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

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Experiment: Phase 4 - Peak Week

This is part 6 of an 8-post series. Continued from here

Depending on who you ask, peak week is something newbie competitors look forward to or dread, or both, because it is the hardest part of prep.

This is about how much sense you make during peak week.
And yes, this is pretty much all you can think about.
How is it hard, you ask?

Well, first all the carbs go bye-bye for realsies.

Remember though: I could still eat steak and cheese! :D
And in my case, I did get to have one day of moderate carbs halfway through the week...which would end up being key.
And then you have to drink lots and lots and lots of water. More than two gallons a day for a couple of days. Which means you also have to pee and pee and pee.

This was fun while trying to get an hour of cardio in.
I had to step off the treadmill halfway through EVERY TIME to run and pee. Despite having peed beforehand!
3 days of this.
I laughed a lot about it because I have never peed so much in my life.
Thankfully the people around me knew about it, so they all laughed with me and at me. Because why not. ;)
Why? Because you're flushing your system out. And you better drink that water while you can, because then the water goes bye-bye too.

Only sips of water allowed. I carried a half liter of water around and sipped from that, making sure I still had some left over at the end of the day. This is what most people drink on a given day, maybe less. Me? I normally average around 1-1.5 gallons/day. Under normal circumstances I don't drink juice nor soda because I'd rather eat my calories than drink them. I only drink water, coffee and beer/wine (exceptions made here in the drinking calories department). This part was hard: I felt parched half the time and constantly had to remind myself "Only sips, no gulps!" How on earth people exist on so little water 24/7 365 days a year is beyond me. Sorry guys; you get no empathy from me on that one. :/

Here is a good explanation of the why and how of the entire process. Of course, this is a general guideline that is tailored to the individual. The water restriction process is called "drying out" and its goal is to eliminate all subcutaneous water retention, which makes your skin literally stick to your muscles if you've managed to also eliminate most of the fat covering them. This is the unhealthy part of this sport. You literally turn yourself into a raisin.

This is what happens if you have a ridiculously low body fat % and you've "dried out" successfully.
This is also a more extreme example: this is Dana Lynn Bailey, a pro who competed at the Arnold Classic in 2015.
Women's Physique is the next division up from Figure. The women are a WHOLE LOT MORE muscular, they compete barefoot, and they get to do a sort of freestyle posing routine to the music of their choice. This type of body is much, much harder to achieve 100% naturally even at the non-pro status, unless you've been genetically gifted for it and have an iron discipline and will. Her body fat is probably at the lowest end for female bodybuilding-type events, which is 6%. 6%!! Figure competitors are usually around 9- 15% body fat. I started out at the beginning of training at 14.8%. Female athletes in general usually hover around 16-20%. 

I'll confess to one thing here: for my first three endurance rides with Lily, back when we still used hoof boots, I would deliberately dehydrate myself for the 24-48 hours prior to the ride. I simply wouldn't always drink when I was thirsty, or I would only take sips of water when I did drink. Why? Because I knew I was going to be getting off 8 gazillion times to fix hoof boots on trail. I didn't want to also have to get off another 2 million times to pee as well and cut into our ride time even more. Another reason for beginning to work out so hard back then was because by being a notch fitter I could prevent more of the post-ride exhaustion and soreness that was going to be a given from not drinking enough alone.

And then...then it was also spray tan prep time.

I had dreaded the spray tan. In fact, if it weren't for the spray tan, I would have considered training for and giving this a whirl a loooooong time ago. There's a reason for the tan: it brings out all the definition you've gained and also helps hide minor flaws. The darker your skin is, the less flaws will be visible. Most competitors embrace the spray tan just like endurance riders embrace the obnoxious neon biothane tack: it's a given with the sport. I don't know why I had such an enormous mental block with it. You have to prep your skin for it the week before by exfoliating and moisturizing every day so the tan goes on even and smooth. You can't just use any lotion either: it has to be something gentle that will help balance the pH of your skin because otherwise you'll end up green. (I just bought the cream sold by the company that was doing the spray tan. Easy. No research involved there.) And then once you have the spray tan on, you have to be careful with it smudging...because it will smudge if you're not careful. And then you're on stage with lights shining down on you, mostly nekkid with a smudged tan. No. I had stressed out the most about the smudging and about my face matching my body and about it looking completely unnatural afterwards. Because I had to go back to work 24 hours after the show and I kept hearing that you turn orange once the brunt of the tan washes off and I didn't want to have to explain that one to coworkers and clients! UGH >.<

I joked a lot about this in an effort to not stress about the tan, because it was the one thing about this whole project that I truly found overwhelming:

My shoulders were tight from all the work they'd been put through so I couldn't reach my back for applying the prep cream, so I would ask Carlos for help when he was at home:
"Carlos, I need help getting this lotion on my skin, or I'm going to get the hose again..."
He would come over in stitches with laughter. He was da bomb through all of this.

Like I said, for me when the going gets tough, the tough gets funny.
I'm not as humorous about equestrian subjects because riding is so much easier by comparison.
This prep was really hard towards the end. The harder it got, the more I joked around. Humor was my outlet to avoid becoming frustrated or excessively anxious.
At this stage during this final week, cardio was happening twice a day, an hour each time. But we were back to low intensity stuff: just walking or the elliptical. The target heart rate was just right (100-120 bpm) that I was able to take the cardio outside into the sun: I'd jog until my heart rate was just above target, then fast walk until it dropped into the lower end of the target range, and then I'd jog again. It was a slow pace but having to pay attention to my heart rate monitor made the time fly by. Halfway through prep when I was first assigned to the treadmill, I enjoyed walking on it because it was time for zoning out and enjoying music, but now I was restless and impatient. Being able to go outside allowed me to enjoy my favorite town on earth in the heat of one of my favorite seasons.

We love this door. Shanna calls it the Fairy Door. It's for passersby to contribute to.
My favorite section of Carroll Creek.
Strength training became easier in some ways and harder in others. It was mostly just what is called time under tension, which in this case was achieved by supersetting two exercises at a time that worked the same muscle for 10 reps x 3 sets, done at the same slow tempo that I had used in the beginning. I wasn't sore anymore after strength training workouts, but the loss of strength at this time was dramatic. I kept having a mental block with it: trying to lift what normally would have been fine and then having to drop it by 5, 10, 15 lbs in order to complete the reps and sets. It didn't help that my pre-workout also was cut out during this week: I prefer C4 because it's just caffeine and B-vitamins (no crazy herbs) but it also contains creatine. Creatine helps with muscle building and recovery, but can also lead to water retention, especially if you're not drinking enough. So my workouts were all done on coffee alone.

Like I said before, the fitter you look for this sport, the weaker you are.
All of that said, though, the reason why people look forward to peak week is because that's when you really get to know if all the work you've put in has paid off. Removing every last ounce of water retention is the last step of cutting. And if you've done it right, this is when you are going to look your best. Hence the term "Peak Week."

