January 29, 2009

The Road To Hell Is Paved With White Bread

There are two things I love: salt and empty carbs.

Actually, there are three things I love: salt, empty carbs and Catherine. The order of which is directly related to my blood sugar level at any given time.

I've been thinking a lot about the Beatles lately and, all these years later, I've finally come to realize that they were wrong: love is not all you need. Sure, love is important, love is good. When you're laying on your death bed, you do realize that the love you take is equal to the love you make (ok, I'll give them that one). But if love were all you needed in this life, there would be no such thing as food. And that is why, on my list of loves, Catherines position fluctuates from time to time, sometimes before salt and empty carbs, sometimes after.

I come from a family that has it's fair share of obsessive qualities. For goodness sakes, of the 16 of us, there are about 12 of us who run, bike and/or race triathlon. We are a whole gaggle of Type A's wrapped in a Type B family photo album. As for the remaining non-running/biking/swimming family members, most of them are under the age of five years old so they probably don't count in this tally anyway.

We're obsessive and I'm no different. I like to think I'm different, but I'm wrong. I'm not. When I find something I'm passionate about, I dive in with all my limbs and learn learn learn until I know as much as I possibly can on that topic. Combine this insatiable appetite with an unhealthy addiction to salt and empty carbs, and what you've got is one freak of nature. Which brings us to pretzels.

Let's face facts, when it comes to salt and empty carbs there is no food that better represents perfection than the pretzel. There is absolutely nothing nutritious about pretzels, hence the "empty carb" moniker. However, those little twisted wonders sure can fill the emptiness inside. I love me the pretzels. And the pizza. And the crackers. And the popcorn. Especially the popcorn. But it's the pretzels that hold the near and dear place in my heart - and in my blood pressure.

If pretzels were a woman, I'd be getting a restraining order. That's the type of love I have for them. I've been studying pretzels for most of my adult life. (And when I say "studying," I mean "eating.") If empty carbs were a university, I'd have a PhD in Pretzel. I am a Master of Pretzel. A Pretzellier, if you will. I can give you detailed analysis of the different products, the different manufacturers, different brands, different consistencies, colors, shapes and tastes. I can tell you a good pretzel from a bad pretzel without even having to put it in my mouth. Hell, I don't even have to pop open the bag. I will tell you the subtle tastes, the weighting of salt, the chewability and the crunch-factor. I will tell you if the pretzel is better with cheese or mustard - dijon or French's. I will recommend to you whether the pretzel will be better complimented with peanut butter or with ice cream. Yes. Ice cream.

Like a true connoisseur, I no longer buy my pretzels from the supermarket where all the common folk shop. I turn my nose on those pretzelite neophytes. P-shaw. No, no, I mail order my pretzels from a small independent factory in Pennsylvania. I imagine it's run by a mother, father and their three children. They're probably Amish. They travel in a horse buggy and don't own a phone. All they do is make pretzels - it's their life calling. They have perfected the pretzel after generations of trial and error. They have studied and refined their art and through pounds of yeast and seas of salt, they have figured out how to make the perfect pretzel.

There is love in those pretzels, you can taset it from the first bite. And that is why I have my pretzels shipped to me from 3,000 miles away.

Of course, sometimes I just can't wait for them to arrive. Like a true addict, I sometimes just need a fix. I need my fill. I rush out of my place in a frenzy. I must get to the store. I need to feed this beast inside of me. I storm into the market, sneak out a box of Hanover's and hide away in a dark corner eating furiously, monstrously. I may even get bags of Nutzels and devour them like a rabid squirrel. More, I'll say as crumbs fall from the corner of my mouth. MORE, I'll demand as I shove handfuls of crunchy-heaven into my face. I WANT MORE! GIVE ME MORE! MORE! MORE! MORE!!

* * *

I'm trying to eat healthy these days. I haven't had a pretzel in 24 days, 8 hours and 3 minutes.

....4 minutes....

I'm trying to take it one day at a time but it's really difficult. It mocks me. It taunts me. I don't want more vegetables. I don't want another goddam salad. I DON'T WANT ANY TOFU FOR GOODNESS SAKES AND GET THOSE GODFORSAKEN SOYBEANS OUT OF MY FACE!!!

Seriously, I think I need some help.

January 22, 2009

My Crazy Neighbor

There's an old lady that lives in the building behind me. Actually, she's probably not that old, maybe late 60s, but she looks old, and that's kinda all that counts right now.

Regardless of her age, she's what people would commonly call "that old crazy coot." She's one of those people that walks around outside in her nightgown and slippers mumbling silly nothings to herself. She picks through the trash and pulls random stuff out all the while hemming and hawing in her old crazy coot-ness.

I'm not sure what she's pulling out of the trash, I usually don't stick around to find out, but I can only imagine she's one of those people that collects random stuff nobody else wants. Like the guy at the YMCA who drives the battered and beaten Buick. It's packed, seat to ceiling, with newspapers and clothes and knick-knacks up the wahoozit. I've never seen my neighbors car, don't even know if she owns one, but I would reckon it's just like that Buick.

