Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Give Me a Hand

One fine day at the beginning of summer, I broke fingers on both of my hands. 

And I know I look happy in the pictures, but that’s the tequila. The tequila was used as a painkiller after the accident, I swear. I became Edward Scissorhands Junior while completely sober. Flying off of the back of a jet ski. But that’s another story.  

After the tequila wore off I remembered I had a race in three days. Lawyers Have Heart 10k in my home city, Washington DC. Plus I had a friend coming to town to race as well.

I went to the Doctor. “You’ll need to see a hand specialist,” he said. “Surgery will likely be the best option.”

Surgery for broken fingers? I laughed and ignored him. How bad could they be? Don't they say you can’t really do anything besides wrap up broken toes and fingers? (Turns out they really just say that about toes but I was hopped up on a lot of painkillers and recalled the saying incorrectly).  Plus, I had a race. “I would advise against racing,” he said.

What? Who needs fingers to run? (Turns out you really do need to be able to curl your fingers to run comfortably, but I was hopped up on a lot of painkillers and really wasn’t thinking too well). 

Luckily lawyers really do have heart, because everyone at the race took good care of me and didn’t make fun of me in front of my face when I attempted to run, in pain and on drugs. And I did finish! I wouldn’t call it a race for me. It was more like a walk in the park, a sort-of-run-and-walk 6.2 miles with throbbing fingers while on massive drugs. But I think I needed to do it. I was a lot more worried about my fingers than I wanted to believe (“Surgery will likely be the best option.”) and I wanted to just not think about my hands. To try to be normal for a couple more days. As if I seemed normal with big braces on my fingers hopped up on massive drugs. But mentally, I needed it. I think I knew I wasn't going to be running much over the summer. That surgery probably really was the best option. I needed one last race. My finishing time was awful (Or a PR for First 10k on Vicodin depending on how you look at it) but I was glad to be with my friends, and to finish the race so I could then get to the business of figuring out how to fix my hands.  

The surgery was scheduled for two days after my birthday. During the prep, the nurse said to me, “Luckily the worst one is your left hand,” and then she looked at me for confirmation and when she didn’t receive it, she said, “Uh, unless you're left handed.” I am.

The week after the surgery, when I mentioned to my surgeon that I was going to Cambodia in a month, he was not super psyched. “I can get the plaster cast off of you by then, but keeping your hands clean is going to be really important. You'll still have pins in your fingers. You’ll have to keep your hands completely clean. You do not want to get sick in Cambodia.”

“Um. Is it ok to ride my bike? I’m going on a cycling trip in Cambodia.”   

“I would advise against that.”

"But I ran a race when they were still broken!"

"Clythie, I really don't want you riding a bike around Cambodia while you're injured."

Who needs ring fingers to ride a bike?

As the trip got closer I convinced (begged) my surgeon to change his mind. In the end we made a plan together. He would take the cast off and give me a removable splint and I would promise to wash my hands 1,000X per day, changing the gauze and applying Neosporin every. single. time.  “Be careful. You do not want to get sick in Cambodia,” he reminded me. 

The summer flew by in a haze of healing and as the end approached, I flew to Cambodia. When you arrive in Cambodia you receive a pamphlet that says, “When you become ill in Cambodia, only go to the following health clinics…” I tucked the paper into my bag and hopped a cab to a beautiful hotel in Phnom Penh and forgot all about it.

Cambodia is clean and dirty and smells wonderful and terrible, and it’s filled with lovely people who have lived through unimaginable atrocities who welcome Americans with kindness and love. It’s a place that overloads all of your senses with sights that you cannot believe exist outside of pictures. There are foods that make your tongue melt with joy and ones that make you scream with horror. But that's another story. 

Cambodia is all the things, and all the feelings and all the noises and all the sights and sounds and emotions all of the time.  It’s beautiful and ugly and happy and rip your heart out sad and there is laughter and kindness everywhere.

I felt so fortunate to find myself in this dream land, on a bicycle, headed out into city streets in traffic that can only be described as psychotic slow motion chaos, making my way with the bike from the city into the country onto and off of countless ferries and riding trails through farms and onto islands, stopping for amazing meals and to visit beautiful temples. 

At one point I was coming off of a ferry, climbing up the hill from the river, trying to make the bike work for me and I realized that I needed my fingers to get myself and the bike up the hill. I had to get off the bike and walk it over the crest of the hill.  I realized it was the first time that I had even thought of my fingers while on the bike.  I knew that it was ok, that I was going to be fine, that my hands were going to continue to heal. That sometimes having to walk when you're running is ok. Sometimes having to hop off the bike is ok. That the life experiences that surround these moments are what's really important. 

When I came home, I spent a few more weeks in the little finger brace, remembering the accident, and the fog of Lawyers Have Heart, the life changing experience of all that is Cambodia, and I knew my fingers weren't really ever going to be the same, but that was ok because I wasn't ever going to be the same either. 

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Shark Bait

Last night my friend Tatania and I were discussing doing a long run together this coming weekend when she casually threw out the idea,“ I’m swimming a 5k in the Potomac River on Saturday. Why don’t you join me for the swim and we can do the long run after?”

Wha? I immediately thought of sharks.

Last August my brother Mike and I had a similar “casual” conversation about swimming at La Jolla Cove in San Diego. “I swim it all the time, and the La Jolla Swim Club is there every day, there are buoys to mark the distance, it’s great!” he said all in one breath in the very convincing, excited and determined way he speaks when he wants you to do something you’re not quite sure about. 

