My boyfriend James and I were hiking up to the summit of Mount Baldy, elevation 10,064 feet a couple of weeks ago. The rocky knoll ahead of us seemed insurmountable. It might as well have been Mount Everest, which is why I averted my gaze from what lay ahead and instead, kept staring at my dusty hiking boots imagining myself as a machine.
I'm not schizophrenic but a nagging voice inside my head was telling me I would not be able to climb this mountain.
"Don't kid yourself," the voice mocked me.
I had to come clean to James about my doubts. When I asked him if he could imagine doing a trail run here he showed off by pretending to run up the mountain. Meanwhile, my face was hot and my heart was beating fast.
"I have something to tell you," I said gravely. He appeared to brace himself but he kept going.
"I'm a poser. You, my friends, everyone. You all have this false impression of me as being this fit triathlete but I feel like I'm out of shape. I'm already tired and we still have hours of hiking up this thing."
I saw him breathe a sigh of relief and then he went on to tell me how in my age group, I'm probably in the top 1 or 2 percent in terms of fitness. I listened, was secretly flattered, but I was not convinced. A little over a year ago, I was a chubby couch-dweller.
What James was going on was my more recent history. Three weeks earlier, I had completed a half Ironman, a triathlon which consists of a 1.2-mile swim, followed by a 56-mile bike ride and a 13.1-mile run. I have aspirations of doing a full Ironman someday (double up the numbers and that is what this crazy, one-day feat entails). Two weeks before my half Ironman, we climbed to the top of Half Dome in Yosemite.
But still, I feel like a fraud. I've become an endorphin addict who has challenges getting my fix due to time constraints. As a single mom with a full-time job, a long commute and a five-year-old boy on the autism spectrum, it's impossible for me to put enough time into this three-disciplined sport. I go through bouts of 'training envy' when my single, childless triathlete friends post their crazy workouts on Facebook. Not only that, I've been dealing with my body's many biomechanical issues and a painful repetitive-use injury common to cyclists and runners. That's what sometimes happens when you become an athlete in mid-life.
My problem is that I was just born ornery and can't fathom quitting. This quote from Mahatma Gandhi resonates with me: "Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will." The mantra from my Navy Seabee past, "Can Do" is also engraved into my brain.
It all started in May 2012 when, on a whim, I began training for a 100-mile plus bike ride, referred to as a century, as part of a charity to raise money to fight cancer. I trained along with my ex, my autistic son's father.
Coincidentally, my mother was diagnosed with lung and bone cancer in July of last year, shortly after we started raising money for cancer research. What followed was, quite simply, heartbreak as I watched my energetic, Brazilian-born mother fade away in record time.
Her dying wish was to witness my son turn five. She had been an incredible vovó (grandmother in Portuguese) and she desperately wanted to see him grow up just a little bit more but she did not even come close to making his birthday.
Two months after her diagnosis, my partner of a total of eight years ended our relationship just as my mother's condition rapidly worsened. In a family therapist's office, he told me that he wasn't happy and that I wasn't the one for him. I felt blindsided. Sure, he had expressed doubts before but it seemed as if, after six years of us living together and a summer of working together as a team, he was finally committing to us as a family.
Earlier that week, he was holding me as I confided in him about how my mother's impending death terrified me. Had I been deluded? And who would I hold on to for support now?
I was a blubbering, embarrassing mess the next day during my teams' last training ride for Vegas the following Saturday.
That afternoon I had my last conversation with my mother. It was marked by me finally breaking down in tears, something I had avoided doing because I had wanted to appear strong. She was in severe pain and could hardly speak but her sad eyes said it all. She would be gone soon. She tried to comfort me, her daughter, for the last time as I sobbed at her feet.
Two days later, my worst childhood fear came true and my mother passed away.
I was still in complete shock and denial when I set out to do the ride I had been training for in the Las Vegas desert. It was a ride I had expected to do with my ex but, instead, my two older kids, aged 18 and 20, accompanied me on this most bittersweet of road trips. I wore my "F*ck Cancer" tank top and tried not to be a downer to everyone around me.
The beginning was great. Riding along the Strip illuminated by neon lights, watching the sun rise over Lake Mead, relishing the experience of riding around the Hoover Dam and crossing Arizona's state line. But hours later at mile 67, I was ready to quit. The pain in my knees had become unbearable.
I stopped at a strip mall in Henderson, took off my helmet, gloves, bike computer and plopped down outside a café relieved that the hell I was putting myself through would soon be ending and that I would not have to continue riding in 100-degree desert heat. I called in to get picked up by our team's support volunteers.
Shortly after, one of my teammates called me on my cell.
"Where are you?" And then, "You're going to regret quitting."