Case in point.
No filter was applied to this photo, this was not flexing, and I had not just been working out. I was just making myself my evening protein + BCAA shake and trying to get every last drop out of the blender when Carlos took this  photo.
Yes, I often hang out around the house in a bikini top or sports bra + shorts in the summertime.
You can take the islander out of the island but you'll never get the island out of the islander. ;)

This was the best I looked during peak week. It was taken on Thursday before the show, after my one mid-week moderate carb day and after 24 hours of water restriction. This was at home cold: I am in gym clothes in the pic because I was about to leave the house to work out. I was not flexing; just lifting my arm! Veins and striations (the muscle lines on my shoulders) were noticeable without doing a thing! It was pretty amazing to see. And I'm glad I took this photo when I did, because it was used as reference for later: my body seems to like the balance of going from higher carbs to higher fat...towards the end of prep, that transition phase was consistently the spot where I looked and felt my best, even when I was missing my normal amounts of water like I was on this specific day.
Trainer had joked that by the last two days of Peak Week, I was just going to want to sit in a dark room with a sign around my neck that said, "Do Not Disturb."

While I was aware that my fuse was shorter than it normally would have been when just plain tired, I was also comically loopy by this point. Everything was funny or I suddenly didn't give a shit...which also made it funny. I had no filter. I would be talking to Carlos and I would trail off into silence and forget what I was talking about...then explode into giggles. I was easily distracted: trying to buy food for that last week and the makeup and other supplies I would need for the show was an epic mission because I kept getting sidetracked by things that caught my attention in the store or outright forgetting what it was that I was looking for in the first place. I became a brutally honest, goofy extrovert.

As Carlos said himself, I was basically him during peak week. Another thing that caused endless amounts of laughter. Note: being Carlos is pretty awesome. ;) It meant that I was going into the most trying phase of them all completely and absolutely relaxed about the whole process.

This is where I need to stop and commend the two people that stuck with me throughout this crazy adventure, through both thick and thin: Carlos himself and Shanna. Not only did they listen to me go on and on about trainer sessions I was excited about or complain about how tired I was on some days or watch me be excited about the most ridiculous food choices like an enormous pile of unsalted scrambled eggs with a side of bacon at Nola's for dinner, they were physically there with me too for moral support: Shanna would come with me to the gym on Monday nights for 9:30 pm cardio sessions when I got home from work. She could have gone earlier in the day, but she waited until that ungodly hour so she could do her workout with me. Having a friend to breathlessly talk to while doing leg raises on the Stairmaster for an hour makes that Stairmaster clock go a tiny bit faster.

I bow down to you, Goblin King.
Carlos accompanied me for strength training sessions during the week. We'd each do our own thing and then I'd go do cardio and he'd step on the machine next to me to keep me company. He also came with me for my outdoor cardio sessions during my last week of prep, because by then we were on similar work and sleep schedules again for the first time in 8 months.

Photo from one of these outdoor cardio sessions
Shanna was not going to be able to be there for the show because she had a family out-of-state wedding to go to that had been in the works for almost a year now. Her last day in town coincided with my peak week and she came out to the gym with me when I got out of work that Monday. It was our last time to hang out together before she left for a full week.

I had to work chest and triceps, Trainer-style (aka moderate weight and super slow tempo). Shanna went ahead and did the full workout with me, being a total trooper even when I forgot to decrease the weight for her (because peak week flakiness.) I'm pretty sure she was sore for the next two or three days, but she didn't say a peep about it during the session. I could. not. stop. giggling. about everything. EVERYTHING. Everything had me in stitches. Which invariably made Shanna giggle too. We laughed throughout the entire strength workout and cardio afterwards. I'm pretty sure the handful of people at the gym at that hour thought we were drunk.

I think it's the most fun I've had at the gym ever.

We even goofed off in front of the mirrors. In public. And then sent this photo to Tony! It is the only pic of me taken during this process where I'm really flexing a bicep. Lol!
Who cares what other people thought. Like I said: I didn't give a shit anymore.
It was absolutely the best mental state to be in before strutting across a stage mostly nekkid!

Shanna and me

I had my first peak week Trainer session the next day. And I was STILL obnoxiously giggly and ridiculous, especially because I shouted "Good morning!" to him while sprinting past him to the restroom to pee AGAIN. I had just peed at home 15 minutes prior! He just laughed. This is the part where his sense of humor was the most valuable: he also got a good laugh over my awkward stories about the week so far. We also talked about post-show food: after spending so much time focusing on eating a certain way, a lot of people struggle with their diet after the show. Your body has basically been primed for weight gain with the restrictiveness of the last phases of prep, and it is common for both new and experienced competitors to just dive-bomb back into eating everything they weren't allowed to eat during those last stages...and gain a monumental amount of weight in a very short period of time post-show because of it. (This is why restrictive diets are bad for you!) I wanted to avoid that. I already had in my favor that I normally eat healthy to begin with, but I wanted to have some sort of plan going forward, which was discussed.

"I've been having weird cravings as if I was competing again, and I don't know why," Trainer admitted. I grinned, thinking, "Awww he's having sympathy cravings!" :) Most competitors do have crazy cravings, especially towards the end of prep...but I honestly had not had any significant cravings, other than really, really, really wanting beer despite not having had beer in close to a year. But I have a strong association with summer and beer, so there's that. Every time I wanted beer, I'd say to Carlos, "Let's go to the bar! You can order what I would get and I'll just watch you drink it while I have my glass of water." *insert laughing emoji here* I shared that one with Trainer too.

Carlos with beer and me with my non-alcoholic water on the rocks.
This photo is so us. By Shanna.
"You'll be drunk after one sip," he teased.
"Hmf. I don't think so," I said. I was pretty sure I wouldn't be.
"Well, your alcohol tolerance goes down when you don't drink, and you also have no body fat to buffer it with," he said. Which was true. He spoke from experience.
I just grinned. I know my body and I just had a feeling.

We talked about other food-related things while I worked out. Cupcakes, coworkers bringing all sorts of goodies that made things even more challenging (there had been an endless stream of junk food at work the previous weekend), the Rita's commercial on the radio that made me turn it off every time it came on, and how your body's reaction to and tolerance for certain foods changes post-show once you start re-introducing them, like salt and sugar. I'm mentioning the conversation because it was here that I finally decided what I really wanted after the show: I wanted two cream-stuffed oatmeal raisin cookies from Wegman's bakery; a chicken enchilada from Cacique; a frozen custard from Rita's; a smoothie (half cider, half Guinness) from our favorite Irish pub + their eggs benedict for brunch; and a hefeweizen from Brewer's Alley. That was it. I also mapped out the timing for all of those things in my head: I had every intention of having ALL of them in one day.

The rest of the week was spent cutting out water for Project Raisin (as I called it), doing crazy amounts of low-intensity cardio in addition to strength training, and running around from the mall to the grocery store to the pharmacy while doing research on things you need for your first show and how to do your own stage makeup. I figured one of the benefits of this sport would be that you get to pack less than you do for endurance.

I was wrong.

This was only half of the stuff I needed to take.
Carlos said he felt like he lived in a sorority house with the amount of makeup I was amassing.
The spray tan was scheduled for the Friday before the show. I was smart about it: instead of trying to do it myself like most noobs do (aw hell no!) I went ahead and made an appointment with the company that was going to be doing it for this show. Expensive? Yes ($150 for the entire package), but it had already been factored into the show budget well beforehand. And in terms of what you got for the price, it was perfectly reasonable: it was applied by people that did this specifically for competition, you got however many coats of tan you needed (a necessity; this is not AT ALL like going to your regular spray tan salon), along with touch-ups, having your suit glued to your ass (yes, that happens!) and you also got glazed by them. Yup: you get turned into a shiny golden-brown glazed donut ;) by people who actually know what they are doing, so I don't have to think about it. Gimme.

