31 January 2013

An Excerpt from Islands and Insulin- Second Installment

 10 February 2009
Carlsbad, CA

     My fifteen-year high school reunion is quickly closing in and the only thing I have done since high school is to spend the last decade or so being ordinary. I now drive a minivan, have two kids, spend my days as a teacher and live in a small house by the beach.
Not that any of those things are bad; I really am enjoying my life. But my life was supposed to be something bigger, filled with great adventures and travel. It should have great moments of glory, like climbing a mountain or sailing the Seven Seas. Maybe even a little professional surfing.
     I should have studied sharks and lived for months at a time on a research vessel. I might have my PhD. and teach at a major university. I would have done some great things. Instead I have become overwhelmingly average.
     Anytime the reunion comes up, this scene keeps playing over and over in my mind. I run into old friends and time and time again have to answer the inevitable, "So what have you been doing for the last fifteen years?" Surrounded by doctors and lawyers, UN representatives and CIA agents, I will have nothing to tell.
      My life is unremarkable. Nothing more or less than every other average American has accomplished. A few tables over a few guys from one of my classes will begin to chat. "Do you remember that girl who used to study with us in AP Chem?" the music manager will ask.
      "The one who never actually studied and barely stayed awake in class if she decided to get out of the water long enough to show up?" the C.E.O. will reply.
      “You know, I think she only came to study group to get us to do her work for her."
      "Karen or Mary or something—”
      "Erin. Erin Roberts." He takes a long draw from his beer. “Wasn’t she going to be a shark biologist or something?"
      “I think that was Plan B, behind pro surfer.”
      "She here tonight?"
      "Nah. Probably still out surfing somewhere."
      "What ever happened to her?"
     "Oh, she did the usual; grew up, got married, had some kids. She probably won’t show her face here tonight."
     That image has to change. I can't go out like that. I need to do something to make those guys finish their conversation with, "But she woke up one day, looked at the cards she had been dealt and stepped up to the table to bet."
    I have to find something big. And quick. Far too many years were spent muddling through the ordinary. Now is the time to do something grandiose. Or at least somewhere closer to grandiose than where I am right now. And I have to start planning it today.
     Saturday gives me a few hours off from Tony and the kids to find my favorite table in the courtyard of a market near the water in Cardiff by the Sea. On the table lies a book that I’ve been meaning to pour through, but I just can’t concentrate. My mind repeatedly wanders off into thoughts of what I can do to feel alive again, to leave behind the stone tied to my leg threatening to drown me.
     Diabetes has been holding me under for the last few years. In the beginning, diabetes was a minor nuisance. It was nothing. My self-care had become, just like the doctors and nurses told me it would, like brushing my teeth. But thirteen years in, it overwhelms me with responsibility and fear and depression and I need to do something about it.
     Growing up, I was always up for any sort of challenge. But now I am tempered, not wanting to push too hard. The fear and frustration of diabetes fences me in. It has slowly worn me out. I have to get back to the girl I was before all this diabetes shit started. The girl who feared nothing, except being weak. The girl who always accepted a challenge and was ready at any time to go on any journey that presented itself.
     Of all the journeys I could take on, the Australian Aborigine's walkabout intrigued me the most. When a boy is ready to venture into manhood he takes off on a journey to unite with the land of his ancestors, to prove that he has the skills and knowledge necessary to fend for himself. When he returns he has proven that he can be a valuable member of the tribe, one whom others can depend on and trust. He has had a spiritual experience that he can look back on as proof that he can handle whatever life throws his way.
     That is the kind of thing that I need. It has been twelve years since the diagnosis. Diabetic adolescence has hit. I have gone through the happy-go-lucky childhood days, when my pancreas was not entirely dead and would at least help to regulate my sugar levels a little bit. It evened out the highs and lows. Those years passed quickly and the next three years taught me more of what diabetes does to a person. I was more responsible and knew the power the disease had.
     The following six years brought on the usual teenage depression when everything was wrong and I was overly touchy about the subject. I am ready to move out of the teenage moody years and move on to adulthood when I can have a better outlook, more maturity and a healthy perspective on who I am because of diabetes, not in spite of it.
A walkabout looks like the perfect rite of passage to usher me into this new phase. The only problem is I do not have the Outback at my disposal and I wouldn't know how to survive in it even if I did. What I do know is the ocean. And in all its vastness and danger, it easily rivals the outback.
     The aborigine walkabout is done to merge with the land. The boy endures it and enjoys it, and it urges him to extend his capabilities as far as possible. I need something to allow me to become part of the ocean and something that would be just at the end of my grasp. I need a risky goal which calls for a major extension of my talent. A goal that I am not sure I can accomplish. One with an opening for the unknown to step in and test me.
     I need to go out to sea.
     Beyond the borders of the land, where my feet can no longer touch the shore, I can follow in the footsteps of my grandpa, Captain Jack, and sail into the horizon. I loved hearing his stories as a kid, and it is just about time I start stocking up on my own stories to tell my kids and future grandkids. To do this right, though, I need a long journey. And I need to do it alone.
     The stories of solo sailors have always engrossed me. My desire to solo was first stoked by reading Close to the Wind by Pete Goss, and Godforsaken Sea by Derek Lundy. They both tell the same story of the 1996-1997 Vendee Globe race. It is a grueling, four month sailing race that pits solo sailors against each other as they race 24,000 miles around the world. Most races have sailors drop out or lose their boats. Some lose their lives.
    In this particular race the competitors encountered a fierce storm in the Roaring Forties and Rolling Fifties, the latitudes around the bottom of the world where waves and winds whip themselves up, unencumbered by land to stop their growth.
    Raphael Dinelli was wrecked in the middle of the storm. His boat had sunk and he was holding on to life in his little raft amidst icy air and sixty knot winds that whip the sea into fifty foot waves. His life was being sucked right out of him.
    When Pete Goss heard the MAYDAY call he turned his boat around to sail into the hurricane force winds to save his competitor. He risked his life to head directly into the storm that he had spent the last two days trying to outrun. And he made that decision without hesitation. It is the way of the sea. When someone is in trouble you do everything you can to help.
     That was a tradition I wanted to be a part of and I wanted to do it alone. Shortly after finishing the book, solo sailing a long distance went on my Someday-I-Will list. Now is the time to take it off the list and place it firmly into reality.
     Now that the decision has been made to go sailing, I need to start planning. First on the list is finding a place to sail that is warm and safe. Warm because I absolutely hate to be cold and I love not wearing much more than a bathing suit all day long. Safe because I have a husband and a mother who tend to be scared by my adventures.
     I know they will be reassured if I stay in the United States. This leaves San Diego where I currently reside, which doesn't make for much of an adventure, or the southern portion of the Intercoastal Waterway in the Carolinas, Georgia or Florida. Captain Jack had come back from a trip down the Intercoastal Waterway and I loved hearing the stories he told. I would love to follow in his wake.
     On the Intercoastal Waterway, I need to find someplace that has natural boundaries so that my starting and stopping points don't feel arbitrary. After a quick glance at the map, I decide on the Florida Keys. One hundred miles of warm water, plenty of islands to navigate by sight, and a very end-of-the-road feel. You can't get much more southerly than Key West.
     I need at least a year to prepare for a trip like this. One of the many benefits of being a teacher is three months off in the summer to adventure. Next summer should be a great time to go.

