*UPDATE* Psychological Effects of Heart Rate Monitor Use Study

12/21/2010: Preliminary results were reported at Indoor Cycle Instructor in October 2010. Manuscript in preparation. Once published, results will be made available on this site and at ICI.

Monday, April 6, 2009

The Best Day of My Life - On the Bike AND Off.

I'm posting this entry on BOTH blogs, for the first time in my life. If you follow both, I apologize! Hopefully you'll see why I chose to do this... I'll probably never ever do this again; it just seemed to be the logical choice here.

See, I've never been terribly good at compartmentalization. It's why I used to sleep in my office and accept 2AM phone calls from my boss; why I can't go ANYWHERE (bar, bowling alley, movie theater...) without evaluating every sound for its potential to contribute to a Spinning class; why I'm skipping class to be able to blog on a Monday morning. Recently, I gave up trying to improve my compartmentalization skills; I decided it wasn't important enough to me. I'd been striving for compartmentalization because 'society' says I'm supposed to -- I didn't have my own independent reason worth investing in.

Screw that. Instead, I've been investing time and energy this year to Anti-Compartmentalization, if you will: that is, carving out a fusion that reflects my multiple roles, responsibilities, passions, and inspirations. Physician-in-training vs. Coach. Learner vs. Teacher. Observer vs. Doer. They're not mutually exclusive, so why treat them as such? Still, the only pseudo-line I've drawn in the sand through my relatively new public reflections is between: "A 'SPINTASTIC' READER MIIIIIIIGHT CARE ABOUT THIS" vs. "THERE'S A GOOD CHANCE NOBODY ONE EARTH WILL CARE ABOUT THIS." Reflections categorized into the latter wind up on Feel the Road (the "life blog," if you will).

Well, you know you've had a pretty damned good day if you have an experience that cannot be categorized. It was one of the best, most affirming days of my life as a cyclist, as a coach, as a leader, as a mentor, as a learner, as a friend, as a human being. At Saturday's 6-Hour Special Olympics Spinathon, for me, they were one and the same. So, it seemed only fitting to post on both blogs.

If you've been following either blog, you might remember that the 9th Annual Ride for a Reason has been a major "life construct" for so many reasons:
* It marked my first 'community integration' effort in the city of Burlington, my new home, independent of medical school. Through serving on the event's planning committee at the invitation of EpicRides' Allen Jones (creator of pretty neat ride-along cycling DVDs, for those of you into that scene...) in the fall, I developed a true sense of feeling "at home" in this new chapter of my life. It gave me an opportunity to build that part of my identity. My trips back to NYC stopped being so regular (I was going back every 3 weeks, at one point...); I didn't need as many "life snuggles" from My Former World. I belonged in my new one.
* OBVIOUSLY the hugest opportunity of my coaching career. Being able to shape an experience for 100 riders, from atop a huge stage with life-altering broadcast capacity: my music and my words and my particular way of seeing the world echoing off the walls of a huge ballroom, with the hope that some subtle aspect of ANY of it would strike the ears, the minds, and the hearts of the people before me... united in their passion and energy for the cause at hand, but each having a truly individualized experience.
* I would be co-leading the event with Spinning Master Instructors Anthony Musemici (who certified me! I invited him a) because he's an AWESOME coach, independent of any other factors; b) symbolically, he started me on this journey that I never ever ever anticipated leading to such rewarding sense of self through my opportunity to connect with so many people about my greatest passion) and Angie Scott. Anthony, who hasn't been in touch with me in 2.5 years and didn't know me from a hole in the head, flew up from NYC on his own dime -- and not only led amazingly inspiring portions of the ride, but was such a tremendous influence over my anxiety- and expectations-management leading up to this big day for me. Angie, from Montpelier, has been such a tremendous resource to me upon my transition to Vermont cycling life, always generous with her time and insights -- and even gave me the opportunity to co-teach a 2-hour endurance ride with her, my first time working with Vermonters of the age/experience-level to which I was accustomed in NYC... quite different from my university campus population, a change I found disorienting for several months. Angie gave me an opportunity to re-connect with myself, through connecting with her riders.) It was a daunting but invigorating honor to share the stage with two people who inspire me so much.
* I had friends and NYC "regulars" coming up just to ride this event. They literally drove up for less than 12 hours, just to be here for this with me!
* I trained six of my UVM riders to participate in what ALL of them had previously regarded as an impossible task. Some rode 2 hours, some rode 4. Some rode 6 hours. 4 of the 6 had never been on a bike (stationary or the kind prone to falling over) before they met me. I tried to do everything in my power to make them successful, and I'd feared that my imperfections as a coach would limit them. What if I hadn't conveyed the things I thought I was conveying? How would they feel about themselves when it was over? What would happen next. This was my responsibility to set them up for success. They rocked it. They all friggin' rocked it.
* This was a major training goal for me as an athlete. I was committed to riding all six hours (the estimated equivalent of 120 miles, per measurements I'd taken during my 2-hour training blocks -- and I was riding on "Game Day" at comparable cadences), and I was committed to improving over the last time I had done this. I rode two 6-hour rides in Jan/Feb 2008 -- and as I described in my last posting, identified specific things I wanted to improve. I designed my own training plans to accomplish these specific tasks, and translated them into Spinning classes to share with my riders. Allow me a small dose of arrogance (I did just ride 6 hours, after all): 1) I got INSANELY good at holding 70% MHR for hours, persisting through changes in resistance, speed, and position via breathing control (biofeedback via HRM); 2) I got even more INSANELY good at getting a TON of work done at 70% MHR, both through Accomplishment #1 and by investing time in my first religious lower body strength-training regimen ever; 3) my proudest training accomplishment: I got good ENOUGH at alleviating "hot feet" (nerve compression), which had been the bane of my existence during the last two Spinathons. I actually bawled, siething in pain during the Jan '08 ride. It just hurt so bad. It wasn't enough to be mindful of my pedal stroke: lifting
up on the pedals, keeping my foot at the top of my shoe. I knew all that. SPD cleats are so damned small that the concentrated pressure is just awful after a few hours -- and I knew I wasn't going to build up training time long enough to simulate Game Day conditions (I'm a medical student: I knew I'd train to ride two hours, develop solid techniques, and then on Game Day, shift my heart rate lower and blast out another four from pure adrenaline). So I trained to cope with "hot feet" on the elliptical. I'd argue that Hour 4 on a Spinner feels like Minute 25 on an elliptical; the pressure is just brutal. Not AS brutal as a Stepper -- but "Stepper hot feet" do not feel, to me, like "cycling hot feet": they don't stop upon cessation of activity; they screw with the ankles; and, most importantly, the skills associated with prolonging onset of cycling hot feet simply don't apply to the Stepper. It's a different movement, biomechanically. On the elliptical, though, I got pretty good at "top of the shoe shuffling" on a bike (again, why I was practicing this on the elliptical is that it didn't take 4 hours before I was in pain -- the goal was to get good at alleviating pain!). I also found elliptical training to be great mental focus training -- given how friggin' boring and awful it is (Justification to assure you I'm not being dismissive: I train on an elliptical 2-3x a week, and credit it entirely with how much work I can get done at "70%" -- even
though it's a different 70% than my cycling 70%, it's close enough to translate well).

