Monday, April 29, 2013

My MS150

I DID IT!!!!! Well, I did most of it, but still - I DID IT!!! And you get to read allllllll about it!

When I was younger, I never thought of myself as an athlete although I tried every sport possible. I was fat, I was slow, and I didn't always understand the game because I wasn't allowed to play much given the first 2 things. I just didn't think I had any athletic capacity until I started training for the MS150 and did the Mellow Johnny's Saturday scout-a-route with Stephanie and Julie. I was having some issues since I was on a hybrid [Read: Really heavy and generally a bit slower than road bikes.] and I didn't know quite what to do until Julie stayed back a bit to help me get better acquainted with the route and the bike. She did more than she realizes! She helped me understand that I am actually really, really strong, pretty fast, and very capable of doing long distances with some speed. Apparently, I am pretty athletic! (Thanks for that, Julie!) That ride was actually the longest I'd done in one day before the MS150: 25 miles. Saturday, April 20, I completed 70 miles. Sunday, April 21, I completed 40 miles, making my grand total of 110 miles, just a bit shy of the total mileage of our route! I feel like a different person after finishing the MS150, complete with brand new thighs as if I traded in the other ones for super powered ones. (I was walking kind of like a baby gazelle with new legs the first few days after! If you need a visual, watch this video for a few seconds.)

I'll be honest, I was pretty nervous. I had been nervous about it for months, trying to curb it with different flavors of psychobabble like, "It's only 2 days out of my life," and "I am great at recovery," and "It's not as bad as it seems, I'm sure." I found out that I was exactly right: it was only 2 days out of my life, I am great at recovery, and it was no where near as bad as it seems! Way to go on that self-talk, Anslee! (Breathing exercises really came in handy, too.) Coming out of the experience, I have a sense of pride and accomplishment like never, ever, ever before.

The weekend was so much fun! Being apart of a team, and I'll get to some more of this later, was really awesome for me as I haven't been a team player since I was in 10th grade. There were fun moments like when my teammate Hannah gave me a drive-by Clif bar because mine had fallen out of my pocket, when I saved the day during a road-side tire change with the use of my foot pump, and the big slumber party the first night of the ride, complete with the best shower I've ever experienced in my life and the most beautiful display of food and love imaginable. Everyone was so encouraging and so much fun, and the fact that the team was part of my church was really important to me as my church community has been a strong support system for me since I found them around the time that I moved to Austin. They were there when I wanted to run a 5k. They were there for my first fashion show. They were there for countless other events and milestones in my life, and they were definitely there for the MS150.

Most of the route was made up of back roads, roaming through the countryside with cows and farmland and the occasional lingering skunk (Mmm!), so the scenery made for a beautiful ride most of the way. I had to remind myself to look around every now and then to really take it all in, providing a very nice break from the constant, "You can do this. Only a few more miles. Don't think about parts of your body that feel like they are burning/numb right now." Along the way, people were cheering us on from their homes, sides of the road, lawn chairs, tractors, pop up DJ booths, you name it! One family filled their tractor with ice, water, Gatorade, and Natural Light for riders, and invited us to "pop a squat" if we needed to behind their trucks. I will say it was the best Natty Light I've ever had in my life!

Not only was it physically challenging, it was mentally challenging as well, and if you're going to do a ride like that, you should be comfortable with your own thoughts because that is really all you have unless someone is right beside you talking to you the whole way. On the same token, the ride provided a great mental break from life for me. Most of my thoughts were, "You can do it!" "You are a beautiful athlete, Anslee Nicole Connell!" (Yes, sometimes I talk to myself in my head as if my mom were talking to me.) "Just __ miles until the next stop!" "It's like a ride downtown and back, NBD!" Anything I could say to myself to keep pedaling, I said it, and at times, I said it out loud. Saturday night, I realized I didn't think about anything that day that had been bothering me before. I didn't think (a whole lot) about my best friend living in Boston with the bombings and chaos that week. I didn't think about the work I was unable to finish before I left. I didn't think about my bank account balance. I didn't think about Austin Fashion Week or Renegade or how I'm going to make everything I need to make for my business in May. None of that filled my brain because there simply wasn't room for it. I needed every single brain cell to vibrate, "Keep pedaling! You can do it!"

