"And, when you want something, the entire Universe conspires in helping you to achieve it." -The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo



Wednesday, August 16, 2017

On Equine and Pet Insurance

Throughout the years owning Lily, I've had a few people request I write a post about my experience with equine insurance.

Edit: I have spent the majority of my 10-year career so far working in the chaotic emergency and critical care side of veterinary medicine: we fix the disasters when we can, so my range of experience is with the critical, with the chronic, with the extremely sick, with black & white situations, with life-or-death decisions. Most people don't understand, and never will understand, the way a veterinary ER/ICU works and the gamut of awfulness and sadness we see on a daily basis. There is a lot that we are not allowed to discuss precisely because clients with no veterinary medical experience will not comprehend the scope and magnitude of what we do. There is a lot of beauty and miracles and awesome too, but there is a tremendous amount of stress and sadness. Last Sunday alone we euthanized 8 patients in one 13-hour shift. Some were brought in specifically for euthanasia, others were brought in in extremely critical condition and too far gone to be able to fix them. But more than half of them were euthanised because their owners could not afford to treat. That was in one 13-hour shift. When I worked in Surgery, where most procedures were elective, we euthanized all of 4 patients in a two-year period.

So given some of the comments below, I apparently needed to explain where I'm coming from with this post. The average middle class person can't afford advanced specialty treatment for their pet out of pocket. They need to go into debt to pay for advanced veterinary care. That is the truth. Most people don't ever need to concern themselves with worrying about affording specialty treatment because they already know where they would draw the line when it comes to what they are willing to spend on their pets. And that is absolutely fine! Choosing to not let an animal suffer is always a good choice! In most cases, euthanasia is a gift, and it is one that I wish people could elect for themselves when diagnosed with chronic terminal illnesses.

But the other truth is that a lot of people don't even know that specialty services like radiation oncology and chemotherapy (you should have seen my in-laws' faces when I first announced I was going to work in veterinary oncology a year out of tech school. "You mean animals can be given chemo???" Yes, it is an option. Not one I would choose for my own pets, personally, but a good veterinary oncologist buys the patient time while maintaining a high quality of life for the pet and most of the time, that is all that the pet owner wants. So why not have the option?) and MRI and physical therapy and cardiologists and internists are options for their pets because there are general practitioners out there that won't give their clients these options, either because they think the clients won't be able to afford specialty care, they don't want to lose the income they receive from that client, or they genuinely think they can manage advanced chronic diseases on their own. (Hint: a lot of them can't. Not properly, at least.)

This post is  not really directed at my regular readers, it's meant to be more of an informative post to lie around on the internet whenever anyone wants to research more info on insuring pets/horses. 
Many, many thanks to those of you who commented and added your own experiences with insurance to this post! :)

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Some people can afford a $3,000 three-day hospitalization for their dog with moderate pancreatitis in a 24-hour specialty hospital in the DC/MD/VA region without batting an eye. But it is not always this way: I have seen people pull out multiple credit cards, refinance their houses, and take loans on their businesses in order to pay for a pet's hospital bill. I have seen people leave the hospital and come back with an enormous wad of cash that we have no idea how they got. Some people wipe out their savings and retirement accounts for their pets. This was all especially bad during the recession.

I'm not saying any of this is good or bad or admirable or whatever: I'm just pointing out that this type of stuff really does happen in real life and we feel awful when owners are faced with black and white choices like this. A lot of owners know in advance where they would draw the line when it comes to their pet's care, the lengths they are willing to go, and how much they are willing to invest financially in bringing that pet to good health. A lot of times euthanasia really is the right choice and is encouraged. But a lot of times owners don't want to elect that choice, either because they want more time with their pet and are holding on to every last shred of hope, or because they simply don't believe in euthanasia. You might be surprised about how often religious beliefs come into play when it comes to decisions regarding a pet's care. So some clients take extreme measures to try to continue/provide care that they can't always afford. Insurance can be a huge help in scenarios like this.

Specialty care will get you a diagnosis when your regular vet is stumped on what is wrong with him/her, but it is expensive because we are using the same exact technologies for diagnosing and treating your pet that your doctor would use on you in a human hospital setting. So why is the care for your pet so much more expensive than care for yourself?

First of all: look at the cost of your care before insurance. This is a huge pet peeve of ours in the veterinary industry. And then compare to the cost of care for your pet. Yes, the cost of care for you sans insurance is exorbitant. Fun fact: medical bills are the #1 cause of bankruptcy in the US. Most of the drugs and equipment are exactly the same in both human and veterinary medicine. In vet med we use a lot of refurbished human equipment (think fluid pumps and CT machines, for example) in order to keep costs down, and our mark-ups are way less than what they are on the human medical side. But it is still going to be expensive if you want the same quality of care you would receive in the same scenario.

So when does the cost for your pet's care become comparable to yours with health insurance? When you insure your pet.

So how does this work? Read on to find out. I'm going to talk first about insurance for your cat or dog, and then I'm going to talk about equine insurance, since they are very similar but there are some major differences.


Insuring Your Household Pet

Pet insurance is not like human medical insurance in a few ways:

1. Difference #1: In human medicine, you have your insurance that offers you different levels of coverage depending on whether your healthcare providers are in-network or out of network. Cost of care for you is going to be based on that, and on whatever other limiting factors your particular health insurance plan has: only some medications might be covered; preventive care might be covered 100%; you might have to meet a deductible before hospital care is covered, etc.

2. Difference #2: In the end, though, if you have health insurance for yourself what usually happens is that you either pay a copay (especially for doctor office visits) or pay nothing up front (especially when you're hospitalized), cost of care is never discussed (this is an enormous pet peeve of mine but it has to do with the fact that hospital billing is a mess and dealing with people's individual insurance plans to determine coverage is also a mess), and you get mailed a bill after the fact where you get to see how much your insurance covered. The final price you have to pay on that medical bill is what's left over after insurance has paid for whatever it is they cover.

3. Does every veterinary hospital take pet insurance? Technically yes. With pet insurance, you go and pick whatever insurance plan you want because there is no such thing as "in-network" or "out-of-network" for animals. Exception: Banfield pet insurance. It covers routine care but it only works at Banfield hospitals. It offers NO COVERAGE at hospitals that Banfield vets might refer to. This is a huge problem that Banfield is not always clear about and we get a lot of upset owners that were trying to be responsible by insuring their pet, only to realize they still have to pay 100% out of pocket when they get referred to the specialty hospital or the veterinary ER. If you have Banfield pet insurance and are concerned about the affordability of emergency treatment for your pet, I recommend an additional insurance plan to cover specialty care in the event you ever need it.
Anyway: network or out of network is not a thing with pet insurance because it works by refunding you directly. You always pay out of pocket for veterinary care at the time of treatment (this is the same with all plans), have the veterinarian fill out a form from your insurance (I recommend having blank copies of this form in your daily driver vehicle), and then fax it to your insurance company along with a copy of the paid invoice. The insurance company then sends you a check for what you paid. This process can take anywhere from two days to two weeks depending on your plan of choice and how quickly you got the filled-out form back to your insurance company.

4. How much of that veterinary care do pet insurance plans cover? They do not cover preventive and routine care like vaccines and checkups with your regular vet. They also don't cover the cost of the veterinary exam itself. But they do cover specialty care, diagnostics and treatments, like visits to the internist, major work with a veterinary dentist, TPLO surgery for your dog's torn cruciate, bloat surgery for your Shepherd, the emergency treatment for your cat's urinary obstruction, and some even cover chemotherapy and congenital problems/hereditary disease. Some pet insurance companies only offer one plan, but others have different levels of coverage that you can choose from or even customize however you want. There is usually a deductible and what you pay per month depends on how low or high of a deductible you choose. Some pet insurance plans offer different levels of reimbursement: 50%, 60%, 90%. In other words, they'll pay you back 50%, 60%, 90% of what you paid for treatment of your pet. The more you want reimbursed, the more expensive the premium usually is.

5. How much does pet insurance usually cost? It is going to depend on your animal's age (insure young so you don't have to pay as much later: with many companies, you're locking in your premium price for life the moment you insure your pet), gender (Ex: male cats are more expensive to insure than females because they can get urinary obstructions), species (dogs are more expensive to treat and thus insure than cats), pre-existing conditions (also why it's a good idea to insure early because these will be excluded), breed (Ex: Labs and Goldens are notorious for developing specific cancers at an early age), and the zipcode you live in, because cost of living is a factor.
That said, you're looking at anywhere from $15-$40/month average for one pet's insurance depending on the insurance company you choose, and the deductible and level of coverage you select. Can it be more than $40/month? Yes, it can. I went onto PetPlan so I could play around with their quotes and provide examples for you guys: PetPlan's Premier plan offers the highest level of coverage: you get unlimited annual coverage (aka there is no cap on what they will cover in a year. True story: they reimbursed one client $30,000 (yes, with a coma and 4 0s; I saw the bill) for a canine ICU patient's month-long hospitalization on life support while she recovered from severe pneumonia), a $100 deductible, and 80% reimbursement. Say I have a 3 year old large-breed (71 lb+) mutt living in Alexandria, VA (cost of living is quite high). This insurance plan is going to cost me $115/month. If I insure that same dog at under a year of age, that same insurance plan is $92/month. If I begin that same dog's insurance coverage at 8 years of age, that same insurance plan goes up to $323 (!!!) a month. See why it's a good idea to insure your cat or dog as young as possible?
Now, if that original 3-year old dog was small (under 25 lbs), his insurance premium with PetPlan would range from $20-$60/month depending on which plan I choose. Yes: it is FAR MORE EXPENSIVE to treat large breed dogs than it is to treat smaller ones in hospital. It can be more expensive to treat a Great Dane for a bloat + surgery than it is to treat a horse for colic + surgery. That said, PetPlan's Basic plan for a large breed dog in Alexandria, VA, starts at $31/month. So you have an enormous variation in price depending on what you select.

6. How do I find a good pet insurance company? Google. There are many, many, many to choose from nowadays. Or even better: ask your vet. A lot of vets and veterinary technicians insure their own pets; they sometimes have brochures on pet insurance at the front desk. Do I recommend any in particular? Yes, I do. (No, I do not get paid for recommending them: these two companies are the ones most often used by veterinary professionals for their own pets, are known for being kind and easy to work with, and have fast turnaround times on their refunds to you):

a) Trupanion: Trupanion lets you personalize your insurance plan quite a bit You can select your deductible of $0, $200 or $700, or you can 100% customize the plan depending on what you can afford/want to pay per month in proportion to the deductible you want to select. The deductible will not change for the lifetime of your pet. Also: once your pet is covered, your premium will not increase as your pet ages. They also offer some pretty cool add-ons like coverage for alternative therapies like chiropractic and acupuncture, and a pet owner's assistance package that covers boarding costs and euthanasia + cremation charges. They reimburse 90% of the cost of treatment for (and I'm quoting from their website): medications, diagnostics, surgeries, orthotics, prosthetic devices, hospitalization, supplements, herbal therapies, among others. They don't cover routine wellness exams, exam fees, nor pre-existing conditions (again why it's a good idea to insure your pet BEFORE it develops a problem!) When you think about it, this actually covers more than the average human health insurance plan.

b) PetPlan: This is another excellent company that offers similar options to Trupanion. They reimburse 80% instead of 90% of treatment costs, but they offer the same level of coverage: hospitalization, medications, diagnostics, referral and specialty treatments, behavior modification, alternative therapies, chemotherapy (this is huge: not all pet insurance covers this), surgery + rehabilitation, imaging including CT and MRI, boarding costs, loss due to theft or straying, death from injury or sickness, among others. One of the differences between PetPlan and Trupanion is that PetPlan already includes some of the add-ons you have to purchase separately with Trupanion. Each company has its perks though, and costs can vary from one to the other depending on the plan you choose within each company. It's easy to play with numbers on either of these websites: enter your pet's information and give an e-mail address (they won't spam you), and the website will let you  click through their plan options to see what you can get depending on the level of coverage you want.