The entire show still cost less than an endurance ride with two horses.

I woke up extra early that Friday morning so I could shave every last bit of hair from my body. Arms, legs, errythang: per competition tanning company directions, shaving is preferred to waxing as prep for the tan and it should be done 8 hours prior to the appointment at the very least.  Waxing is more likely to cause adverse reactions and irritation. All hair needs to be removed because otherwise it will trap the...the...paint, is what it really is, and make it look uneven. Next up that morning was my last pre-show session with Trainer. I think we worked arms...I honestly don't remember because by then my brain was a constant buzz-buzz-buzz of "I need to do this and this and then this and then that. Oh, and I can't forget that! Nor that. OMG..." We discussed a game plan for the next day, which would be discussed in further detail at the show. I informed him that I was NOT doing two hours of cardio on this last day, and he said that was fine...and then he crossed his arms in front of his chest and looked at me with a raised eyebrow, "You're not going horseback riding instead, are you?"

You'd think he knew me. I burst out laughing because I had not been expecting that one...mainly because for once the thought hadn't even crossed my mind! (I had been tempted in the past to sub riding for cardio, but I was always good: I'd either do both or just cardio. He knew about the horses but I had never confessed to wanting to sub riding for cardio. I hadn't had the energy or time to ride for the last month even if I'd wanted to.) In this case I just had too much last-minute shit to get done, which I explained. I also ended up telling him about the Birthday Curse: 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. So this year I had decided to not do anything with the girls in July at all. In fact, on this particular week I hadn't even taken them out of the field for grooming/feeding. I'd simply gone out to the pasture to pat them on the neck, make sure all 4 legs were attached, and told them I loved them and we would regroup in August. The fact that the show fell on my birthday had basically guaranteed that I would be too busy to even want to think of riding around this date.

"Maybe this will be a new tradition then," Trainer said. Maybe. :)

I said good-bye, then headed to the gym to do my last one hour of cardio pre-show, and then rushed home to shower so I could get my hair cut. I then sped back the apartment to finish leaving stuff packed for the next day: my spray tan that afternoon was at 4:45 pm and the entire thing would take close to an hour. At 6:00 pm I had to check in for the show, and then at 8:00 pm was the competitor meeting (like an endurance ride briefing, if you will.) All of this was in Baltimore, at the hotel next to where the show would take place the next day, which meant close to an hour's drive each way: we would be returning home late that night and I wanted to leave everything as ready as I could so I could just go to sleep when we returned home.

Thanks to my dehydration-and-zero-carb-induced "Fuck it" mentality, my anxiety about the spray tan had completely disappeared. I was scheduled to start carb loading either just before or right after the tan, and had packed food in order to be able to do so. 

We arrived with an hour to spare, parked in crazy expensive Baltimore parking, and hiked down to the nearest Starbucks to wait. I ordered a latte with skim milk to mark the beginning of carb loading (yes, real dairy has carbs), and walked back to the hotel with 15 minutes to spare. It was a good thing we arrived early because we had THE HARDEST TIME finding the spray tanning people: we were directed to the wrong floor twice, but we eventually stumbled upon a hotel employee that actually knew what was going on and was able to tell us where to go. Once we had confirmed I was in the right place, Carlos said good-bye and said he would wait for me in the lobby.

And that is when I stepped for real for the first time into the world of bodybuilding. 

I was wearing a tank top and shorts that showed off the work I'd put in the last few months, and carrying a bag with a change of loose clothes for later. I walked into a room where a guy that was very obviously competing the next day was checking people in for their tans. He was completely intimidating in appearance but I grinned when I saw he was eating plain chicken and diced potatoes: yup, someone else was carb loading. He was actually really nice: I was recognized as a competitor without hesitation and he found my name on the client sheet. My wrist got stamped and I was directed where to go next. 

I got in line in a room where there were various small pods and so began one of the most bizarre experiences I have ever had in my life. I was really glad I had researched the crap out of all of this, because I actually knew what to expect. Even then, it was quite strange to experience as a first-timer. 

I was directed to a pod (called a "dry pod") where I was to strip down to nothing. Yup: nothing. Completely naked. I could leave my things in this pod because I would not be tanned here. A very kind woman that also looked like a competitor came over once I was in my birthday suit and carefully applied lotion to my knees and toenails, and gave me lotion for my palms, nails and elbows: this is to prevent tan uptake. I then stood completely naked except for a shower cap on my hair in my dry pod until I was called over to the pod where I would be sprayed. 

Oh yeah: there were at least 8 dry pods in a semi-circle, all facing one another. So you got to stand naked in front of other female competitors who were getting ready for their spray tans or drying after being sprayed: there was a constant influx and outflux of very fit women. I had been expecting this. But as I joked later: in one go, I probably tripled the number of people that have seen me naked. 

It was finally my turn. The two pods where we were sprayed faced wall-to-wall windows that overlooked the Baltimore Bay below. It was a spectacular view...and I was completely naked in front of it, staring down at the water and the city below from the 6th floor where we were located. (It was one-way glass, but still!)

A woman in protective gear then methodically sprayed just about every square inch of my body (and I mean *every square inch*) with an air brush. Her and her helper asked me if I was new to competing and I said yes. They started joking around about the awkwardness of meeting all these people for the first time without a lick of clothing on, and I burst out laughing: both of them were very sweet and hysterically funny and they made me feel at ease. 

Two coats of tan later, I was standing in my dry pod with a small fan pointed at me, holding very still except for occasionally turning to allow the fan to dry the tan. It really felt like paint on my skin: it was sticky and you had to hold your arms out to the sides like a cormorant drying its wings after a dive so you wouldn't smudge the tan before it dried. 

Like so. I was also maybe only two shades lighter than this bird as well.
The same kind lady that had applied the lotion to my nails stopped by to see if my tan was dry, placing a gloved hand against my back. It was still sticky but it was declared dry. She then used a legit feather duster to lightly dust me all over with this magical powder that I'm guessing was supposed to help set the tan. The feather duster felt amazing.

I then slipped into my loose clothes sans underwear (because underwear will also smudge the tan) and walked back to the elevators to ride down to the hotel lobby. A hotel lobby full mostly of normal people coming and going that gave me funny looks as I walked by. I beamed brilliantly at them: I was honest-to-God loving my "I really don't care" mood.

When Carlos saw me he did a double-take. "Well, now you REALLY look Puerto Rican!" he said. 

I couldn't stop giggling. Between my awesome chilled-out mental state and how dark my skin was, I felt like I was in a borrowed body and was loving every second of it far more than I ever imagined. I had actually thought I would hate the end of the process, but it felt more like getting ready to burst out of a cocoon turned into a butterfly. 

Carlos rode back up in the elevator with me for the check-in. I filled out the paper for my NPC card and then walked into a room full of uber-fit, super dark people, where I picked up the next day's schedule, my competitor pass (!!), and my competitor number. My height was then measured to make sure I had chosen the correct height divisions (I had.) And then I was done. 