I've seen her garage though, and trust me, you can't even step a foot into it. Her garage is piled high with miscellanea that have probably been sitting there for decades. For all I know, there might be some hidden treasures in the garage. Maybe underneath that wreck she's got a copy of the Dallas Observer issue the day after Kennedy was shot. Or a first edition copy of Moby Dick. But most likely it's all crap. Regardless, it'd be really tough to even get to the garage because you probably don't even want to walk down her driveway. She puts out stale bread for birds every morning. Her driveway is a panoply of pigeon poop.

I've never been inside her home but I always imagine it is a big mess - the kind of mess where, when the owner dies, it takes the EMT's a long time just to find them underneath the garbage. And while they're looking, they discover a few remains that finally solve some long-standing Cold Case files.

I imagine she's got piles of old magazines that stretch from floor to ceiling and back to the floor again. Probably clippings from newspapers and WalMart circulars that mean absolutely nothing to anybody but her.

She's got a husband, but I can't imagine they sleep in the same bed or the same room. I can't imagine he's anything but numb when looking at the old rotten food that must be in their refrigerator. All the peanut butter that can practically run out on it's own. The milk so sour it has actually turned into cream and then into cheese and then back into milk again.

He probably doesn't even mind the thousands of ugly little figurines that are most likely littering the dusty glass shelves of her walls.

A few years ago I was out in back of my place cleaning up my garage. The garage door was open. I was sweeping the floor when she walked in and started looking at all of my stuff that I had neatly piled in the back of the space. She shuffled in the same way old people wearing nightgowns and slippers shuffle. It's like their feet always need to be touching the ground. When she shuffled on in, she kicked around the dirt and dust I'd been sweeping. It was odd. I didn't know her.

She started looking around as if it were a garage sale. I stood there feeling more than a little uncomfortable.

Hello, I said in that way you say things to somebody who is overstepping their bounds.

Hello how are you? she replied in a friendlier and livelier tone than I expected from the old crazy coot.

Fine thanks, I said. I was confused, but I wanted to be nice. I wanted to see where this was headed.

How much are you selling the golf clubs for? she asked me pointing to my new set of clubs.

I stood with my arm on my broom. I'm not selling the golf clubs, I told her.

I'll give you twenty dollars for the clubs, she offered.

I'm not selling the golf clubs, I repeated.

Oh, she paused. Are you selling anything?

I stood there in stunned silence. Then, figuring I should play along, I pointed to an old shelving unit and said, I'll sell this.

Oh, she mumbled as if heartbroken. She walked over and started scanning the dusty wooden shelves. Hmmm... how much? she asked.

Um... ten dollars, I told her.

I'll give you three.

How about five?

She looked at the shelves again. Leaned in closer. She wiped her finger across a shelf and looked at the dirt on her finger. She mumbled something about scratched, about old, about dusty. No, she said. I'll give you three.

Three it is, I said.

She reached into her nightgown and handed me the money. I gave her my old, dusty shelving unit. Not only did I save myself a trip to the Salvation Army, but I just made three bucks off of it.

Are you selling anything else? she asked me.

No, that's it. You just bought everything I'm selling.

OK, she replied. If you decide to sell the golf clubs let me know.

I sure will, I said stuffing the three old bills into the pocket of my jeans.

She took my book shelf and shuffled out of the garage, her slippers again kicking up the dust as she walked like a miserly version of Pig Pen's grandmother. She stopped at the trash can next to the garage, put the shelving unit down and started sifting through the can. Nothing. She picked up the shelves again and shuffled home.

Since that transaction, the old lady is always nice to me when I see her on the street. Hello, how are you? she'll say with a big smile. Are you selling anything? she might even ask.

Just this morning I saw her out with her dogs. She has three dogs. She was walking them. Or as close to "walking" as they all get. In reality, there's very little walking involved. She takes the dogs out to the front yard, about 15 steps from her door, and they just stand there, coughing and wheezing with their legs shaking. All four of them, the three dogs and her, coughing and wheezing together. I feel bad for the dogs - they look like death. The look like her. I almost wish the dogs would die so they don't have to continue living in that mess.

I imagine their lives consist of relieving themselves there on the front lawn, then going back inside and crying themselves to sleep in the misery of their trash-filled prison.

I recently learned that the old crazy lady owns the entire building where she lives. It's about a 10 unit structure. She owns it all. Keep in mind, this is not a cheap part of town. She's been living there for awhile which means she probably bought it for close to nothing. Now, even in this market, it must be worth at least $3 million, if not more.

She's doing alright, the crazy lady with my three dollar shelving unit. I can only hope that when she passes away that maybe she's left her dogs a little bone. Maybe they'll even get a better home. I hope they see that life is more than an army of ugly little porcelain figurines.

January 14, 2009

The Drug

I love being in shape. As it turns out, I also love getting out of shape. Ah, the pizza. The wine. The turkey reuben sandwiches with extra coleslaw and large dollops of thousand island dressing. Yum-ME.

The problem is that I despise getting back in shape. Big problem. It's kinda like the person who loves climbing up Everest but hates climbing down. Eventually you've gotta do it or you're going to become really unhappy pretty darn quickly.

