Dear Natalia

I’m sorry.

I’ve been saying for almost 9 years that I would tell a different story. That I would move past that first response. That first purge of emotion. That first try at processing what had happened. The story I post every year on this day. The anniversary of the day we lost you.

 https://themadmadder.wordpress.com/2009/11/13/for-a-fallen-friend/

But, every year, as I get closer and closer to this day, I don’t know what to say, what story to tell, what way would be best to keep you with us, what words will tell those unlucky to not have known you that they missed out.

You see I haven’t been honest with you. I’ve told you that I’m waiting until I choose the perfect story. First  I waited until it had been 5 years since that would mean more. But maybe now I should wait one more year so it’ll be 10? I told you that, since you were an English teacher, I just needed to tighten up the grammar or refine the story line just a little bit more until it was worthy.

But that’s not what has been holding me back. The truth is that I can’t move past wondering: if I hadn’t talked you into racing, if I hadn’t told you that it was all for fun and you could just push yourself around the laps even if the leaders lapped you, if we might not have had a few more years with you?

I know, intellectually, that I am not to blame for the unlucky flaw in your heart that took you from us. I know, intellectually, that we could have easily lost you sooner with how hard you charged at the world. But the intellect doesn’t always do the best of job of chatting with our other kind of heart.

So, I am sorry.

I’m not responsible for our losing you. But I am sorry that I’ve been holding back stories because I wasn’t ready to tell the world about that struggle.

Recently, though, I’ve been channeling you more. You faced days (almost always pathologically sleep-deprived) with a sense of humour. No matter how ridiculous the side-effects of our adventures, we could laugh over a shared beer and never risk taking ourselves too seriously. You weren’t perfect and neither was our friendship, but we had fun. So I’m going to stop overthinking this day. You wouldn’t want us mourning. We should laugh.

So I’ll throw out a few of my favourite memories of the everyday normal into the mix and I’m asking the others missing you on this day to share some of the same.

*************************************

We were just about to head out to a hockey tournament when your horse, Pandora, standing calmly in the cross-ties for the last 5 minutes, whipped her head up and hit me full in the face. We drove up to Vermont, blood coursing out of my nose no matter how much head tilting or forceful pinching was applied, laughing hysterically about how I would have to be the goon since I had black eyes and blood all over.

Another year, at another hockey tournament, a bunch of us went out shopping for rock climbing gear in the break between games. We both bought climbing helmets and wore them driving back to the rink. We had our hockey gear in the car and your skates smelled so bad that everyone made you hold them out the window so that we wouldn’t die from asphyxiation. We got a lot of odd looks. You might have been the only person whose gear smelled worse than mine.

You came out to help build trails when I joined a local LUNA Chix mountain biking team. You didn’t know much about mountain biking, but you wielded tools with a flourish and a grin and rode the newly built trails with humor as you tipped off bridges and rode your first teeter totter.

You let me work at your nightclub despite the fact that I was woefully unqualified to do much of anything. I worked coat check, bar backed, and sucked royally as a bartender. After the last person was shoved out the door, far too far past 4am, we would, along with Larry and anyone else foolish enough to join us, drink an unnecessary drink, and review the photos (with inappropriate commentary aplenty) from the night for the club website. We’d finish the night with roughly 5am breakfast. The only time in my life that I was a regular at a breakfast joint that served omelets before sunrise in the summer.

********************************

I’ve figured it out you see. The problem is that I’ve been trying to remember you perfect in order to stop thinking of what could have been. I’ve forgiven myself for something I couldn’t have prevented.

From now on, I’m going to remember you real. 

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Throwback Today: The First Slice

Because I've been caught up trying to play landlord (any ladies want to move to an awesome shared apartment in Newton?!), I've decided to share some throwback posts from my bike racing days. This one from December of 2009 is one of my favourites since it mentions pizza a lot. Mmmm.... PIZZA!

The First Slice

I was reading The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem the other day (not in and of itself remarkable since I rarely go two feet in my apartment without a book), but while reading (in the shower of course), I came upon this section:

“There’s a story I like to tell,” said Brodeur. “When I was a boy I used to love pizza, and whenever my father took me to the pizzeria I’d order two slices. And I’d sit and he’d watch me wolfing down the first slice with my eyes on the second.  I wasn’t even tasting that first slice.  And one day my father said to me, ‘Son, you need to learn that while you’re eating the first slice of pizza, eat the first slice. Because right now you’re eating the second slice before you’ve finished the first.’ And a year ago I realized that I needed that lesson again.  I took a look at my life and realized I had my eye on the second slice of pizza.”