Other pet insurance companies we see a lot through the veterinary hospital are VPI aka Nationwide (very popular among pet owners that come to the specialty hospital), Healthy Paws, Figo, Pets Best, Pet First, and Embrace.

So that's it in a nutshell on insurance for your cat or dog.


Insuring Your Horse


  • Insuring your horse is a little different because you are buying mortality insurance and adding major medical and surgical to it. Some insurance companies won't let you buy major medical & surgical coverage for more than your horse's mortality value. In other words, if your horse cost you $1,000, they won't let you buy $5,000 major medical & surgical coverage for it. There are exceptions: Broadstone is one of these exceptions. They WILL let you buy up to $15,000 in major medical & surgical coverage for your $1,000 horse.
  • Equine insurance works the same as pet insurance in that you pay out of pocket for your horse's medical care at the time of treatment, and have your vet fill out a form that gets faxed to the insurance company along with your paid invoice; you are then reimbursed by the insurance company. 
  • The other catch with equine insurance is that you can only purchase mortality insurance if your horse is over 15 years of age; major medical & surgical is not usually offered for horses older than 15. Broadstone, the agent I use, will cover horses with major medical & surgical up to 20 years of age. This is not common.
  • Gingham does a great job of explaining the mortality and loss of use aspect of equine insurance in this post. Gingham focuses on the pros and cons of loss of use in her second post on the subject because that was her major concern when she imported Windsor. I'm going to focus on the major medical and surgical coverage addendum, because that was my major concern at the time I decided to insure Lily. 


1. Mortality Insurance: in order to get your major medical & surgical coverage, you usually have to buy mortality insurance for your horse. This is the biggest catch with equine insurance. Mortality insurance basically means you get paid x amount for your horse in the event your horse dies or is euthanized. Obviously you have to declare a value for your horse in order to be able to insure it for mortality. Different equine insurance companies won't cover horses that aren't worth x minimum. Markel, for example, is considered one of the best equine insurance companies out there in terms of the enormous range of treatments they will cover + the % of reimbursement you receive for treatments, but it is meant for very valuable equestrian athletes: I believe they won't cover animals worth less than 5 figures. Most other companies aimed at "little people" (amateurs) and the horses they ride for fun will cover horses worth far less. If your horse has a show record or is being trained/worked by a professional or if you are in a regular lesson program with that horse, you can use all of these to substantiate the value of your horse for that mortality premium in addition to your horse's purchase price. At the time I insured Lily, I was consistently taking dressage lessons on her with a professional, so my agent encouraged me to use the value of my lessons to pad Lily's $1 purchase price. I came up with $1600 as her value, which was more than enough for me: my insurance premium cost was still affordable, and in the event she dies, this would be enough for an adoption fee for a nice horse from one of the local equine rescues, a young horse to train as a project, or a grade horse to have fun with. This value left me with plenty of room to get what I really wanted out of her insurance: that major medical & surgical addendum.

2. Major Medical & Surgical: coverage for this is going to vary depending on the insurance company. I researched Markel and was literally laughed at when I told them I wanted to buy insurance for my $1 horse...so I turned to another company that consistently came up in searches with good reviews: Broadstone Equine. At the time I was looking to insure Lily, I was in a hurry: we already knew we were moving from South Florida to the DC/VA/MD region and I wanted her covered STAT before loading her on the trailer for the long drive north. Broadstone had come up enough in searches that they were the only other company I called. They offered coverage for everything I wanted, were happy to insure my basically free horse, were wonderful to talk to, and had Lily covered at the time of my phone call. I had 30 days to sign the paperwork they e-mailed me and get it back to them. They were awesome. Broadstone is sort of an umbrella agent for other companies: Lily is insured through Broadstone with The Hartford. I renew her insurance with Broadstone, but when handling medical costs I work directly with The Hartford's agents (who are also amazing btw.)

  • The Hartford offers different tiers of coverage for major medical & surgical: up to $5,000, $7,500,  $10,000 or $15,000 annually. In other words, that's how much they will cover for your horse's medical costs for a year. Remember that some horses can max out any of these in one go: Lily used up all of her $7500 coverage in 2015 with her leg injury. Colic surgery is a worst-case scenario and can cost anywhere from $5k to $10k. Obviously the higher your annual coverage, the more expensive your premium.
  • Each equine insurance company varies in what they cover and how much they cover. Exams and barn calls are never covered (Lily's repeated emergency vet calls after she returned home from the equine hospital in 2015 racked up an additional $3,000 that we paid for out of pocket without reimbursement. Veterinary visits add up quickly! Imagine how much that would have been if the treatments she received each time hadn't been covered by her insurance!), and just like with pet insurance, neither is routine care like vaccines, dental floats, and farrier work. Surgeries, hospitalizations and prescription meds (think bute, SMZs, GastroGard and Marquis, for example) are usually covered 100%. Ultrasounds and x-rays are also covered. Advanced therapies like stem cells and PRP are covered to a degree, joint injections are covered to a degree, and shockwave is also covered to a degree. Coverage for advanced imaging like MRI and CT also varies from one company to another, with some covering 100% and others only a percentage. 
  • There is always a deductible. In other words, this deductible will be subtracted from the treatments that your equine insurance covers. In Lily's case, the deductible is $350, so not worth calling my insurance for treatments/care that cost less than that deductible because I am not going to get reimbursed for it. But for big things like her ligament strain in 2013 and her splint bone surgery in 2015, you bet I'm filing claims. 
  • You want to file your claim as soon as possible, which is usually initially done via phone. Most insurance companies have an after hours phone number as well. The agent will then email you a claim number along with the form for your vet to fill out; your vet can fill this out at any time. I've e-mailed the form to my vet in the past, since at the time Things Have Happened, we kind of have our hands full with actually treating the horse. 
  • Turnaround time for reimbursement checks has always been quick for me with The Hartford (can't testify as to other companies, as everyone else I know that has equine insurance also uses them): I usually have a check in my mailbox within 3 days after faxing my paid invoice and the form filled out by my vet. 
  • How much is an insurance premium for a horse? For my $1 trail horse with a value of $1600 and major medical & surgical up to $7500 in Maryland, I pay $350 for the year. The insurance literally paid for itself x10 when Lily had her annular ligament injury after our move to Maryland. Your cost will vary depending on how much coverage you get for mortality, the region you live in, the sport your horse participates in, your horse's breed and gender, and the level of coverage you select for major medical & surgical. 
  • The other big catch: if your horse is majorly injured and you claim that injury, that body part is most likely going to be excluded from coverage from your horse's insurance. Example: Lily's left fetlock is excluded from her insurance due to the annular ligament injury. This doesn't affect the cost of your premium, it just means that if, for example, Lily were to re-injure her left hind annular ligament, I would be paying 100% out of pocket without reimbursement. So this is why it's a good idea to insure your horse before they develop stuff like broken splint bones and hock arthritis: if you try to get coverage for your horse after the fact, treatment for these things is not going to be covered. 
The price of pet care will continue to go up as the cost of human medicine goes up: the escalating cost of human medicine is driven by medical insurance. A lot of the medications we use for Fluffy are exactly the same ones your doctor would use on you: metronidazole, amoxicillin, morphine, Tramadol, ampicillin, enrofloxacin, famotidine, pantoprazole, phenobarbital, diazepam, ketamine, cephalexin, ciprofloxacin, doxycycline...it is an infinite list. A LOT is the same, from meds to equipment to IV fluids. If there is a national backorder on 0.9% sodium chloride (the most common of IV fluids in both human and vet med) and its price skyrockets because of it, you might not see the difference if you're hospitalized thanks to your medical insurance, but you sure will see the difference if your pet is hospitalized. Contrary to popular belief, pet insurance is not going to contribute to driving up the price of veterinary care. It is YOUR medical insurance and our government's decisions on healthcare that are going to make Fluffy's care astronomical. Pet insurance simply helps protect you from having to go into debt to pay for that care. 

Each person does as they see fit with their animals and of course each person has different places where they will draw the line to stop treatment. For the record: the only animal of my four that is insured is Lily, and I have my own reasons for that. But having her insured has worked really well for us and as a veterinary professional that has seen the benefits of pet insurance in my clients and experienced these benefits for myself, it would be selfish to not pass the information along to others who might need it. It gives you tremendous peace of mind with being able to provide the level of care you really want for an animal that belongs to a species that sometimes seems bent on doing everything possible to kill itself. With both equine and pet insurance, you still need to be able to pay for veterinary care up front so you will still need a separate savings account for your animals, a high limit credit card, or something like CareCredit in order to pay for diagnostics and treatment. BUT! it is really nice to know that you will be guaranteed the ability to later pay off most of those extraordinary veterinary expenses quickly without having to work extra hours, get a second job, dig into your own savings/retirement funds, remortgage your house, sell your car or rob a bank in order to do so.



*I am not affiliated with any of the insurance companies mentioned in this post. I am using them as examples to illustrate costs and coverage for readers to have an idea because apparently it is super taboo to talk about insurance and money on blogs but I really don't give a shit. I'm just trying to inform because I care about people being able to have the choice of giving their pets a chance if that's what they want to do, without going into inordinate amounts of debt to do so. That's all. 



Thursday, August 10, 2017

The Experiment: Aftermath, Analysis and Reflection

So I had a Moment. It's really hard to make all of this public on the internet guys. But here is the final post in this series, continued from here.


The Day After

I was so amped when we got home at 1:00 am after the show that I didn't fall asleep until close to 3:00 am. (Yup, I was up for nearly 24 hours on show day.) Part of the amping was having eaten Real Food: I felt ALIVE for the first time all day. An hour after eating, I walked past the living room mirror and did a double-take: I looked like I had just finished warming up in the gym. My arms looked filled out and my bicep veins were visible without doing a thing. The "Pandora Forest" effect, as I had called it. And yes: I should have eaten Real Food before finals. Now we know.

But you guys! Being able to see how your body responds to food is incredible!

I still woke up at 8:00 am the next morning..and there wasn't a fiber in my body that didn't hurt. Most of it was a direct result of the previous day's prolonged dehydration. I took elyte capsules and downed nearly an entire liter of water before making my morning coffee.

