Second Chances

Second Chances

Sarah-at-PP-2012-low-resby Sarah F.

Do you believe in second chances?  Maybe even third or fourth chances?

I do.

I shouldn’t even be doing this sport, for all intents and purposes.  I am not an athlete by nature.  I was the kid who was always picked last for team sports when growing up.  I was slow, cumbersome, and needed orthotics by the age of 10.  I used to get ankle pains so fierce that I would lie on my parents’ bed crying for what felt like hours on end.  My low back caused me troubles by 5th grade thanks to a small hairline fracture.  I remember my grandma rubbing it for me once when she came to visit, telling me that she, too, would get low back pains.  I chose to study classical piano instead of doing sports as my “thing” while growing up, because I had the intense desire to be good at something that was accomplishable without pain.  Any aspirations of being an athlete were snuffed out at such an early age that they never entered my brain again, ever.

Fast forward many years to college.  My dad, who was always a gifted athlete from the time he was a small kid, bought a hybrid bike.  My family lived in Connecticut at this time, near the University of Connecticut and all it’s beautiful, quiet, historical glory.  My dad would take his 30+ pound hybrid bike out on rides all around the quiet countryside, and come back 2-3 hours later and tell me about them.  I was in awe.  And I was a little intrigued.  And then one summer during college, my dad bought me a hybrid bike also.  A Specialized Crossroads.  It was beautiful, and I didn’t know the first thing about how to ride it.  Shifting??  No clue.   Stopping for traffic?  Scary.  Going up the hills that surrounded us in Connecticut?  Seemingly impossible.

But there was my dad.  Standing by my side, patiently explaining the bike and its workings to me.  We started out on shorter rides at first.  He was always my beacon riding ahead of me.  He helped me learn how to shift, and he never got too far ahead, although I always knew he could dash off like a bolt of lightning at any moment.  The first few hills we encountered… I don’t even remember how I got through them.  I know I had to get off my bike and walk up several of them.  But when we got to the top?  Oh my.  That was when my passion for cycling started to blossom.  My dad was never, ever scared about flying down the hills.  So I learned to also fly down them–the rush of wind across my face and body was mesmerizing!  The wind would enter my mouth through my big, huge grin, and literally fill my lungs and chest with such vigor that I felt myself come alive in a way I’d never known.

Soon, I was off taking rides on my own.  Two hours.  Three hours.  I was slow as a turtle, but this never bothered me as I just wanted to ride long.  There were two particular hills that scared me.  I knew I wanted to conquer them in their entirety without having to get off my bike to walk.  The first one was long… really, really long.  It wasn’t very steep, but it seemed to go on forever.  This was the first one I attempted to conquer.  The day I did – wow.  I knew I was making progress!  The second hill that I needed to accomplish, it was enormous.  Steep, and not terribly long.  The day I figured that hill out was the day that permanently changed my path as a cyclist (though I don’t think I realized to what extent at the time!!).  It was so steep, that I finally had to accomplish it pretending that God himself was walking slowly alongside me.  I was worried I’d fall over, I was going so slow.  But I just kept pushing down on my pedals, being very patient with myself.  Again, speed was never my concern.  Finally, I came to the crest of the hill and I just about broke down in tears.  It was the day I knew I could do anything if I truly set my mind to it.

I still did not consider myself an athlete though.

About the time I graduated college, I moved to Seattle and I parted ways with the drive and passion to bike.  So more than a decade passed, and I barely touched my hybrid again.

Then Phil (my ever-supportive, fabulously awesome husband) and I moved back to Chicago, got married and started having kids.  Three really super kids, to be exact.  I gained about 30 extra pounds and was as far removed from being an athlete, as one can be.  This is where divine intervention came into play, and a series of events happened that have forever changed me.

**I suffered postpartum disease pretty severely after my first child.  I found myself crying at the smallest things.  My doctor encouraged me to join a gym to find some “me” time.  I followed his advice, and discovered I rather liked exercising, not to mention the huge relief it brought to my mental spirits!