It got me thinking. Who amongst us hasn’t been guilty of ‘second slicing’ at some point in our life? Been guilty of giving only perfunctory attention to the ‘now’ while straining desperately toward some imagined future? People work jobs they hate, saving money for some time they’ll never reach, and never get to enjoy what that money can buy. People catalogue wish lists and dream about what they’ll do in some far off when, missing out on the myriad opportunities available in the now.  Yes, this concept is trite. I’m not talking about some Newtonian apple-on-the-head moment here, but how often do we check to see if we can really taste that first slice?

I like to think that in general I’m pretty much a ’first slice’ kind of girl (except when it comes to actual pizza, which I demolish with a pathetically second slice (and third and fourth slice) attitude…I can’t conquer that particular demon yet). But I feel like lately I’ve been splitting time between dwelling on this year’s hard times and racing failures, and dreaming about what I hope will happen tomorrow. Or next week. Or next month. Any time but now.

I’m not saying that I don’t enjoy what I’m doing. The Adventure Race cracked me up. I am still proud of changing my starter. I love hanging out at Trivia Night at Desperate Annie’s. I do fun stuff. Lots of it. And I have no intention of stopping any time soon.

But, when I get home, and I’m collapsed on my couch, or failing miserably at falling asleep, lately I’ve found that the fun is gone and I’m peering around for my second slice, the first one not yet finished. I needed a change and there is no time like the present to get started.

But even the best laid plans can fail and I woke up on Saturday, not thinking about how much fun I had baking holiday cookies with the LUNA ladies the night before, not glad it was the weekend, not looking forward to an evening holiday party, not loving my fluffy comforter, but wishing I hadn’t woken up. I had two and half hours of training, including a race simulation interval, to do, but I didn’t even want to get out of bed. Not even to get coffee. Blah.

Cat in Bed.jpg

 

And so the day begins....

So, I ‘wasted’ a good number of hours trying not to do my workout by reading voraciously and showering more times than is necessary when not doing anything. Eventually, harnessing my stubborn and knowing that training will supposedly lead to racing success, I finally convinced myself to do my race simulation workout outside on my ‘cross bike.  It wasn’t windy and temps were hovering around freezing. Spending forty-five minutes at race pace on a trainer was too terrible a prospect this early in the winter. Frostbite seemed a small price to pay for avoiding that treacherous combination of boredom tempered with pain.

So after an hour warm-up on the Scott/trainer combo, I grabbed Rodney and hit the streets to do some hot laps around the Saratoga Lions Club Duathlon course (my favorite close to home testing ground). After a quick ten minutes to re-warm myself, I cranked it up to race pace. And, pulling my sleeve fully down to avoid the sneaky ‘Aren’t I done yet?!’ watch-check detractor that sucks the fun from many a workout, I got started.

And a couple minutes later, I found that I had no urge to check my watch at all. Yeah it was cold. Yeah it was getting dark and consequently colder. But damn was it nice to be outside. Here is my slice. Maybe my first. Maybe my second. My third, fourth, fifteenth. Whatever. This is the slice I’m eating now.

So I forgot about next year’s races. I forgot about the party coming up. I forgot about saving my legs for my hike the next day.  And (with my heart rate suitably race oriented of course), I focused instead on enjoying the moment. The feeling of conquering rough ground on ‘cross tires. The light fading over ice frosted trees. The pleasing burn of cranking the big ring, high cadence, up that long slow hill. And, especially, the double and triple takes I was garnering from passing cars.

“I must be looking pretty fast!” I thought to myself. “Or pretty damn hot!”

I know, clearly, that they just thought I was insane (or maybe that they’d had one drink too many at that last party to be hallucinating an idiot out biking in the December gloaming). But luckily being insane gives me the excuse to misinterpret situations. So I was fast and I was sexy. After all, who doesn’t look sexy in a billowing wind jacket and ten-year-old tights, a helmet jutting from their hat covered head like some demented mushroom? Hot. Definitely hot.

 Add a helmet and this is what I looked like...

Add a helmet and this is what I looked like...