Speaking of mind chatter, a realization I had on the ride may have been a turning point in my life. Back up a few weeks ago to a conversation I had with a close friend of mine when we were talking about giving each other space when we need it. "It's almost like you think you're going to be left behind," he said. I responded with silence because that was the idea I was used to: I always felt left behind. Fast forward to the ride weekend, and the first day I was mostly left behind because I was slower by default as I was on a hybrid and I'm sure for other reasons, too. It didn't bother me that day because I expected it and I turned it into a grand journey the whole way. The second day was a different story, even though that expectation was there, and I almost didn't make it. I sent a text to my group saying that I wasn't sure if I could do it that day when I stopped to have an emotional breakdown in the first couple of miles. I felt extremely disconnected and it was really tough. I remember very specifically thinking, "I do not feel supported and I do not feel safe." A very kind bike martial, named Richard, rode with me to the stop ahead, after so graciously rescuing me in my distress, and at the stop I shared some of my concerns with Angel, another awesome teammate. She just listened and empathized, even though we both knew my issues and frustrations were with myself and not with the team as a whole. She encouraged me and went on her way while I took the bus to the lunch stop and allowed my heart a rest. I met up with the group for lunch and set out a little early so they could pass me in a few miles.

Here's where the turning point in my story happens. After a rough morning of feelings of self-doubt and abandonment, I decided to change my mind about being left behind because I accepted where I was physically, mentally, and emotionally. All I could do was my best, and that was what I set out to do for the rest of the ride to Austin. My team met up with me about a mile or so down the way, and something in me kicked into overdrive and I started to pedal hard. I reached the perfect cruising pace with them, keeping up mostly with Angel and Sam, and then I discovered that I was actually leading them for a bit! It was beautiful in that there I was just a little bit before, feeling sad and sorry for myself with thoughts of giving up my dream, until I decided to fully accept and support myself when they came along and I somehow turned into a leader. I didn't lead the rest of the ride, but that window of realization of my weakness being turned into my strength and being "left behind" was my choice in life turned this seemingly life-long struggle on its head. I choose to lead now, and I'm really excited about where I'm going, on and off the bike.

I couldn't have done the ride without my friends and family. All of my social media outlets combined with texts all day and into the night, I was constantly reminded that I really could do this ride, that I was doing a great job no matter what, and there were so many people behind me, cheering me on. I was especially excited to hear from Cynthia, my MS champion! She's a really cool lady, and I look forward to meeting her one day. My family really came through for me, and I was delighted to get so many texts from them, one in particular read, "Do what u can. We are proud of what u have accomplished to this point. You have gone farther than any Connell/Ball has gone before on any bike on the road to date. LVU." It was a proud moment for all of us, I believe! Thanks to everyone who came along on this ride with me in spirit, prayer, and words of love, and thanks to my team, especially our fearless and wonderful leader Rachel, for being so amazing, so loving, and so wonderfully graceful and encouraging the entire way.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Before My MS150 Ride

Normally, I post after an event, but I wanted to generate some excitement for this weekend, and perhaps some prayer as well for all those involved in the bike ride. I also have a few reflections since I have been riding my bike leading up to the event!

Before I begin: If you'd like to donate to the cause, go here and you can donate to my page or go to my team's page and you can find someone who may not have all of their funds raised!

A few years ago, I read this book by Donald Miller called A Million Miles in a Thousand Years. It's basically a story about stories, and it's an incredible, inspiring read for everyone, even nonreligious, as it depicts the hearts of people who have their wonderful stories because they want a better story. (That's what I believe it to be, anyway, but it's been a while, so hey, read it yourself!) In this book, Miller talks about a bike tour he did, and I came out of it with an inspiration to do my own bike tour. There was only one thing: I didn't have a bike. Ok, there were 2 things: I didn't even know how to ride a bike. I, being the bright and resourceful person I am, had an epiphany! "Why don't I ask someone at my church - which is kind of well known as a "hipster church" with tons and tons of cyclists - if I could borrow a bike?!" Genius, right?! So, I asked around, and who else but the lead pastor, Gideon, hands me this really sweet Bianchi with a smile and probably a few wishes of good luck and such. Apparently, this bike was the village bicycle (not to be confused with any misogynistic references as this isn't that kind of church). A few members had ridden it, and it was entrusted to me to take this bike and give it another story - my story.

