Saturday, August 31, 2013

Of poverty, books & parenthood

We are a product of our upbringing. I am my father’s daughter, and here’s a little window into what makes me.

I have a rather large family - there’s six of us - my parents and three other siblings. In order to raise a large family, my middle-income parents worked extremely to put us all through school.

We didn’t have much luxuries growing up - we ate simply, seldom in restaurants, never had a family vacation, never had my parents buy us toys or new clothes for the new year. All we had was food in the table, miserly pennies for food in school, and hand-me-down clothes from our older cousins. But if there’s one thing in abundance in the house - it was books. Books were the only thing my father would invest in. He strongly believed in education as the only vehicle for upward mobility. I remembered him asking me one day if I would like to own a set of LIFE Encyclopedia. Back in the 1980s, that series of encyclopedia was a huge deal. Having developed a love for books and reading in me since I was little, I of course said yes. I didn’t think he was serious when he asked me for my opinion if he should purchase the whole set from my cousin, at a used rate. But he was. He negotiated the price and bought it for a hefty thousand dollars (a brand new set cost $2,000).

I was both thrilled and confused. Thrilled at having a whole collection of what I thought then to be a window into the world - I could learn anything and everything, from that huge volume of encyclopedia - at my disposal, for my reading at my whim and desire. Confused that my highly-thrifty dad would splurge a thousand dollars on a set of encyclopedia on his 10-year-old daughter. It baffled my young mind.

Now more than 20 years later, I’m testament that my father’s investment in our education has paid off. I had a rather long career in law, not as a lawyer, but as a legal assistant, as I couldn’t tolerate the academia and what seemed a dry and monotonous routine of a practicing lawyer. I also had my fair share of fun as an audio editor and a creative writer and researcher producing documentaries for big-time broadcasters including Nat Geo, Discovery, Lonely Planet and the History Channel. I’m not earning millions right now, but the foundation in education that he gave me through instilling a love for books and knowledge in me helped to shape my destiny today.

For all of his imperfection and extremely stern upbringing where I was repeatedly caned till I was 17, I appreciate all that he did, in his best capacity as the head of the household, the man in the family, the leader of the tribe and a father to a bunch of very obstinate children.

Having grown up in a rather impoverished household with only our bare necessities provided for by our sacrificial and hard working parents (they often had two jobs each), up till today, I struggle to break free from the gripping mentality that I don’t have enough and I should always measure the value of the things I spend on. Every time I stand at the counter prior to a purchase, my eyes would be scanning the figures while my mind would be churning and clicking numbers to give me an evaluation of whether item A or B would give me a better bang for my buck. And that’s the truth - that’s my purchasing decision - price versus my perceived value. It’s tiring to live like this, and I’m no prouder of it than I am to confess it now, but I do try, every time, to break free from that crippling poverty-limited mentality and to make a conscious paradigm shift on the concept of money and value. I’ve had several well-meaning friends who have observed that uncomfortable trait of mine concerning money, and many a times, when they jokingly poke at my extreme thriftiness, a cloud of shame would shadow me and I’d retreat into an invisible corner of self-reprimand, reminding myself to step out of that poverty hole and to learn to practice generosity. I try, and still am trying, so my friends, please be patient with me. My husband, who fortunately grew up in higher middle income family, has been key in helping me to take baby steps out of my poverty-stricken past into a life-giving lifestyle.

We live and we learn. In documenting my struggles, I’m coming face-to-face with my weaknesses, shedding light on them and with direction, support, and conscious decision, I can only get better.  

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Why I Tri (Why I do Triathlons)

A day after I crossed the finish line of my most anticipated race of the year, one in which I devoted 8 months of my life to train for, I started questioning my intention for pursuing and staying in the sport. 
I had just completed what seemed to be an important race to me - my first 140.6-mile Ironman distance race. Moving forward, I didn’t wanna continue my pursuit for it simply to improve my race times - what would that prove? That I was capable of more stellar performance? No, I wasn’t as interested in bettering my race times as I was searching for the heart and purpose of the sport

For seven days I sought for answers. I asked some of my triathlete friends what motivated them in their pursuit of the Ironman. A number of times I was moved by their response and what the sport meant to them. 

I was inspired afresh hearing from them, but for me personally, my vision for the sport remained a blur. 

Until two nights ago. Something shifted on the inside of me. It felt like someone flicked on my internal light switch. Here’s my moment of enlightenment:

I was transported exactly 3 years back to July 2010. A girl I knew had signed up for a race and couldn’t do it at the last minute, I was asked if I’d do it, and I thought, why not? Up to that point I had never trained for a triathlon - I didn’t know how to swim front crawl, I just started biking 2 months prior and I was but a casual runner. 

