The Year of the High Bar

August 27th, 2014

JK Rowling quote

It was a classic case of “be careful what you wish for,” and probably inevitable. At the end of last year, I wanted a couple of things. I wanted to get back into triathlon shape. I wanted my Arabic to be good enough to write academic papers in it. And I wanted to become a better writer–a published one.

And in January, I got the chance to achieve everything I wanted. A slot to train with the Oakland Triathlon Club’s elite team, a seat in Arabic 402, and one of the best agents in the publishing industry. It felt like Christmas and a birthday and a lifetime achievement award all rolled into one–except rather than giving me a big head, after seventeen years of writing and getting rejected, it was just healing. I knew I’d have to work hard to live up to these privileges, but had no idea just how far I would have to stretch myself to just barely get by.

As summer wraps up, I look back on the last eight months of frantic, sometimes panicked efforts to keep up with everything. At times, I no longer felt like the person who’d been capable of getting to this point in my life. Day-to-day tasks sometimes felt no less than a kind spiritual crisis: how to be a whole human being and not just a list of responsibilities.

I am still in the middle of that hard work, but as I am finally getting a handle on the revisions to my manuscript, I realize that more than just opportunity, I got something else I’d always wanted: a master class in fiction. Writing a novel is solitary, and some days you feel like the best writer in the world, which inevitably means you’re due to feel like a hack by Friday. Real feedback from industry pros gave me perspective on my storytelling habits, and how to get better.

I ended up with a passing grade in the Arabic class; I can write a paper, but can’t speak it to save my life. I got back into triathlon shape, but really, training (for me) is never going to be about real speed. It’s about having made a bunch of new friends in a new city, and loving the camaraderie in an otherwise solitary sport.

This perspective was hard-earned, but in the words of an old friend who taught me how to ski: “If you’re not falling, you’re not trying hard enough”; and god knows I’m grateful for the chance to keep trying.

Turf Wars

July 29th, 2014

I am officially a homeowner now. All these years I’ve seen houses with tiny lawns and thought I’d like to have one, because I could trim it with one of those quiet, quaint little push mowers with the spinning blades. Maybe I got the idea from a Sunday comics page in my childhood. And I’ll say in my defense that I’m not the only one with this notion, because our real estate agent perked up when she first saw the house, exclaiming, “Oh! You can cut it with one of those old-fashioned push mowers!”

Blades versus blades.

Blades versus blades.

Fast-forward about a month to the garden tools aisle of The Home Depot. Erin and I went back and forth for a few minutes–I wanted the $80 quaint push mower. Erin wanted the $200 lawn mower. “Are you nuts?” I asked. “Why make all that noise and waste gasoline on a lawn the size of our living room?” Grumbling, she pushed the cart and me and said, “Fine. Get what you want.” Note: It’s bad when your wife tells you to just do what you want. So I put the mower in the cart. Note #2: Don’t actually do what you want, unless you haven’t realized that you’ve already lost the argument.

Fast-forward to Saturday. I fiddled around on the porch for about twenty minutes and got my new, green Scotts push mower all put together. Lifting it high, I carried it to the grass, admiring how light and simple a machine it was. I set it in the corner of the lawn and aimed it across the twenty feet of high grass, ready to set off toward the garden. Erin was pulling weeds by the fence with her back towards me, indifferent to the machine’s maiden voyage.

I gave the lawnmower a push. It didn’t go. I backed up and gave it a running start, and the handles folded me in half at the gut.

Erin finally turned around, now that there was something interesting to watch. I turned the machine to the side and checked the blades, which whirred easily when there wasn’t four inches of wet ryegrass to slice through. I set the machine down, braced myself, and starting shoving it back and forth all over the corner of the grass and managed to hack a square foot of it down to respectable length.

Fast-forward one final time. After sweating, swearing, stomping off for a while, enduring an I-told-you-so, reengaging with the lawn in a spirit of cold-blooded competition, and at last activating Erin’s native stubbornness in the face of a challenging task, we got the fucking thing cut by Sunday afternoon.

I learned in this process that when it comes to yard work, “quaint” means time-consuming and difficult, and cutting a lawn this way has no redeeming spiritual dimension unless you’re Amish. Also that we have good friends, because our buddy Chris is going to give us his electric lawnmower on extended loan.


My piece on the Oakland Triathlon Club in Oakland Magazine

July 3rd, 2014

My article on how “a new run-bike-swim club wants to popularize an elite sport for everyone” is on shelves today in the East Bay!

