A Path and a Goal

Wildflowers by the B&A Trail, photo by Dion Hinchcliffe

I never expected to be the type of person who exercises on her own just because she wants to, but that has come to pass. I’ve been wanting to improve my endurance in general, and I always feel better when I get a good workout, so I’ve been taking advantage of this perfect fall weather to get outside and enjoy the sun before winter comes. Last week, I skated about 3 miles on the B&A Trail just to test it out, but I didn’t track my time. Yesterday, I skated 5.4 miles and averaged 9  minutes and 30 seconds per mile (total 49 minutes), and today I did 3.9 miles and averaged 8 minutes and 2 seconds per mile (total 31 minutes).

I’m not sure if my speed is good, bad, average, or what. I asked the league via Facebook what pace they would aim for, but Ela Trick said I should just figure out my own starting pace and focus on improving that. Of course, she’s right. I shouldn’t compare myself to anyone else or set any expectations to beat myself up about. However, I also really want to be able to keep up with the big kids at practice. So, my goal for now is to maintain an average of 8 minutes per mile for an hour of skating. Once I feel comfortable with that, then I’ll think about going faster.

The trail is beautiful, but some parts are pretty poorly maintained. Folks on bikes don’t seem to notice, but when your wheels are smaller than your fists, every crack in the pavement is a little bit terrifying. Oh, and crossing the street on skates? Not my idea of a good time. On the bright side, the trail goes right past several cool local businesses including a coffee shop with outdoor seating where you can watch people walk, run, skate and bike past while you take a break. Plus, everyone on the trail tends to be in a good mood, and why wouldn’t they be? We’re all outside, soaking up the sun, enjoying nature and doing something that makes us feel good. Most people at least say hi, and occasionally people actually cheer you on as you pass each other. It’s a day-brightener, for sure.

I wonder how long this trail skating business will last and how far I’ll get before the weather turns too cold for it to be fun. Nimby and I are talking about getting an elliptical machine for the basement because some form of indoor exercise is going to be necessary to get through this winter. But until that comes through, I’m looking into the smaller investment of a jump rope.

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Aches and Pains, Breaks and Sprains

We keep playing despite the risk of injury. Maybe the real problem is here.
We keep playing despite the risk of injury. Maybe the real problem is here.

This week, one of my favorite skaters fell hard during a drill. She’s just coming back from a long illness, and I know it’s discouraging to take a fall like that just as you’re getting your strength back. There was an audible pop as she went down, and she seemed to be in a lot of pain, but after some rest, she was able to get out on the track again. I was glad she came back out, yet worried about her safety. This got me wondering about pain, how we deal with it in derby and elsewhere in life.

“No pain, no gain” was a major reason I avoided the gym and any form of strenuous exercise for most of my life up to this point. Yoga was the first form of exercise I encountered where the motto was, “No pain? Great!” I believe pain is your body’s alarm system, a way of telling you where your limits are. If you learn to respect those boundaries and work with them gradually, you end up with a rich practice and a healthy relationship with your body. That’s why I prefer a slow and mindful practice and also why yogis emphasize the importance of good alignment to avoid potentially painful situations.

But it’s not quite the same in sports, especially derby. We talk a lot about safety, wear pads and helmets, and learn how to fall safely. Still, every time we put skates on, we take a pretty big risk. Great skaters fall all the time, and despite all their conditioning, good form, and constant practice, sometimes injury is a matter of chance. But we keep taking that chance practice after practice, game after game, because we gain something from the sport that outweighs our fear of pain.

On the other hand, there are the everyday pains of derby. Personally, my feet hurt. My low back and hips are sore pretty much all the time. My hamstrings are tight, and even my neck and shoulders get cranky sometimes. I’m trying to improve this situation by (a) skating better, (b) practicing more, and (c) doing at least a little yoga every day. I think this pain is temporary, and if I treat it right, it’s just a stepping stone on my derby journey. Again, I gain something from the sport that outweighs not just the threat of pain but the reality of it.