It was an Olympic-distance race, I did it, loved it and was thirsty for more. 

That was my first introduction to triathlon after which I started to observe the general society at large and their perception of health and fitness.

I look at the average middle-age population, our parents and loved ones included, people in their 50s and 60s - who feel like they’re old, sickly and do not have much going on for them as the years quickly pass them by.

And I look at some of my triathlete friends who, similarly, are in their 50s, 60s, some 70s even, who don’t just do the regular triathlons, but the Ironman races, and how incredibly strong, healthy and fit they are, and, oh, the vigor of life they exhibit in their personal being. 

Between the two, I aspire to be the latter. 

To further seal my decision, I got to know a sweet, down-to-earth and extremely fit 77-year-old. Harriet Anderson is a legend in the American triathlon scene - she is one of the oldest triathletes in the U.S. who has completed not just a couple, but twenty-whopping-one Kona Ironman. 21! She did her first sprint triathlon at the age of 50, won her age group, and has not looked back. She has since completed over 80 triathlon races, and 21 of those 80 races is the Ironman, one of the toughest single-day races in the world today, where you race 140.6 miles by swimming, biking and running.

Every so often, I remind myself, I wanna be like Harriet Anderson when I’m in my 70s. Heck, even till I’m in my 80s, I wanna continue to be fit as a fiddle by doing triathlons. 

The Ironman earns the respect of triathletes because it is an event where you race not just other people, but yourself, to train your body to generate enough power and energy to complete a 2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike and 26.2-mile run in anything between 10-17 hours. 

Because of the extremity of the sport, you can’t help but to be changed by it. The extreme discipline, dedication, determination and focus that you put into transforming yourself into an endurance machine that refuses to quit when the going gets tough - in training, in your daily life, and on race day. 

I’m not the fastest, strongest or most-gifted triathlete. In all honesty, I am your average girl-next-door triathlete with average or below average race results. 

But what I lack in speed and talent, I make up for with my name’s initials, AT: Attitude and Tenacity

By attitude, I mean a faith-filled, positive attitude. 

And tenacity - it’s a powerful trait I hold dear. Tenacity goes beyond determination. By definition, tenacity means “persistent determination”.

Every time I cross the finish line of a race, I’m overcomed with a surging sense of gratitude for the health that I have, and this body which I’ve been blessed with to use as a vessel to channel a positive message of inspiration to the people around me through my athletic pursuits and never-say-die attitude. 

So I tri, and keep tri-ing, because triathlon keeps me on the edge and makes me dream bigger every time

Doing an Ironman is not a one-all and be-all. Doing an Ironman is part of a journey to have a higher appreciation for other things in life - for instance, enjoying the beauty of nature while I am out riding, running trails, the ability for us humans to take a leaf from nature and learn to swim efficiently like a fish, etc. Or simply to enjoy the camaraderie of fellow triathletes and endurance junkies that I train with. I've found that the heart and beauty of the Ironman is that it changes each triathlete individually, yet it binds us collectively through a uniquely shared experience.

The challenge for me personally is to keep looking for higher mountains to climb. For some their higher mountains could be to better their Ironman finish times; for me it could be a longer, further endurance race. 
For now, I have my eyes set on cycling across the US from coast to coast in 28 days. A girl can dream, can’t she? ;)

A similar post is found here:

Nailed my first Ironman 140.6 miles: Vineman 2013

Doing my first Ironman is like falling in love for the first time.

Throughout the race, I was pleasantly surprised at the incredible peace and ease at which I swam, bike and ran.

The swim has traditionally been my weakest and most challenging portion of the race.

On race morning, I was unusually calm and in good spirits.

The race started at 6.30 am. My swim wave started at 6.36 am. Russian River is clear, calm and shallow. For the first time in any triathlon race, I swam with ease and confidence, and came out of the water 3 mins faster than I expected. Good start to a long day!

Training for Vineman started in Nov 2012. For 8 months I lived, breathed, ate, slept, dreamt, talked and thought nothing but triathlon.

Through all of this, my husband has been my biggest cheerleader and supporter. On days when I wanted to opt out of training for the excuse of spending time with him, he firmly said no, go out and train, or you'll not be yourself. By saying I won't be myself he meant I won't be the super hyperactive Angie who thrives on endurance training adrenalin. And those daily shots of adrenaline that comes from training makes up my very DNA which, if not taken for a day, throws me off balance and into a low state.