 

 

Not my toes and fingers though. By the time I was done communing with the pavement, the rubber-neckers, and a few startled deer and turkeys, my extremities were white cold and begging for home. So I rolled happily back to home base, reheated with an additional thirty minutes of spin time (and the end of the Charlie’s Angels DVD I was unselfconsciously enjoying), and finished the evening with a nice party and a reasonable bedtime.

As I was drifting off to sleep I thought to myself: I don’t care what tomorrow holds. Yeah I bet it’ll be good, but damn this slice tastes good!

Be Careful What You Wish For: The 2018 US National Snowshoe Championships Report

    To say I was anxious about Nationals might be the understatement of the century.

This was my target event that I had been focusing on ever since I hired a coach last November, fresh off finishing my first ever 50K at the TARC Fall Classic. I had all this new found aerobic base and was finally healthy and tolerating training after a few years on the injury strugglebus. I spent four months turning that base into a boosted lactate threshold with plenty of leg strength and power for hill climbs. I had been wet, frozen, achy, and windburned as I faced the glory of winter training in New England when you don’t acknowledge the existence of this “treadmill” thing people keep mentioning.

A few weeks out, I was hitting my targets and nailing key workouts (4 miles at a 7:23 pace? Not bad for a 10 minute miler!). I was starting to think that I should reconsider my plans to be casual about racing this year (train hard/race casual is my current motto) and actually see what happened if I hit the race like I hit my workouts. And then, disaster struck.

I was doing mile repeats about a week and a half out from race day when I started to feel like my body was a sack filled with sand. I slowed and slowed and slowed. Every step was a struggle, but I had hit my goal 7:05 pace for the first split. So, stubborn as always, I started the next interval. And failed less than 4 minutes in. I felt like I couldn’t get enough air. Gasping, fish out of water, it was like breathing in a vacuum. Heart racing, I struggled my way home only to spend the night awake: anxious, clammy, and achy. I called into work for the first time in years and spent the following two days in bed. A week later, the Wednesday before Nationals, my blood pressure spiked at work and, again, I felt like I couldn’t breathe. At Occupational Health, we debated sending me to the ER. Deciding to wait it out, I once again went home to bed.

3 days to race day.

More than a little freaked out, I spent the remaining days hydrating, eating every colour of the rainbow I could fit into my meals, and going to bed at sunset. I was only 50/50 on starting the race, but I was going to go out to Vermont regardless to cheer on my friends, including my friend, Val, who had never been on snowshoes, but had said yes to coming out to race! I packed up everything I owned (including my blood pressure cuff and stethoscope to be safe) and hit the road Friday having woken to the news that Woodford, VT had been hit with over 40 inches of fresh snow that week. Resisting the urge to break out a tape measure to see how much of me would be above snowline, I pointed my Corolla toward the mountains.

Tucked into our amazing AirBNB snug, I spent the evening with my sister, Simone, Val, and our friend, Mo, organizing and reorganizing gear into various bags, taking in enough fluids to turn myself into a water balloon, and swinging back and forth between planning on racing and bagging. The problem was that, at the last minute, I had said yes to joining a 10K race team. For an extra dose of fun, Nationals had added a team category where the best 3 times out of team racers would be added together. Having given full disclosure that I’d been sick, they still wanted me to join the fun. So I could hardly not line up, even if I wasn’t particularly sure that I should be racing. Flawless logic.

 Simone's shot perfectly captures how gorgeous Vermont is this time of year!

Simone's shot perfectly captures how gorgeous Vermont is this time of year!

 

Saturday morning dawned clear and crisp. Val and I headed over to the venue, Prospect Mountain, first since she was racing in the 5K which started a little over an hour before the women’s Championship 10K. Keeping busy showing Val how snowshoes work and trying to snag as many kinds of free goodies possible (Loved the Beet Performer! Who doesn’t want an endurance boost when they are faced with a death march?!), I managed to ignore my impending doom. Having already settled on my race strategy (line up last, start slow, try to survive, maintain sense of humor), I just had to try to stay as warm as possible until the gun went off.

 Val is done and happy. I'm still happy because I'm delusional about what's about to happen!

Val is done and happy. I'm still happy because I'm delusional about what's about to happen!