**I joined a new gym and met a personal trainer named Carol who believed in me.  She was patient, encouraging & instrumental in helping me start to strengthen my core after having so many babies!  (It’s amazing how the core ceases to exist in our brains after carrying children, and delivering them!)

**Phil and I moved again, and I met a couple of friends who were training for the Chicago Marathon in 2008.  This planted a weird little seed in me that had me thinking I’d like to try that too.  I signed up, having absolutely no clue of what I was doing.

**I herniated my back while “training” for the Chicago Marathon in 2008.  I herniated it badly—so badly that my dad had to come live with us for 3 weeks so he could pick Lily (our baby at the time) up for me, and put her in her high chair and crib whenever needed.

**In 2009, I switched gyms for childcare reasons.  Serendipity played the biggest part of my life that it’s ever played here.  I joined LifeTime Fitness in Bloomingdale, and the week I joined was the week that Coach Joe and Coach Suzy ran their last Experience Triathlon Tri Class at LTF.  I signed up for it, not really knowing what the heck I was doing, or why I was even doing it.  Over the course of 6 weeks, they taught me how to swim and I fell in love with them both quickly and wanted their healthy athletic lifestyle to be my lifestyle too.  I hired Suzy to be my coach in April of 2009.

**In 2010, after training for a year, I herniated my back again while racing in Memphis.  This is where second, third, and fourth chances, come into play.  I found out that I have a small little congenital issue in my low back called bilateral spondylolisthesis, along with degenerative disc disease and a leg length inequality.  Phew!  I was finally getting some answers as to why my back kept getting screwed up, and why my ankles would always give me so much pain.  I suppose I could have chosen to use any of these things as excuses not to run again.  But I chose not to.

**In 2011, I experienced two bike crashes (I’ve blogged on these before…sorry for the redundancy here, but there’s a reason I’m mentioning them again.)  My first bike crash did some damage to my left knee, that I didn’t realize the long-term effects of until about two months ago.  It’s impacted my cycling, and now my running, to the point where I’ve had to go back to the drawing board with having nothing-less-then-perfect form while cycling and running.  The second bike crash was the one that messed my right shoulder up badly enough that I could’ve easily given up on swimming forever at that point.  But I didn’t.  Instead the shoulder injury has become this strange gift that keeps me on track with my swim form constantly, because if I let up on form for even 25 yards, my shoulder starts to protest.  Because of these injuries, there is not a single workout that goes by that I don’t feel fortunate to experience.

**On Wednesday, October 3rd, 2012, Coach Suzy and I sat together in Panera to plan out my 2013 race/event goals.  Up to that day, my run training had been very cautious and limited, as both Suzy and I were trying to keep my back issues at bay.  (It takes a painfully long time to heal fully from a herniated back.)  I remember looking at her, and telling her I had a crazy goal.  So many of you were training for ING’s Half-Marathon in Miami on January 27, 2013.  I knew I couldn’t make that trip, but I really wanted to train with you and simply see if my body was capable of the workload involved with training for a half-marathon.  So I asked Suzy if she would train me for a “fake” half-marathon that I would run around my hometown the same weekend you all were venturing off to your exciting Miami destination!

I promised Suzy that I would mentally put NO speed pressures on myself, just as when I learned to ride a bike all those years ago in Connecticut.  I would go through all the training she gave me simply with the goal of keeping my body healthy the whole time, and just to build up the endurance needed to do the “fake” event.  She was game!  Yay!  🙂  That weekend I visited some college friends in St. Louis, and I got to do my very first half-marathon training run around the St. Louis Arch–WOW!  What a friggin’ cool way to start my training!  I was not fast, nor did I need to be.  I was content, just to run.

Fast-forward to a trip to Tennessee with my family over Thanksgiving.  I was doing another run workout, and slowly meandering around a little hilly trail.  My left knee hyperextended on the downhill portion (this is a direct result of my first bike crash!), and I knew something was wrong.  After hopping a bit, I went into “calm massage-therapist mode” and started thinking through my kinesiology training.  What motions and muscles are involved in hyperextension at the knee?  What opposes those motions?  What muscles would I need to engage on high-alert to keep my knee from hyper-extending again?  It worked, and I got through the remainder of the workout!