Prez Chris Van Luen talking to kids on our visit to the YMCA in April.

Prez Chris Van Luen talking to kids on our visit to the YMCA in April.

S-O-C-K-S: Race report from the California International Triathlon

June 30th, 2014

“Spell socks,” my wife Erin told me, a few months into our relationship. We’d met in lily-white Portland, Oregon, and I was ten years out of my college French classes. The only language I spoke or heard spoken was English.

“S-O-C-K-S,” I recited.

“Congratulations on your first Spanish phrase,” she said.

Eso sí que es: basically, It is what it is. And this was my mantra yesterday, as I ran up and down too many short, steep, gravel hills, feeling the inside seam of my running shoe dig into the scab of a big blister on my toe. The healing blister was from last weekend’s experiment in running sockless, because triathletes are sometimes stupidly obsessed with shaving a few seconds off of their race times. Maybe I will skip the socks, I had thought, and charged out for a four-mile trail run experiment.

During yesterday’s 6.2-mile run, all I wanted was an even-thicker pair of S-O-C-K-S and a Band-Aid, but they probably wouldn’t have added any speed to my wobbly legs. Since the Escape from Alcatraz Triathlon four weeks ago, Coach Raeleigh Harris did a great job of putting my body back together and preparing it to push hard. I had a great swim and set a personal record of 1:11 on the 26-mile bike (just under 22 mph), so by the time I discovered that the run was not even a little bit flat (shock! dismay!), I had no energy left for miracles. I ran an 8:28 pace and watched a bunch of women in my age group pass me. Eso sí que es, I sighed to myself, and hummed along with the faint strains of “Rude” emanating from the direction of the finish line.

The morning had begun at 4:20 with coffee and graham crackers with peanut butter. I’d eaten so much this week while my dad was in town, and washed it down with beer and martinis, that by the time the weekend arrived all I wanted was a diet of air and water. Since none of this was in my nutrition plan, I sipped on Skratch sports drink while I set up my gear on the Oakland Triathlon Club rack, happy to see so many from our club racing together today. The midsummer early-morning was bright and calm, and the waters of Shadow Cliffs lake looked cleaner than they had yesterday.

We raced at the Shadow Cliffs Rec Area outside of Pleasanton, CA.

We raced at the Shadow Cliffs Rec Area outside of Pleasanton, CA.


I warmed up based on Coach Raeleigh’s suggestions, but probably only got about 3-4 minutes of total warmup time in the crowded start corral. As I found a decent position near the front of the inner start buoy, I told myself that this time, this race, I was going to get my head in the game quickly and treat this as a true time trial. The day’s conditions were very good (72-degree water, a mostly flat bike course, and a two-loop run course on a somewhat-shaded trail), and for the first time this season, I was racing a standard international-distance triathlon. Today was about setting a baseline.

The horn sounded, and I got my momentum quickly, swimming almost as hard as I did in Thursday’s training swim for the first couple of minutes; by then, I felt good and didn’t back off much. It was a relief to swim in warm water—but only for the first half, before I grew uncomfortably hot in a long-sleeved wetsuit. I rounded the second buoy shortly afterward, and when I saw how far the final buoy was, I started noticing that my shoulders were getting tired. I don’t think I slowed down TOO much, though, and prodded myself to keep going. My swim time was a little over 28 minutes, and other athletes would agree afterward that the course seemed long; as much as 1.1 miles instead of .93.


Starting out, I played with my gears a lot to find a good cadence. I couldn’t read my Garmin very well and judged cadence by feel, but the data shows I ended up riding mostly in the mid-80s. I stayed in the aero position for the first 20 miles, but as I was running low on water and (probably) on a false flat, I really started to lose steam and experience hip flexor tightness. I stood up on the pedals and tried flushing out my legs that way, then rode about a minute sitting up. After that I felt much better.

A minor annoyance was the aero helmet. I was borrowing it from Erin and had never worn it before (yeah, yeah, I know: never try out new gear on race day). It felt speedy and was mostly comfortable, but it started digging into my forehead around mile 10 and there wasn’t much leeway for adjustment. Also around that time, the helmet was getting hot.

I should note, too, that I told every single person I encountered on the bike, “Good job,” or something similar. Maybe three people answered me. This mutual encouragement is part of the sport, and I was disappointed that so many athletes were so insular. Folks, you can focus, go fast, whatever, but the secret source of energy often comes from a shared word of encouragement. Don’t be a triasshole. This is a hobby, and it’s supposed to be fun.


On my second loop of the run.