 

Fifteen agonizing minutes past original start time, the 53 of us contesting the Championship course were lined up listening to the pre-race announcements: first 4K would be on groomed trails to the summit and then all hell would break loose on the singletrack, try not to get lost (you might never be seen again), snowmobile had died trying to get to the original aid station because of the snow and it would now be located at the 7K/9K intersection instead. I was where I had planned at the back of the pack and reminding myself of my plan. Start slow. Try to survive. Maintain sense of humor. Start slow. Try to survive. Maintain sense of humor. Gun goes off. And so it begins.

We set off through a tunnel of fans, family, and the men who would be racing after us. The click clack of hundreds of snowshoes slapping the trail almost drowned the cheering. Snow flew like a confetti send off as we charged past the lodge and off toward the climbs. I was estimating roughly a 1:30 finish time and quickly settled into a comfortable rhythm, moving steadily past racers over the first kilometer or so, stopping once or twice to help up some stumbled runners. I figured I was hanging somewhere in the lower third of the field and feeling largely okay. My breathing was skirting that fine balance between steady and heavy that categorizes a constant climb. Using short steps and targeting the best terrain, I moved up past walking racers, always hoping the next turn would show the summit 4K sign. Joining a group of 4 racers that were matching my target pace, we finally crested the summit into the wind. 6K to go.

 There were a number of amazing photographers out shooting the racers! Thanks, Meaghan!

There were a number of amazing photographers out shooting the racers! Thanks, Meaghan!

 

This was were the real test was going to start. We had been warned of catwalk singletrack where the slightest misstep would sink you into the fluffy depths lining the trails. Charging down a stretch of groomed trail toward the first turn into the woods, I was already feeling unsteady. “Run loose. Let the trail guide you. Run loose. Let the trail guide you.” We plunged into the woods and quickly learned the warnings were true. Ahead of me, I saw women sliding left and right, sinking into loose powder with high-guard arms struggling to maintain balance. Start slow checked off the list, I switched to try to survive and maintain a sense of humor. The former was only marginally under my control at that point, but the latter became pretty easy slip sliding away down a mountain. This was FUN!

I quickly figured out that the women I was running with were far better and more bold descenders, but I picked them off one by one on the uphills (thanks Scott Traer for making me charge up all those training hills!), working to build a big enough gap so they wouldn’t close it when the trail turned downhill. Surrounded by a whiteout, hip deep in snow, I had absolutely no idea where I was on course. Surely we should have hit the 7K aid station by now? More twists and turns, more plunging descents and punchy climbs. I dug in for my pocket snack, wishing I hadn’t been counting on the missing 4K water station for hydration. How long had we been out on course? It could have been 30 minutes or days. My muscles from my waist down burned from the effort of keeping me upright.

Cornering on a mild downhill, a steep zigzag descent of an exposed ski slope showed the elusive aid station. Plummeting down the hill, I glanced back to see one of the chasers gaining on me with every stride. As we dipped back into the woods, buoyed by the cheers of Val and Simone who had spotted me near-falling down the hill, I put on a burst of speed up the next climb. Up and down and up and down. Try to survive. Maintain a sense of humor. I was surviving more or less. The sense of humor was getting a little harder, especially since, at this point, I had somehow gotten the J.G.Wentworth television jingle stuck in my head on repeat. “Call J.G.Wentworth 877-CASH-NOW.” Kill me now!

Before long, the 7K/9K aid station was back in sight. I passed it and my cheering friends. Only 1K to go? I could do this! Humor restored, I kept pushing on, into some more singletrack, looking forward to coming out of the woods with the Prospect Lodge and finish line in sight. Looking back, I couldn’t see any of the chasing group. For the moment, I was alone in the white. Suddenly, I was back out of the woods and heading back to where we had started. Only a quick loop around the field and I could go curl up and nap! The course marshall pointed me along the edge of the field: “Straight ahead and then go left!”

No Left.jpg
 

Um. Excuse me? Left?!!! Left isn’t the way to the finish line! Left is the woods. Left is more trails. Left is not okay! “He must be wrong?!” I thought to myself in agony. Maybe he uses Canadian left (my excuse for my tendency to be perpetually backwards with right/left matters)? But, no, back into the woods I went, cursing the SOB who thought this was an okay thing to do to people when salvation was in sight. Gone was the pleasure in the beauty of the twisting, looping, switchbacks. Gone was the joy of being outside and doing something ridiculous with friends on a beautiful day. Gone was my sense of humor. I wasn’t even checking to see if anyone was gaining on me. I wanted this slog to be over. I wanted a comfy couch, a blanket, and hearty soup. I wanted to be the person who woke up on a Saturday morning and made coffee and went back to bed. I wanted to be someone smarter than me, who wouldn’t have signed up, who would have bagged when it was an option. But, the slog must go on, and I finally made it out of the woods to the straightaway to the finish.