If you think I'm an endurance junkie, you're probably right, which is why when I sustained a nasty hamstring/calf injury on my right leg 4 weeks into the race and I couldn't run or train effectively for 1.5 weeks, I was rather down, anxious and worried that I would not be able to compete at all. But my triathlete friend, GR, who saw me through my training taught me to apply the human factor to my training – to listen to my body, to rest when needed, not to take each training session as a killer session, to learn to train by feel, and most of all, to trust the process.

If not for him, I wouldn't have done as well as I did in the race.

He taught me Pacing, Nutrition, Execution (PNE).

I carried those 3 words with me into the race. You see, an Ironman race is long. Professionals complete it in 8-9 hours; for most everyone else, i.e. the age groupers, we complete it in anything between 9-17 hours.

I took the number in between and based on my current capability, estimated an overall finish time of 13-13.5 hours.

In order to complete within that target finish time, I have to ensure that I pace myself - to swim, bike and run at my trained speed, and not to go out too hard and fast at the start when I feel fresh, only to be depleted midpoint and slow drastically down at the end portion. I'm glad to report that I paced myself evenly throughout the entire race, as I kept drilling the 3 keys words in my head: Pacing, Nutrition, Execution.

Race day isn't about hoping for a miracle that I'd be able to go faster and finish in incredible time. Race day is all about Execution: executing your race pace and sticking to the plan. I can't expect to do on race day what I haven't done in training. In the past that was the mistake I made and so I didn't fare well in those races, but for this important Ironman race, I sobered up and realized that race day is all about executing what I know my body is capable of accomplishing.

Coming out of the 2.4-mile swim in 1 hour 37 mins, I smiled. The hardest part of the race (for me) was over! Now all I have to do is bike 112 miles and run 26.2 miles.

I got onto the bike with ease, enjoyed the ride, and savored the beauty of Sonoma County. The entire bike course was flanked by wineries and vineyards on the left and right, and in the horizon, green and golden mountains. I must have looked rather silly smiling and beaming on my bike while the other competitors raced the course.

If there was a miracle that happened on race day, it was the weather. Sonoma County has traditionally been extremely hot in the summer, and the past few years during Vineman, the temperature averaged the high 90s Fahrenheit (30s Celsius).

Miraculously, the weather on race day this year was in the 60s Fahrenheit (10-ish Celsius), which I saw as a sign that God has my back on this race. He set the stage and made everything perfect for me and the rest of the participants that day.

During the bike portion, I religiously took in my nutrition: a combination of Lara Bars, Clif Bars, Clif Shot Bloks and Team Osmo Hydration Drink.

It's important to have your nutrition come in different shapes, sizes and medium for variety sake and to prevent boredom on the bike; well at least for me, this formula seem to work out very well. I had no gastrointestinal (GI) or bloating issues.

I wasn't racing anybody. I was simply executing my race plan. And I wasn't hard on myself - I allowed myself to hit the bathroom twice on the bike, doing ahem, both a big and a small number, slowly wheeling in to the aid stations and stopping to take a minute of rest, thank the volunteers and chatted with and encouraged other triathletes. I wasn't just racing - I was enjoying every moment of the day. I knew it was gonna be a long day, so I didn't wanna be hard on myself but to enjoy it with other people.

I've never ridden 112 miles in one stretch without longer than an hour break in between before, so by the time I was done, I was very pleased and knew that with the swim and bike conquered, the run was just gonna be a blast - coz I love the run the best.

During training, running after biking always hurts - my chest would hurt, my heart rate would escalate, and my legs would feel heavy like lead. Brick runs (running after biking) was my least favorite part of training because it spells PAIN.

Imagine my surprise when I got onto the run course - I thought I was gonna hurt, but no, I felt incredibly good! So good it was almost unbelievable. I felt no pain, no discomfort, just sheer joy and the ability to run easily after over 9 hours on the swim and bike.

So ran I did. Smiling most of the way. I received numerous cheers from supporters for holding a good form and pace and smiling widely despite the brutality of the run that most of the triathletes on the course were struggling with. Many walked the course, especially uphill. I'm glad to report that I ran the whole way through, even uphill, when nobody else did, and walked only the aid stations and stopped to use the portable loo twice.

A number of times my right calf and knee hurt, but each time it did, I prayed and asked for the Holy Spirit to flow through my body, into my cells and muscles. God answered every bit of my prayer, and held me up strong throughout the run, till the finish line, where I sprinted the last 200 meters and was announced as a first time finisher as I smiled and raised my hands in victory. I did it! I finally nailed this dream that eluded me 2 years ago when I failed to complete it in Germany.

My official finish time: 14:15:38

The victory is sweet, but not as sweet as the lessons learnt along this journey that made me mature as a triathlete. Would I do this again? For sure. Even if I have a baby, I'm determined to train through my pregnancy and come back even stronger and speedier than before.