We then sat down in the lobby to wait for the competitor meeting. We had about an hour and a half to go. I did not have an appetite at all at this point, but I ate the salmon and white rice I had brought with me. The case of sillies that I had over how I looked was not going to go away for the entire weekend. 

It looked kind of natural in photos...until you take a second look and realize how LIGHT my teeth and my highlights look against my skin!
I then looked down in the light and realized that the spray tan sparkled. It SPARKLED!! 

I then just about melted in laughter.  I was having way, way too much fun with this. A lot more fun than I had ever expected.
The hotel was attached to a mall, which Carlos went out to explore. I was comfortable hanging out in the lobby with people of what was now my same species walking by every once in awhile, but I was not comfortable wandering out into the mall where I would be out of context. So I sat in the lobby reading until Carlos returned. 

And then it was time for the competitor's meeting. Unlike endurance ride meetings, this was the most humongous waste of time ever. They told us how the different classes would be spread out on stage the next day (they rushed through it through it so fast, it took them all of 3 minutes and I was like, "But what about those of us that are clueless...??" Oh well. I was not the only one with a confused look on her face, but everyone seemed afraid to ask questions), explained how to get our pro photos after the show, and then spent the next 15 minutes advertising future shows. And then we were dismissed. I was annoyed that we had waited so long for something so useless but whatever.

When you go to get spray tanned at a salon, you're supposed to remove the developer by showering shortly afterwards. Not here: water was not supposed to touch me until after the show to deliberately leave that developer on. Hence why the tan was even darker by the time we got home. 

I walked into the bathroom and went, "OH MY GOD!" It was so very, very dark.
More laughter ensued. I seriously did not recognize this body. But hey: check out my 6-pack in my newfound darkness! It was visible without having to flex! ;D
I left all my food and supplies for the next day ready to go, organized my makeup in a way that made sense, and finished carb loading...I was still not hungry and realized I had planned my afternoon-to-evening carb loading poorly: I had to get 100 grams of carbs in before going to bed along with the remaining allotted protein required, which was ultimately a ton of food. Like literally 1/3 of my daily calorie requirement. I groaned over my brain fart, ate my food, and crawled into bed at midnight. We had to wake up at 6:00 am to haul ass back to Baltimore: my last coat of spray tan would be applied between 8:00 and 8:45 am. 


Up next: Show time!!!!!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

The Experiment: The Bane of Posing

This is part 5 of an 8-post series. Continued from here. I strongly recommend reading these posts in order, as they build up on one another, and the information in one post is relevant to what happens in the next. They were all written as the events were happening.

Of all of this, posing was the hardest part. Not because the poses for competition are particularly difficult: the Figure division's poses are, IMO, the classiest and most straightforward. (Another reason why I chose this division.) No, the reason why practicing posing was hard is because it was the time when I truly had to confront the mirror.

When it comes to this type of competition, you cannot escape posing. You can have the most amazing body on the planet but if you can't pose in order to show it off on that stage, it's all for nothing. 

I had been working with Trainer for a couple of weeks in the beginning when he asked off-handedly in the middle of a session, "Have you been practicing your posing?"

"I just started," I said. I had just started...but I needed to be doing a lot more of it. We had a conversation about it, and Trainer commented about how hard the lat spread can be, while I thought, "Surely I'm doing something wrong? Because it is seriously not hard for me at all..."

The lat spread was not hard. The comparison side poses were not hard. What was hard was looking at my distorted reflection in our Target mirror in the shitty light of our apartment that highlighted every damn flaw on my body, with a major case of Impostor Syndrome and part of me thinking, "You are insane to think you can do this. You'll never be ready for this," while another part of me thought, "You must be doing something wrong because this isn't that hard. Why on earth do some people practice this for hours and hours??" No, the posing itself was not hard. It was dealing with my own head.

This led to a LOT of internet research and watching a lot of pros doing their thing. IFBB, NPC and OCB have slightly different posing routines for Figure. I watched a couple of videos of newbie show divisions and wanted to hide in embarrassment for some of the competitors and what they were doing.

Like, I'm the rookiest of them all and I could tell they were doing crazy shit on that stage and there was no way I wanted to be thinking of that when it was my turn. So I'd go back to looking at the pros. And then I'd try to practice and be like, "OMG how on earth will I ever be ready for this in time?" Because pro bodies look hella different from rookie bodies...

Nicole Wilkins
(yes, again. Imma keep mentioning her so get used to it. :P)
And a first time competitor who placed 3rd in her NPC Master's class! :) (Masters = over 40 years of age.)
She looks amazing. But this is why comparing a pro to someone starting out is like comparing your dressage First Level Quarter Horse to the likes of Valegro.
Aka: don't do that, mmkay?
And then I stumbled upon this video of a posing class by Nicole Wilkins, which ended up being key in my ability to get over myself and just pose.

She explained all the poses for Figure and what they should look like in a way that made sense, which then made it possible for me to actually practice because I understood the reason for each pose.

After that I graduated to just watching videos of her competitions. I liked her natural style and found it easy to emulate. Later I went back to watching Novice and True Novice divisions just to remind myself of what new competitor bodies usually look like, especially when they're not 20-somethings. Because I'm not a 20-something, even though I tend to forget that.

Carlos was uber helpful with all of this: he sat down to watch the above video, which allowed him to know what he was looking at when I practiced at home, and he was able to give me feedback on what I was doing. He took videos for me so I could see for myself what I was doing. It all looked good enough, but I still had no idea if it was correct. I was having a hard time figuring out a way to transition smoothly from one pose to another.

But the toughest pose of all was what is called the model side pose. You see, when your division starts, each competitor walks out on stage alone to present herself to the judges. This is your chance to create that first impression all by yourself. The competitor does the front pose and back pose, each one involving the infamous lat spread, and then there is a side pose that involves standing with your hips sideways to the judges and then twisting your torso around 180 degrees to face them while maintaining said lat spread.

Like so.
Guys. That shit is hard. And I couldn't figure out how to correct mine.


So. On that posing class.

Despite Trainer's soothing words, I was still a nervous wreck about it. The posing trainer, whom I shall refer to as A, had responded to Trainer's query and he gave me her contact info to set up the class. She replied immediately upon me reaching out, and within a couple of emails back and forth we had set up the date and time for the class. She sounded as nice as Trainer had described her, but I still held this unexplainable deep-down dread that she would be like another Coach.

I was to wear a sports bra and tight shorts for the session so she could see what I was doing with my body, which I was expecting.

I sweated over the shorts though. My legs were really starting to respond to the hard work I was putting them through that week. But the damn shorts were short enough that they hid nothing, and I was about to be in front of a woman that had been training and competing herself for years. I felt beyond subpar about it.

