I feel like a completely different person as I approach the starting line. Obviously, physically, this is indeed the case: I've been training since December and have a solid base, vastly improved bike skills and a stronger swim. (And with the recent bout of explosive diarrhea, I'm easily at race weight, if not lighter. Ha.)
But what really startles me is where I am mentally and emotionally. The last six months, with their layer upon layer of loss, have changed me in such an extreme way that I barely recognize myself. So much of what I thought I could rely on has disappeared and been replaced with questions that have no answers. Priorities have shifted; things that once meant the world to me no longer exist, and things I never thought possible have suddenly come blazing into the world at full force. I feel small and inconsequential, like I'm simply trying to hold on -- fingers twisted in fur -- to the beast that is this life, this strange dark animal that I will never be able to control, no matter how much I try.
I find myself craving hard workouts and physical exhaustion because this is so much easier to understand than cancer or death or heartbreak. I like that first plunge in the lake, when the water swallows me and I can't see anything or hear anything but what's inside my head -- and very often, that sound is just numbers, counting the strokes -- one, two, three, four. I like the track, the repetition, knowing each lap will always be 400 meters and all I have to do is run and I will make it around. I like the way it feels when I'm on the trainer doing Zone 4 intervals, and I push so hard I get to a place where I can't stop crying. It is the most honest expression of who I've become.
I don't know if personal pain makes you a better athlete -- if loss and sadness somehow make you tougher on the race course. I don't know if you can draw a metaphor here -- make it through the rough patches, the times when you want to sit on the side of the road and heave, and find a greater reward at the end. All I know is I feel like I've been laid bare, stripped of everything I had previously believed in, and I'm still standing here.