I wish I could say I had a finish line kick, that I moved up the ranks in the final meters, that I showed the crowd my heart to the last. But, I was cooked. Trying my best to look reasonably upright crossing the line almost two hours from our start, I shook someone’s hand and spoke from the heart:

“Never again… Until tomorrow.”

After all, I still had the Sunday 4x2.5K relay to race. And I had my sense of humor back.

 Weekend swag! Bronze in my age group. Silver in the 10K team. Gold in the relay!

Weekend swag! Bronze in my age group. Silver in the 10K team. Gold in the relay!

A taste of the singletrack with excited commentary by the amazing Dr. Mo!

 

The Definitive Social Phobe Running Guide To (Not) Dating

Because I am actively avoiding admitting that this upcoming weekend is Snowshoe Racing Nationals in Woodford, VT and I’ve been sick and out of sorts since last Thursday, I thought I’d mix it up with something a little more light-hearted while still on theme. And so, without further ado, I give you:

 

The Definitive Social Phobe Running Guide:

To (Not) Dating

As I mentioned in my opening salvo last week, dating is hardly an easy thing when you’re mildly terrified of all social interactions, but, there are some things that I have learned over the years that can apply to the various ways that people recommend for searching for that special someone. So, breaking it down by setting in vaguely chronological order, I give you my tips:

High School

The main tactic for dating as a social phobe (who happens to be a tomboy too) in high school is to really try hard to be as far from feminine as possible. You don’t really understand the whole “makeup” thing and, try as you might, giggling coyly isn’t up your alley. Make friends with guys you find attractive, but never, ever, EVER let them know that you are interested. Be surprised when this strategy doesn’t work. Misinterpret signals both from people who are into you and people who aren’t. Write some angsty poetry and read it at an open mike night despite your social anxiety. Somehow, through a message chain of about fifteen people, end up “dating” a guy who doesn’t live in your town you met a few times visiting a friend. Never actually be in the same place. Break up without actually ever seeing each other.

Go to the prom with an amazing friend who is kind enough to invite you since he knows you won’t go otherwise and have a great time despite your general dislike of such things.

prom.jpg

Graduate high school single but excited about how much better college will be.

College

Use the same strategies you used in high school, but maintain you are doing things differently. Expect different results. Take advantage of going to school in a country where the drinking age is lower to boost your confidence to go out dancing. Enjoy being young enough that the day after consequences aren’t as catastrophic as they will be later. Try to ignore that you’re still just dancing with your housemates. Makeout with a random guy once after having a few too many. Regret it. Meet a cute guy. Become friends. Never let him know you are interested. Wonder why nothing happens. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Leave college. Real life will be easier.

Work

Because you are more mature and legit, change up your tactics. Spot an attractive guy and don’t even acknowledge him at all. The friend thing didn’t work. The “being completely invisible” plan is the next logical step. This fails.

Again, because you’re an “adult,” realize quickly your plans aren’t working. The next time you cross paths with someone you find attractive in a work setting try a different tactic. Make sure you walk past really really fast whenever you see him. This will make him think you are important and on a mission. Try to trip over at least one thing while in his line of sight. This will make him realize you are an approachable, fallible human who isn’t afraid to show it (not realizing you’re just a klutz). Make sure you were heading away from him so he doesn’t see how amazingly red your face can turn. If he happens to speak to you, forget that English is your first language. Struggling to speak will make you seem exotic and intriguing. Pretend you just got a really important text and get out of the conversation as quickly as possible. Start going the opposite direction the second you see him from now on. This also won’t work.

Online Dating

Eventually your friends will convince you, with glamorous stories of their own success, that this is a good idea. This goes to show your friends are probably all certifiable. Sign up for a dating site. Get really excited since this is an opportunity to be on a site where other people are looking for the same thing you are looking for in a relationship. Quickly realize that relative anonymity is also an excuse for random people to send you some pretty forward propositions and unwanted photos (seriously people?!). Wonder if anyone on online dating sites actually knows how to read since no one seems to actually bother to read profiles.