She was right. I put my helmet and gloves back on and completed the ride -- 106 miles. My kids were waiting for me at the finish line -- holding a sign and beaming with pride at their mom.
It wasn't until I got back home that I crashed mentally and emotionally. Due to finances, for the next eight months, my ex and I would continue to live a tension-filled existence in the same house. While I dutifully organized my mother's funeral that week, I fantasized about my own.
It's true. I did not want to live, at least, not under these conditions and suffering so much anguish. This double dose of trauma was crippling and living under the most challenging of circumstances only compounded the horribleness of everything. I had no privacy to grieve and cry -- certainly not in front of the person I felt had betrayed me and was now like a stranger in my own house.
I also couldn't fathom packing an entire household in the midst of my grief and moving from a large house into a small, two-bedroom apartment.
And the thought of raising my autistic son as a single mom? Terrifying because as cute as this little kid is, autism is no joke. There exists a galore of challenges. Besides, I had not signed up to be a part-time mom and second-time single parent. I wanted to be with my little boy every night and every weekend and not miss out on half of his life.
To top it off, my older kids needed me, too. They were just starting their adult lives and they were not ready to be on their own.
It was all too overwhelming.
What helped me get through was that despite everything that had happened, I had managed to salvage a shred of self-respect. Sure, my self-esteem had taken a blow and it would need some major repair work. But basically, I had no tears for my former partner who had left me in the darkest hours of my life. I knew I deserved better.
I forced myself to get out there and not wallow in my grief, as temping as that was. A few weeks later, I went on a camping trip to Joshua Tree with a single mom friend, our children and some of her other friends. It was while sitting around a campfire that my friend encouraged me to sign up for the Long Beach 5K Turkey Trot. Never mind that I despised running. I even felt sorry for runners. They could be on a bike speeding down a steep hill and having a thrill but instead they're running.
But I signed up. I figured it would be safer if Thanksgiving looked drastically different from the year before when I celebrated with my mom, my ex and my kids.
Just a couple of weeks before the 5K, I did my first training run. I took off, aimlessly and without a clue. I didn't know anything about pronation, proper foot strike, form and PR's. I ran four miles that day, mostly because I did a poor job of keeping track of my distance and when I realized that I was two miles from home. I could hardly walk for days.
I continued running. It was like medicine. I didn't love it but I knew I needed it. As I ran, I cried, listened to sad (and angry) breakup songs, tried to clear my head and process a myriad of thoughts, memories and regrets. One minute I was grieving for my beloved mother. The next, I was mourning the death of an eight-year relationship. There didn't seem to be enough miles for me to run and process everything in my head.
Slowly, running began to grow on me. The pain I felt in my knees, hips and feet that I attributed to running, however -- not so much.
Numerous times I would ask, what is the sum of my strength? What does it mean to be resilient? Would I succumb to negative coping strategies in my grief? Would I be able to ride this wave of my life with grace and recover the moxie I knew I possessed within?
When I had to fill out an emergency contact form the realization dawned on me that I had lost both of my usual contacts. My father was not an option as he was lost in his own grief and I did not have any relatives close to me, besides my young adult children who communicate mainly via text messaging.
Somehow, I got through the blur of the holidays and my birthday but to compound the difficulty of it all, drama was brewing at home between my ex and my 18-year-old son. My ex turned on my oldest son and took every opportunity to express to me how he now loathed the kid he had known since he we dated the first time around 15 years ago. He also made it clear that my oldest son was not welcome in our house anymore. That presented a problem since it was my son's home too and he didn't happen to anywhere else to stay. His father lived in a different state.
I stood my ground but it didn't come without repercussions. The situation was crazy. Less stress, not more, is what I needed. I sought out a handful of confidantes and joined a support group. I practiced the skill of equanimity and tried to be patient and compassionate with myself. I drew strength from my little one who, I knew, desperately needed me and was acting out with temper tantrums at school and at home. He had also suffered a blow because he had lost one of his primary caretakers, his grandmother.
While I lived with my ex, we made a deal. During most weekends: he would go out at night while I cared for our son and I would have the mornings to run, bike, swim or go to the gym to work out.
I was not thriving but I was surviving, and it made me feel slightly better that if the pain became unbearable there was an out, albeit an irreversible, unhealthy one. I was trying to take it all one day at a time but, to be honest, suicide, was still on the table. I felt ashamed and embarrassed that sometimes I was unable to see through the dark tunnel of my life and that I was even considering ending it all. What kind of mother thinks these thoughts? I did not want to die but I did not want to live either. I desperately tried to take solace in the good of my life -- my children, our health, the fact that I had a good job, my friends -- and maintain that perspective, but it was not easy.
My strategy for survival was simple: sign up for races and continue to buy myself time until my grief eventually subsided. I also felt like the only way I could keep going was to set goals. Then I would have something tangible to look forward to. If I sign up for a race, I needed to be alive to train for it and actually do it.