Fast-forward again to an indoor track workout at the gym.  While decelerating, my left knee again went into hyperextension, and I had to hop to a stop.  I knew it was time to see my ortho doc to find out what was going on. Some x-rays and one MRI later, and I found out I have a slight tear in my meniscus, and some osteoarthritis settling in my left knee.  Yet another gift, since it forced me to learn some really cool things about training eccentrically (training to decelerate with control into gravity, versus accelerate against it) throughout all of this.  And I was again granted another chance to continue running!

**Today, January 26, 2013.  Many of you are in Miami right now, picking up your race packets, no doubt full of excitement, energy, and some seriously jazzed-up attitudes as you get ready to run your races tomorrow!!  Flecky is doing her 5K in Miami today.  More of you are there as the ET Cheer Crew team.  We, up here in frosty Chicago, are mentally cheering you on, as excited for you as you are for yourselves!!

And today, I became a half-marathoner.  After having so many additional chances handed to me, and after taking each extra chance for every ounce it is possibly worth, I ran my own frosty Half-Marathon Around Itasca.  Today I am proudly claiming to myself that I really, truly am an athlete, and that if the “girl who was picked last for everything during gym class” can do this, complete with multiple injuries along the way, then ANYONE can do this!

Two goals were established in my head going into this “race”:  1) Accomplish the race in its entirety, no matter the speed or pace.  2) Dream a little, and see if my “pie-in-the-sky goal” of 1:45:00 was accomplishable.  What the heck, I had nothing to lose!   At mile 2.55, my left knee hyperextended.  I worked past it, engaging my glutes and hamstrings with fierce mindfulness.  And at mile 12.0, my legs turned into complete blocks of heavy ice, making it next to impossible to feel either my glutes OR my hamstrings!  I dug deep, grabbing inspiration from images of all my friends running to their limits tomorrow in Miami.  I held that image, and pushed in honor of them for the next mile.  I was so close to that pie-in-the sky goal.  Would I do it?  Frozen legs pushed on, my paced slowed, my breathing labored, my knee got mad at me.

And finally, it ended.  13.1 miles.  1:45:00 on the button.

All those years ago as the girl-picked-last, or many years and many injuries later, I would never have dreamed it.

But today, I found my true inner fighting soul.  The soul of an athlete.

Suzy, thank you for all of your inspiration and guidance, and for always steering me steadfastly.  You’ve been there for me through everything. (And lord only knows, girlfriend–we’ve been through a lot!)

Joe, thank you for envisioning–and then making into reality–an athletic journey and truly attainable lifestyle that leaves no one behind, and has everyone’s story being just as important as the next person’s.

Dad, thank you for believing in me and always sticking by my side when you bought me my first bike back in college.  Did you know then that you were going to change my life forever with that gift?

Phil, my love, thank you for loving me always, every piece of my soul.  Without you, I would never have felt brave enough to discover that I really, truly, am an athlete.  I love you!


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  • Love it! You are most certainly an awesome athlete. I hope to one day be able to at least draft off you. By the way, do you give piano lessons?

    • Sarah

      Thank you, Steven!! I’m totally planning on enjoying the draft off YOUR bike on a lot of our group rides this summer!! 😉 And piano lessons? funny you should ask….been there, done that, and let’s just say it’s a good thing I’m a cycling coach and NOT a piano teacher…

  • amy h

    Love your story Sarah; you are truly an amazing athlete and an even greater inspiration

    • Sarah

      Not sure if you realize this or not, Amy, but you also are an AMAZING inspiration to so many of us!!! You’ve got a Warrior spirit, indeed, girlfriend!

  • Linda Wangerin

    It was very moving to read this article and experience your journey in this manner. It has an important message for all of us, no matter what path our own lives take. Thank you for sharing your challenges and triumphs. It’s no wonder you are an awesome coach! We are so very proud of you, Sarah, and forever grateful that you are our daughter. Love, Mom

    • Sarah

      Thank you, Mom! You’ve always taught me how to stay strong, positive, and focused during tough times, and it’s amazing how much this helps me every day! You and Dad are the best!!