When you get promising messages, make sure your social anxiety kicks in so you overthink your response. This will encourage awkward conversation, which is key to encouraging someone to want to meet you in person. Put too much thought into how quickly or slowly to respond and how much information to offer. Get excited when you actually get to the point where you arrange to meet in person and then realize what “in person” means. Freak out.

Meet in person and realize sitting with a stranger over a beer is a terrible idea. Think you were overreacting. Repeat. Realize the same thing. Get frustrated. Try “dates in motion” with walks, bike rides, etc. This is marginally more successful, but doesn’t really go anywhere.

Acknowledge that online dating is actually stressing you out more than helping. Sign off all sites.

Completely Insane Ideas

Get kind of cranky about prior lack of success with traditional and more modern dating methods. Consider the viability of dating women. Realize this doesn’t make sense since you’re not attracted to women and they are just as terrifying as guys. Additionally consider that you’re overthinking this whole thing. Take a deep breath.

Reality

Deep breath taken, you remember that all the memorable (in a positive way) relationships you’ve had before have happened more organically, when you weren’t trying so hard. When you were out there being you, enjoying life.

You met him when you first got into mountain biking and he was there when you face planted into a rock and ended up needing to replace 90% of one of your front teeth. (He also taught you that a shot with a lemon drop chaser to deal with an injury isn’t a good idea with an exposed nerve root.)

You met him rock climbing. He made you laugh and didn’t mind that you had a tendency to swear and kick the wall when you failed for the 500th time working a route. And he gave you the tip to figure it out so you finished that unfinishable 5.10b route you never thought you could do.

climbing.jpg

 

You met him hiking. He didn’t even bat an eye at your dumb idea to hike 4 high peaks in a day where the base temperature was sub zero. He carried homemade snacks that hit the spot when you came off the highest summit where winds were too aggressive to stop. He gave you a quick wink before charging down the mountain like a little kid, not phased in the least to slip and slide. He knew enough not to ask for a slice of the large cheese pizza you ordered for dinner. He knew you were going to eat it all.

hiking.jpg

 

You met him at a bike race. He crashed and broke his collarbone in front of you when you were marshalling a corner at a crit race. You contacted him to see if he was okay and things went from there. You raced together and hiked together and explored small towns and historical sites. Without him, you would never have raced mountain bikes as a Pro. You would never have found the career you love.

Now

So (because I think I promised tips?), I’m following my own advice now: filling my life with the things that I love and bring me happiness. Because that is what has worked in the past. I’m running races, taking language classes, planning hiking trips, designing an insane home garden/patio with enough plants to reverse global warming, and cooking up a storm. I’m more comfortable in being me now than I’ve ever been.

But, I’m still going to change directions quickly or walk really fast past you if I think you’re cute. And I promise I can speak functional English if you give me long enough to get comfortable!

And So It Begins....

This wasn’t the story I thought I would be telling.

You see, I used to be fast.

Though hardly Olympic caliber, I raced mountain bikes at an elite level and was making consistent progress toward my goal to race in World Cups when a non-racing back injury derailed my plans and put me on the injured (and struggling) reserve for over two years. I was barely able to sit for more than ten minutes, let alone train. I made it through those years somehow. My grad school professors allowed me to take classes standing or lying down (yay physical therapy school!), but I found myself crying myself to sleep more nights than not, believing that I would never be able to train again and be a part of the outdoor community that had meant so much to me.

 
Luna MTB photo.jpg
 

 

So, when I made a breakthrough in my treatment and started to slowly climb back up the ladder to fitness through trail running, I thought that was going to be my story, my contribution to the sports narrative. I missed the writing I did during my bike racing days and wanted to let others know that chronic pain wasn’t a terminal condition. I started scripting outlines for my first few posts. But, then I noticed a trend in some conversations I had with people close to me and I realized my narrative had to change.

In seemingly harmless conversations at work, I would mention how hard it is for me with my social anxiety to go to parties and make new friends outside of work. Without fail, the responses were some combination of “you’re not shy!” or “but you should just try harder” or “just put yourself out there!” These were comments from people who are my friends, who interact with me every day and care about me. I tried to clarify, to explain how much this has impacted my life, but never really felt like I got my point across.

