Last year, after my mom died, and I learned that The Ann Arbor News, my employer, would be shutting its doors in July – thereby ending the job I’d waited my whole life for – I decided to register, and train, for an women-only mini-sprint triathlon.
Why would I do this arguably frivolous thing instead of updating my resume and researching career options? I wondered that, too. The mere thought of being unemployed filled me with dread, and the specter of depression loomed; yet I also couldn’t bring myself to face it.
I was mentally paralyzed in those months. In some Joan Didion “Magical Thinking” kind of way, I thought that if I avoided dealing with the fact that I had just lost my mother and was about to lose my dream job, then none of it would be real. I wouldn’t allow it to be real.
So the initial basis for my mini-tri registration was probably grief and denial (yay, Midwestern Protestant repression!). But in my defense, I also knew myself well enough to know that I needed to work toward something positive if I was going to get through this awful time intact.
Yes, everyone’s sense of identity is, to some degree, wrapped up in his/her occupation, but that was particularly true for me. Having been one of those college students who never once spoke up in class, so convinced was I that I had nothing of value to add to discussions, I had found that the public act of writing out my thoughts and ideas at the News had provided me with a voice, as well as the means to have conversations with myself in a meaningful way. After finally achieving that, how could I stand to lose it?
And although my mother had struggled with cancer on and off for 14 years, her death was shocking in its swiftness. We’d seen her at Christmas only weeks before, and she had seemed fatigued and not quite herself, but none of us – not even my father, who’d been through all of this with her – had any idea what was coming. My last phone conversation with her was of the breezy, forgettable, “Hope you’re feeling better” variety. I remember little to nothing about it. And then five days later, we were on a plane with then-9-months-old Lily, hoping against hope that my mother would be able to hold on until we got there. She couldn’t, and in some ways, this may have been a blessing. But regardless, just as I wondered who I would be without my job, my writing, I wondered who I would be without my mother – the primary witness to my life, from its beginning, and my longtime companion. And while I was still adjusting to my new motherhood, I lost the person I’d hoped would provide valuable guidance and perspective.
So with one huge loss behind me, and another one imminent, I trained for a mini-triathlon. I signed up for an OCC endurance swimming class (which amounted to showing up two nights a week and swimming laps for an hour); I maintained my regular running regimen; and on nice days, when I was home because I’d be reviewing a show that night, and Lily was in daycare, I’d go for long bike rides.
The swimming surprised me. I really had to start from the ground up, since I’d never been a serious swimmer (I still have no idea how to do one of those fancy-shmancy turns). But I came to love how strong I felt after doing laps, and how – after building a bit of a foundation – I could eventually feel pretty zen while also knocking myself out physically, doing more and more distance each time. (And swimming laps totally gives you Michelle Obama arms, which is awesome.)
Bike training, for some reason, just felt like child-like fun to me. Yes, I pushed myself to keep a reasonably good pace, but there was something so wildly liberating about being outside on a bike path that ran along a loud, nearby interstate, sometimes for a couple hours at a time. I often had the sensation of flying. The speed, the smoothness of the path, the air rushing against me – it was the opposite feeling I’d had at work, where each day, we looked at each other with sadness, wondered what we would all do, where we would all go, and how much we would miss each other.
The running training was merely maintenance. I’ve run regularly for years and years now, so that was already a standard part of my days.
But the trick, of course, when you’ve got a little one is finding the time for all of it. Usually Joe and I are alternating Lily-duty in order to squeeze in runs for both of us on both weekend days and, hopefully, at least one night during the week. Throw in two weeknight sessions of swimming on top of that, and things get pretty complicated (particularly since I often have one or two evening work assignments).
So when Joe would look at the week ahead and notice that he won’t be able to run even once, I sometimes gave up one of my swimming sessions. It was only fair. He was nothing but supportive of my goals and efforts, and I needed to make sure he got what he needed, too.
I worried, of course, that I was going about training in too half-assed a manner, and that I didn’t really know what I was doing. But I was registered, and I’d told people I was doing it – and that, more than anything, made me live up to my own commitment.
On the day of the race, I left early in the morning on my own, leaving Joe and Lily sleeping at my in-laws’ house. A part of me wanted them there for moral support, and as witnesses, but I was OK going on my own, too. Ultimately, this was about proving to myself that I could do it.
And I did. Yes, I struggled a bit on the swim (I’d done zero lake swimming, and things were weirdly crowded after a while), but I got back on track, made up time on the bike, and finished with a slightly stiff run. I wasn’t breaking any records or anything, but I finished, and felt really good about that.
That evening, Lily – who’d been obsessed with sticks at the time – urged us to let her bring a stick with her into the bathtub. Weirdly, I remember that moment just as clearly as, if not more than, I do the mini-triathlon itself.
The timing of the race was nice in that it marked a little more than a year since Lily’s birth, so I felt great about being in really good shape again, and about having my body back completely, since I had just weaned Lily after one year. Plus, as it happened, my high school class was having its first-ever reunion, our 20th, shortly thereafter. So even if I cried repeatedly all night while talking about my job – the reunion was unfortunately scheduled for the day after The Ann Arbor News’ closing – I told myself that my old friends and tormenters alike might at least notice my new guns while I wiped tears from my cheeks.
As it happened, I received an unexpected job offer from AnnArbor.com between the time of the triathlon and the reunion, and was thus less likely to be so weepy. Strangely, it seemed like my triathlon plan, born of denial and fear, ended up delivering me through to a better time in my life. And I’m so thankful for that.
This year, I decided to train for another triathlon, and I’m in the thick of that now. No surprise, it’s really hard, once again, to do so, with Lily being ever-more aware of our comings and goings, and with time being at such a premium. I’m doing my best, and we’ll see how it goes.
My father, who hates exercise, asked me last year why I was doing a triathlon, and I told him it gave me something positive to work toward. This year, though the circumstances of my life aren’t as bleak, my reasons are less clear. Maybe it’s just gratitude for what the process provided me last year, when I really needed it. An expression of appreciation for my body, which I ask an awful lot from. Or maybe I just want those bad-ass Michelle Obama arms back.
(Or maybe this Lady Gaga parody video hit a little too close to home.)