The outfit I wore to head out the door the day of the class. I wore sneakers and carried my 5" competition stripper heels. Oh yeah...I haven't told you guys about that part yet! 5" heels are mandatory for Figure. Yup, they HAVE to be 5" high. You know how you find them online? You google "stripper heels." Amazon has a nice selection. I kid you not. It is also mandatory that they be clear.
Despite my insecurities about them for show purposes, I was positively thrilled with my legs. You can see the beginnings of muscle separation (aka definition) all the way up the front of my quads. It takes some people years to get this. It was already starting to show prior to this particular week, but that one week of hard work brought it more to the surface...one week! O_O 
I gave myself almost 2 hours to complete the 50-mile drive because I wasn't sure what traffic would be doing on the highway into D.C. Which meant that I arrived an hour early to the appointment. So I drove around in the car, exploring the area and drooling over the many restaurants that I could not eat at yet (I had had a decent breakfast of scrambled eggs and sausage (because zero carb day) right before heading out but was already hungry again an hour later) and then parked in front of the gym to wait until it was closer to my class time. I realized then that I was shaking from nerves, and ready to defend my body with tooth and nail if it was overly criticized. I don't know why I was still expecting a repeat of my experience with Coach. Maybe because it was the worst possible scenario and I'm a pessimistic optimist? If I prepare for the worst, it won't catch me by surprise if it happens.

I tried to catch up on blog reading while I counted down the minutes. When it was 10 minutes before my class time, I yanked the 3" hem of my shorts down so they'd cover as much as possible, grabbed my bag with the stripper shoes, and crossed the street to the gym.

I walked into a lovely space: A's gym was a small studio-type setting with a wall of windows down the length of one side, opposite a wall of mirrors on the other. Despite being in the city, the windows looked out onto blue sky and green trees waving in the hot summer sunlight, which in turn was reflected in the mirrors, giving the illusion that the outside was in. It was very Zen. Squat racks stood lined up in front of the windows, ready for action, and dumbbell racks were lined up by the mirrors: the two signs that this was not, in fact, a yoga studio.

A was finishing up with a client. They were talking animatedly, happily, as the client stretched. A paused when she noticed me walk in to give me a warm smile and welcome me by name. My nerves vanished right then and there: I instantly liked her, on sight. I was encouraged to use the locker area behind the wall of mirrors; I could put my bag away there if I would like to.

The locker area was like something out of a South Beach 5-star hotel: it was all golden wood, mirrors, opaque glass and sky blue accents, bathed in a soft flattering white light. I lingered as I pulled out the infamous heels and placed my bag in one of the cubbies: the square footage inside the locker area was almost equal to that of the rest of the gym.

I stepped out just as A was wrapping up with her client. A and I sat down to talk: she had asked me via email to tell her about my goals and my history, so she already knew about my riding background. She had always wanted to ride herself but had not been allowed to as a kid.

"So are you excited? Nervous?" she asked. Her eyes twinkled when she asked.

"...Both," I said tentatively. "With nervous winning by a mile!"

"But why? You shouldn't be nervous!" she said.

"I keep thinking I'm not ready. But the way I am, if I let that thought take over, I'll never just go out and do it. I'll just train forever, always thinking that I can be better. Which is a truth: we can always be better, regardless what the sport is, but we also all have to start somewhere at some point. So I'm choosing to start now."

We talked about Trainer and how long I had been working towards this, both with him and prior. She seemed to like all of my answers.

And then, "Tell me: why this? What made you decide to step into training for a show?" she asked, with that same warm smile. She genuinely wanted to know.

"I had always entertained the idea at the back of my head, but never thought I was material for it. I was just the girl that was terrible at sports...except riding. And then I started training to be my mare's equal for endurance and realized that maybe this was something I could do after all..." I paused, and all of the excitement I had been containing over the last three months working with Trainer bubbled up, the excitement that I had not been able to put into words because no one around me truly "gets" it, and I blurted, "And it is just AWESOME, so very awesome, to train with a purpose, you know? To do it with a goal in sight. That's how it was for me with endurance. It wasn't about putzing around on the trails, it was about enjoying the trails with determination: you wanted to complete a specific amount of miles in a specific amount of time or work on this or that to strengthen your horse to make her a better competitor. This is the same, except it's me now, not my horse. I've always been fascinated by sports medicine and human nutrition and it is incredible to get to actively use that knowledge for something now. It gives all of it a focus. This prep is one of the hardest things I've ever done but I'm having a blast with it because...because the best part of it all has been realizing that the limits I thought my body had are actually all in my head."

She beamed at me. "It's amazing, isn't it?" she said, reflecting my excitement back at me. This was probably the fittest woman I had ever interacted with in person and she had that same calm, quiet confidence about her that Trainer has. She was also three weeks out from a show: my show. She was going to be competing there too. Her three weeks out appearance was completely different from mine, and that was okay. It was as it was supposed to be. Yet right then she channeled that brand new excitement she had had from her very first time on stage, and she told me about it.

She had also chosen an NPC show as her first. She knew nothing about the sport other than training for it. She did her own tan and that was probably not the best idea. But she went up on that stage and she had so much fun that she couldn't wait to do it again. And here she was so many years later, still at it.

It was good to know I'm not a nut for choosing the biggest national organization as a starting point for this. :)

We then got to work with posing.

I stripped to my sports bra and shorts, and A had me go through my model poses first. My lat spread was declared perfect from the get-go (!!!). The only thing A corrected was having me lift my rib cage a little more. I showed her my side pose and explained the difficulties I was having with it. A came over, made some minor adjustments, and all of a sudden the pose happened: I was able to engage my core and swing my shoulders completely towards the mirrors while keeping my hips parallel to them.

I looked up at my reflection and did a double-take. "Oh WOW," I breathed. Not only was I nailing the pose, my proportions suddenly weren't that far from She Whom I Was Imitating throughout all this:

"Right?!" A said. She complimented my shoulders vs small waist, which were really evident in this pose now. And I just grinned like a goon. You're supposed to smile while doing all this. My smile was finally real.

Have a glimpse into the future of this series of posts. ;) So you guys know I'm not bullshitting you.
Yep, that's me. Photo by Chris Nicoll, used with purchase.
I had been having issues figuring out also how to position my front foot during this same side pose. A gave me pointers to help me show off what I have and complimented my quads, which made my day even more than anything else right up to that point. Thanks to riding, I thought. She then advised me on how to smoothly transition from one pose to another for both the model poses and the comparison poses.

It was only half an hour and it flew by, but by the end of it I felt empowered, emboldened and truly 100% excited about this whole thing for the first time since beginning this journey. My impostor syndrome had been erased in its entirety in the light of A's encouragement and positive reinforcement.

"You should be excited about your first show. You are far more ahead than the average beginner," A said with a grin at the end of the session.

I practically danced out to the car and grinned from ear to ear for the entire 50-mile drive back home.


"So how did it go with A?" Trainer asked during our first session after his return. 

"I LOVED her!" I exclaimed. 

"I knew you'd enjoy her," he said, grinning. 

"She complimented my shoulders. And my quads." And as I said it, I started bouncing up and down like a little kid because it had meant SO much coming from her. Trainer's eyebrows shot up in amusement over my enthusiasm.

"And she helped me with my side pose."

"Yes?" he prodded.

"And! And she said my lat spread is perfect. It's PERFECT!" I squealed, and totally did a happy dance in front of him.

Trainer threw his head back and laughed. 


Continued here

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The Experiment: Phase 3 - Cutting

This is part 4 of an 8-post series. Continued from here. <- The link to the previous post has been fixed and is now working. I strongly recommend reading these posts in order, as they build up on one another, and the information in one post is relevant to what happens in the next. They were all written as the events were happening.