In moments of weakness (and certainly there were many...), I was mindful of all of those things -- acknowledging them, appreciating them gave me a very profound surge of strength at these key points of exhaustion. My "grand idea" of not instructing until Hour 5, well, had its limits. When I looked down at my heart rate monitor on my left wrist or my eating disorder awareness bracelet on my right (an important symbol of my history that led me to the place at which I am now), I felt so supremely strong. I closed my eyes, felt the warmth and glow of the hot stage lights, the effortless flow of the rhythm... and just WAS.

The irony was that, when I am up in front of my classes, I am never riding for me. I ride to demonstrate form and breathing efforts, then I get the hell off the bike most of the time. It's all about the riders in the room. Now here on this huge stage (before it was my turn to lead), I was absolutely riding for me. I was OBSESSIVE about my form (given that hundreds of people were watching me), and I frequently made crowd-encouraging gestures -- but other than that, I was having as personal and individualized an experience -- feeding off of the energy, the rhythms, the infusions of truth and light expounding from my colleagues' mouths -- as anyone on the floor. It was powerful. It was wonderful. It was everything I loved about the Spinning program.

Then came Hour 5. The hardest part, cue-wise, was the first 1 minute 8 seconds. It was a dramatic instrumental intro, with a very specific and abrupt change in the rhythm that ABSOLUTELY needed to coincide with a very specific and abrupt phrase. "Absolutely needed to," of course, was a completely self-imposed (STUPID) construct. But it was important to me. When I practiced it over time (since NOVEMBER!), I'd repeat it at least 10 times a pop. No joke. 10x a day, maybe 2-3x a week, since NOVEMBER? Am I serious? YES. That's the sickest part. Dead serious. I'd nailed it maybe ONCE when I was practicing. Other than that, always off -- I'd either finish speaking too early or too late. Dead space during this creepy music would have been killer. The stakes were high -- artificially high but high nonetheless.

The room was dark. I was blinded by the spotlights. I heard my creepy piano chords, and took the deepest breath I'd taken in weeks. I asked my 100 riders to close their eyes; I couldn't see them do it, but I could feel it. I began to speak.