And finally, there are the bruises. If you’ve ever hung out with derby players, you’ve probably taken part in a conversation about bruises. There’s always a bit of pride involved, and usually a story about how we acquired said bruise. I currently have a nasty one on my shoulder from my first scrimmage. It’s two weeks old and still makes people ask, “Holy cow, what did you do to yourself?” Getting it hurt, but I’m proud of it because it’s proof that I went out and did something scary and survived.

I still don’t like pain, but I no longer believe it’s to be avoided at all costs. A certain amount of pain on a day-to-day basis is acceptable to me as long as I feel I’m gaining something from it. As for those unpredictable injuries, broken bones, dislocated joints, and even concussions are risks I accept while simply hoping I can dodge them. It’s hard for me to say why I’m willing to take those risks for derby. I still don’t believe in the “no pain, no gain” slogan, but I’m starting to understand that without a certain amount of risk involved, life just isn’t nearly as fun.

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Worry less, practice more.

After a rough practice, I felt pretty rattled and decided to do a bit of skate maintenance to settle down.
After a rough practice, I felt pretty rattled and decided to do a bit of skate maintenance to settle down.

I fell at practice last night and scared myself more than I hurt myself. I needed to get back on wheels tonight* and not let that fall defeat me, so me and my anxiety went to the skating rink with Jennanigans and her daughter.

The cool thing about skating with the Little One (we need to give her a derby name!) is she distracts me from myself. I’ll skate backwards in front of her slowly, pretending to guide her when really, I’m using her as a focal point so I will stop obsessing about the fact that “omg I’m going backwards!” After a few laps like that, I started to feel pretty good, but still struggled with transitions. Going backwards? Not so bad. Getting backwards? Scary, apparently.

One of the lame parts of open skate is self-consciousness (also known as just another form of fear). At derby practice, everyone is working on themselves and you know they’re not judging you. People fall so often during practice that no one even looks twice unless they think you might be seriously hurt. But at open skate, derby girls tend to stick out, and it’s a whole different atmosphere. The thought of a fall like last night’s during open skate made me too nervous to practice transitions on the track with kids.

I spent some time on more familiar skills including one-footed weaving. The weaving was where I got in trouble. Certain rink regulars love to give advice, and I haven’t minded it in the past, but tonight it was just a distraction. I really wanted to focus on my own work, but here I was trying to ignore this guy who wanted me to use my lifted leg as a rudder. He tried to quiz me on how boats work and actually asked, “Have you seen a boat?” I had to tell him, “Are we having a physics lesson now? I just wanna skate. I don’t wanna talk about it. I learn things by doing them.” What I wanted to tell him was I am from the motherfucking Gulf of Mexico. I have seen boats, my knee is not a rudder, and pumping your leg out to the side like you’re working an invisible thigh master is not going to make you go faster.

All the distractions eventually frustrated me enough that I gave up and went to work on the thing I was feeling afraid of. I went in the center of the rink and skated back and forth for around 30 minutes turning around over and over again. I figured out which one was my “bad side” and kept turning that way until it felt as good as my other side. I practiced until it didn’t feel scary, and then I did it some more just for good measure. It was not glamorous or interesting to watch I’m sure, but it felt pretty great.

Some days (like yesterday), I don’t even know why I want to play roller derby. I don’t care about being a star athlete. I’ve never even viewed myself as very athletic. I love the community, but that alone isn’t a good enough reason for me to push myself like this. Yet I am addicted to derby. It’s not just the endorphins from a good workout but the exhilaration of having dome something I was once afraid to do.

Chances are, the next time I put on skates I’ll still feel a little intimidated by my first couple transitions. Just like I used to be scared of crossing over. But crossovers kept getting easier until they became natural, and transitions will be the same. It’s funny to me that I can predict: This is going to get easier. I know it will because I’m practicing. That actually makes me feel powerful in a really simple and practical way. I have the ability to get better because I choose to practice.

*It’s 2:30 a.m. on Wednesday, but I’m still calling it Tuesday because I haven’t gone to sleep yet. So sue me.

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When a Fail isn’t a Fail

Roller skates at La Muette, Paris, 1955. Photo: Robert Doisneau; One of the drills we did last night looked a lot like this. I was the one in back.
Roller skates at La Muette, Paris, 1955. Photo: Robert Doisneau; One of the drills we did last night looked a lot like this. I was the one in back.