An Excerpt from Islands and Insulin in Three Installments

6 April 1996
La Jolla, CA

     I close my eyes and I can still see that moment years before, when it all changed. It’s as clear as yesterday, and yet it seems a lifetime away. The symptoms were there, but they weren't anything I really paid any attention to. Being only nineteen, I was not tuned in to what my body was trying to tell me. My time was spent ditching college classes and surfing and hanging out with friends.
     I was never one to drink water, never really liked the taste. Apple juice, chocolate milk, Dr Pepper, now those were worthy of drinking. Water just seemed like a waste of time. But I started drinking it by the boat load, craving it really. I couldn’t sit through a Physics lecture without getting up at least three times to drink from the fountain (this was in the days before carrying a PBA-free water bottle everywhere was in fashion).
     With all the extra water came all the extra bathroom trips. At least, that’s what I thought was causing my nocturnal wanderings towards the toilet. I tried to explain it away. It’s just the heat. It was spring and the weather was heating up.
      As I got up for the third time to miss yet another section of the lecture, and was forced to drink out of that overused, under-cleaned shiny metal box of cooled tap water, I told myself the lecture was just really boring and I was looking for a way to stay awake. Physics was my favorite subject though, so I don’t know how I convinced myself of that one. Maybe it was just the best explanation I could come up with at the time.
     To make matters worse, I was studying for finals in the thick of it all. I spent one evening with my roommate, Martha, at the food court on campus so that we would have easy access to the soda machine while we studied. I never developed a taste for coffee, so my study drink of choice was Dr Pepper. I must have had about eight, twenty-ounce drinks that night. And that wasn’t Diet. Diet was for fools.  It was all real for me.
     After studying that night, I couldn’t find a way to slow down to get some rest. I lay in that state between awake and asleep when thoughts run amok and you can’t control them and you can only sit and watch them run all over the place and make no sense at all.
     My dreams that night were filled with Organic Chemistry equations. The kind where two types of molecules in their 3-D structure are blended into an entirely new molecule. They were converting over and over again in front of me, taunting me with every conversion.
     I assumed the insomnia was due to stress and finals. The minor symptoms I was feeling didn’t register as the beginnings of anything serious until I was riding my bike home from school the next week and came to Hell Hill. Most of my runs and bike rides ended on this shady, tree-lined hill. It was only about a quarter mile long, but the incline made it a challenge. My goal each day was to ride to the top without being forced to stand up on the pedals. At the time I was in good shape and was making it to the top fairly consistently.
     But not that day.
    Half-way up the hill I was so weak and light-headed that I was forced to get off my bike and sit down for a few minutes. Normally it would have taken me less than two minutes to get home from that point. Thirty-five minutes later I was still trying to get there. I had to lean all of my weight on the bike to wheel my failing body home, stopping every few hundred feet to gather more strength. When I got home I sat on the couch dazed while my roommates tried to help. Martha came in first.
     “Erin, you feeling alright?”
     In the spring of 1996, La Jolla was the perfect backdrop for a wonderfully easy life. My parents were still footing the bill while I made my way through school. Classes were easy and the beach was close by. My last three years at the University of California, at San Diego I shared a three-story condo with six girls. Each year we had a different group of girls paying the rent. Every summer some of the girls would move out and new ones would move in, which made it the perfect place for me.
     With that many people coming and going I could stay unnoticed, well-hidden. Martha was the only girl to live with me for all three years and one of the only ones who didn't let me fade entirely into the background. She was consistent and reliable, not one to add drama to any situation.
     “I don't know,” I tried to answer. She sat down beside me trying to assess the situation.
     “What happened?”
     I did my best to relay the story in my confused state.
    “Maybe you were just working out too hard. Here have some licorice; maybe you just need some sugar.”
     If she only knew that sugar was exactly what was killing me. I recovered after about an hour and moved on. I spent the next few days trying to explain away what happened. I was sick a week before. I wasn’t a hundred percent yet. I went too hard too soon.
I had no idea it was really the diabetes starting to show itself.