This was 3 years and about 30 pounds ago. I did not know anything about cycling and I did not exercise that much prior to this learning experience. Needless to say, I was a bit rusty. I rode around my apartment complex for what seemed like forever a few times, only to find that after huffing and puffing and blowing everything down, I had exerted all of my energy in... 15 minutes. Pumping up the tires was trying for me then! Seriously. I thought to myself, "How in the HELL am I going to do a tour like this?" I kept trying and kept trying, figuring out this foreign machine, talking to people about touring, following around beautiful men in cycling gear around Whole Foods and asking them for their information so we could talk cycling/touring.

And then, one morning when I was helping a temporary roommate move out, she looked over to where her bike had been chained up and said, "Where's my bike?" To which I said, "I don't know... OMGWHEREISMINE?!?!??!" Someone had hit up the complex the night before and got 5 bikes in our little block. It was devastating for everyone, but I felt the most of it. The village bicycle: gone. My touring dreams: deeply bruised. My guilt over the whole situation: magnified to the nth degree. I apologized to Gideon and everyone I knew who had ever ridden the bike, and continued a silent self-hatred over the whole thing for a few years, laying my dream to the side.

Up until now, we see a girl, 3 years younger than today, who is really out of shape, feeling guilty for someone else's wrong-doing, and allowing her dreams to be tarnished by an act of theft. Three years go by and she has run 2 5k's, had a personal trainer for a year, enrolled in boxing lessons, hiked up Chimney Rock, NC, twice, became a gym rat and circuit training "queen," done a 60-day juice fast, gone mostly-vegan, and done a Bikram yoga challenge. Today, this girl is the strongest she has ever, ever been by engaging in a spectrum of activities and fueling her body with beautiful fruits and veggies, meanwhile overcoming a life long of physical illnesses and I-cannot-do-this syndrome. Above all, she still dreams of touring on a bicycle, starting in Seattle and ending in Savannah, and this weekend - TOMORROW - she takes a giant leap toward that dream with the MS150 ride from Houston to Austin.

When my friend, Rachel Rische, announced at church that they were getting a team together for the MS150 ride, I knew that I would be overcoming so many things: my fear (which, I'll be honest, I still have shreds of leading up to tomorrow and Sunday), my mind, and my guilt. Last Sunday, I went up to Gideon and told him about my guilt, my shame, and my need for resolution. "I haven't even thought about it since you told me about it!" he said, gave me a big hug, and wished me well. [Cue: Sigh of relief!] I guess I just needed him to say it.

So, I need you, my dear reader, to know that I've done my best to ride bikes leading up to this weekend. My friend, Lindsay, graciously lent me her bike for the ride. I biked a lot during SXSW. [Check off that New Year's resolution from 3 years ago!] I tried riding on stationary bikes at the gym to get a feel for prolonged saddle time that mostly resulted in what I perceive is a bruised coccyx. I joined a cycling group, thanks to my friend Tawny Villain (Coolest name in the Universe!), called the Bikin' Betties where a bunch of seriously awesome ladies ride bikes and my 8-year-old I-wish-I-lived-in-a-neighborhood-so-I-could-ride-bikes-with-my-friends-and-feel-cool self is the happiest she has ever been. For the future, I'm envisioning a Savannah Red cycling group with matching outfits. I've done the scout-a-route and Tuesday Night Ladies' rides with Mellow Johnny's and met some super seriously kick ass people, and some who I believe are kick ass deep down inside they are just afraid to show it. I've gotten way too many flat tires for my taste, but hey, I'm still learning. (Huge shout out to Lee and Chalo and the rest of the guys at East Side Pedal Pushers for always taking care of me!) I've learned new ways to get around the city that I am in love with! I've even ridden past places I tried to bike around those 3 years ago, seeing mental images of myself making the most effort I could muster, and sending the old me a lot of love as I ride by with a smile of gratitude and love for who she was and who I am now.