Everyone will tell you that the best part of post-competition is the food. It's like you're rediscovering how amazing food is all over again! In my case I hadn't been super seriously deprived for a long time, but there were certain things that I had not had since starting training that I was looking forward to having again. So I am warning you: there is food porn coming up. ;) Every competitor I follow on Instagram posts pics of the food they have post-show. So I'm just following a tradition here.

Example. She posted pics of her food after, but here you get a list of everything she ate.
My menu post show was pretty tame by comparison!

Yep

Jess and Meggan had wanted to meet up on this morning for brunch to celebrate since they had not been able to go to the show. I voted for Bushwaller's, my favorite Irish pub, because I love their food and was dying for one of their smoothies. Aka half Guinness, half hard cider. It's also called Snakebite or Poor Man's Black Velvet. (Regular Black Velvet is Guinness and champagne.)

This is seriously my favorite drink.
I've tried most of the variations available and the Black & Blue (Guinness and Blue Moon) is my second favorite...but I just keep coming back to this one!
MINE
Trainer had not known about this drink when I had told him it was one of the things I wanted post-show. He had said he was going to tease me mercilessly about my newly found non-existent alcohol tolerance after the competition.

So I sent him a pic. This one:


"How drunk are you?" He had answered immediately.
"I'm sotally tober." I had replied.
"It's past noon. It's all good."
I had looked at my watch. It was 12:03 pm. And had then proceeded to roar with laughter. Yup, I was buzzed. I had gotten as far into the drink as the photo above.

But then the food arrived: Irish eggs benedict over Irish ham and soda bread toast, with a side of boxty and an additional side of chicken sausage because #starving. I was SO hungry.

Yes, this Puerto Rican loves Irish food, mmkay?
I had a regular Guinness after the smoothie. Guinness is only 4% alcohol but still: I'm assuming the fat in the food is what kept me from getting any more buzzed than I was 1/3 of the way into the first drink.

I ate everything in front of me and then some. Some people get stomach aches after eating "normally" post show because their body doesn't remember how to cope with regular food. I did not. I had no issues whatsoever. I was just blissfully full. We walked around town afterwards, the four of us talking and catching up, until it was time for the girls to leave to get stuff done.

Carlos and I swung by the barn after: I wanted to check on the girls.

Lily came to me in the field and I looked her entire body over. Gracie came up behind her and I checked her too. Not a single scratch or bump on either of them. They were both bright and happy with ears expectantly pricked, "Are we finally doing anything fun together?"

That's when I started hopping up and down in the pasture like a crazy person, squealing:
"I BROKE THE CURSE! I BROKE THE CURSE!!!!!"

The 3-year birthday curse is officially done and over with. To recoup: for the last 3 years, there have been serious horse-related accidents around my birthday. In 2014, Carlos bashed his knee on a tree at full gallop and he had to take 3 months off work while it healed. We thought he was going to be permanently crippled. In 2015, Lily ran away with the hitching post, gouged her left hind with a screw in the process, and needed emergency surgery + a week-long hospital stay on IV antibiotics at New Bolton in PA. In 2016, we had the encounter with quicksand where I got dumped on ground so hard it also took me 3 months to make a full recovery.

For the first time in 3 years, Carlos, Lily, Gracie, the cats and I made it through my birthday unscathed. We could actually celebrate it!

YES YES YES YES YES!!!!

I kissed both of them on the noses. "Not today, but soon, I promise!" I said to them. Then ran back to the car.

Next up: Rita's! My lunch was ice cream.

There are no pics because bad blogger. I ordered a waffle cone with vanilla custard with nothing else so as to not mar the taste, and ate it very slowly (Despacito!) with my eyes mostly closed. Heaven.

Dinner at the end of the day was the enchiladas at Cacique, with flan for dessert.

I am not Mexican and my people don't cook Mexican, but I do love authentic Mexican. Puerto Rican food is a completely different flavor profile even though some of the ingredients (namely the rice and beans) are the same. In Miami across the street from the college where I went to tech school, there was this little hole-in-the-wall nameless Mexican restaurant owned by two Mexican ladies that spoke in Spanish with their accent and slang, and cooked the real deal. It was not Americanized in any way...and the food was absolutely incredible. Real Mexican cooking uses heat and spice as a flavoring that is not completely overpowering. Cacique is Spanish/Latin fusion and they have a Mexican section in their menu. Their food comes pretty close to what we tried at the little hole-in-the-wall place in Miami.
And their flan is just like what my mom makes at home. It is amazeballs.

Dessert after dessert was my Hefeweizen from Brewer's. I was so full by the time we got to that round of beers that I couldn't finish it.


We then went home and I fell in a food coma until the next morning.

Believe it or not, I woke up hungry.  :)

---------------------------

Recovery

I took two days off from working out: the Sunday and Monday after the show. But by Tuesday I was back to working with Trainer. On Wednesday I went for a run in downtown. It was my first real run in almost 3 months and it felt like I had never stopped: my cardiac endurance was amazing and I kept a steady 10-min mile pace throughout the 3 mile run. It was like my feet weren't touching the ground; I felt immortal. I finished with plenty of energy still in the tank.

Trainer initially wanted me to focus on heavy lifting 5 days a week and cardio only 2-3 times a week. I tried this for the first week but I had energy to burn...so I ended up doing cardio for 4 days instead. All of it outside: run, run, run, run. Out, out, out. It was awesome to just be outdoors in the summer before it ends!

This day was so gorgeous that I accidentally did negative splits without planning to. (Negative splits = each mile was consecutively faster than the previous one. It's a running conditioning method that I've successfully used with the mares for endurance to help ensure that they finish strong.
Of course it works in people, since that's where it comes from.)
I also rode for the first time in a month, and I chose Gracie. I was waiting until August to hop on Lily because #birthdaycurse: I wanted July to be over before I rode the Lilybird again.

Yup: it was sans saddle and in shorts. It's been by riding modus operandi this year.
So was I stronger after the show? Heck yes. I didn't go setting any lifting PRs but everything was so much easier: from lifting to running to riding. I literally hit the ground running as if I had never stopped. Trainer credited the Stairmaster for that one when I mentioned it. My seat and position in the saddle and my ability to move the horses with my body have improved enormously, just from all the strength training. Bodybuilding might weaken you in the process of prepping for a show, but it most certainly can give you functional fitness for every area of your life once you are off the strict prep diet.

This photo below was huge. It's not my real resting heart rate, because I was sitting on the rowing machine getting ready to warm up. Your real resting heart rate should be taken when you first wake up in the morning. But since I'm always startled awake up by an alarm every day, it wouldn't be accurate if I took it then. While sitting on the rowing machine setting up my music, my heart rate monitor had been flashing 49 beats per minute before I took the photo: of course I got excited and my heart rate went up! lol

Proof

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The Bizarre

I had been informally dared by Trainer to post on social media. IG was not a problem because I had been pretty open about this endeavor on there if you were paying attention to the hashtags. I had not, however, posted a single peep about it on Facebook, which is where the majority of my real life friends and family mingle. Only 7 people knew about the show for most of my training, and that's including Carlos, Shanna, Jess and Meggan. I didn't even tell my mom, who is one of my best friends, until a week before the show itself. (She has always been of the "Don't lift heavy or you'll get big!" mentality. She was shocked when she saw the pics! In a good way! :D) Even then I didn't post any of the actual show pics on IG; I let Trainer do that.

I was still floored when the Arnold Schwarzenegger IG account liked one of my show pics. It's THE Arnold's account. That's like Boyd Martin liking your Novice cross country pic. It was surreal in many ways: first that it was THAT account, and second that I was in a position where it actually meant something to me that that had happened. I felt like I was two different people looking at one another through a looking glass. It was a very strange sensation.

I had my 10 minutes of fame on Instagram when Figure Competitors Worldwide featured me during peak week, at the show, and with my katanas after. Talk about feeling welcomed into this world! :D (If you're interested in competing, they are an awesome group to follow. Super supportive and hysterically funny as well...a lot of my competition memes in this series came from them!)

The tan looked natural enough that I didn't get a single strange look when I returned to work the Monday after the show. I told all of one person at work about what I had really done on my birthday and was surprised when she was even more excited for me than I had been! I had not expected that reaction. I still thought people would think I was some sort of weirdo for wanting to compete in this sport, that I would get made fun of, that they wouldn't get it. I still think half of the equestrian Blogland is laughing behind my back but whatever. The response this series has had has been surprising regardless: I wasn't expecting this story to be so popular!

The tan less than 24 hours after the show, in natural lighting.
Not orange! The giveaways were armpits and neck: with a natural tan, they would have been lighter than the rest of me. With the spray tan, these areas were actually darker. 
A week after the show I was still riding the post-event high...and one afternoon I just went, "Fuck it" and posted that last competition pic on Facebook as the image to go along with the "thank you" for the birthday wishes + a short blurb about how I had celebrated it.

I'm not very active on Facebook and when I am, I don't get that many comments/likes on much of anything other than the horse-themed pics maybe because I post about politics so much #dontgetmestarted #ipostwhatiwant #firstammendmentrights #biteme. 48 hours after publishing that competition photo, the post had a record-breaking 94 likes and countless comments, all of them positive.

To say I was floored is an understatement. People I had known in high school and college commented for the first time ever. Family and friends were excited and supportive. People I hadn't heard from in years came out of the woodwork to say nice things. It was...a really cool feeling and not the reaction I had expected in the least! Trainer had joked that people always want to know what supplements you took. Not a single person asked me that: if they asked, they wanted to know what trainer and nutritionist I had used!

Also, when you grow up thinking that you're ugly and unattractive and you thank God every day that you stepped out of your social anxiety/extreme shyness for a minute to ask guys out because otherwise you'd still be single...and a photo like that of yourself gets such a positive reaction from the general public...well, it is a pretty awesome ego boost.

At some point I want to write a post about gender roles and modern society's views on them. I've been encouraged and pushed to be more throughout my life by male counterparts. They say that behind every great man is a woman. Throughout my life I have had the privilege of having behind me some really great men. Men that stood up for me when some of the women around me tried to destroy me, men that believed in the power of women, that saw that power in me too. Carlos (duh! What I wrote in that post more than still applies!), my amazing incredible grandfathermy uncle, dad when I was little, my brother, my riding instructor Ron, my mentor Dr. C, Don Goyo my fencing instructor, Julio, Tony and now Trainer. There are more, but these have all played key roles in my life so far...and yes, most of them do have great women behind them: strong wives, mothers, daughters. So it goes both ways, guys. It's a full circle. Many of you have guys like this in your lives. Thank them and appreciate them for who they are and what they do for you. If it weren't for the men that have seen me through this far, that saw potential in me and supported me in chasing after my dreams, I would not be who I am today. Recent experiences with a particular majorly chauvinistic male coworker last year, our current administration, stepping into this particular competition world and seeing how women are consistently empowered in it even when there is a double standard have left me thinking a LOT about this subject. I want to write more about it, and have wanted to ever since Lauren's awesome thought-provoking post on the subject a couple of months ago.