03 January 2013

3 Essentials of Every Training Plan

     After six years of fighting thyroid disease, I am finally healthy enough to begin training for another race. I have signed up for the Wildflower Triathlon in May. My training plan began the 2nd and I thought I'd share my three-fold approach to training plans.


I always have three goals in mind when I race. With multiple measures of success I am more likely to walk away from a race with at least one goal met. Each goal has a different dimension. 

My first goal is to run the entire run without walking. Running is my weakest sport and I am usually a run/walker. Because Wildflower is such a short run course, I may be able to complete it without any walk breaks.

My second goal is to beat my fastest swim time ever for this distance. Wildflower 1997 was my second triathlon and my fastest swim ever. I was seventh out of the water. I would love to beat that.

My third goal is to beat my friend, Michelle, who I convinced to join us on the Wildflower Triathlon weekend. She is always faster than me, but I fully intend on running her down come May.

Find what makes you push harder in training. Is it just to finish, to beat a time, to swim without freaking out? What is it that you can look forward to achieving?


Since I live with a type-A, well-researched Ironman triathlete, training pans abound in our home. I chose the Sprint Level 4 plan developed by Matt Fitzgerald. It is the most intense plan that doesn't have any two-a-days. Years ago the two-a-days were a staple of my training plan, but lately I can hardly find the time for one workout a day, let alone two.

Along with the plan comes a planner. I get a new one every tri season. It's where my schedule goes and where all my notes for each workout go. 

Find a plan that will work for you. One that is not too difficult, but that will still push you. Don't set yourself up for failure by choosing a training plan that won't realistically blend with your current responsibilities. Look at your current fitness to make this decision. not what you could do five years ago, or last year, or even when you were in high school. And find a place to write it all down. Maybe that's the old fashioned paper way like me. Or maybe it's an app on your phone or uploading your Garmin info online. Find a way to record every success in training.


For me, motivation comes in the form of movies.  One every few weeks is enough to keep the motivational fires stoked. 

First up is always Blue Crush. I am a surfer at heart. Done it for over twenty years. Thought I might actually make a career out of it at one point. Too bad I had no natural talent for the sport. So this movie, however cheesy, brings back that stoke from when I was twelve and absolutely obsessed with spending every minute of the day getting better at surfing.

Next up is Without Limits. It's the story of Steve Prefontaine. A great runner. reminds me that running is supposed to hurt. Once I knew that, I finally could push myself.

Lastly is Chasing Mavericks, a new favorite. Another surfing movie with all the cross training. And a little Gerard Butler certainly doesn't hurt.

What are the things that will keep you excited? Could be a reward system or focusing on your goals. maybe it's thinking about how you will feel when you finish. Maybe it's talking with a really encouraging friend. find what makes you look forward to your next training session and will give you the strength to push when you think you have nothing left to give.

     I have been reminding myself to train hard so that race day I can have a fun day. My mantra while training has been, "Hurt now, Fly later." the only thing that can make race day better is to spend it with some amazing people (Tony and Michelle) and to do it at one of my all time favorite races, Wildflower. It's been called the Woodstock of triathlon and it is one amazing weekend. Remember to enjoy race day whether or not you meet your goals. There is nothing more exciting than putting yourself into a situation where anything could happen. You'll find out just what you are made of when you respond to the inevitable race-day problems with a smile.