I'm looking forward to this weekend with so much excitement, joy, and love, especially after this crazy week we've had, and there is something I haven't mentioned yet. I know that this cycling journey has been mostly about just my own obstacles that I've overcome, but I'm riding for multiple sclerosis as well, particularly for a woman named Cynthia. The money we raise for the ride goes to research, advocacy, and to help people like her and so many others to overcome the challenges they face every single day. When I received the packet that said I was riding for someone, I teared up because it is clearly not solely my journey, and it hasn't been even up until now. I'm honored to be apart of this journey with her, for her, to take my friend's bike as far as I can go - hopefully, the whole way to Austin - and defeat a million demons along the way for both of us. I ask for your prayers of love, support, safety, hydration, and anything else you can think of.

No matter what, I'm biking across that finish line in Austin somehow. I hope to see you there!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Bikram... Finally!

Have you ever experienced something so phenomenal that you didn't know exactly how to put it into words? That is Bikram yoga to me. Yes, it was hot. Yes, it hurt a bit. Yes, I did not want to go at times but made myself anyway. The 90-day challenge I signed up for literally changed my life in so many ways, and I'm really excited to share this experience.

Before I begin, I'd like to admit something. I realize I'm not exactly shy on this blog of mine, I pretty much just let it flow, but there are things I don't talk about sometimes because I don't know how to talk about them. From mid-December to mid-February, I found myself in a well of depression that I didn't fully understand. It was different than any other period of sadness before because I felt as though I just couldn't make myself do hardly anything. The only thing I felt I could do was Bikram yoga. There were 3 family deaths and 2 suicides of people I knew during this time period, and in the middle of that were what I saw as failure after failure after failure - in seemingly every aspect of my life - and for someone who comes from a family of overachievers and pushes herself to be at superhero level in every single thing that she does every single day (Seriously, this was literally my mindset.), each blow seemed debilitating and I felt trapped. Bikram yoga was my medicine, and I came out of that very dark time with so much self-respect, self-love, and healing than I'd ever imagined.

I don't think anyone can forget their first Bikram class! Instructors will say to new students at the end of class, "Congratulations! You'll never have to take your first Bikram yoga class again!" and everyone laughs, but it's true and it's probably the most amazing phrase you'll ever hear. It's pretty brutal, and I don't know how I signed up for the 90-day challenge right after the class ended, but I did. And there I was, the 2nd day of class, wondering what in the hell I'd gotten myself into.

I've done Bikram yoga on a full stomach. I've done it dehydrated. I've done it with a hangover. I've done it sleep-deprived. I've done it with headaches, stomach aches, sinus infections, allergies, and other ailments. I've done it mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted. I've done it twice in one day. I've done it to escape my life. I've done it to save my life. I've done it on my birthday. I've done it alone. I've done it with friends. I've even done it with my shirt off! (This is now my preferred method as it's hard to go back to wearing more clothes when you sweat so much.) A 90-day challenge will push you to do whatever you can to make it to class every day. I learned exactly what not to do in the process, but at the same time, I learned a ton about hydration, time management, choices, sacrifices, values, and a ton of other things too many to list.

So, yeah, Bikram yoga is effin hot. 90 glorious minutes. 108-110 degrees. (104 on a good day if the instructor isn't paying attention!) The humidity is about 40-50%. If the class is small, you're super grateful because you can sweat in peace. If it's packed [Think: A tiny room that can barely fit 60 mats, side by side, end to end, with everyone dripping sweat.], just grin and bear it because there. will. be. someone. else's. sweat. on. you. After a while, you don't even know whose sweat belongs to whom. This was a slightly terrifying thought for me at the first experience of random-person-dribble, but I somehow learned to embrace it as though it was our secret handshake as if to say, "Hey, stranger! Nice to see you sweating your balls off! See you tomorrow, pal!" It's an intimate practice in more ways than one. ;) (Side note: My favorite practices are when there is someone in the room who sweats SO MUCH that when we get into tree pose, it sounds like a tiny waterfall is coming from their body. I LOVE IT! I not-secretly-now want to be one of those people one day because it shows that they are working hard and they're really, beautifully hydrated.)

