Lately I find myself daydreaming quite a bit. It started about 2 months during some of my longer rides and runs. I would find myself thinking about that time when did a 16 mile trail run the day after a 100 mile ride and enjoyed every second of it, or the time when I did double time trials up Harding avenue (a 2 mile climb in town) and felt strong. That 120 mile ride I did two summers ago, cruising through the final miles of my ironman in 2015, the time I bounced up the north rim of the Grand Canyon dropping my husband in the process. Those days and workouts that left me feeling exhausted but exhilarated, reaping the benefits of a level of fitness that comes from months upon months of hard work. Also a feeling I have not experienced much in the past year, and an aspect of training and racing that I am currently missing dearly.
In an ideal world working hard as an athlete equates to steady improvements in fitness that manifests itself in successful race day outcomes. Perhaps our starting lines would look a lot different if that were truly the case. It’s easy to think, “I work hard, therefore I am entitled to a positive outcome,” but we all that is not how life necessarily works. My reality this past year+ has been work hard, build fitness, setback, repeat. Set my eyes on a race or goal only to have those plans dissolve before my eyes. These are things I try to not think about because it only ends in tears. I love the training and I love a good challenge, but not being able to fully engage in either of those has been a very different type of challenge. No one ever said it would be easy.
It’s obvious that something has not been right with my leg since December, and in my last post I outlined the frustration that has come with identifying the source of the problem. Coming to terms with my limitations has been a humbling process. While my mind has consistently said “yes, you CAN and should be able to do this,” my body has simply not cooperated. All the while I have been clinging to my fitness, knowing how hard it is to build and how easy it is to lose.
Two weeks ago I made my 3rd trip to Wake Forest for diagnostic surgical procedures to identify whether or not I had external iliac artery endofibrosis (EIAE). The result of that procedure was as expected, but with a surprising addition: the surgeon identified that my right iliac artery is 70-80% blocked in two consecutive locations, more than enough to elicit my symptoms (cue a major sigh of relief from finally having an answer and justification). The unexpected twist is that he also identified a “similarly pronounced but asymptomatic area in the left leg.” I simply don't know what to do with that sort of news.
Since this issue is unique and uncommon, let me take a quick tangent to explain: I have a blood flow issue. A stenosis or narrowing in my right external iliac artery is limiting blood flow to the majority of my right leg. The mechanism of developing such is debated, but doctors suspect its from a build up of scar tissue due to repetitive mechanical stress that comes with hip flexion in cycling and running. Without sufficient oxygen, my muscles struggle to sustain higher intensities and my right leg loses power. My foot and toes often go numb and I sometimes have a stabbing cramp-like feeling in my quad and glute. Thus why I have continued on an "as tolerated basis" according to my symptoms and pain tolerance. And while it seemed for a while that my symptoms were improving, they have actually progressed to the point that I am no longer running and only cycling at low intensities.
The diagnosis of EIAE comes with a fairly clear, definitive choice: Option A is the conservative route, which means do nothing, accept my limitations and essentially retire from endurance sports. The issue is progressive and does not get better with time off or rest. Option B is to have surgery and continue to believe that my best days are still to come. Surgery comes with its share of risks, but at 30 years old this decision was pretty easy (I’m not exactly “eligible” for retirement for another 30 years and will take the surgery thank you very much). So this year, instead of racing a half ironman for my birthday, I’ll be at the hospital having corrective surgery so I can get back to doing what I love (all I want for my birthday is a new iliac artery, and maybe some chocolate, please :) The surgery, which is scheduled for May 10th, will only be on my right since the left is currently asymptomatic and they don’t recommend doing both at once. The left leg will is currently a "wait and see what happens" type deal.
The past year has been a lesson in learning to let go: of my plans, expectations, timelines and goals. Three times now I’ve laid out race plans and committed to certain goals just to have them wiped away. It’s humbling, it’s heartbreaking, and it most certainly hasn’t been easy. Last season I set out with my eye on big goals... goals that may mean little to others but that mean the world to me. And yet I couldn’t feel farther away from them at this point and time, under these specific circumstances.
In my phone, I have written down a few choice words as a daily reminder that "I want to approach this season with a posture of faith and flexibility. To surrender my plans to God trusting that His plans are greater than my own." I cannot tell you how difficult those words are to read some days, knowing that this is no where near what I had in mind for this season. But that is exactly why those words are there: to remind me in the more difficult moments to keep on believing and trusting. To willingly roll with the challenges, to let go of my doubts, fears and anxieties, and instead maintain a posture of hope.
A few weeks ago, our pastor shared (with reference to John 12:25) that there are times when God is asking us to bury ourselves (our dreams, desires, etc) in God's soil, trusting that in God's timing, something new and more wonderful will emerge. We have to trust and believe that new life will emerge with time, if we are willing to bury it. That is where I am right now: not really sure what to expect beyond this surgery and what it means for me and triathlon, but ready to let go of what was in order to better focus on what is to come.
Kristen Chang is Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN), Certified Specialist in Sports Dietetics (CSSD) and triathlete residing in southwest Virginia with her husband and dogs. Follow along as she shares favorite fueling recipes, general wellness and sport nutrition tips and stories from her athletic endeavors.
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