Last night, we had a skills assessment at practice, and today I’m waiting to hear how I did. I am about 90% expecting to hear that I did not pass, but a little part of me is holding out hope that maybe I did better than I thought. The thing is, almost no one passes the orange assessment on their first try. Leading up to last night, lots of teamed skaters told me and the other white stars (the nice name for fresh meat) how many times they had to take the assessment before they passed. Many tried two, three, or four times. I’ve heard it’s common to take six months for a brand new skater to be ready to start scrimmaging. That sounds like a long time, but based on the progress I’ve made so far, it wouldn’t surprise me if it takes that long. From one practice to the next, it’s slow, steady improvement. The world doesn’t change over night, and neither does my ability to do a proper plow stop.

So, why did I do the assessment if I felt certain I was going to fail? Well, mostly because I needed the practice points to make the attendance requirement for this month, but also to find out how far I’ve come and what I need to work on the most. And yes, part of me thought, “Maybe it will all click and suddenly make sense when I’m testing, and I’ll do really well.” Some things did click for me. In a slightly pressured situation, I found myself a little more agile and confident than I was two months ago. On the other hand, I realized some skills I just don’t have yet: I don’t really know how to hit, I don’t get low enough to take a hit without falling over, and I don’t have very good endurance. And that’s all stuff I’m aware of without getting my feedback yet, so I’m sure what I get back will be helpful, and then I’ll have some points to focus on before the next assessment. And the cool thing is, I’m pretty sure I can get better, so I just have to keep doing it.

As my fellow freshies are getting their responses and sharing them among our little group, I’m eager to get mine, but mostly I’m feeling really happy for us all. There was a lot of team work involved last night, and I was proud of the way we communicated with and encouraged one another. We did a good job of supporting one another while we did our own best. At one point or another, every one of us said or thought, “I can’t fucking do this,” but we did. And everyone was so damn proud of everyone else by the end of the night, it was a little ridiculous. The experience itself was worth the nerves and exhaustion, and even though I feel certain I didn’t pass, it doesn’t feel like a failure.

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Why Do Derby Today (my reminders)

Attack Dog Three Kids

I’m pretty sure my fellow freshies will understand when I say I identify a little too much with these toddlers.

Roller derby is not easy. As I was reminded at practice this week, “If it were easy, everyone would do it.” In fact, if it were easy, I would have done it ages ago, gotten bored with it and quit by now. In the past week or two, I’ve had moments of wondering whether derby is for me or if I’ll ever get good at it. A pulled muscle in my hip and one very discouraging practice had me thinking I’d never be good enough to scrimmage, let alone get on a team. But a couple days later I had a good practice, learned some things, felt a little stronger, and connected with league mates I hadn’t talked with before.

I love the way our practices are set up so the new girls get to drill with the vets and learn skills from them. Skaters at every level are eager to share what they know and to give a word of encouragement whenever it’s needed. Still, there are days when you come home and just want to cry because (a) something hurts, and/or (b) you just don’t think you’ll ever get there.

Especially when you’re in pain, it’s easy to forget all the good stuff, so I’ve started a running file on my phone called “Why Do Derby Today.” This is where I keep track of the reasons I love derby so I won’t forget them when I have a hard day. Here’s the list so far:

  1. Derby makes me feel really strong.
  2. Facing challenges helps me get braver.
  3. All the awesome friends.
  4. Be an example of what’s possible for other women.
  5. Do it for the sense of accomplishment.
  6. Eat what you want, and never feel bad about it.
  7. Seeing how far I’ve come already, I wonder how much further I could go.
  8. My league mates are awesome and always willing to help me learn and improve.
  9. Hitting drills are fun and not as scary as I thought.

So, next time I’m afraid I totally suck and will never get it right, hopefully this little list will remind me why it’s worthwhile to keep trying. With a little encouragement from my friends I’ll keep showing up, doing what I can, and hopefully growing a little bit at a time. And who knows? Maybe one day I’ll even get to skate in a bout.

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