On my second loop of the run.

I didn’t find that my speed or comfort improved after the first 10 minutes, and I really felt my running weakness in this race. The short, steep, gravel hills were irksome, but mostly, I just didn’t have much power to spare after pushing hard on the bike. I focused on my elbows cutting through the air and repeatedly told myself to relax my shoulders. Returning to good form was the only thing that got me through this run: that, of course, and the cheering I got from the OTC volunteers at the first aid station and Erin at the transition area.

Though I kept telling myself to hang on to whatever advantage I’d gained on the bike, a couple of women in my age group passed me and I knew I just had to do my best and my time would be whatever it was. It ended up being better than I expected, and I was still able to push myself and my heart rate to get the most out of what energy I had left. And again, thank goodness for OTC volunteers and their cheering!

When I crossed the finish line, I literally just stopped. My legs were D-O-N-E. For a few moments, I couldn’t move and felt a little stupid, like a cow in the middle of the road or something. The volunteers had to come over to me to get my chip, and give me a finisher’s medal and bottle of water. Finally I remembered how to walk, and after a few minutes of exchanging hugs and congratulations with Erin and teammates, I made my way over to the results.

I may have only finished seventh in my age group, but you can bet that I was third place in line at In-and-Out Burger.


* Thanks for reading this giant block of text! If you were at the race and have a few more pics, feel free to share them with me and I will post them here.

In the Name of Neptune’s Nethers: Race Report from Escape From Alcatraz

June 6th, 2014
Group mug shot.

Group mug shot.

My friend, Chris Van Luen of the Oakland Triathlon Club, demanded an answer from me after the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon. “Sarah Cypher and Erin Lopez: How in the name of Zeus’s butthole do you keep crossing the finish line together!?” After much consideration, a few good nights of sleep, and thorough discussion with my wife, I am compelled to inform Chris that divine nether-regions may be indistinguishable at close range, but the problem orifice on Sunday definitely belonged to Neptune, god of the seas: Erin would have beaten me by several minutes had it not been for the choppy waves separating Alcatraz Island from the swim exit on shore.

By way of context, before the race I told Erin–my training partner, wife, and best friend–that we would probably be separated on the swim. That we would not see each other until later in the race, probably during the run. Unstated was the assumption that I would be the slower swimmer; Erin generally goes faster in races than I do. And the Escape From Alcatraz Triathlon is a tough storm to predict, precisely because its swim is a 1.5 haul across the Bay, with initial cross-currents, winds, and lack of on-course sighting buoys. You can get lucky and use the current to your advantage, or you can be carried off course and miss the exit.

And there was the chaos, too: The last time I saw her before the race started, a volunteer was shoving an athlete over the side of the San Francisco Belle. The athlete disappeared over the bow, and one second later, Erin jumped after her–joining 1,999 other athletes in the 58-degree waters. I was two athletes behind her. Two seconds later, by the time I stepped into the shrill and constant beeping of the timing mats, I was too nervous to pick out her red cap in the thrashing mess next to the boat; I held my goggles to my face, and jumped.

Here’s what happened in the next three hours and five minutes.


Rewind a few hours. This part of the race was nothing but raw anxiety. Our contingent of OTC-ers boarded the boat around 5:30 a.m. We didn’t get underway until 6:30, and the race didn’t start until 7:30. The waiting was the worst part. A high fog kept the water almost dead-flat until we approached Alcatraz Island, but the wind picked up, and the water started to get choppy. I stepped out on deck and warmed up with some jumping jacks and shoulder exercises. Ten minutes before the start, I put on my wetsuit, and was mindful to be taking full breaths. As I approached the jump, I got a fix on my first sighting targets (the two towers behind Aquatic Park and the trees of Fort Mason). Erin and I held hands all the way through the mass of gathering athletes, and wished each other a safe, happy race. This is our little prayer that we both say before races, open water swims, and bike rides, because we have both seen our share of accidents over the years; and the promotional materials for this race like to tout the “frigid waters” and “shark-infested Bay,” etc.  The athletes around us were almost completely silent, but the scream of timing mats and splash of bodies swallowed the sound of our last few words to each other. Then we were jostled apart, and pushed toward the starting mats.