I've got good news and bad. The good news is: this is your hardest hour. You get through this, and it's smooth sailin'. Pause. Smile. Hear key creepy piano chord. I think I'm "on track," but have no idea. The bad news is... this is your hardest hour. I smile, ironically. I could feel smiles break out across the room. I hadn't screwed up yet.

It's not any physically harder than what you've done already. In fact, it's a bit easier. But it's mentally grueling. By Hour #5, you don't want to do this anymore. You're exhausted. Your feet hurt. You don't even remember why you started doing this crazy thing in the first place. But you had a reason -- every one of you had a specific reason you came out today. Key dramatic chord. Still "on." Nobody woke up arbitrarily and said to themselves, 'Hey, I'm going to go ride a stationary bike for 6 hours... just for the heck of it.'You did it because it meant SOMETHING to you. Many of you did it because every pedal stroke contributes to the lives of the Special Olympics athletes. Many of you did it because you saw it as a commitment to yourselves, your goals, your values, the very things you hold important. So here during Hour 5, my job is going to be to help you to use your mind clearly to reconnect with those values -- to reconnect with WHY you started this ride in the first place....

Oh no. I don't recognize the music. Where am I? Did I say too much? Is the transition coming? Ohhhhh no. Breathe. No, really, breathe.

... and, hey, while we're at it... maybe we'll have to go ahead and have a good time...."

BOOM. MUSIC CHANGE. BAM. Right there. NAILED it. Cannot believe I nailed it. No way. NO way.

And, just like that, the last six months were for something. I could feel a wave of calmness overcome my entire body. Everything was going to be okay. Not just okay; everything was going to be awesome.

Everything else went exactly according to plan. It was perfect. With every spontaneous hoot and holler from a rider (or two... or twenty!), I felt like my whole life had magically come together in this very specific moment. The music I'd selected, the themes/concepts I'd integrated, the profile I'd developed -- it meant something to me, and it so readily enveloped the crowd. It meant something to people. When I asked them questions, I got the most enthusiastic answers of which I'd ever dreamed. I'd go so far as to describe it as a "roar." A roaring crowd? No way. I felt like some kind of rock star. It was RIDICULOUS. Even in the moment, I was so mindful of how completely unentitled I was to be having this magical experience. This magical experience that I ate, slept, and breathed for the past six months. This moment of which's mere anticipation brought tears to my eyes -- whenever I played one of my to-be-used songs in a Spin class or in the car, sometimes I'd just be so struck with the powerful image of what it was going to feel like. Of course, I had no idea what it was going to feel like. My brain had no way of wrapping itself around the concept of just how powerful this was going to be, to feel this intense external AND internal connectivity.

There were moments where I couldn't even believe what was coming out of my mouth. They were things I'd said before, sure, but never quite like this. They were the kinds of things I say and think -- and KEEP -- to myself about the way "one" might see the world, connecting with their deepest-rooted motivations and passions... the things that give one a sense of meaning and purpose, how to use the subtle opportunities to connect with and learn from that, how to apply it towards their self-development. Finding excellence in the details. Finding peace in the awareness, the control. Finding a place that is theirs, and nobody else's.

I joke often, citing experiences as "being in my element" -- big dance parties with DJs, waxing philosophical to cheesy techno remixes or booming ridiculous soundtrack music, motivational interviewing lectures. I had NO friggin' idea what "being in my element" really was until Hour #5.

But Hour #5 wasn't what I'd hyped up most. My big finish - the last 20 minutes of Hour #6, thaaaaaaaaaaat I'd really hyped up. I probably irritated my colleagues with how damned excited I was for this simple, no-big-deal finish. I'd done it with my classes at the tail end of at least three rides between January and present. Totally overhyped... and totally anticlimactic. I learned an important lesson: striking a balance between preparation and feeding off the subtleties of being in the moment. My obsession over details, perhaps even for the sake of the details alone, turned out to be pretty lame. Expectations management had failed. But that's ok.

Ironically, the best part of Hour #5 was the one part I hadn't planned. At the last minute (the night before), I swapped out the end of the profile (3 "surges" to a techno remix of Don't Stop Believin' -- Anthony's nose wrinkled while we were prepping, and I was embarassed!) In its place, I weaved in Tiesto's remix of "He's a Pirate" -- wove it into the tail end of the preceding climb, quick recovery, then 90 second surge to the end of the hour. Except in the moment, I was struck by the opportunity to do something really "me." I gave a fat-burning pitch! I asked the crowd who likes to burn fat. Again, the "roar." Heh. I challenged them to keep their heart rates where they could talk when they hit the surge. Maybe they did, maybe they didn't -- but it sure looked like most of the crowd stayed seated (and they hadn't been, before). Whatever. It was still pretty cool to be able to make a pitch for perhaps my #2 priority as a coach.