We were 4 weeks out from the show.

I showed up for the week's first session with Trainer to the cheerful announcement of, "Things are going to change from here on out!"

"I figured," I said. I had been expecting a change; the further along you are in a competition prep for this sport, the harder it's supposed to get. This had been discussed in the beginning.

Cardio was now increased to 7 days/week, no rest days anymore. Strength training would be all days except the second low carb day: on that day I would only do cardio. In other words, strength training would be 5-6 days/week depending on how the 4-day carb cycle fell.

Boooo one less day of lifting!
Trainer went over the details of the diet changes: protein macros would remain the same, fat and carb macros would decrease by 25%. In other words, this was a calorie reduction. (To about 1600-1800, which is still the high end of what used to be maintenance for me. Again: NOT A STARVATION DIET.)

The exception was that on the extreme days there would be some bigger reductions: on the high carb day, I was not allowed fat at all (try finding fat-free non-dairy, non-ovo animal protein sources. I dare you. Even tofu has fat in it) and the low carb days were now going to be...

ZERO carb days.

As in nothing. Nada. None allowed. Beyond keto diet: the keto diet allows a reduced amount of net carbs.

I burst out laughing because I initially thought he was joking. But then remembered that there are versions of carb cycling where carbs are completely eliminated on the low carb days.

He grinned brilliantly when he saw me realize he was serious. I crossed my arms in front of my chest and frowned at him, "Okay, so what did you eat on your zero carb days?"

His staples on those two days of the 4-day cycle had been ground beef and chicken, and that had been pretty much it.

I rolled my eyes. Meat with a side of meat sounded lovely. >.< But I reminded myself that this was all my own idea; no one had pushed me into doing this. And I had been warned well in advance that the diet would be fairly off-the-wall during the last month: this is the norm in this sport. It was only a month of this. And also: I had been slowly reducing the carbs on the low carb days on my own already, so this was the next logical step anyway. I was glad I had  been weaning myself off of them: going cold turkey to zero carbs would have been brutal, especially on work days.

We then got to work on the day's training.


Later that afternoon I was at the grocery store with Carlos. I actually already had the basics of what I would need at home for the new diet modifications but I was trying to be creative and round it out because I refused to eat ground beef all day on every zero carb day. While scouring the aisles, it really dawned on me then that three days of the four in the cycle were now going to be complicated. I had this moment of panic, "OMFG I can't eat anything!!!"

I suddenly felt like this.
And then I kicked myself, "DUDE. You're a foodie. You're good at this. You have options! Think outside the box!"

Fat-free dairy, super-lean ground turkey and chicken breasts went in the grocery cart for the days when carbs were allowed. Fresh mozzarella had been my bestie for snacks on low carb days prior, and I now confirmed with absolute glee that most other cheeses have zero carbs as well. "CHEESE!" I squealed at Carlos, "I can have CHEESE on the zero carb days!" Reduced fat snacking cheddar cheese also went in the cart. And real sausage has zero carbs also. Eggs and sausage for breakfast! And pork chops. And turkey bacon. Moar steak. All of those I could have on the zero carb days. (I chose the leanest versions of all of these. I do not like fatty meats. Never have.)

Sounds about right for a no-carb day. -_-

I was also supposed to reduce fiber on the days where I was allowed carbs: there are multiple reasons for this but part of the reasoning behind it is that you want foods that are easy to digest so your body is spending less energy on processing food. This also kind of made my head spin because all of my usual carb sources are high fiber: fruits, veggies, whole grains, etc. I reached for the white rice, the corn-based pasta, and then...

"I CAN HAVE MIGAS FOR BREAKFAST!!!" Corn tortillas went into the shopping cart, along with fat-free sour cream, egg whites and salsa. "I WIN!!!" I did a happy dance in the middle of the aisle.

Carlos just laughed. Obviously he was not carb cycling with me but I made portions of both proteins and sides for him and he decided how he wanted to combine them on the weekends when we were both working so he benefited with some of these less-typical-for-me more-"manly" food choices...

No comments on this one.
But Trainer might have warned about velociraptor irrational behavior on zero carb days...

A sodium reduction was also in order: sodium is greatly reduced towards the end of competition prep to help prevent water retention. This was another thing I had to double-check on labels, and of all the limitations was probably one of the tougher ones for me personally, despite also knowing about it in advance. This is the part of prep where marinating meats was discontinued because it added sodium to them. I played more with seasonings that did not contain salt, especially those of the spicy variety. Wasabi, mustard and red pepper are examples of seasonings that would come into play for a brief period during this part of prep.

My point with telling you guys about this? With some creativity, I was still able to find variety within the new limitations I had been given. Again, this was tough, yes. But it had its purpose. Literally all of these changes had their reason for being implemented at this point in time. Like I said before: this is one of the toughest sports to train for because what you do with your nutrition makes such an enormous difference in the outcome. This is part of why I chose it. You absolutely cannot cheat your way through the nutrition portion of it, which is why discipline is such a huge component of this sport. Showing up at the gym is actually the easy part. 


The next training session fell on my first zero carb day. Carbs are a source of glycogen, aka fuel, for your muscles. This is why so many athletes carb load: you make sure your muscles are fully stocked with glycogen for maximum efforts. (It also applies to horses competing in endurance.)

This knowledge was applied to the low carb and now zero carb days: I could train hard the morning of the first zero carb day because it takes anywhere from 24-72 hours for the human body to burn through its stored glycogen. (This is a pretty fascinating thread on the subject. All are opinions, but fascinating nonetheless. Studies on the matter seem to be all over the place though, so I'm not linking to those.) No heavy training on the second zero carb day because glycogen stores would be much lower, so it would be far easier to hit a wall energy-level wise. I had hit the wall already on those days. It was no fun. The point of zero carbs is to force the body into burning through stored fat. Again, there are studies both for and against this. Trainer uses it because he's researched it. In my case, it worked: I lost both water weight and fat.

Hence the term "cutting": you are cutting the fat out of your body.

Anyway. We worked only arms that day, but wow did arms get worked.

"So how's your first zero carb day going?" Trainer asked with a grin as he was upping the weight on the barbell I was going to be preacher curling.
"Well, eating is redundant because I'm just as hungry as I was when I first woke up," I said. It's a strange sensation to look at food and know that it's not going to make a dent in how hungry you are. It's just going to make it a tiny bit more tolerable. He really had not been kidding about hunger becoming my constant companion.
"People think protein is filling but it is so not," he said sympathetically. Remember he's done this himself: he laughs because he knows exactly what it's like.
I agreed: "No. It's fiber that will fill you up. And fat might delay hunger pangs."
Trainer's finger got pinched by the weight plate he was sliding onto the bar. "OW!" he exclaimed, "That's what I get for laughing over your zero carb suffering!" he muttered with a sheepish grin.
I laughed, "That's karma for you."

My veins were on fire that day. As my body fat % continued to drop, they had been getting progressively more noticeable throughout my body but especially on my arms, legs and neck. On this day I had bicep veins that cast a shadow due to the nature of the workout and Trainer kept excitedly making comments about it, which I found invariably funny.

Heck yes! :D
The workout was finished with suspended bicep curls followed immediately by a burnout that involved holding two 10-lb dumbbells in a flexed position with elbows away from my body for an unknown amount of time. 10 lb dumbbells should not be challenging but my arms were done done DONE by the end of the one hour training session.

