Thursday, September 3, 2009

Being a Girl Sucks Big Time Sometimes: Xterra Lake Tahoe, From the Beginning

A while back, I had thought of writing an article on athletes who, for some reason, were either forced into early retirement, forced to significantly reduce their training, or forced to cease training completely for a long period of time. What does it mean to pros and to amateurs, exactly, to be an athlete? How much do we let the fact that we are athletes (or specifically triathletes) define ourselves, and what do we do and feel when it's taken away from us? 

I thought of Greg Welch, Chris O'Riordan, a Stanford walk-on baseball player who was drafted into the Major League, and was quickly forced to retire due to (I believe) a shoulder injury. I thought of the week when my doctor called me and told me not to move when he realized my heart skipped a beat. That news didn't help the situation. 

A few weeks ago, my beachy best friend, and ultracycling/endurance sports buddy in crime started having trouble breathing. I thought maybe she'd developed sports-induced asthma. On August 22nd, she had planned on running a torturous 50K in the Santa Monica Mountains. 

She began having trouble breathing on a steep, 4-mile climb named Bulldog in Malibu Creek State Park. She ran/walked the entire first loop. Race officials at the aid stations made her drink salt water, claiming it would relieve her symptoms. I can only guess they thought she was dehydrated...or that somehow, salt water would coat her lungs and calm them down...

When she came walking toward coachubby and me at the end of the 25K loop, she was upset and frustrated. She considered running again, but bowed out.

She went to see a doctor a few days later, who quickly diagnosed her with pleuritis, told her to take anti-inflammatory drugs and she'd be fine. 

So last Thursday (a week ago) she came spinning with me, believing it would all clear up eventually. She stayed through the entire class, even though she was struggling. At the end of class, after several minutes off of the bike, she was still having trouble catching her breath, and had a sharp pain in her left side. A school nurse in class told her she should get it checked out at an ER. I told her I'd pick her up in half an hour.

Off we went to Kaiser Permanente, where she was admitted immediately. They took a chest xray and blood. Both were completely normal--except for her d-dimer, an indicator of possible blood clots. Just to be safe, the doctor said, perhaps they should take a CT scan.

You might as well do it while we're here, I said. So we sat, watching her heart beat in a beautiful, uninterrupted (and slightly boring, I must say, particularly compared to mine) rhythm, for 2 hours. When they took her back for the scan, I went outside to continue hacking away at a ginormous history book.

An hour later, I got a text: "I have blood clots, will you come inside?"

Robyn was devastated. She had pulmonary embolisms on both sides. She would have to be started on blood thinners immediately, and most likely would be on them for an entire year, during which time riding a bike outside, and trail running are out of the question. All exercise, at least for the first 1-2 months is not allowed, except for a nice walk here and there. 

Just like that, she had gone from kicking my ass at everything I ever set out to do (double centuries, distance running) to being placed on a year long round of rat poison and enough pain killers to sedate a small army. 

Just like that, she had gone from being in shape enough to run a very difficult 50K in under 6 hours to having to rethink what role exercise is going to take in her life for a year.

Around 7:30pm, her boyfriend JZ arrived, and I left to shovel food down my face, and get ready to go to Tahoe the next morning with coachubby. I felt terrible leaving her like that. I could never understand how she felt upon hearing that news, but I like to think I can sympathize just a little from my week of sincerely believing my days as an endurance athlete were over. 

31 and totally healthy, Robyn had no reason to believe this could happen to her. And neither did anybody else--until they found out she'd started a birth control regimen in May. YAZ should officially change its name to NOZ and be taken off of the market. The mix of that drug and Robyn's chemistry proved almost fatal. And I had encouraged the use of birth control as a way to avoid unwanted visitors during race days and long training weekends.

Coachubby and I left on Friday to drive to Tahoe with heavy hearts, but excited to race for Robyn. After all, she had raced without full use of her lungs--it was the least we could do to push it at altitude!


  1. Awww Erin. Training with you has made me a stronger, more confident athlete. During our training rides and doubles, we toughed it out through whatever challenge was thrown at us.I will remember all these experiences while I heal. And..your friendship is priceless!! I am so blessed to have found you here in South Bay. You have taken such good care of me the past week. Thank you.

    Race hard for me! Show that Stanford team who is boss:)


  2. Robyn,

    Stay strong! We're all pulling for you... You'll be back out there kicking butt in no time!