But anyway: Trainer had not prepped anyone for a show in a couple of years. I was his first at his new gym, so it was a big deal when he posted my show pic on the gym Instagram. Shortly after that photo went live, I received a text from Tony.

"I'm proud of you," he said. "You did something I don't think I ever could. Keep going!"

It's been almost a month and that text still makes me grin from ear to ear. It meant the world. Like I said in my first post: if it hadn't been for Tony, I never would have actually moved forward to attempt this.

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Post-Show Diet

One of the biggest issues with recovering post-competition is trying to return to normal (non-competition) eating patterns. A LOT of people, both noobs and experienced, go on extended benders where they scarf everything that they didn't allow themselves to eat while on the competition diet. This is a fantastic article on the subject written by a very successful pro figure competitor who has also struggled with this problem herself: it's normal. One day or two days of eating whatever you please isn't going to hurt you. But not having a plan can result in gaining close to 20 lbs in less than 2 weeks if post-show competitors decide to just eat whatever the hell they want every single day. Why? Because you have literally primed your body for weight gain by restricting certain essential nutrients like carbs. As said before, this is why restrictive diets that try to permanently eliminate entire food groups are bad for you: the second you re-introduce those food groups, you are very likely to gain all the weight back. This is why as an adult I've always turned my nose up at diet fads: keto, Atkins, low-fat, South Beach, paleo, etc. Some of them are godsends for people with certain medical conditions and food intolerances. But for the general healthy population, you should be able to eat a varied diet consisting of whole foods from natural (unprocessed) sources with "fun foods" in moderation and still be able to lose weight/maintain your current weight depending on your goals. You should still be exercising though, and you should learn to time your nutrients around your workouts. This is another fantastic article by a woman who is both a competitor and nutritionist on nutrient timing in relation to workouts. What she recommends is very similar to what I've done throughout my entire workout history up until now. Food is life because food is fuel.

My situation post-show was a little trickier because I already had another show goal a few months out from this one. Normally the right way to do it is to slide into the off-season by entering a gaining phase where you very, very gradually build up to where you are deliberately eating more calories than you're burning in order to put on muscle. In my case I wanted to be careful because, while I did want to do a short gaining phase, I also didn't want to gain fat in addition to muscle and have to go through another extreme cutting phase like I did for the July show. I had my one day of eating what I wanted within reason and then slipped back into my pre-training "normal" in terms of food choices, while maintaining one day a week where I didn't track macros and let myself eat out and have a drink or two if I wished.

For this gaining phase, Trainer had recommended keeping protein the same, keeping fats low, and maintaining on 200-300 grams of carbs/day, with at least 50% of those carbs eaten around workouts. (See the article I mentioned above again.) I struggled hard with this: I tried following this program immediately post-competition and it felt like too much. I had just added water back in normal amounts (it was 2 days before I was able to just allow myself to chug water when I was thirsty. I was surprised by how quickly "only sips" had become ingrained), was supplementing electrolyte tablets for the first 2 days post-show to aid recovery (and also to encourage more drinking. I like Nuun and Hammer Fizz), I gradually re-introduced sodium into my food (this was interesting: I'm still eating way less sodium than I used to pre-prep because my taste for it changed), and carbs were yet another added variable that felt overwhelming to my body. My GI was fine and I wasn't getting crazy sugar cravings like some competitors do during this time, but by day 5 after the show, I felt fluffy and bloated.

The lighting and mirrors in Trainer's gym have continued to be the ones that I use as a true gauge of how I really look, since they are the most flattering and I stand in front of them only twice a week.

When I walked into Trainer's gym 2 weeks after the show, I looked at my reflection and thought, "Okay, this  is not just in my head and something needs to change now." I discussed options with Trainer and he ultimately told me to not worry about it, but I refused to have to do the 2x/day cardio towards the end of prep that I had had to do for this show.

I weighed myself two days later and realized I was up 6 lbs from pre-dehydration phase (I did not weigh myself during water restriction; I didn't care about what I weighed sans water because it wasn't a real weight). This was not unreasonable, especially given that probably 2-3 lbs of that was still plain water weight (as previously noted in these posts, my body does hold onto water a bit more when it's being fed carbs. This is normal for humans in general), but I didn't want it to be more than 6 lbs with another show on the horizon. So I put myself back on carb cycling. Not like it had been at the end (like I told Trainer, that plan was just incompatible with life, period, for the long term) but the way it had been in the beginning, which allowed me to eat 85% of what I love, just in a cyclical way. The one craving I was having hardcore post-show was fats: I wanted avocados and almond butter all day erryday (as in, I wanted to put avocados on everything and eat almond butter with a spoon straight out of a jar. That bad) and was actually looking forward to the lower carb days so I could re-introduce them in reasonable amounts. When you're eating high carb in general, fats should be lower to compensate, and the gaining macros I had been given did not give much room for play when it came to fats.

So I went back to tracking macros every day (no "fun day") and completely knocked alcohol off the table again (honestly, while it can be worked in macros-wise, not having it means I can eat more food and wake up the next day feeling alert and alive. After the show, even one pint of low alcohol beer was making me feel lethargic the next morning.) Was it worth it? Yes. The water weight disappeared within 48 hours of going back into low carb (I went with 50-70 grams/day) and I was surprised by how good I felt. I felt amazingly energized, even more so than on low-fat/high-carbs-every-day. Something about my metabolism had changed for sure with this prep. Not necessarily bad, but my body does seem to like fat as an energy source more than it does carbs, while still requiring carbs within reason (your body needs carbs to function, period). I had played around with and noticed this back in 2014 when starting endurance (can't find the post where I wrote about it now), and it's interesting to confirm it again in a much stronger fashion.

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The Judging
I was a Bad Competitor and did not ask for the judges' notes after the show. Why? Because I really beat myself up about a LOT of things (regarding my posing specifically) after seeing the pro photos and I didn't want to hear additional criticism that would completely turn me off the sport.  Am I chicken? Yup. I don't care. I want to try again with a clear head and for me that was the only way to do it. To each their own.

The following notes are based off of observations both at the show and of the photos after.

Appearance
  • The judges obviously wanted more developed lower bodies at this show. Upper body development + definition is a priority overall in Figure but some regions put similar weight on lower body development + definition as well, which I think is fair because that way your body is balanced! Colorado's NPC shows, for example, seem to prefer softer bodies overall, whereas in some parts of Canada, they want super hard bodies (the girl in the first pic of this post is Canadian. That gives you an idea). The mid-Atlantic trends towards Canadian preferences, and the East Coast in general is known for having tougher judges. I had picked up on these trends from the competitors I follow on IG and the endless videos I looked at online, but it was discussed and confirmed backstage at the show while talking to other competitors that came from different regions.
  • My upper body was competitive. My lower body not quite so much. While I was ultimately happy with how I looked, enough to feel fine braving going onstage despite stressing so much about my lower body halfway through prep, the judges wanted more quad definition and hamstring development. I had expected that but you never know with a brand-new show. You can appreciate this preference based on who won in my divisions if you look back at the show photos I posted here. This was true across the board in each division. I'm just happy I still went up on that stage feeling calm regardless.
  • I was not "dry" enough. I drank less with each consecutive day leading up to the show, with it being less than a cup on Friday and only 2 sips of water for the entire day on Saturday until after the show, so I absolutely did not cheat in the drinking water department. There were several other factors here, the main one being sheer exhaustion: exhaustion causes cortisol levels to rise, which makes you appear "fluffier". (It's the reason why steroids like prednisone make you gain weight even if you're not eating more: it's water weight caused by rising cortisol levels.) This has been true for me my entire life. I'm fairly flat-bellied if my nutrition is 100% on point and I'm well-rested. The second I'm stressed from exhaustion, my lower belly pooch comes out and I lose ab definition.  Even when I was a 100 lb rack of bones with not an extra ounce of fat on my body as an anorexic teenager, this still happened during moments of stress. (And nope: going strictly gluten-free for 6 months as an experiment has done nothing for eliminating this. It's genetic: my mom has it too.) My best day was the Thursday before the show. I felt rested and calm on Thursday, but with all I had to do, the lack of sleep, the enormous amounts of cardio, and the added dehydration over the course of Friday and Saturday morning, my body was just stressed out even when I was in a calm mental state. It was too much and my body rebelled. It's an odd sensation to look at your body as a separate entity, but sometimes it really does do what it wants no matter how much you micromanage and try to control it.
  • Hormones were another factor. For some this is TMI but I think it's fascinating. *shrug* I don't care. My blog. Anyway: I'm on the pill and I know how my body responds to it every single week of the cycle because apparently I'm weirdly tuned-in to my body (or so I'm told. I only have this body, so I don't know how other people are with theirs). I was due for my period the week leading up to the show, with it ending the Sunday after the show. I retain water the week before my period (this happened) and sometimes halfway through my period again because I simply don't sleep well that week due to the hormonal change of the placebo pill week. Not sleeping well = water retention, again. I look fantastic by the 2nd-3rd day after starting the new pill pack because hormones stabilize + sleeping better. I started the new pill pack early in order to achieve this effect, so the show would fall on the 3rd day of the new pill pack. I've never deliberately manipulated my cycle with the pill before so I wasn't sure if my body really would respond as expected. Stress effect won out. And my body did complain about the altered hormones the week after the show. 

Going forward: all of this was discussed with Trainer. Interestingly, he thought I looked better the week before peak week.

How I looked the week before peak week.
Peak week

Peak week
Do you see the difference?
To summarize: I was glad to confirm that he too thought I was too thin during peak week. It was cool to have all of that definition, but that blender pic was part of a series that Carlos took and my arms, while they did look wiry and striated, did look scary skinny at the same time, which is why I chose the one photo where you can't see my arms.

The plan for the next one is to work harder in the beginning so I can skip both the extra cardio at the end and the dehydration at the end. As of last week, I am strength training 5 days a week and doing cardio 4-5x/week, with 2-3 of those being HIIT sessions and the other two being working steady-state (my target HR is 130-140 bpm) for 45 minutes to an hour. I'm taking 1 rest day a week. Strength training involves 2 days of heavy leg work with emphasis on hamstrings and glutes, 2 days of shoulders, and one day of chest/back. It probably seems like a lot to some, but this is still how I prefer to train whether getting ready for a show or not.


