beer.  We drink slowly by the riverside as Erin tells us about the ups and downs of her race and I feel at peace even though we are surrounded by madness.

Every athlete has their own story.  Their own triumphs and failures.  The finish line means something different to each and everyone of them, and I feel blessed to have been able to experience Ironman Chattanooga as a spectator and see so many dreams fulfilled.  Erin has a story of resilience and determination, a story of never giving up no matter the hardship.

Watching Erin race made me think about my own story and where I’m headed.  As I sipped my beer riverside, I thought about how unclear everything seems.

I have dreams and aspirations I believe I can fulfill if only I could get my health settled.  My shin pain has come back full force and I’ve put a halt on all training to try and get the pain to go away.  I want to believe I can do amazing things but it’s hard to believe when I feel so broken.  I’ve spent a boatload of money on extensive lyme disease testing and I’m nervous to get the results in a few weeks.  I hope my injuries will resolve themselves because I refuse to let my story end on some shitty 5k I gave up halfway through.  Right now, I feel like I am in limbo, and I don’t know which way to go.

As I drove back to DC from Chattanooga, still high from Erin’s triumphant finish, I realized she has found her calling.  I’ve always known we are endurance athletes and after so many ups and downs in the running world I feel such a happiness knowing Erin has found what she truly loves to do.  But I don’t know what I’m meant to do yet.  But as I passed through the mountains one last time, their serenity quelled my feelings of doubt.  Because when I’m in nature, I know what I want.

And those mountains are calling, and somehow, I will go.

 

© Allison Donaghy 2016 All Rights Reserved

 

 

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Emptiness

Change is confusing.

There’s a sense of loss throbbing deep within me.  It’s an indescribable darkness pulsing, growing.  The problem is not I feel sadness.  The problem is I don’t feel anything at all.  I am empty.

Lately, I’ve been losing myself in music.  Music is powerful.  It has the power to transform my mind and the power to transport me to past moments good and bad.  One song takes me back to hot summer nights in high school, speeding home as I race curfew, windows down to blow my hair up into a wild dance around me.  Another reminds me of a slow, cold winter day at work, chatting idly with a friend as we watch the sun sparkling off the melting snow on the sidewalk.  And another takes me to sitting in my car alone in the driveway, watching the windows fog up around me as condensation runs down the glass like falling tears.  The memories tug me this way and that, but the music fills me.  It fills the empty voids and I am sated.

Maybe the emptiness is because I don’t believe in myself.  It’s hard to believe I can be a strong runner again when I literally had to pull myself out of bed yesterday because my entire body ached like never before.  I feel old.  It’s days like this I wish most for some sort of answer as to why my body has turned on me.

I’ve always wanted to inspire.  To catch people before they fall down the same paths I have found myself stumbling along.  Lifting people up makes me happier than running, biking, hiking, or writing combined.  Helping someone feel whole again and seeing a smile on their face makes me feel not so broken.

Sometimes I forget it’s okay to feel.

We are all storytellers, and I often overlook this.  It’s astonishing to me when people have opened up so willingly with me, telling me their fascinating stories and I wish I could be just like them.  But I am ashamed of my story.  I am not yet brave enough.  Growing up I did not learn how to be vulnerable or deal with emotions.  I used running to deal with every problem I encountered.

So, I’ll keep on carrying on.  The emptiness will pass whether I find my answers or not, I’m sure of it.  I’m writing again and cautiously running, trying to [frantically] prepare for my August Ragnar Relay.

The emptiness may be there and I acknowledge it.  But if it thinks it’s going to win it’s sadly mistaken.

 

© Allison Donaghy 2016 All Rights Reserved

An update of sorts.

As always, it’s been hard for me to put my thoughts into words.  I’ve been mulling over a post for days (WEEKS) but I can’t really find a focus.  It’s probably because I’ve felt so unfocused lately.  Every day I feel like I’m walking through a thick fog, just searching for some clarity.

Colorado was wonderful.  Rocky Mountain State Park is such a beautiful place and it was so easy to let go there.  I didn’t worry about my stress fracture, or running, or my health.  Every morning Erin and I woke up to hike a new trail and had one priority: enjoy nature. The sun was still low in the sky when we started our hikes but the mornings were still full of soft light and delicate silence.  I loved hearing the dirt trail crunch beneath my hiking boots and I loved how the mountains rose up all around us, cradling us in their valley.  Everything seemed so alive.

I’ve been home now for over a week.  If I had a choice I’d still be out in the mountains but home and work were calling.  I’ve started to incorporate runs again in my training but I’m constantly worried about the pain coming back.  With every ache I fear it is the stress fracture returning even though I gave it more than enough time to heal.  I worry about my bones and not absorbing enough calcium and vitamin D.  I worry my bones are soft and weak and as soon as I really start training again I will be broken.  I am so exhausted with being broken.  And the worst part is not letting myself down, it’s letting everyone else down believing in me.