At the end of Hour #6, I played one of my favorite-ever songs (that I'd used once *completely unsuccessfully* in a Spin class), "Our Lives" by Lifehouse. I listen to it on the drive to school most days, overlooking the mountains -- and, no joke, get tearful every time. So I ballsily just WENT for it. On stage, the instructors linked hands. I called for the riders to do the same. And right there, 100 people, hands linked -- my cheese infusing through the speakers, images of Special Olympics athletes broadcasted on the walls.

I started crying.

I cannot believe I've been writing/ranting so long -- I haven't taken the time to reflect on ANY of this until now, really. So I'll wrap it up with perhaps the coolest part of the experience.

Yesterday, I sent an email to my UVM riders who had participated -- to ask themhow they felt, offer my assistance with anything troubling them, and to ask them a few questions about their experience. I was inspired to want to learn just as much from others' experiences as I could from my own.

I asked them about what they remembered thinking about at certain points, how they approached training, intensity monitoring, fueling/hydration, and what they took away.

I was BLOWN away by some of the responses I got.

* "This was the most invigorating experience of my life. I've never been so proud of myself."
* "I was surprised at how much control I had over my breathing - just focusing on breathing out longer than on the way in" (I got tearful when I read that; that's a "me" line).
* "When my mind wandered, I closed my eyes" (same)
* "I challenged myself to drop my heels a little bit lower, to breathe a little bit deeper" (SAME - OH my goodness. Really? Were people really coaching themselves with the very language I tried so hard to teach them?)
* "I tried to imagine what you'd be encouraging us to think about -- checking in with myself, my heart rate, my form..." (no joke... apparently they do.)
* "I was proud of myself for being able to keep my heart rate so low for so long."
* "When I started taking your classes, I sure liked them -- but I had no idea what this was all about until I was surrounded by so many people, feeding off so much energy."
* "I would look around, absorb the energy and the room, look up at the stage... and remember my goals. I'd find myself readjusting to a better intensity for me."
* "I was so proud of how I was able to push myself past my limits -- I was motivated to keep going... because I can."

While I was absolutely proud of what I accomplished both riding and co-leading on Saturday, my proudest moment of my coaching career -- and one of the proudest moments of my life -- has been watching these email responses flood in, and seeing what this experience has meant to the people whom I've tried my darnedest to help inspire THEMSELVES to accept this challenge and take stock of how it contributes to their personal and spiritual growth, their very self-concept.

No wonder I can't compartmentalize this.


Courtney said...

Amazing. I WISH I could have been there for this. I know you are you in your VT element, but I hope to see you for a spin ride in NY next week! I wish I lived in VT too because i could have writtena bout this for a paper :)

Kala Marie said...

Yay, Melissa!!!! What a GREAT experience!!!!!!!!!! I'm totally jealous! :p

Charles said...

Congratulations Melissa! What an awesome experience. These don't come by very often, if ever at all and you siezed it. I bet you will continue to reflect on this and draw from this experience, maybe, for the rest of your life. I wish I could have been there to share it with you guys, especially given the cause. I have a special place in my heart for special the SPECIAL People you rode for! AWESOME

Melissa Marotta said...

Thank you so much for your kind words. I didn't even think I did a necessarily good job capturing what made this experience so life-altering -- it turned out kinda grandiose (which I at least TRY to not be 'my thing'), but I guess that's what empowerment is supposed to feel like.
It's definitely been hard to re-adjust to routine life, fo' sure, coming down from this high. Trying to apply it to EVERYTHING I do all day now...

Court - you will absolutely ride with me in NYC next week. I'm still in the process of picking up NYSC sub gigs.

Jennifer Sage said...

Melissa. I got chills reading this! After reading your email to me, I totally understand how overwhelmingly momentous this experience was, and will continue to be, for you! I remember those exact feelings at some of my first conference sessions or Spinathons where I felt like I really had an impact on people. You are now part of a special group! Congratulations for realizing how much of an impact you have on others. Because if that's the way YOU felt, imagine how THEY felt!

Big hug!

Melissa Marotta said...

I cannot tell you how much I appreciate your exceptionally thoughtful replies, here and by email. Beyond the practical utility of the coping mechanisms you've encouraged, the mere acknowledgment that the post-rush vacancy I'm experiencing is NORMAL was something I needed more than anything. Surreal power in a context to which most people trivialize is... isolating, almost. As I channel my enthusiasm into SOMETHING that can be shared with other people, there's so much that is lost in translation. The feeling of being "simply" UNDERSTOOD is such a big deal to me -- and, so, I very much appreciate you taking the time to read my story ;-)

Dizzle said...


This made me want to write you a whole email response about some personal issues I have been going through- and what is weird is that I have been thinking about writing you all day (since spin this morning) and I just came across your blog update now.

It was inspiring.