Posing
Four distinct things:
  • My lat spread was fine BUT I didn't contract my rhomboids. Big mistake. I have them, but you can't tell because I didn't engage them. Sadly it is something that I didn't realize I had failed to do until I saw the photos post-show. 
  • GODDAMN HEELS. They are supposed to be together in all comparison poses and in both the front and back model poses. I knew this. I'm still not sure what I was doing with my (well-practiced!) transitions that kept me from landing with my heels together onstage.
  • Lean forward when lifting chest for both comparison and model front poses and for comparison side poses. Doing this makes your belly look flatter, your appear waist smaller, and your upper body seem more developed: it's an optical illusion. I had sadly not been told that this was something I needed to do and I somehow did not pick up on it when looking at videos online.
  • Transitions between poses: I was doing something very similar to a waltz step, which is what A taught me at the posing class. Every source of information I found online said that it was preferred that transitions between poses be simple and straightforward. The girls at this show were doing more flamboyant transitions that reminded me of salsa dance steps. I think this might be a regional preference? It's typical in the Bikini division regardless of region and competition organization, but competitors were doing it for Figure as well at this show. I was not going to change my routine at the last second, so I went with what I had been taught and what I had practiced ad nauseum. 
My lat spread
(crop of another photo by Chris Nicoll and used with purchase)
This is Erin Stern, who is a pro so not a fair comparison (though most of the Figure girls at my show did have backs like this), but I think you might be able to appreciate what I mean about tightening your rhomboids (the muscles in the middle of your back between your shoulder blades.) It might seem subtle but it makes a difference, and you are supposed to do this.
Going forward: for this show I practiced posing with the thought that I might be holding each pose for minutes at a time. This in turn made me assume that I would have time to think when onstage. Instead I need to practice the poses in rapid succession so that I'm landing in each pose correctly from the get-go in a rapid-fire sequence. And also think about making transitions look more like a salsa dance instead of a waltz...that shouldn't be hard. ;) #latina

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Thoughts

  • This is seriously one of the toughest things I have ever done. Ever. It makes endurance seem like a piece of cake. I discovered so much about myself and the body I live in in the process. Its adaptability to anything that gets thrown at it has left me absolutely awed. Most people never get to discover this about themselves. You should take care of your body, not to fit a certain societal standard (because fuck that) but because it is an incredible, magical machine and you only get one in this lifetime. Taking care of your body isn't that hard guys. At least take your body for a walk 30 minutes a day in addition to your riding (if you're an equestrian reading this). And if I can make the crazy competition diet fun, tasty and interesting, you can certainly make normal healthy food interesting. Start with Cooking Light. Their recipes are easy and absolutely incredible, and they pretty much saved my mom's life when she was diagnosed a diabetic and had to lose 100 lbs. She would cook from that magazine for the entire family: you would never guess the finished products are low fat and good for you. Yay for  #unsolicitedadvice, since apparently that is now a taboo thing in equestrian Blogland...
  • The power of your mind is also an incredible thing, and realizing that what you thought was a physical limit only exists in your head...well, I went on and on about that in this series but it truly has been mind-blowing. (Pun intended.)
  • The blog went private for 24 hours. I wrote these posts as the events were happening, but I edited them multiple times before publishing and again after publishing. Sometimes hitting "Publish" on these involved quite a bit of anxiety about how each post would be received because I have no control over who reads them, a control that I do wish I had. I wanted these posts to be honest and true, but that also involves putting way more of myself out there than most people ever would. That said, the blogs I truly enjoy reading nowadays are the ones where people write about themselves in a 3-dimensional manner. The ones that talk about their struggles, not just with the horses, but with other life things. The ones where the writers are honest about who they are. There aren't many blogs like that out there, but those blogs are the ones that are more likely to have a ripple effect in the people that read them. And I want mine to be one of them. The Bloggess is one of my favorite blogs because she is so brutally honest and funny about everything, and it's not even about horses. Lauren's blog is my favorite equestrian blog because she writes so beautifully about so many other things as well. So I made my blog public again...and was happy I did, because that's when the comments truly started coming in on the show post. Guys, the only way I really know you're reading and enjoying what I write is if you comment. I can see the hits each post receives on Blogger but I have no idea if you read through the whole thing or if what I write moves you unless you comment. And: no comment is stupid. :) I wasn't expecting these posts to spark interest in this sport since it's so controversial, but I loved the questions that people asked about it. 
  • I would like to do this again just to see how much farther I can get. Except this time at one of the natural shows, since I now know that they exist. We'll see. :)

























Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The Experiment: The Show!!

This is part 7 of an 8-post series. Continued from here, which I strongly recommend reading prior to this post so you understand what is happening in this one.


I did not sleep well at all the night before the show. Like at all. I'd say I slept about the same as I did for the Old Dominion at that very first endurance ride. Unlike that first ride though, my lack of sleep was not from nerves...it was from trying to not move so as to not smudge the tan!

So I think I maybe slept 4 hours. I was in and out of consciousness throughout the night, fully waking up on my own at 4:30 am, and then struggling to fall asleep again. I gave up at 5:30 and just got out of bed and started packing my food for the day in the cooler. There was not much else to do: I couldn't shower because it would remove the tan, and pre-judging for the NPC show wouldn't start until 12:30 pm so there was no point in putting on my makeup this early, especially when I had to be sprayed with tanning solution again.

There was an enormous cooler under that green throw. And the little brown Wegmans bag has my stuffed oatmeal cookies for after!!
This show was part of the Baltimore Fitness Expo at the Baltimore Convention Center. It had multiple parts: there were powerlifting and Strongman events running concurrently, and there was an IFBB pro bodybuilding show that was running before the NPC show: this is why my part of the show was starting so late in the day and also why the last coat of tan was happening so early - the pros were also getting sprayed by the same company.

IFBB stands for "International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness" (yeah, there's no "F" at the end) and as the name states, is international-level competition. Like what the FEI is to endurance. NPC stands for "National Physique Committee" and is the largest amateur bodybuilding organization in the US. So it's like what AERC is to endurance. See? Parallels. You qualify for IFBB through pro-qualifier NPC events, just like you qualify for FEI through AERC. This NPC show was a pro qualifier, so even though the classes were small because it was a brand-new show, it was still A Big Deal.

As for the show date? It was my birthday. I would be turning 38 years old on a stage basically in my birthday suit (get it???), the fittest I have ever been in my life. Not many people can claim that. Why did I choose to do this? After spending 2/3 of my life feeling like I was never enough in any way, shape or form, I was proving to myself that I was more than enough. I am more than enough in other aspects of my life nowadays, but this was me finally letting go of my own perceived physical flaws. It was about not only letting go of that mentality, but it was also proving to myself that I was more than enough to the level that I can mold my body into what I really want it to be while loving every second of it and appreciating what my body can do for me...AND compete against the top 1% of fittest, best-looking people in my region...and place. All along, I had the secret goal of not only doing this thing, but also placing.

The thing was though, that by this point I honestly didn't care about placing anymore. I just wanted to get up there and Do The Thing. Despite my social anxiety, my stage fright, and my hatred of feeling like an ignorant noob in new situations, I have never been calmer about a competition EVER than I was about this one on Show Day. I had already won the battle: the one against my mind. I was free.

On show day, my body was even darker than the evening before and my muscles were flat from plain exhaustion, but I wasn't worried about it. All I could think was that I loved every inch of this skin I live in and I couldn't wait to strut it across that damn stage in 5" stripper heels.

When I was very little and just learning to speak, my family would play this game with me:
"Who are you?" they would ask.
"I am Nicole," I would say assertively.
"And who is Nicole?" they would prompt.
"Nicole is Nicole," I would reply.
My mom always commented thoughtfully that I always affirmed who I was with such confidence in knowing myself even at such a young age.

I have spent my entire life trying to regain that sense of self.

As Carlos and I grabbed the 8 million things I had to take to the show, I thought about that, about what my mom used to say. I was wearing my ratty old "Caribbean Pirate 200 Years Too Late" T-shirt (because it was appropriate given my new skin color and existing cultural heritage), baggy yoga pants that were two sizes too big, and a pair of old black flip flops.

And I held my head high, grinning as we walked outside to the car.

"Nicole is Nicole," I thought to myself, "And there is no one else I'd rather be."

Staring out into the wild blue yonder when I was 7 years old and knew who I was, during a summer spent at at my grandmother's house on the island. 
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We arrived right on time. Carlos dropped me off at the hotel and drove around the block so we wouldn't have to pay for insanely expensive parking x2. South FL parking is more expensive than D.C. parking. Baltimore parking is even more expensive than South FL's!

I went upstairs to the 6th floor, where again I stripped and was airbrushed with another coat of tan. I had mysterious smudges in odd places (like the front of my left thigh and the back of my right arm) that got fixed. I then stood in the dry pod in front of the fan again, was re-dusted with the Magical Powder, scrambled back into my loose clothes and ran back out to the elevators. While waiting my turn for the elevators, another girl who was obviously a competitor (we were all sporting matching dark shimmery tans by then) asked me for my opinion on when to put on makeup: at the hotel, or at the Convention Center? I told her I would be doing mine at the Convention Center since it was still early and I didn't have a hotel room. We got to talking and it came out that we were both noobs. I did a double-take though: she was wearing a hoodie and even through the sweater you could see the curve of her shoulders and the sweep of well-developed traps. She was spectacular and really nice, and I felt like I was WAAAAY out of my league...because yup, she was one of the people whom I would be competing directly against. "Are you in Bikini?" she asked. "Nope, Figure," I replied. I felt scrawny by comparison.

The elevator dinged and we got on, still talking about the show. Carlos was outside waiting in the car by the time the elevator left us in the lobby, so I said good-bye to the other new competitor and ran out to meet Carlos.

The Convention Center was down the street from the hotel. We thought it was going to be a mission to find parking close to it, but there was an Event parking lot right next to the Center that was only $20 for the entire day. It was early, but while we were still in the car I went ahead and put on the base layers of eyeshadow so my face wouldn't look so weird with the tan alone.

We then hiked over to the Convention Center, where it took two attempts to find the exhibit hall where the Fitness Expo was being held...and then we were in.

I was expecting a much larger thing, mainly because my only point of reference for any type of Expo was the North American Veterinary Community Conference & Expo, which is held in Orlando every February. They use two exhibit halls at two different hotels and it is an ENORMOUS event. I used to go every year when we still lived in Florida because you learned so much and you could find so much veterinary equipment and pet supplies and samples for a steal, if not outright for free.

That said, there was quite a bit going on here. There was the main stage for the two bodybuilding groups, several vendors spread out, and then the powerlifting and Strongman events in the background towards the opposite end of the space.

The stage.
Audience and seats facing the stage. The Strongman events were beyond the metal temporary fence, powerlifting was off towards the corner on the left in this photo.
Carlos took a seat facing the main stage and I went off to figure out where the backstage area was. I ran into A, who seemed to sort of be my guardian angel for the weekend as I kept encountering her everywhere I went regardless of how early I showed up. :) It was her that showed me which door led to the backstage area.

All the pros were backstage, and it was co-ed. A and I were the only NPC people there...actually, we were the only females there: all of the IFBB Physique guys were getting ready to step onstage at 10:00 am. A had set up her stuff in one corner and I found another spot next to an electric outlet so I could plug in my phone when necessary. I settled down for a minute to let everyone know what was going on via text (Trainer, who was en route; Shanna, Jess, Meggan, Karen) and then looked up to realize that A had disappeared and I was the only girl backstage in an ocean of barely clothed super-sculpted male bodies getting ready for their division of the pro show. Wondering if I had missed some sort of memo telling the women to leave the backstage area to the men, I left my stuff in my little reserved spot (A had left her things too), grabbed one of the egg white snacks I had packed, and hightailed it back out to the main exhibit area to hang out with Carlos at least until the men went onstage.