As I was rowing on the erg this evening I realized I will never be fast again.  I row.  I bike.  I elliptical.  I do all these things to try and keep myself in some inkling of running shape, but when it comes down to it they’ll never turn me back into the runner I once was.  Sure, I can get into good shape and be competitive, but I don’t believe I will ever be able to train at a high caliber again and be fast in the shorter 5k, 10k distances.  I’m not sure of the runner I’m going to turn into once these injuries and health issues are settled, and even though I’m resigned to the fact I may be a mediocre runner for the rest of my life, I’m not giving up on myself.  I’m willing to see what type of runner I morph into.  The longer distances are calling my name.

I think that’s it for now.  I want to start writing here more but I keep getting in the way of myself.  Ideally, I would love to use this blog as a place I can just spit out ideas and thoughts I have during the day but I don’t trust myself enough to do so.  I won’t lie – I’m still petrified of sharing my thoughts and feelings and posting inconsistently is my way of taking baby steps.

I have finally started working on my piece again so that’s exciting.  Before I ended up taking such a long break I had the goal of finishing this summer but now it’s already the end of June and I’m not so sure.  I’ve been so wrapped up in my injury, my health, freelance writing and working at the running store I’ve forgotten about myself and personal goals.  So I’m hoping to get back into the habit of working on it in the morning and justttttt maybe I’ll share a few excerpts.

One of these days I’m going to spit out all these words in my head and share them freely.  But today is not that day.

 

© Allison Donaghy 2016 All Rights Reserved

Healing.

There’s no denying it’s been a hard month. Between the stress fracture and other health challenges, I’ve been left with a stream of nonstop thoughts constantly swirling in my mind. Over the past few months I’ve been on the endless search for answers and only recently realized I may not get those answers. And in order to truly heal, I need to accept this uncertainty.

On Monday I went back to my orthopedic and was freed from my walking boot. It was a glorious feeling being told my stress fracture is healed and I can get back to running again. But I was also gripped by fear. What if it hurt on my first run back? What if the ache creeps back deep into my bone and ruins the rest of my season? And my biggest worry: what if I can’t tell the difference between real pain and phantom pain caused by my anxiety and laser-focus on my tibia?

When I stepped on the treadmill earlier this week in my Hoka Bondis (MAX cushioning shoe right there) I felt like a toddler learning to walk for the first time. My heart raced and my legs trembled as I started the belt and felt the smooth rubber slide beneath my feet. My walk quickened as I upped the pace and before I knew it I was running, one foot beneath the other in an easy cadence. My arms fell relaxed to my sides and I let my body do what it knows best – run. I felt free and happy. I felt like myself.

I didn’t feel any pain during my run and for that I am grateful. Yet sometimes when I am walking around I feel what I can only hope is phantom pain brought on by the use of my leg again. And I can’t stop thinking about it.

My body has had plenty of time to heal, yet I still feel so broken.  When my hair started falling out this time last year I assumed it was because of my stressful job. When I quit my job a few months later for many reasons other than my health, I also assumed it would start growing back, but it kept falling out faster. Everyone told me when the stress of my wedding was over in November everything would get better. But wedding planning didn’t really stress me out and after the honeymoon my hair loss only got worse and an onset of all new symptoms came to life.  I can’t tell you how many doctors I’ve seen in the past year and every time I think I’m close to an answer the carpet gets ripped from beneath me and I’m left with nothing.

So even though my orthopedic gave me clearance to run, I am afraid. I believe my fear stems deep in my belief if so many doctors can’t figure out what’s going on with my overall health, how can one be so sure my leg is healed and not affected by everything else going on? It’s an irrational fear yet I let it haunt me, limit me and control my decisions.

My legs are strong. Countless miles on the bike, elliptical and rowing machine have only done me a world of good. During a ride Monday I made my way up toward Mt. Vernon Estate and was overwhelmed by what I can only describe as a Runner’s High on the bike.   It was a beautiful day and I was surrounded by the green trees arching over the path and a sense of solitude miles from home. Even the Potomac seemed to glitter in the sunlight and for a moment I believed everything would be okay. If only these moments could last forever.

As I write this I am on a plane headed to Colorado to see my sisters. I see it as an escape, a brief chance for me to restart after a challenging month. I want to immerse myself in the things I find most important: family, friends and nature. The mountains have always held some sort of spell on me and the calmness and clarity I feel when I’m in their presence is exactly what I need right now.

I may not have the answers but I am ready to heal.  I’ve always been ashamed to talk about my health trials and tribulations and I’ve kept them secret for a very long time. For so long I’ve been on this quest to hear a diagnosis finally explaining why I’ve felt so sick for over a year.  I wanted it to validate what I feel is real.  But I know it’s real, and now I’m ready to look at things from a more holistic point of view to try to clear these issues up on my own…and I’m starting by taking better care of myself.

Don’t get me wrong – I still have outstanding doctor appointments I’m not going to blow off, but for so long I’ve delayed starting my healing (in a mental sense) because I was so fixated on having a diagnosis first. I still want to know. But I also want to forgive myself, set myself free from this constant weight pushing me down, and take those steps to finally move forward.

© Allison Donaghy 2016 All Rights Reserved