Trainer decided to get a photo of the burnout and barked corrections while I tried to keep my arms from falling off. There was one moment where I decided he was faking taking the photo because it was taking too goddamn long and I started making threats of bodily harm to him...which then made me snort with laughter: throwing a dumbbell at him like I was threatening to do was impossible. The only direction I was going to be able to throw anything right then was straight down. I then couldn't threaten anymore because I was shaking too hard both from the effort and from laughing.

He got a photo alright. Of that precise moment when I started laughing uncontrollably. Which I stole off of his gym Instagram page (with due credit given. Spoiler alert if you click on that link though!) because I worked damn hard for it! :D

Veins decided to hide for the pic but whatever.
The caption was, "I told Saiph to stop smiling, it's catabolic. Only game faces!"
There is a group session after mine. There is one particular guy in the group that always arrives a little early and he seems to use my condition as a gauge for how difficult their session is going to be afterwards.

I was finishing stretching when he walked in, said hi and then commented, "You look like you barely worked out!"
I roared with laughter. First because I was pretty sure I wouldn't be able to lift anything else for the rest of that day. Second, because I cool down fast: that's all he was seeing...and third because I had already been told what the group was in for. My current condition was not a good gauge!
Trainer smiled mischievously. "Maybe she's stronger than you!" he said to the guy.

I walked out of the gym still laughing.


I had already ordered my suit for the show...they are technically like 2-piece bathing suits, except they are made of other materials, usually lycra, and usually shimmery with a ton of bling. The more bling, the more expensive the suit is. I looked at what everyone usually wore, researched the different online options for ordering, settled on one online store that offered free alterations, and ordered mine after stressing over the measurements: I was still supposed to drop more inches but having never done this before, I had no way of knowing in advance what my final measurements would be. The company's customer service people were lovely and told me to just send basic measurements, which I took multiple times over the course of three days...I was literally shrinking day by day. I sent them my newest measurements and crossed my fingers.

The suit arrived a week later. It was the deepest dark blue velvet with a splattering of glitter and Swarovski crystals: I wanted to look the part but also be a little different and velvet was legal but not a popular fabric choice. I thought it looked stunning. And thankfully the bottoms were just snug enough that I could lose the expected additional inches from around my hips and have the suit still fit. But finally being able to see myself as I would look at the end brought up all sorts of other questions: I was thrilled with everything from the waist up and halfway down my thighs to my feet. My butt and upper thighs were in above average condition for a normal fit human being and like I told everyone: I would happily have stayed in my condition 6 lbs ago for the foreseeable future if there weren't show plans on the schedule (a perspective that I made sure to check in with constantly throughout this experiment: it was crucial that I remember that the way I was going to look in the end was not going to be permanent)...but these areas from the waist down needed a LOT more work still before being shown off mostly exposed onstage in front of hundreds of people. I wondered how on earth that would happen in four weeks.

The day the suit arrived. I looked tiny, skinny and with no definition and it was temporary:
this was the way I looked on the second zero carb days. I know there are women out there that would kill to look like this, but this actually freaked me out: too thinI called it my 14-year-old-boy look. But it was 100% temporary: as soon as I ate carbs again, my appearance would do a 180.

Case in point: the way I looked on a high carb day that same week. 
Seriously: the only difference is what I had eaten. You are what you eat.

Knowing that this is the stuff your brain does when prepping for this made it a whole lot easier to  ignore the little voices that kept saying all of these...And I think showing the photos of the process also helps illustrate how truly different you could look from one day to the next.

I bumped up my heart rate target for cardio, aiming for 120-130 bpm range over the course of the weekend immediately after my suit arrived. Nothing crazy: I was still on the treadmill walking at the same speed, but I ramped up the incline to engage all those posterior train muscles. I also started doing my strength training warm-ups on the Stairmaster. And I increased the amount of BCAAs I was taking: I had been taking them 3x/day; I increased them to 4x/day with the goal of preserving as much muscle as possible with the higher-intensity cardio. Remember this.


At my following training session 3 days later, I told Trainer about my concerns re: areas that still need work. He said there was still time. And he then happily put me through one of the most grueling lower body workouts he had had me do to date.

As I was doing walking lunges with 15 lb dumbbells in each hand down the entire length of the gym and back, I realized that the overhead fans were off. There had been a nice indoor breeze earlier.

"Did you turn those off??" I glared at him.
"I turned the exhaust off," he said innocently. "It's chilly. You don't need it." And then he gave me that grin as he turned away.
There is AC in Trainer's warehouse-converted-into-gym but at that moment I did not feel it. Sweat was dripping slowly from my hair onto the back of my neck: Leg Day workouts, especially where lunges are involved, are supposed to spike your heart rate and body temperature. I knew what he was doing: making my body work harder by making the environment a titch warmer. I also may have made the mistake of telling him in the past that I hate the heat, even though this is precisely the #1 reason why I LIKE working out outside in the summertime: because it is an opportunity to make things more challenging by adding heat and humidity. This was nothing compared to what I would do on my own...but still: "Cheater!" I shouted back at him as I methodically continued lunging my way down the floor. He laughed.

I debated just defiantly switching on one of the floor fans: I very much could have done that. But instead I rose to the challenge and didn't. I decided that my "OMG it's so hot!" mindframe was ridiculous: it was mental! All of it was mental! Even turning off the exhaust was part of the psychological game. This was no harder than being told to drop my stirrups for an entire jump lesson.

So instead I just focused on one step at a time. One foot in front of the other. One lunge after another. No pause, no thinking about how much longer until I finished because there were going to be more sets after this one, and I'd rather just think about this current set. I'm a strange person that way: I make lofty goals and then set them free, and instead think about the first step in getting to that goal, as if that first step was the end goal. Once the first step is complete, I focus on the second step. And so on and so forth. If I start focusing on an end goal, I'll obsess about it and will never make it there; the journey has to be as important as the goal itself. Just like on trail at a 50-mile ride: I never think about completing 50 miles, I think about getting through the next mile of the current 15-mile loop. I never would have attempted 50s otherwise. One mile at a time. That is all.

The journey is even more important than the end goal because only the present truly exists: you have to enjoy the journey. That's all that life is, really: a journey.

I slowed my pace down because the only thing rushing was going to do was wear me out faster and make me all that hotter, and focused instead on keeping my breathing deep and regular. And while my legs felt like lead and I could feel the rivulets of sweat trickling down my back, I suddenly was not overbearingly hot anymore. I glanced at my heart rate monitor on my wrist and confirmed: yup, my heart rate had dropped a tiny bit. I tried not to smile smugly because God knew what Trainer would have me do next if he noticed.

Mind over matter ftw!

After completing all walking lunge sets, I got to finish the workout by pushing and then pulling the Sled of Death down the length of the gym in both directions, x 3. (In case you were wondering, this day's session consisted of: double sets of weighted barbell squats, both narrow and sumo stance x 4 sets each; single-leg glute bridges 10 each leg supersetting with 15 straight-legged deadlifts with 50 lbs x 4; supersets of side lunges with a 30 lb kettlebell 10 each leg x3, walking side lunges with a resistance band around my ankles while carrying the 30 lb kettlebell, 10 in each direction x3, and 15 jump squats with a resistance band around the ankles, x 3. The sled was the icing on the cake. Weights were not as heavy because cutting during the last phase before a competition usually = reduced strength. It's the irony of this sport: the fitter you look during prep, the weaker you are. The human body is not, and I mean absolutely NOT, meant to be perfect! You sacrifice function when you aim for form. Interesting, no?)