When another friend suggested I do my second 5K, I decided to do a short triathlon instead despite not having a clue about what that complicated sport entailed. But that was fun, spontaneous me -- jump first, look later. I hadn't swum since taking lessons at the YMCA some 35 years ago but that didn't deter me. I sought out information from the Internet and a couple of local triathletes I had tracked down.
After I did the triathlon in February I was hooked. I wasn't fast but I didn't come in last place either. That was enough for this newbie. I posted a handful of photos on Facebook of a smiley, seemingly-happy me and reveled in the positive responses. It turns out that smiling actually helps make you happier.
"You look so good." "You're a badass." "Wow, how much weight did you lose?"
People in real life noticed my weight loss too -- 35 lbs. in all -- and complimented my appearance. My therapist pointed to a book where he describes patients upon meeting them for the first time. Under my name it said "overweight."
My diet was not all due to exercise but rather something I liked to call "The Grief, Anxiety and Depression" diet. It felt awkward to hear the compliments because although I knew I had lost weight and it pleased me, the reality of a dramatic weight loss hadn't quite reached my brain yet. It wasn't until I could fit into a size four dress that it finally hit me.
A week after my first triathlon, I was preparing for my first half-marathon. I also did a 10K and my little boy, a fast runner, did his first 1K and was rewarded with a shiny Snoopy medal. I could feel my inner and outer strength growing. I yearned to feel invincible, like Wonder Woman, and I could see that the light was slowly beginning to peek through the clouds, despite the fact that conditions on the home-front were getting worse by the day and more reality TV-like.
One Sunday morning, after an eight-mile run in Huntington Beach, I drove to Malibu to meet some friends who were going on a "Secret Stairs" group hike. Through my friend Adriana, a former journalist I had known since my first newspaper job, I met James, also a journalist.
He was funny, smart, jaw-droppingly handsome and slightly younger than me. I wasn't looking for love and had decided to stave off any potential suitors because I knew that any relationship would get in the way of my training. Besides, no one was knocking down my door -- the same door to the house I was still sharing with my ex.
Chances were slim that I would ever find the right person because that person would have to be my kind of weird and, to add to my growing list of attributes to look for in any future partner, very athletic and fully supportive of my endeavors.
James and I spent most of that day chatting and laughing at the same things. He sent me a friend request on Facebook that night and I accepted. Even though we had clicked that day, I thought that might be the end. We messaged a few times on Facebook because, a week after we met, we were both randomly selected via a lottery to run in the 2013 Chicago Marathon -- my first, his ninth.
Two months after we met, I posted on Facebook that I was looking for volunteers to help me with the move I had been dreading for months. He immediately sent me a private message.
"Pick me! Pick me!"
Was he for real?
He helped me move into the small, two-bedroom apartment that I would be sharing with my three children. That night, we had dinner at a local restaurant and talked until 1 a.m. My first half-marathon was the following day. I did not get any sleep. The timing for everything, for us, eight months after the breakup and my mom's death, could not have been better. We also could not have dated while I still lived with my ex.
More than anyone James would help me regain my mojo. I found the right kind of weird in him and he in me.
Our dates consisted of road and mountain bike rides, swimming, running and workouts at the gym.
Our first hike together was to the top of Half Dome. Even getting lost for a few hours, fearing getting eaten by bears, the thought of possibly having to spend the night on a bed of pinecones and having to share a borrowed flashlight in pitch-black darkness as we clamored down the rocky John Muir Wilderness Trail, was made bearable by this man's calm presence.
He's become my biggest cheerleader and he's been there for me during my last three triathlons. During the last one, a half-Ironman in Sonoma County called Barb's Race, he proved he was a keeper. He was there for me, literally and figuratively, every step of the way.
During Labor Day weekend, we will fly to Santa Fe, New Mexico and I will meet his parents.
As for the Chicago Marathon in October, I don't know how I will actually run such a thing. At this point, I can't even imagine running more than 13.1 miles, much less 26.2. It's just not normal to run that far. My second half-marathon this past weekend in San Diego proved that my legs and horribly-blistered feet are nowhere ready for the full thing.
But something inside is pushing me. I'm not sure how, what or why. Maybe I do this because I can, and, because I'm relatively healthy. When some friends have said, "Your mother would be proud," I laugh. No she wouldn't. She wanted me to pursue Zumba, not Ironman. She would've thought I had lost my mind.
Regardless, this all feels right to me -- this new path -- and I think my mother would have been thrilled that I had found a worthy, similarly spirited person to share in my adventures. The trajectories of my life have led me to this point and there is only one direction to continue in, no matter how tough -- up the mountain.