As my golf instructor once told me of my (rather poor) short game in high school, “Ugly, but functional.” As soon as I surfaced from the jump, I got completely battered by the other swimmers and found myself arching my back sharply to sight over the waves. People were nuts. I got kicked, grabbed, pushed under, and jostled—THE WHOLE TIME. And as the wind picked up and threw water into my mouth every other time I breathed, I swallowed a ton of water. Spontaneously, I decided I was never going to swim across the Bay again, but tabled the thought for later because it was a negative one. As cheerily as possible, I talked myself through the choppy parts; and said that it was okay if I couldn’t draft or get into a rhythm at all: Just stay on course and get to land. In relation to the piers next to Fort Mason, it seemed like I was stuck in the same place for a long time—but suddenly I could pick out the dome of the Palace of Fine Arts, and a few minutes later, the red-roofed yacht club beneath it: the target. A three-knot current carried me quickly toward it, and I swam hard directly toward land, exited on the first flat part of shore, and staggered onto the sand.

I looked around for Erin and didn’t see her, and figured that she was somewhere way out in front of me. Next thing I saw were the OTC volunteers cheering like crazy, and Coach Raeleigh Harris holding out a cup of water. I felt better immediately, and rinsed the saltwater out of my mouth as I ran for T1.


I still assumed Erin was in front of me, but when I saw fellow OTC-er and really good swimmer Angela Yu running out of the transition zone, I knew my swim must have been much better than I thought. (I expected the swim to take 45 minutes, and I’d learn later that I did it in just over 40.) As for my transition time… Sometimes I’m focused, but this time, not so much. I ran in my neoprene swim booties, which allowed me skip the mini-shoe-transition along the water’s edge. I thought this would save time, but I got passed by athletes in shoes on my way to T1. There, I fumbled around with my wetsuit for a while, redid my ponytail because it was falling out, and had a moment when I started putting on my running shoes instead of bike shoes. At that point, I looked up and saw Erin running to her bike. She said hi (but now, later, she says she doesn’t remember seeing me). Anyhow, I felt instant relief, got it together finally, and exited T1 in a glacial time of 7:22.


This is a VERY technical bike course, owing to sharp turns, a variety of terrain, headwinds along Ocean Beach, and of course, the hills. If you are aiming to do well in this course, you cannot ride it too much beforehand. Suffice to say, my new fear of wiping out on the downhills held me back, but I was extremely grateful for the two practice rides I attended in the months before (via the Escape Academy and with the Oakland Triathlon Club). I had a 16.7 mph average overall, but could have gone much faster had I not braked so much on the downhills. I was keeping an average of over 22 mph on the flats, and passed a lot of people on the climbs, but they all came flying by me on the downhills, especially after I saw a fallen cyclist getting loaded into the ambulance near the Legion of Honor.

I jockeyed back and forth with teammates Onyanga Dean and Sam Suttle a few times, chatting a little to see how their swims went and how they felt—both were looking really strong. I chased Onyanga for a little while in the hills, but I ran out of steam for a few minutes when I hit the headwind on Ocean Beach (note: next race, I am going to drink more calories as soon as I get on the bike). Onyanga zoomed off into Golden Gate Park, and I used the next 5-10 minutes just to take in some sports drink and recover. Erin caught up to me, whereupon we picked up our pace while talking, and then leapfrogged back and forth on the up- and downhills for the rest of the course. Sam ended up riding with us, too, which made for a very cheerful (and very neon yellow) trio of Oakland riders.


Got my focus back and kept this one snappy–the only way to make it faster would have been to run harder. I exited T2 about 30 meters in front of Erin.


I kept an 8:20-ish average on the flats on the way out, having gotten a HUGE boost from the cheering OTC volunteers. My legs felt better than I thought they would; I guess it was true that staying in the aero position on the bike as much as possible would make for a stronger run transition. In short, I felt good, and I kept it together pretty well for the whole run. The sand ladder was tough, of course, but that was the only time I walked. On downhills I ran in the low 7:00 range, and on the flat section to the finish, kept an 8:00 pace. It was there that Erin and Sam caught up to me again, and we paced each other across the finish line. I’d wanted to run an 8:45 average, and managed an 8:42.

So, that was how Erin and I crossed the line together again. Five years ago, I remember our first bike ride together along Marine Drive in Portland, Oregon, and the joy of discovering that we were pretty much the same speed. Across five years and five states, we have been each other’s best training partner. We have different goals—Erin’s is to qualify for the 70.3 championship, and mine is just to have fun racing with OTC and feel good—but the one fact common to all endurance sports is that a race is only the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the time is all training; and there isn’t much that Neptune can throw at us for a measly 1.5 miles that all those thousands of miles on weekends, lunch breaks, and the wee hours of the morning can’t overcome. So, bring it on!

  • Archives