I am a different racer now than I was when this blog started and I was all full of wattage, fire and confidence. I haven’t yet talked a lot about more general “me” things, or health issues. But, this is the context of this coming season of racing, so it seems necessary to diverge from trans issues a bit and lay some foundation. This is not the first time I’ve been catastrophically ill, and it won’t be the last.
Two years ago, at the beginning of what was hoped to be a breakout sort of season, I had a dramatic crash that left me struggling with pain and leg strength for much of the following year and a half. Just as my left leg had started to improve, my health began to decline in other ways. I was losing weight dramatically, having escalating abdominal pain, unable to eat, and feverish for months. I was diagnosed with Lyme, and attributed everything I was going through to that and the antibiotics, not knowing I had a much more serious intra-abdominal infection raging. I ended up being in the hospital for about two months in total, ending in sepsis and recovering from emergency, open abdominal surgery. Near the end, when I was in septic shock with a blood pressure so low (70/35) that they stopped offering pain medications, it was clear that this could be it. But, it wasn’t. Thanks to the truly heroic efforts and never ending support of my husband Brandon, and the many friends who called and talked for hours, and even crawled into my hospital bed with me to hold me when I couldn’t stop crying, I finally recovered.
Those first days and weeks were a struggle in their own right. I ended up back in the ER from dehydration a couple of times, had panic attacks from being overwhelmed by simple activities of daily life (showering, my first day of being home alone, making and eating breakfast), and was dealing with having memory loss and word-finding issues. In October, I was dizzy from the effort of standing for more than 10 minutes at a time. Walking around the house, and then up a flight of stairs, or around a park path with the support of a friend’s arm, were my next accomplishments. My legs were shockingly atrophied, unrecognizable as my own. By the time I restarted fulltime work in late October, a flight of steps a few times a day was my challenge. Every small accomplishment left my muscles knotted and shredded. A flight of steps felt like a stage race.
At that point, nobody could predict the path of my recovery, or if I’d end up getting sick again and bouncing back into the hospital, and ultimately dying. But, who can predict death? I want to jam as much living as possible into this life, with however much health I have left.
And, I stayed out of the hospital. December was the tipping point where I decided that it was time to get back on the bike and start training again. By that point I had just started to do longer rides on my cyclocross bike, and was able to run on a local trail. Despite having good knowledge of training methods, I knew I couldn’t do this alone. There was everything to relearn and I was starting from nothing. My previous track coach Ben was now in Alaska and out of the cycling world, and I knew I needed something drastically different and more sophisticated than the cookie cutter plans advertised by many coaches in the area.
My fitness wasn’t just starting from zero, it was starting from catastrophic illness and nutritional insult. This was going to be a process, a big process of relearning and readaptation. My entire physiology had changed, and so had my brain. Muscle needed to be rebuilt and neuromuscular connections needed to be rewired.
A friend put me in touch with my current coach, Robert, and thankfully it was immediately pretty damned clear that this was the right fit for wading into the unknown. Initially, we talked more about general racing goals and history; the normal stuff. And, I’ve got to admit, I was uncharacteristically nervous about outing myself as trans. I think I sent him a text message after we talked that read something like,
“Oh yeah, and I’m trans. I identify mostly as a guy… LMK if you have any questions. Hopefully that’s cool…”
It’s clearly more complicated than being socially a guy most of the time, and we got there. But, really, it was the illness stuff that had me worried. Although I had my doctor’s blessing to start training again, I probably slightly downplayed just how deconditioned I was and how seriously ill I had been when we first talked, because I was terrified of being told it was impossible or simply, “no”. I never want the standards to be adjusted, or plans to be made easy because of my illness. I want to push as hard as I can, and get to the absolute highest level possible. Neither of us know exactly how much I can handle, or where this is ultimately going to lead. At 10 weeks since initial conversations in December, I’m on the very steep part of the progress curve.
There will be issues
How could there not be? There have been issues already. Out of these 10 weeks, I’ve lost about a week and a half to minor illnesses, dehydration, and flat out exhaustion from the other stressors that come with rebuilding a life after critical illness and finding a new place in this sport. But, there have also been massive leaps in my ability and endurance. And, there has necessarily been a lot of touch and go, rewriting of training days on the fly (which, I can’t even say how much I appreciate), adjusting the numbers and troubleshooting.
Approaching this rebuilding of myself as a cyclist as a massive experiment and a process versus something so straightforward as simply training is the key. It has also been incredibly humbling to accept the days when I reach my physical limit sooner than was hoped for. Every failure is a learning point, and a place to target for the future – it sounds like a canned, inspirational talk, but it’s the truth.
…. Stay tuned for part 2… on relearning to be a bike racer.