Men's Physique. These were the IFBB pro guys. Emphasis is on upper body development, which is why they wear longer trunks. Classic Physique is the next level up, and they do have to show leg in that division.
I was stressing about when to put on makeup. I had to deal with fake lashes (they are sort of mandatory for these things and the only time I've put them on was all of one time while practicing beforehand for this show) and trying to figure out how to get my foundation to match the fake tan. I had more than enough options with me to make this work (I can probably set up shop now...ugh) and I had practiced the whole contouring deal at home prior to getting tanned (the only reason why I knew what this entails was thanks to hilarious video on the subject that had made the rounds on FB that I can't find now. But this is a pretty cool video explaining the magic of contouring. Consider it Advanced Makeup Application). But I was still worried: I have never done stage makeup for myself (or anyone else, for that matter), and wasn't sure how the end result would look under the super-bright lights of the stage.

This was taken at home the evening before the spray tan while practicing with the contouring kit (it didn't match my natural skin tone at all, but it did end up matching the spray tan perfectly); it was filmed for and sent to Shanna during an episode of absolute silliness. I wanted to make sure my eye makeup would be on point , and also practice putting the damn fake eyelashes on. I kept having visions of one of them falling into my eyeball during my individual model poses. #graceful

After eating my snack and distractedly watching the beginning of the men's IFBB divisions, I left Carlos to return backstage to scope out the area. The IFBB Bikini girls were now getting ready, but I also recognized some people from the NPC group. (Once you've seen pros, you can tell who's NPC, believe me. Not dinging NPC AT ALL at all, but the pros are a whole other league.)

The backstage was a large rectangular carpeted space with a wall of windows. There was a long table with chairs at one end, and beyond the table there was a small hallway. I walked in that direction to see if there was a restroom, since I had seen people disappear into the hall.

There was indeed a restroom...there were now at least 6 of the IFBB girls getting ready in the small space, but I was able to see that it had a single sink with a wall-length mirror, and beyond that a half wall...with a single toilet beyond the half wall. There was NO DOOR. No door separating the toilet area from the sink + mirror area. It was the most bizarre set-up I have ever seen, especially given that we were a mixed group. My understanding is that the men's and women's areas are usually separated at these shows, but that was not the case here.

The hallway continued past the "bathroom" into a sort of food storage area that did have a door. Wondering "WTF?" I walked back to my spot and just sat down on the floor to try to read on my phone to kill time. Friends and family were not allowed backstage at this show, and backstage passes had not been offered for them.

So, remember what I said about the Bikini division in my first post of this series? That it's the "easiest" division with the most natural body types? Well, that only applies to NPC maybe and to the natural competition groups like OCB. The IFBB Bikini girls looked like they had been sculpted out of stone. They were absolutely flawless. I knew they were pros, I knew they had all been training and competing for years to get to this point, Trainer had warned me in advance to not let the experience of seeing the pros intimidate me, and I was STILL borderline hyperventilating in their presence as I tried to rein in my mind from spiraling into the deep dark pit of, "You are not enough. You shouldn't be here. What were you thinking?"

Wanna know what the pro bikini girls looked like? This is an actual photo of some of them from this show. The first girl on the left was absolutely stunning in person.
Like I said: sculpted from stone, all of them.
Photo from here.
I was not going to let that mental state win, though. I got up and walked back outside to sit next to Carlos in the audience for a while. I laughingly explained to him the mindfuck I was currently in, and we talked about other things to distract me. Eventually I calmed down and retreated backstage again once the Bikini pros started filing onstage.

I sat down in my corner to continue reading. Even more of the NPC group was backstage now and the vibe was completely different. I watched their dynamics quietly. By mortal standards, this was still a group of near-perfect human beings akin to demigods and goddesses, but they were so much more laidback in general than the pros: there was joking around, especially among the guys; there was confidence, yes, but there were also equal measures of awkwardness and shyness. Just like you would expect in a group of people that was going to parade mostly naked in front of an audience and a group of judges. Even then, the pros had spiked an onslaught of butterflies that now had me positively nauseated. I was having the hardest time regaining the center of calm I had had prior.

Finally Trainer texted, "I'm here."

I ran outside to the general public area. I barely recognized him in street clothes and it took him a minute to recognize me in the tan. It was kind of comical.

And just like that, the butterflies vanished.

I know a lot of you compete at equestrian events without trainers, and I commend you for that. I've been spoiled for most of my competitive career: I like competing with my trainer present at the show and was happy to pay the trainer fee just to have them get me through the warm-up: a good trainer warms you up with exercises that give you confidence and reminds you that you do, in fact, know what you are doing. During my 6 years of heavy competing in the Jumpers in PR and later in Tampa, FL, I always had my trainer at the show with me.

Warming up Grasshopper over a 2'6" oxer at a Pinellas County Hunter Jumper Association show in Tampa, FL.
That's my trainer, Berna, in the purple and black sweater on the right.
The only time I've gone to a show sans trainer was when I took my barn manager's sale pony to a hunter show to put her on the radar. I didn't have a trainer at the time, so there was no trainer to go with me. It was the weirdest feeling to be on my own. Because having that one person at the competition who has guided you this far, who knows the ins and outs of the sport, who believes in you and pushes you, and whose voice is there to guide you, is like having a floor to stand on when you feel like the world around you is falling apart. Or rather, like the world inside you wants to crumble with self-doubt.

From that one time I competed sans trainer at a Parkland Horseman's Association hunter show in Parkland, FL.
Little Bella and I won Grand Champion in our division. Not bad!
This was no different.

I updated Trainer on the status of things and then fetched Carlos from the audience. The guys had met before when I was first introduced to Trainer by Tony, and I brought up one of the things they have in common: a love for trashy horror movies. They hit it off right away.

We hung out watching the Strongman events, of course. I had told Carlos about Trainer aiming for that as his next competitive goal. Carlos was fascinated by the whole thing because it was unlike anything he had ever seen and he peppered Trainer with questions. I was just happy to be able to watch something else and listen to a different conversation to take my mind off of my own events: I was getting a very welcome reprieve!

One of the guys from the heavyweight division
Yes, they do reps lifting a CAR
Trainer periodically turned to me and we discussed the plan for my part of the show: we went over when I would eat what, what to do during the LONG intermission between pre-judging and finals, when I would pump up and with what exercises. He asked me about the structure of my events and I told him what we had been told last night at the meeting: they had not been very informative because not even they really knew at the time. We talked about posing, what to do and not to do, and he managed to get a good solid laugh out of me that washed away whatever was left of my jitters. He basically took his time to methodically remind me that I really was prepared for this.

I was watching the clock though: at noon I was going to go backstage again to start to get ready. Trainer couldn't stay to watch my part of the show and had to leave around  noon anyway because of course this day had fallen on the one event a man should never miss: the first birthday party of his firstborn child!

We all watched the powerlifting for a while...and then it was time. I sort of groaned: I'm 80% tomboy. I get along better with guys in general. I feel most "me" in jeans and boots and you couldn't pay me to grow my hair out. The most traumatizing thing about puberty for me was not getting my period for the first time, it was realizing that I'd have to wear a bra for the rest of my life because it meant I couldn't hang around in public shirtless anymore like the guys. Now that I'm grown up, I do love having the option of transforming entirely into Woman and making jaws drop. But my presentation for this show was an extreme case of Girly-Girly that was way beyond my comfort zone.

At my most "me": outdoors, wearing jeans, boots and a leather jacket.
"Okay guys, I need to head backstage to try to figure out how to put my face on," I said with a grimace. Both of them started teasing me about it. I turned to Trainer, "I envy you guys so much that you don't have to deal with the heels, the fake lashes or the matching foundation when competing!" Men compete barefoot throughout the levels. Not fair! If I wanted to compete barefoot, I'd have to gain 20 lbs of muscle and go into  Women's Physique.

"How do you know I don't play with that stuff?" he retorted. He tried but he couldn't even keep a straight face when he said it. I tried to imagine him with kohl eyeliner and fake lashes. Nope, not happening. I snorted with laughter.

Carlos and Trainer walked me down to the entrance to the backstage area while the butterflies threatened to come back. I turned to Trainer, not wanting to forget later, "Can we train on Tuesday??"
He seemed surprised. Maybe because a lot of people will take the entire week after a show off? I didn't want to do that.
 "Yes," he said.
"Can we lift heavy? I want to lift heavy," I said, bouncing up and down. I had heard over and over that the time immediately after a show is amazing because that's when you are at your strongest. That it's like having superpowers, thanks to finally being able to both rest your body properly and feed it carbs on a regular basis again.
My excitement made him laugh, "Well, we have to build up to that, but yes."
"Okay. Let's! Yay!"
I'm such a dork.

The three of us stopped in front of the backstage door. Carlos had been chuckling over this whole exchange. Trainer wished me luck and told me to be confident when I stepped up there, that these competitions weren't just about size. He was referring to the fact that I was not as "built" as your average NPC Figure competitor. He listed everything I had done right up until this point, pointing out the same things that A had: this was my first time and I had figured out on my own things that a more seasoned competitor would have known to do.

With all seriousness he added, "You got this. You will do well." And then, "And you know you'll do great because I normally don't give out compliments."
I was like, "Huh?" "I've always thought you are really good with positive reinforcement!" I was beaming though. He didn't dish out compliments for free and he wasn't open about them, but they were there if you paid attention. Having to work for them made them that much more rewarding. And then there was also his ability for having me do all of these incredibly hard things during training sessions while still setting me up for success: that was more than enough positive reinforcement all by itself.

He made a mock stone-cold face, "What do you mean?" It didn't work. I burst out laughing and so did he.

I said good-bye to the guys and walked backstage alone. For the first time since the show had started, I was dead calm.

The backstage area was 100% NPC crew now. Since I was calm now, I realized I was ravenously hungry. Someone had parked their stuff next to mine in my corner, so I shifted my stuff to make room for me to sit down. I ate another egg white snack, then went off to figure out the makeup situation.

The restroom area was packed with girls getting dolled up. I sat in a corner on the floor with the handheld mirror that I had had the good sense to bring and tried to apply foundation and contouring but the lighting was an absolute nightmare in there. I couldn't see what I was doing. There was a much larger women's restroom for the general public outside and I debated going out there.

But first, I got up and walked down to the end of the backstage hallway again, to the little food storage room. It so happened that the lighting in there was PERFECT: bright white light. And there was a table where I could lay out my stuff. Grinning from ear to ear, I sat down and got to work, finishing up with the caterpillar fake lashes. I then quickly slipped into my suit, threw the short kimono-type robe I'd gotten for the occasion on over it (these are the norm backstage as a cover-up at these things), and bailed so the guys could take turns using the little room to change into their posing suits/trunks. Everyone was incredibly nice and considerate given what an awkward situation we had all been put into, but the guys were especially so.