Having competed in several half Ironman distance races and experienced the pain and brutality of those races, I've often questioned myself if I could really complete a full Ironman – which would demand double the distance, pain and agony. Little do I know how miraculous the human mind and body is - crossing the finishing line on July 27, I give my Master Creator the fullest credit for His handiwork in me - for fearfully and wonderfully creating me to be the endurance athlete that I am. And I vow to glorify Him always, in all my sporting pursuits.

I'm thankful also, for the amazing support I've received from those who love, care, encourage and cheer me on for the past many years, who believed in me and never doubted my ability to do this. My husband, family, pastors, friends, coaches, fellow triathletes - my success is every bit yours - thank you for helping me reach for the stars. 

My cheerleader & most supportive spouse

My support team and incredible housemate, Ash - first time anybody made me a poster!
(psst.. he's super sweet, single & available!)

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Paying It Forward: Duty to Help

I was 11 and walking home from tuition class a couple of streets from home. A man in a nice Volvo drove slowly and pulled up next to me, asking me for directions. I knew the area well, and gave him simple directions to get there. He wasn’t sure he caught my directions right, and asked if I would step into the car to bring him to his destination, which was probably less than a mile away.

Something seized up on the inside of me, I summoned an annoyed look and firmly said ‘No’. He caught the signal, knew I wasn’t a simple-minded damsel, thanked me, and drove off.

I walked home, relieved, while replaying the horror of what could have happened had I been naive and eager to be helpful and stepped into his car.

Getting into a stranger’s car or hitchhiking presents the same possibility of danger - my parents made sure to drill it into us children’s thick skulls to never, ever accept rides from strangers. Little did I think I’d neglect my parents’ warning in my moment of desperation two days ago when I got lost and separated from my friend on a 100-mile bike ride in a county I was totally unfamiliar with. To make matter worse, I was tired, thirsty, hungry, and depleted every ounce of energy to ride any further, and had no cell phone or means of communication to reach my friends.

Despite my frantic wave for help on the side of a busy road, I watched with dismay as one after another driver in fancy cars zoomed past me, ignoring my plight. As I grew more weary and dejected, my desperation got the better of me and I resorted to stepping in the middle of the road so oncoming cars had no option but to stop for me. It worked.

A driver stopped her car and waved her hands - she thought I wanted to cross the road and was waving for me to do so; but no, I wasn’t looking to cross the road - I wanted her to stop in her tracks to help me. I needed help and was going to get it, by hook or by crook.

Thankfully it was a female driver - I would have been a little more wary and considered alternative options if it was a male driver. She got off her car, immediately introduced herself as a home nurse (and was indeed dressed in working nurse’s clothes, plus I saw large boxes of medical equipment in her car, so I was assured that she was honest and that I could trust her) and proceeded to help me in more ways than I could ever repay her for. She lent me her phone to call my husband, drove in circles in the area as I wasn’t sure where exactly my friends were, finally, after much searching and driving over 20 miles, she brought me safely to my very worried friends.

For all of her trouble and kindness, she expected nothing in return, only that I pay the kindness forward to someone, anyone who needed help in future. I told her I would do so.

Yesterday, on the way to a lunch appointment, I saw a boy with his bike lying by the side of the road, with what looked like a dented wheel.

Something screamed on the inside of me to “pay it forward” as I promised to.

But I deliberated. I didn’t jump at the opportunity to pay it forward as eagerly as I promised my benefactor two days ago.

Still driving and approaching the traffic junction where I could see the boy by the side of the road, I studied the situation intently: he was sitting upright - which meant that he was not injured. He was making a phone call - which meant that help was on the way. His bike didn’t look expensive - it probably wouldn’t be costly to replace the damage. It was a busy intersection - someone else would stop to help.

Plus, if I had stopped to help the boy, I would be extremely late for my appointment, besides, I would have inconvenienced my friend who drove out to meet me for lunch. Do I tell her hey, a situation came up, it’s really late notice, but I’m sorry I have to postpone our appointment? I couldn’t bring myself to do that - perhaps I didn’t want to?

As I reflect on the two events (me receiving help, and me not reaching out to help), I wonder if I had been selfish and unreliable to prioritize my sense of duty to uphold an appointment with a friend, over a more overwhelming responsibility to help a boy in need?

Have I, in that situation, made an irresponsible decision, or, demonstrated an omission to help and pay a kindness forward?

How often are we presented with opportunities to do good, and fail to act on that opportunity, because of seemingly more important priorities? In this age of abundant options, have we gotten our priorities and sense of responsibilities wrong?