  • Jim R

    All I can say is WOW!!! and congrats on the Frosty Half its no wonder you inspire so many of the people you touch. Looking forward to trying to keep up with you in Cali.

    • Sarah

      Keeping up with me? I was hoping I could keep up with YOU in CA!! 😉 I’m going to hook a rope to the back of your bike on Figueroa Mt so I can draft off you going down the mountain, heh heh heh… And your own steadfast determination & comebacks to your injuries/set-backs along the way continue to inspire me constantly, Jim!! 🙂

  • Nancy

    Beautiful story, Sarah. Congratulations on your accomplishments!

    • Sarah

      Thank you so much, Nancy!! 🙂

  • Drew Repoza

    Sarah, thank you for sharing your story. For those of us who only ever see your strong performances, it is very inspiring to read about all of the challenges that you have (and continue to) overcome. I don’t know if I would have had the courage to continue through so much, but I do know that seeing your perseverance and positive attitude throughout sets a great example for all of us who run into personal challenges along the way. Thank you for being such a tremendous inspiration and role model!

    • Sarah

      Wow, Drew–thanks so much….I always view you as one of our constant pillars of strength and optimism in ET, and it’s always such a blast to ride next to you during CT or on group rides!! (I miss “Chatty the Bike”, though, ha!).

  • Cathy Obordo

    Sarah – You are the epitome of strength, drive and determination!! Your story will inspire many others to pursue their dreams and accomplish them just like you did. I’m so proud of your accomplishment of a very fast half marathon given the cold conditions and without the ET support crew. That’s hard enough let alone the actual 13.1 miles. Wonderful story and thanks for sharing! Btw…I promise never to complain about my knees ever again!! 🙂

    • Sarah

      ha ha! You can complain about your knees as often as you need to! Helps me know what to work on during your massages!! 😉 Thank YOU for always being such a good, supportive friend and teammate, & for the inspiration you give to so many of us!!

  • Thank you SO much for sharing your story, Sarah! After ALL we’ve been through together, it’s hard to believe, but I actually learned some things in reading it!! 🙂 Thank you for helping me grow as a coach during this journey we’ve been on for the past several years. I look forward to supporting you for many years to come because anyone who knows you knows that the sky’s the limit for you!!!

    • Sarah

      Love ya, Suzy! The way I see it, I figure we’ve got at least another 5 decades of this athlete-coach relationship ahead of us!! 😉

  • Bob H.

    What an inspirational story!! Most of us would have given up a long time ago, but as those of us who are lucky enough to share time with you know, there is no way you will ever quit! I can’t wait to try to keep up with you in California!! Thanks for all you do for me and all ET athletes and CONGRATS on a fantastic run!!

    • Sarah

      Thank you SO much, Bob!! And I can say without a shadow of a doubt that you’ve got that same “won’t ever quit” mentality that’s pushed you through some tough, amazing journeys too!! Maybe it’s the water we drank at VU?

  • Sara C.

    Congratulations on your doing 13.1 with all the challenges. Besides being an athlete (yes, it’s true), you have a warrior’s spirit! You go girl! Thanks for your inspiring story!

    • Sarah

      Thanks, Sara! It’s been fun watching YOUR warrior spirit during all your CompuTrainer rides!! =)

  • Paul Wangerin

    Well, dear daughter, you are surely an inspiration to me.

    • Thank you, Paul, for buying Sarah her first bike!! 🙂

      • Sarah

        Amen to that!!! =)

    • Sarah

      Thanks, Dad — you are the best!!!!!

  • Oh my Sarah, what an amazing story about embracing the pain, acting as if you’re a Champion and becoming one, being determined to never quit, believing in yourself and overcoming unbelievable odds. This so validates the mantra of our sport, that “Anything IS possible”. Hooray for Sarah the athlete! You’re a gift to this world and we are so blessed that you found us that late night in 2009. Do you believe in Serendipity? I sure do!! 🙂

    • Sarah

      Awww, thanks Joe!!!! And indeed I DO believe in serendipity—you and Suzy proved that to me!!! 🙂