Upon returning to my spot, I realized that the person that had parked her belongings next to mine was New Girl: the one with the amazing body that I had met earlier that morning at the elevators. She was new to showing but she was not new to this world itself: she had been involved with it for at least a year, between her bf and her trainer.  We got to talking and soon we were participating in conversations with other people. I continued to be impressed with everyone. Everyone had a story, and all the stories were really good ones. Some individuals had gone against insurmountable odds in order to be there. Some had battled obesity, chronic diseases or past injuries in order to make it to the stage. You can buy a rig and an Arabian horse and get a foot in the door of endurance fairly easily with a reasonable amount of money and equestrian experience. Like, if you have an Arab on pasture board, you don't even have to do that much conditioning. For this sport? You can have the trainer and a nutritionist and even shortcut your way through it if you really want to...but even then everything you do in your daily life is still going to play into it. Even how much you sleep is going to affect the outcome. And that is why the more I had learned about this sport, the more I was drawn to it: because it's so goddamn hard, because it requires so much attention to detail.

I just sat back with my legs propped up on my bags (you want to do this while resting to avoid water retention in your lower legs. Yup, even that can have an effect on how you look!) and listened in awe while munching on rice cakes with jam as directed. (This is a show day staple: everyone backstage had rice cakes along with spreads to put on them: some had jam, others had honey, and some had peanut butter. Rice cakes = carbs, and if you've read this far you already know the power of carbs when it comes to their positive effect on your appearance when your body fat % is this low.)


Legs propped up. So sparkly! This was the tan in its natural state: no oil! I continued giggling to myself about being an extra dark edition of a Twilight vampire.
(Also: there were at least 2' of space between that guy's back and my feet.)
I got asked a couple of times if I was competing in Bikini. Aka: I was tiny in comparison to a lot of the other Figure girls. I later texted Trainer, "Gainz please for the next one! Everyone keeps asking if I'm competing in Bikini! *eye roll emoji*" His response was that yeah, I was on the smaller side but that was to be expected for a first show. He reminded me it was not all about size.

Time stopped for a while...and then accelerated, moving faster than I wanted it to. At work when time warps in an emergency, I can internally slow down and split what I have to do into smaller steps so I can get everything done efficiently without missing a beat. I did not get that here because it was a new environment and I couldn't predict how things were supposed to flow.

Before I knew it, my division was called for glueing and glazing. I stripped down to my suit, slipped into my stilettos, and took Trainer's resistance band with me. My suit bottom was quite literally glued to my butt so it would stay in place, and then oil was slathered all over my body. They call it posing oil: it's meant to highlight your definition, further hide flaws, and also has the benefit of truly moisturizing your skin. This is done to all the competitors and in this case it was a service provided by the on-site tanning company. Not all companies nor all shows offer this: the general consensus is that you should have your own Bikini Bite and oil just in case. Which I did have, because #prepared.

We all took different spots "pumping up" while waiting: you do different exercises with the resistance bands to warm up your back and shoulder muscles especially, which will accentuate definition. Like I've said before: most fit people look completely different cold vs warmed up vs in full effort. If someone looks all veiny ("vascular" is the correct term) and striated and super-defined while cold, they are usually taking some form of "help"...

Case in point. No one should look like this just hanging around cold. This is just uh...this is just no.
This is scary and it is a very extreme example so you guys can appreciate "unnatural" striations and vascularity.
And NO: NO ONE looked like this at this show, not even the pros!
And then we were lining up and we were going onstage.

Music is a huge deal for me (in case you haven't noticed yet from reading the blog!): I had practiced my posing to a variety of music, mostly club beats or chill electronic music like Thievery Corporation. I had been hoping with all my might that they would play SOME sort of music in the background during the show because it is so important for setting the tone and mood. I had been positively thrilled to realize they had been playing some really awesome music throughout the entire event so far; I had wanted to mentally dial into it when it was our turn.

In the end, I couldn't tell you what they played for us. I completely tuned it out. All I remember is the silence in my head, because of course I was first to step onstage AND I was the only one doing my model (solo) poses in this round because the other girls in my group had already done theirs in previous divisions.

I hit all my poses, almost forgetting to smile. You have to make eye contact with the judges below and that was hard. In dressage you salute the judge and then go off to do your test. In Eq and Hunters, you just do your course as best you can. In judged equestrian sports, you have the option of forgetting there is a judge there while you concentrate on your horse and performing. Here you have to both smile and look right at the judges while switching poses, knowing that they are evaluating you.

Photo by Chris Nicoll, used with purchase
And then we were lining up for the comparison poses. No time to think, barely any time to re-set my brain from "model poses" to "comparison poses" and I somewhat botched the first side pose because of it. One of the mandatory things about posing for Figure is that your heels should ALWAYS BE TOGETHER for the front and back poses. Always. It's akin to having your heels down when riding: it's basic. I kept transitioning from one pose to the other and then realizing that my heels were apart. This had never been an issue when practicing over and over and over at home: I never had to think about it. I could do the footwork for the poses in my sleep. But now onstage, I kept landing with my heels apart and before I could fix it, we would get asked to do another quarter turn (switch poses). I was furious at myself for repeatedly not catching my error in time to correct it.

The competitor in purple was New Girl, the one that had been sitting next to me backstage. In terms of musculature, she's pretty much exactly what the judges are looking for in Figure at NPC shows.


Photo by Chris Nicoll, used with purchase
You are told to practice holding the poses for up to two minutes each. Sometimes the judges will have you turn and turn and turn while deciding placings. Sometimes they'll have you stay in the same pose for what feels like an eternity while they compare you to the other competitors. You should be prepared to hold your poses for an extended period of time without your body trembling from the effort, because yes: you are holding all of your muscles taught for presentation. I had practiced for this and for smooth, deliberate transitions. I had not, however, practiced for super fast transitions and not having time to think. That was my own mistake.

I blinked and we were walking off stage again. We then went right back on again almost immediately for my second and last class, which had one additional person in it. No one did model poses for this one because we had all done them already, so it was just comparison poses.

All the variations of the same back pose.
You are supposed to arch your back so the judges can see it: they are sitting below stage level.
You can also see what I mean about HEELS TOGETHER. Arrgh!!


Photo by Chris Nicoll, used with purchase
I do wish I had thought to remove some of the oil. I remember thinking it was a lot. Definitely too much! But I didn't see anyone else do so, so the thought didn't even cross my mind until I saw the pics later. Too many other things to think about at the time.


Photo by Chris Nicoll, used with purchase
Apparently you're supposed to lean forward a bit for both the side comparison poses and the front pose. I had not been told this and I had honestly not appreciated it in the videos I had watched, but now I know. Live and learn. #noob
And then we were off stage and that was it. It took less time than galloping around a jumper course.

Like A later said: you train so hard for so long and then your time onstage goes so very quickly!

I had this enormous grin across my face that made my cheeks hurt. Holy shit I couldn't believe I'd done it. I did The Thing! You guys, I didn't tell you about this but on top of everything else, I have THE WORST stage fright. THE WORST. Not only had I trained and worked for months for this Really Hard Thing, I had also gotten over one of my worst fears in the process, just for funsies...and then done it with not a whole lot of fabric covering my body and in a pair of the tallest heels I've ever worn without falling on my face in the process with a fair amount of grace. The whole scenario would have been a borderline nightmare for a lot of people. I had literally just done it because I felt like it...and had an absolute blast in the process.

Everyone coming off the stage was texting their coaches and trainers. I too texted Trainer to let him know how it had gone. "How did you feel up there?" he asked.

"Like I wanna do it again!" I want to do it again and own those poses next time.

By 2:30 pm, the pre-judging for all of the NPC classes was done. (No one knows why they call it pre-judging since this is where the actual judging takes place.) Technically the show was over, but because all the classes were small (aka we had all placed), we had to stay until finals for our awards.

Finals for IFBB started at 6:00 pm. NPC finals started at 8:30 pm! It was going to be a LOOOOOOOOONG wait.

A lot of people left to return later. Technically Carlos and I could have gone home and come back in the evening, but we didn't want to have to pay for parking again nor pay for his ticket to watch finals. I had slipped back into my kimono robe and flip flops, and Carlos and I went down to the other end of the Convention Center to grab coffee from a Starbucks we had noticed when we arrived, while I texted everyone to give them updates on my status.

Turns out that there was a fraternity meeting at the other end of the Convention Center: an enormous group of middle-aged men in suits was hanging out around the Starbucks. Between the kimono, the crazy tan, the stage makeup and the fake lashes, I stood out like a very, very sore thumb. "Carlos, they're going to think I'm your hooker!" I snorted in a whisper in Spanish as we got in line at the coffee shop. I was clinging to his arm. Carlos was all, "No, they're just going to be mad jealous because you're mine. Hooker or not." And he grinned. I was biting my lip hard to keep from bursting into laughter. My silly mood was by no means gone: I was actually in a state of euphoria now after surviving my stage debut.

So imagine this in an ocean of suits.
There were a few odd looks until one of the men that was in line in front of us asked, "Are you in the fitness show?"
"Yes," I said.
He was very excited about it and commended me for it. That made me grin from ear to ear. Since he had answered everyone's unspoken question about why I looked the way I did, the odd glances stopped.

We made our way back to the exhibit hallway. I had been cleared for sushi for lunch. I might have had a tantrum where I told Trainer there was no way in hell I was only going to eat rice cakes all day given how long the day was going to be. I had thought we would be able to arrive between 10:00 am and noon to get ready for the NPC part of the show and had been horrified to learn the evening before that we'd have to be on the grounds by 8:00 am. And then Finals had been made even later for NPC, which we had also been informed about at the last minute. No one had been very happy about that.

So now I snagged my sushi from my cooler and sat in the stage audience area with Carlos while wolfing it down.

It was a California roll from Wegmans. No soy sauce because sodium. It tasted incredible anyway. Sushi is among my favorite things and I had not had any in 3 months while training. I wanted to lick the tray after.
We ultimately ended up in the backstage area hanging out with New Girl, who was also local to Maryland but also hanging out until finals because Baltimore parking.

We all alternately talked and texted friends and read on our phones, and I grinned over the bombardment of "Happy birthdays!" on Facebook. I also wrote part of this post, which was a huge help for remembering details clearly, since I'm typing it up more than two weeks after the fact.

It was the longest intermission ever. We took turns getting up and walking around. The only event still happening was powerlifting; the rest of the exhibit hall was quiet and with the exodus of the crowds, the AC had kicked up significantly. I was freezing.

BORED. And yes, I was still wearing the fake lashes. I didn't take them off until we got home that night.
Like the vast majority of people competing on this day, I was still on water restriction (except for the guys in the actual bodybuilding division: bodybuilding is a separate class by itself. Size is more important than definition for them, so they do not restrict water. Most of them were carrying gallon containers with them everywhere they went.) Muscle cramps from electrolyte imbalances and sheer dehydration are a very real concern on show day. Even when properly hydrated, I'd get the occasional calf cramp towards the end of a 50-mile endurance ride if I wasn't adding electrolytes. I had been thrilled to not experience any cramps at all during pre-judging on this day but now that it was cold and we'd been still for so long, both New Girl and I were struggling with periodic unprovoked spasms in our legs and feet. I was even getting cramps in my jaw. Walking helped to a degree. But I was worried about strutting onstage so late in the evening in those heels and falling on my face from a calf or foot cramp. These shows don't usually last anywhere near this long. By the end of it all, we would have spent 16 hours at the Convention Center. It was insane, especially given that this was a new show.