As you may have read before, when I was 18, I herniated my L4/L5 spinal disc. For 9 years, I struggled with a relatively constant pain, some times more worse than others (like the times I could barely walk or sit comfortably or the time I somehow forced myself to crawl to the car to drive myself to the ER), but it became something I was just used to. It was a new normal, this pain I had. I was given strict orders by doctors to not dance or exercise too much to agitate it, even though I was advised to lose weight because that would decrease the pressure on the disc and make the pain lessen. (Catch 22 much?) I wasn't "allowed" to lift more than 15 lbs. at a time. I was advised not to wear high heels. Etc. Etc. Etc. That's all in the past now, thank God, because I believe with my entire being that practicing Bikram yoga healed my spine. There are 26 postures in Bikram that are repeated every single class in the same exact sequence, and most of them are spine bending postures. I have zero doubt in my mind that my body healed itself through these postures. I was told it would probably happen, but I wasn't sure until I came out of those 3 months feeling like I had a brand new back, most likely stronger than it has ever been. This is such a huge victory for me! My almost-decade of pain and struggle - gone. Can you imagine the tears I cried when I realized this? I'm getting emotional just writing about it. Bikram Choudhury developed this specific yoga practice in order to heal the body with the body, and seeing that manifest in real life, in my own body, was literally a dream come true.

My favorite part of Bikram yoga is realizing that it is such a mental exercise, and that your practice translates to the rest of your life. There were days where I wouldn't push myself because I felt insecure that I wasn't very advanced or ashamed that I was the largest person in the room or guilty that I didn't actually want to be there or < insert excuse here >, and I saw that I was feeling those same things about my work or my body or in my relationships. Some days, I left still feeling that way, but mostly, I realized that my body could do the work, it was just my mind that was using whatever excuse to defeat what I was actually doing that was good for me. So, in this time period of quiet darkness and uncertainty, I held fast to this knowledge that everything is actually good, I just needed to refocus my mind. It was a constant exercise, and it went beyond just the practice room.

One morning after a really hard week emotionally, I was in a class and I had a big moment when we were lying on the floor between postures. It was quiet, but I could hear everyone breathing almost harmoniously. It was beautiful, and in that moment, I realized that we were all one person, doing our best, sweating it out - together. They didn't know that insecurities from my childhood that I thought were defeated had somehow resurfaced. They didn't know that a family member had passed away or someone I knew in college took his own life. They didn't know that I had failed in my business in more ways than one. They didn't know that it took everything in me to simply walk in that room because I felt like a failure, isolated and alone, but at some point, it dawned on me that I didn't know anything about any of them either. When I saw us moving together, felt our dynamic energy swirl around the room, and heard our breathing like human versions of crickets chirping, whatever emotional baggage that I'd been carrying seemed to disappear because I was, in fact, not alone and I was, in fact, totally ok. It was liberating and unifying for me/us.

I knew that Bikram yoga was known for developing a community, one that has been made fun of as being "cult-like," but there's really something special about this practice that brings people together. Every practice is different for every person, that's true. It is an individual practice where each person focuses himself/herself solely on himself/herself, that's also true. People of all levels - brand new yogis to National Yoga Championship winners (Yes, they exist!) - are doing their own practices in the same room, true again. Yet somehow, someway, this amazing connection happens. It's one of the most beautiful things I've ever experienced, and I'm so grateful that my life coach, Mark Scherer, challenged me in a class of his where I met PURE Bikram Yoga owners, Jeff and Mardy Chen, and 2 instructors, both named Nora, to meet him one Sunday morning at 9am to sweat, have fun, and just stay in the room.