Because, in reality, social phobia (also known as social anxiety) has had a crippling effect on my life. I can’t remember a time when it didn’t play a central role for me, when it didn’t keep me from doing things I wanted: going to parties, saying hi to people who seemed like fun, taking language classes, or joining groups and teams. I’ve lived for so long in a world where even the most casual social interaction is like an interview for your dream job and every time you make eye contact like walking in to a blind date. I can’t call up to order a pizza (thank heavens for grubhub!) or ask a salesperson at a store for help. I know my friends and coworkers meant well, but, the knowledge of what it’s like to live with this disorder isn’t common knowledge.

So, instead, this is the story I will tell:

I didn’t know what I was going through was different when I was in high school. I just thought of myself as shy, thought I would be better if my family didn’t have a habit of moving every few years. I had friends. I played sports. But I was always anxious, except when I was in my comfort zone, surrounded by a few closer friends and tucked in a corner. I figured it was growing pains and side-effects of dealing with struggles within my immediate family with mental health, divorce, and major injuries/illnesses. Who wouldn’t be a little stressed out and have a hard time coping?

College was where things came to a head. I was living in Montreal, a city which I love more than anything, with amazing classmates and challenging classes. But, as I neared graduation, things kept getting harder. What began with skipping parties and backing out last minute with plans with friends escalated quickly into being fundamentally unable to leave the apartment that I shared with my cousin. I was passing my classes (thanks to McGill not paying all that much attention to attendance), but I wasn’t functioning. When I got to the point where I wasn’t even leaving my room, I called my father and told him I needed help. I dropped out of undergrad one semester away from graduation and moved back to NY.

During all those years, through high school and college and once back in NY, I struggled with feeling nearly constantly lonely. You see, social anxiety makes me function as an introvert, but I’m an extrovert at heart. I love people and the things that make me happiest are when I can help other people, be part of a group,  or of a team trying to reach a goal. But, I couldn’t take the first steps to get out there, to meet new people, or even to just go to parties and dance.

In keeping with my theme, I was 24 when I had my first real boyfriend. Again, not because I didn’t want to be dating, but I couldn’t imagine that anyone would want to date someone as awkward as me. I don’t pick up on social signals in that realm, which is ironic since that’s one of my strengths in social situations when I’m not part of the picture.

It took a long time, but, with the support of my family and friends, I was able to finally get out of the house, get back to work, and finish my bachelors with Skidmore College’s University Without Walls Program over ten years after I started at McGill.

 
 Some amazing friends that helped me get out during the hard times.

Some amazing friends that helped me get out during the hard times.

 

During those years, I found bike racing and the community surrounding the sport. For the first time in a long time, I felt at home. It took years to build my way up to pro level, but I made friends easily while rolling along country roads or twisting through some sweet single track trails. I started working at a shop, kept moving up the racing ranks, and started coaching new racers. I began seriously dating a fellow racer and I thought my anxiety was finally under check.

So it was demoralizing when a back injury took that all away. I had weathered the previous year when my then boyfriend experienced a traumatic brain injury in a motorcycle crash. I had kept everyone in the loop with his recovery, earned my pro license, and was planning on a run on the 2014 World Cup season. With a week of overtraining and some ill-advised recovery techniques, my coping mechanism was gone. It would be two years and a million sleepless minutes before I would start feeling like me again.

And here I am now, it’s been 4 years since I hurt my back. I have worked my way up from just being able to walk without pain to a 5K and then a 10K and then a trail half-marathon and, finally, last October, I ran (well mostly ran!) my first 50K ultra. I graduated with my doctorate from physical therapy school and am working a job that brings me more satisfaction that I ever imagined.

 
 After finishing TARC Spring Classic Half Marathon!

After finishing TARC Spring Classic Half Marathon!

 

And I am telling a much different story than I first planned. Because I’m not the only one who struggles with social phobia. Because being open and honest is the first step in creating change. It’s the first step towards improving understanding and awareness.

And, because, more than anything, I want people to know how freeing it feels to run in single file down a beautiful wooded trail and just be with each other. Everyone taking in the smells of the woods, the sounds of a branch crack, squirrel chatter, a bird call. Breath coming quicker from effort, not anxiety. Your thoughts can move away from whether you fit in, whether you’re fast enough, if you’re wearing the right shoes, if anyone noticed you sweating in the parking lot because you were more nervous about saying hello than the run ahead.

This is running and it can set you free.

 
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