Eventually the competitors started trickling into the backstage area as they returned for finals. Carlos took it as his cue to exit back to the audience area. I really wished they had had backstage passes at this show.

One of the girls, a hilarious extroverted gorgeous Amazon of a woman that was also competing in Figure, came back from an excursion to a nearby burger joint: she figured she had lost her class so she had gone all out. I had seen her before...and now after having Real Food, her body had come alive: her arms looked defined and veins stood out as if she had just worked out. This is why you carb load: for that precise effect. The "Pandora Forest" effect, as I called it in this post.

Finals ended up being strictly awards. And OMG did it get drawn out...they started out letting the winners of classes and divisions give speeches, which drew it out even more. Since pre-judging had ended early, we had all been hoping finals would get moved up, but it did not happen.

Seriously
By 9:30 pm I was incredibly cranky and we were still waiting our turn. I wanted real food. I wanted water. I was kind of glad no one else had been able to come watch the show because I would have felt awful for them. As it was I felt bad for Carlos and kept walking out to sit with him for stints of time before returning backstage to find out where they were at division-wise. He was plenty entertained with his brand-new exposure to this strange world but I still felt bad. It was even colder in the general public area than it was backstage.

Trainer periodically checked in via text and was horrified when it was nearly 10:00 pm and none of the Figure classes had been called up yet.

I was outright delirious by this point. My body was exhausted, my muscles had gone flat hours ago, and I just felt spent. I had eaten my rice cakes with jam and they had made no difference. I was angry because the restaurants back home would all be closed by the time we got out and I didn't want to hang out in Baltimore after the show. I was dying for a hot shower where I could scrub off as much of the stickiness of the tan as possible, and couldn't wait to remove the fake lashes. I was seriously debating just grabbing Carlos and leaving without my awards when he texted from the audience:

"They're giving out swords."

WHAT.

"The awards are swords! All the way up through 6th place!"

OMFG! I had seen the long tubular boxes and for some reason had assumed they were posters. That's what your brain does when exhausted + dehydrated + Real Food deprived.

The "poster" boxes. There are two of them in this pic that had already been given to other competitors.
Those boxes had swords in them!!!
OMG OMG OMG

Everyone, including myself, had been in constant contact with their trainers and coaches during the intermission. I had just been in the middle of a tirade to Trainer about the ridiculous amount of time we had been waiting for this to be over already when Carlos told me about the swords.

"Can't believe it's taken that long," Trainer had just replied.
"OMG THEY'RE GIVING OUT SWORDS!!!!! SWORDS AS AWARDS! ALL THE WAY UP TO 6TH PLACE!!" I blurted suddenly via text.
There was a pause.
"Dammit," Trainer responded.

You see, he's the one that had mentioned they sometimes give swords as awards at these shows; I had had no idea this could potentially be a thing until he asked at the beginning of training if they would give out swords at this particular competition. I had checked and the show info just said said they would give out trophies.

Trainer's long-time dream was to win a sword at a show. Usually they're medieval-type swords.

Random photo to illustrate the type of sword award that is usually given out at these competitions, if swords are trophies. That's still a big "if."

THESE WERE FUCKING KATANAS. AND I WAS GOING TO BE TAKING HOME TWO OF THEM regardless of placing because my classes had been so small. TWO SWORDS...AT MY FIRST SHOW.  What were the odds??!!

I might have rubbed it in a little bit. :D

We were called outside for touch-ups and so our suits could be glued on again and we then still stood in our heels for close to another hour before we were finally called onstage. Everyone in my division was restless and irritated over how much this had all been drawn out. Around then, everyone gave up and broke into their special treats for after the show: New Girl had a bag of fruity trail mix. Another competitor had a bag of straight chocolate chips. One of the Bikini girls was drinking Pedialyte. I slathered almond butter on a rice cake and took out the chocolate milk I had brought as my recovery drink. I did a silent toast to Dom and literally chugged the entire thing in one go. It was so freaking good. I had not had real chocolate milk in months.

I could not feel my toes by the time it was our turn, and I had a low-grade cramp in my left calf that did not want to go away. My jaw felt so tight by then from cramping that I apparently completely forgot to smile when I went onstage for my final model pose. In my head I smiled. I was kind of horrified when I saw the pro shots and realized that I had, in fact, not smiled at all.

Well, technically I smiled I guess. You're actually supposed to grin. You're also supposed to still be flexing everything, even if the placings had already been decided. I forgot to do that too. And I also don't remember. :/
Photo by Chris Nicoll, used with purchase.
And I completely forgot to salute the judges before walking to my spot with the other girls in the line-up. *face-palm* That's kind of a huge no-no. *crawls under desk and dies* I seriously don't remember; I only know because of the photos. All I could think about by then was how very much I wanted to take those shoes off.


But either way, I turned 38 years of age at exactly 11:44 pm while still standing on that stage.

This was my fave of all the pro shots, mainly because I look like the real deal here.
I felt so tiny and scrawny...and I wasn't!
Photo by Chris Nicoll, used with purchase.

We were given our swords and then we all rushed into the backstage area so we could GTFO of there. My classes had literally been the last two to be called for awards! I took the shoes off STAT and hobbled into my flip flops.

Carlos helped me grab my stuff and went to get the car out of the event parking lot while I ran over to the general public restroom so I could remove my suit and slip into my yoga pants and a long-sleeved T-shirt. They say the suit glue sometimes takes the top layer of skin off, but I had no issues with that.

There was a Cheesecake Factory within walking distance from the Convention Center that I had drooled over when we had first arrived the day before. Everyone else was going there to celebrate now. But we had a long drive ahead of us and all I could think of was SHOWER. The last thing I wanted to do right then was sit in a restaurant full of people feeling as grimy as I did and have to wait to be served.

I dug into my oatmeal cookies the moment my butt hit the car seat. After looking forward to them for months, I had been expecting to be let down by them. I was not. They were absolutely heavenly: crunchy on the outside and the cream inside was light and fluffy, and they were cloyingly, amazingly sweet, and I was only able to eat 1 and 1/4 of them because my tastebuds had forgotten what true sweetness was. Carlos got to have what was left of the second cookie.

We both wanted dinner. We debated IHOP or Denny's because both are 24 hours and close to home, but I didn't want to get out of the car still wearing my stage face. We ultimately just swung by McDonald's where I ordered my favorite: breakfast burritos. I'm not a fast food person at all, but I have a soft spot for Mickey D's breakfast burritos thanks to my time at the tack shop in Tampa. When my boss was running late, she would bring me a burrito as an apology; they were among her favorite things and she got me hooked on them. They have been part of my endurance carb loading for the last two years and even though it is now over 12 years ago that I worked at the store, those burritos still remind me of my favorite Irish lady, Maryanne. (It also doesn't hurt that they are listed among McDonald's healthier food items. So there's that too.) Yeah, apparently everything in my life has a story, including fave food items...

Once home I set the food aside so I could rip the boxes with my katanas open like a little kid at Christmas, slipped back into the competition suit, and we got this photo.

OMG so badass!!!
I seriously did want to strap those bitches to my back and walk around with them for the rest of my life.
I consider them my prize for being both strong and feminine. Also: remember when I was told in the beginning by Coach that I wasn't cut out for this sport? Yeah. So much for that! :D
I was stupid excited about those swords and I wanted a pic with them unsheathed while wearing the suit and still sporting the crazy tan and the fake lashes. Eff silly satin ribbons at horse shows. GIMME MORE SWORDS! I have never been this excited about an award for anything in my entire life.

You guys don't understand: among my family's many unusual interests are a love for both everything Medieval and for Japanese culture. My brother owns a REAL honest-to-God katana that he bought from a weapons store when he was in college after saving up for months. He taught himself how to wield it in the samurai fashion.

Dearest Astarte, guarding my brother's (sheathed) katana back in the day.
I learned fencing so I could follow in the same Unusual Weapons mastery tradition of the family, and made the saber my weapon of choice because it was considered one of the more difficult options and the most atypical for women to use. I was good at it. My mom and my grandfather were badasses with the bow and arrow, and taught both my brother and me when we were kids. I was not gifted with the bow, but my brother sure was! He took formal archery lessons for a brief stint.

So winning two katanas at this show hit a hard-to-explain level of fulfillment for me. From the first moment that magazine fell open on the prep guide for a show back in October of 2016 to now having these two swords in my hands, everything had indicated with unparalleled certainty that this was the thing that I was supposed to be doing, that it was the correct choice. Why? I don't quite know yet because it wasn't something I had truly seen myself doing up until less than a year ago. But I hope I get to find out!

But back to the evening of the show: those were the best breakfast burritos I have ever had. And the shower afterwards was beyond incredible. It didn't take much scrubbing to turn the water black from the excess tan solution. I had been expecting the water to turn orange from it, not black. That's how dark that paint was! There was still quite a bit of remaining tan on my body afterwards, but it was this gorgeous golden color that meshed really well with my natural skin tone. I was surprised by how much I liked it. There are perks to not being white! :P

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So where did I place? I placed third and fourth: last in both classes. I know why (you might be able to tell by looking at the pro photos, even without knowing much about the sport), and that's absolutely okay! :) You have to start somewhere; I was just happy that I was conditioned enough to fit in! New Girl won our class of three, which I had been expecting: she absolutely deserved it. The second class was won by the girl in red. If you look closely at the pro photos, you should be able to appreciate why as well. This region has some of the toughest judges and is part of why I had been so concerned about the lower half of my body being as on point as I could make it: I didn't want to be laughed off the stage. Most people aiming at NPC train for years before deciding to do their first show at this level; they start out competing in the natural groups like OCB and then move up into NPC. Like starting with LDs in endurance and then moving up to 50s, which is what makes sense. But as you guys know I like to do things backwards apparently, because who else starts endurance not only with 50s, but with the Old Dominion 50 itself?? I came in dead last for the Turtle Award, but I completed. So this felt eerily like a parallel in that sense too.

Ultimately I was still thrilled with how I looked and felt about myself stepping on stage, and that's all that matters. I enjoy running because it's a constant competition against myself and this sport was exactly the same in that regard. I'll go into more of that in the next post. 

I got all of my wishes: I got up on that stage and was competitive despite being a complete noob in a tougher organization, I placed, I won a sword two swords AND the most important thing of all: I had a BLAST while doing it. An absolute blast! I laughed so much and so hard throughout this entire peak week and show that my chest and ribs were sore the next day.

This is not what it's like for a lot of people that compete in this sport, but it certainly was for me. I went ahead and decided to do one of the toughest things I have ever set for myself as a goal, both mentally and physically, and I did it while enjoying every step of the way, which is exactly how I wanted it to happen.

Life is short and time runs out. Stop waiting until tomorrow or the next show season or next year. If you really want to do something, stop thinking about it so much and go out and do it! You won't know whether you can accomplish it unless you go out and try. 

One tripod katana-guarding Zombie Cat while we decided how to mount them on the wall in the living room. :)
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Next up is the final post in the series: Aftermath, Analysis and Reflections