I can swim. I grew up swimming competitively and vacationing at the beach with plenty of time spent in the ocean. And I was training for my first triathlon so I had been in the pool recently. But my triathlon only had a 1/4 mile swim and my training had been pretty specific to that distance. 

La Jolla Cove is famous for the sea lion colony that lives in the cove. And sea lions have the word “lion” in their name. And lions are scary. Lions may eat you. While I have swimming experience in pools, my ocean experience was limited to “jump or dive” games in about 3-5 feet of water, in the Atlantic Ocean, not the colder, more intimidating Pacific Ocean. Not amongst sea lions. Or sharks.

“Eh, it’s a COVE for crying out loud. It’s warm and calm and there are swimmers everywhere and the Garibaldi are AMAZING! You’ll love it! Come on! It’s triathlon training!” My brother is a convincing guy. And I was kind of intrigued. But also really a bit scared. “I’ll stay with you and we’ll do it together,” he said.  

And so I found myself standing on the edge of La Jolla Cove before sunrise one August morning, nervously adjusting my goggles, practically hyperventilating, listening to my brother and his friends make a plan for us.

“We’re going all the way across and back. Two miles,” my brother said, referring to himself, his friend Aaron and me.

The other two in our group, Jack and Sarah, said they would be going to the first buoy and back, ½ mile total.

“Maybe I should just stick with Jack and Sarah. I’m not sure I can swim two miles.” I said as I watched my brother begin to swim away. “WAIT FOR ME!” I shouted after him, remembering his words, “I’ll stay with you and we’ll do it together.” 

He did wait, and I swam in his wake, as close to him as I could without getting my teeth kicked in. From the left came the swell of the Pacific, sloshing over my face every time I took a breath. “Take breaths on both sides!” he was yelling back at me. “I. cannot. breathe. on. the. left.” I choked. I was breathing right, swallowing salt water left and when I looked down, my field of vision was filled with schools of orange Garibaldi.

My brother loves the beautiful bright orange fish that fill the waters of La Jolla Cove. They are absolutely gorgeous. But they are also part of a food chain. If the Garibaldi love it so much here, then the things that eat Garibaldi are probably here and those things also probably want to eat me.

Plus, the Sea Lions were everywhere. I had read extensively about them. They are usually not aggressive toward humans but they are territorial and sometimes nip – WHAT? I swam on, as hard as I could. Stroke, breathe, swallow water, hyperventilate, etc. My heart rate was so high, not from the effort of swimming, which was a challenge for sure, but from pure terror of Creatures of the Sea. I made it across the cove using a combination of free style and pure adrenaline rush.   

By the time we were approaching the beach on the other side of the cove, the halfway point, I was thrilled to stand up in the shallow water and sand.

“DO THE STINGRAY SHUFFLE!” My brother was shouting back to me again. Something about a stingray shuffle. I looked at him in confusion and then when he said, “You know, stingray, like the thing that killed the Crocodile Hunter,” my expression turned to horror. “Shuffle your feet in the sand so you don’t get stabbed.” Are you effing kidding me? I just survived a mile long open water swim chugging salt water and dodging Sea Lions and now I’m about to die from a Sting Ray? I immediately shuffled as best I could onto the beach.

“Maybe Jack and Sarah can come pick us up over here?” I begged. “Nah, all we have to do now is go back,” he said and made his way back into the water.

I had calmed down quite a bit. I knew if I didn’t get my heart rate down that the second mile was going to be a mess. I took a big deep breath and started swimming. And then I immediately looked up at my brother, who had also looked up at me and we locked eyes and he said, “That’s a big fish. But you know, they usually aren’t aggressive toward humans.” And he swam on.

And I was left there in his wake, looking down at a 4 foot shark that was about 2 feet below me in about 10 feet of water.  Should I swim back to shore, which was RIGHT THERE? In my terror, I couldn’t even figure out how to turn around, so I just started swimming forward after my brother, as fast as my legs could kick and arms could pull.

And I thought to myself, “Why cry when the ocean will just swallow your tears? Just swim.”  I’m not going to say I broke the 2-mile record at La Jolla Cove that day, but my second mile was incredibly fast as I tried desperately to keep up with my brother who also seemed to be swimming quite a bit faster. Every Garibaldi represented shark bait, every Sea Lion was out to get me. I tried to make myself go faster, faster, faster and finally we were climbing over the rocks and out of the water, finished.

“You know, that’s the first time I’ve ever done the entire 2 miles,” my brother said with a satisfied and somewhat surprised look on his face. “What? You’ve never gone 2 miles and you took me out there and also shark!” I said. Then Aaron, who had been swimming calmly and silently with us the whole morning, said, “Yeah, that was a big shark. And I got nipped a bunch of times by Sea Lions too.”

“You people are crazy.” I said. And then my brother broke it down for me. “I know you would not have gone for the 2 miles if you knew I hadn’t done it before and I knew you could do it. And I wanted to do it with you. And we did it, and we should both be really stoked.”

He can say stoked because he’s been surfing and open water swimming in California for eons whereas even when I write it I feel awkward. But goddamn, I have to tell you, I was really fucking stoked.

For the record, it was a leopard shark and they really are not typically aggressive toward humans, but if you ever swim alongside or right above one, you will likely immediately become quite unstoked.   

So I guess I'm going back into open water again this weekend. I'm not going to do the 5k. Even without a swell, 3 miles of river swimming followed by a run sounds like a long morning. But the event offers shorter distances as well, so I'm putting my goggles back on. At least there aren't any Sea Lions in the Potomac.