The flip side of the joy of getting out of shape is the annoyance of having to get back in shape. The process sucks. Mentally and physically, it hurts. It's uncomfortable, not to mention embarrassing, squeezing back into a bathing suit and not being able to swim 400 yards without needing oxygen. It's annoying running for only 5 minutes at a 13 minute per mile pace when I was running marathons earlier in the year.

Here's my ideal - I want to be able to sit around all year eating pizza and watching TV, with one six pack on the table and another six pack on my abs, then one day on a whim get up and go run a sub 3 hour marathon like it ain't no thang. I want to be that guy. I want it to be natural. No work. No effort. No pain.

But those aren't the cards life dealt us - we all know the pain-gain life lesson there and we've heard it ad infinitum. So after nearly two decades of this silly sport and another decade of running, I've finally come to realize that there is pain and there always will be. Pain is part of life and it's surely a part of training. Regardless of your fitness level, whether you are a weekend warrior or a professional racer, progress and pain are identical twins.

The past couple of weeks in my "getting back in shape" mode, I've been doing some short rides, shorter swims and even shorter runs. Most of the effort is focused on form, with quick bursts of power sprinkled in every now and then. There's lots of drills and stretching and stuff that has no forward movement. It's monotonous. It's everything I hate about getting back in shape. If my year of training were that picture of the ascent of man, I'm still in the monkey phase. Once again, I am learning to crawl, knowing full well it will lead to a walk, a jog, a run. Problem is, I don't like crawling.

But I push because I know there will be progress. Though I struggle today, it will make me a better tomorrow.

And every once in a random while I get that feeling. You know what I'm talking about, it's the drug. For a brief nano-second in time, as I push through these beginner workouts while wearing far too much Ironman clothing for anybody who has even a modicum of pride, everything just clicks. It's that feeling... when you are pushing yourself to your limit, completely focused on the moment, on every single action of every single muscle in your body; when the carrot is dangling right there, just a millimeter out of reach and you are determined, with every cell in every part of your being, to grab it. To achieve. To progress. You can actually feel the adrenaline seeping into your blood stream, drop by drop by drop. It flows into your system like one of those IV packets. And you thrive on it. If you are Popeye, you've got your spinach.

Even though it's just a nanosecond, your entire life has led to that one feeling. And there comes a point when you're not sure if you're smiling, crying or if your cheek muscles have just started to tighten. Whatever it is you want to hold on. Tighter. You want more. You always want more.

It's the drug.
And suddenly I remember why I love this sport.

January 11, 2009

The History Of Thinking

The last thing I remember is Ironman Arizona.

April 13th, 2008.
8:41 pm.

It was mile 140. It was my best mile of the day – the most effortless, the most free. By mile 140 I had transcended. I had risen above the day’s mental destruction; I had conquered my defeat. Like a baby chick finally breaking from the confines of its egg to bathe in the glory of life, I was free. Pushed out of the nest, I flew.

It’s like my feet didn’t touch the ground. I kept running faster and faster as if the quicker I went, the easier it got.

The lights of the finishers chute burned a memory in my brain. As if in that instant there was a flash of a camera that forever burned the image into my memory. I see the faces of every single spectator. I feel the sounds of every single cheer. I hear Mike Reilly calling my name. I am screaming. I am on the verge of tears. I am free. I am there.

And then it all stopped.

In the blink of an eye, life passes you by. You grow so accustomed to the monotony of minutiae that defines Ironman training. The thousands of endless pedal strokes on yet another five hour training ride. The lap upon lap in the pool. The step after step after step on another run on another day on the same roads as before and before and before that. Every movement different but excruciatingly the same.

And when all of that suddenly disappears, when there is no more “next race” to prepare for, you are left with a gaping hole in your life. It is a hole of both freedom and emptiness.

I, like most triathletes, am used to filling holes. That emptiness from lack of training, quickly got filled with the freedom of all those things I’d missed. The little things. Books and movies and work and eating. And one day bled into another until here I am, nine months later severely out of shape.

In my mind, being in Ironman shape seems like just yesterday. Over nine months my body has transformed. My endurance and strength are nine months weaker. I can barely run for 15 minutes. A 1000 yard swim is overwhelming.

My body can barely even stretch but in my mind I am still in Ironman shape. The clock of mind is still stuck on April 13th.

This is the problem with thinking. Our ability to think let’s us ponder a past and a future at the expense of the present. It let’s us obsess over the “what was” and the “what might be” and makes it too easy to forget the “what is”.

I watch the runners on Sunday mornings as they float down the street with such ease. I look at them and can’t wait to go out and feel that myself. But its not the same. My run lasts 5 minutes. Maybe 10. I do not float, I lumber. It is not effortless but laborious.

I just started training again. New coach, new season, new goals. I have only one race on the books for this year: SOS (Survival of the Shawangunks). 30 miles of biking, 19 miles of running, 2 miles of swimming.

In my mind I am swimming like Phelps, biking like Armstrong and running like… me. Like the person in my mind in the history of my thinking.

Time to get back in shape and make history a reality.
Here we go again.