This motherfucker is called a weight sled. I hates it to hell and back and Trainer has TWO of them. And I get to slide it across astroturf, which has even more traction than regular carpet. One 45 lb plate is enough. I can't even imagine doing it with these many plates...
But OMG it will get your rear in gear in no time. It's considered to be even better than squats. I could feel every separate glute muscle for 48 hours after this workout...
There were so many times that I doubted I could do what he wanted me to do, but the reality is that every single thing he directed me to do throughout this whole process was well within my realm of capability, even when it sounded super hard, even when it sounded next to impossible. He never asked me to do anything that I couldn't do: he set me up for success every single time. So every single time I chose to unwaveringly do what I was told, I discovered something new about myself in the process: I was much more of a badass than I had ever imagined. My positive reinforcement throughout this entire endeavor was consistently realizing that I COULD do the thing. It was incredibly empowering. This ability to be able to read the trainee well enough to challenge them while still setting them up for success that will build their confidence, is the hallmark of a good trainer, be it of people or of horses. Not every trainer has this ability, as noted in my first post of this series.

After what felt like years later, I plunked myself down on the floor at the end of the session and took my sweet time stretching out every muscle I could in my lower body. Everyone from the group was running late, so Trainer sat on one of the wooden boxes that are lined up along the wall to wait for them. While stretching, I peppered him with more questions about the world of competing that tend to fly out of my brain when I'm focusing on not dying during a workout. And we discussed the rest of Phase 3.

He did end up changing my cardio: I was still going to be doing an hour of it 7 days a week, but he bumped up my target heart rate to 120-130 bpm and switched it from the treadmill to the Stairmaster. Werk dat butt.

I would be using it the day before Leg Day, on Leg Day itself, ANND the day after...
I was also increasing BCAAs from 3x/day to 4x/day. Once again: I had decided to make small changes on my own that ended up being the correct changes in the right direction, right before those changes were made official! :)

BUT: I was also to do rear leg lifts while on the Stairmaster. He added this fun fact at the tail end of the conversation with that wicked grin. I gave him a withering look. "Alternating 5 with minutes regular stair climbing? Or every 10 minutes?" I was hopeful.

"Nope! The entire hour doing leg raises." And he pretended to go up stairs while doing rear leg lifts and looking at his watch. He sat back down again after his little performance.

Wise guy. I couldn't help laughing.

The one guy from the group was the first to arrive, as usual. He saw both Trainer and me sitting down talking and did a double-take. "What, chill-out session today?" he asked.

I laughed and laughed and said nothing. Trainer just grinned. I suspected Trainer was in a particularly sadistic mood and had just been warming up with me before it was the group's turn...

Once home, I showered and then collapsed in bed for a 2-hour nap before officially starting the day.



I leap to wakefulness to reach over Carlos to the far side of the bed to slam off the ever-loving blare of the alarm clock.

It is 4:00 am on a work day morning. A Monday, which is my Friday.

I plunk face-down back into my side of the bed so the pillows can muffle my groan. Not that that would have roused Carlos, since the alarm didn't touch him. The man would sleep through a nuclear war.

My body feels like it's been stomped on by gnomes all night after the physical strain of working an insane Sunday ER/ICU shift. My feet are still throbbing from working the day before and my hamstrings are sore from the Stairmaster. This current day stretches out into infinity as I try to imagine it in advance: the one-hour drive into Virginia, where I hit the gym next to work so I can strength train hard for an hour, shower at the gym, shove a protein shake and some semblance of food into my face, then haul ass into work for a 13-14 hour shift...and then drive an hour back home to the gym by our apartment so I can do cardio for another hour. And then go home and shower. And then have dinner, which will be the one meal of the entire day where I get to actually sit down and enjoy my food. Which is often just a can of salmon or tuna because opening a can is easy and at the end of the day I don't even want to nuke anything in the microwave.

All of that has to happen before I can be back in this spot, in bed in the dark. I am so tired.

"Why do you do this yourself?" 
"Because it's hard. Because I want to know I can do this."
"But why though? Why can't you be a normal human being? Why do you have to do this hard thing?"
"Because there is no such thing as "normal"! Because I want to know that I can go above and beyond. Stop asking questions!"

Apparently even at 4:00 am my inner self can be philosophical.

Stumbled upon this one while writing this post and just had to feature it here because it made me laugh so hard.
Also: it's a Pitbull! <3
I don't have time to think about the possibility of saying, "Fuck it all" and drifting back to sleep because then the alarm on my phone goes off. I fumble in the darkness for my phone, turn off the alarm and fling myself out of bed before I can have second thoughts again.

I scramble into my workout clothes which were carefully laid out three days ago in advance along with everything I else I would be wearing on my 3-day workweek, toss my pre-made lunch and snacks into my giant lunchbag, heat up coffee, grab a bottle with my pre-made pre-workout (I need All the Caffeine for 4:00 am mornings and my body never got the memo that you're not supposed to combine coffee and pre-workouts...but such is the norm when you've grown up drinking nuclear-strength Puerto Rican espresso), my overnight oatmeal, my gym bag, water bottle, stethoscope for work, say good-bye to a sleeping Carlos knowing he won't remember, and rush out the door.

When you really care about something, you make the time. *shrug* 
I blast Pandora in the car on the long drive south. I feel like I never do wake up. This is a day where I'm allowed carbs but they are not making a dent in my energy levels. I slog through the workout. It's Back Day and I find myself having to reduce the weight I'm lifting so that I can complete the assigned number of reps. My brain and my body are in agreement: both are begging for sleep. I push through anyway and later realize that maybe I could have kept the weight up if I'd rested between sets like I was supposed to...but I had deliberately avoided resting because I was afraid my exhaustion would win out and I would just give up.

Work. One of my patients weighs 85 lbs and has difficulty walking. He is a post-op patient and he is having such a hard time. He is an old large-breed mutt and I insist on sling-walking him outside as scheduled: to not walk him would be to his detriment. Old dogs, especially large-breed dogs, don't always do well after major surgery because just being recumbent for as little as 24 hours can be enough to worsen arthritis to the point of incapacitating them. My guy is on day 3 post-op. We are slammed-busy so I don't bother asking for help because I might be waiting for hours for someone else to be available; I just sling-walk him outside myself. He is more than half my body weight and I have to engage every shoulder and upper back muscle to help him walk. He doesn't do anything outside; just stands in a daze. I wait, talking to him, "Go pee. Go potty," trying to land on the right combo of words his owners might use to encourage him to do his business outside. He just stands there, confused. I feel so sorry for him. I bring him back inside to the run I had just cleaned and help him settle down...only for him to urinate all over the clean bedding I had laid out for him prior. I want to just sit down and cry helplessly. But ain't nobody got time for that. I slide the sling back around him and carefully hoist him back out of the run so I can clean the floor of the cage again and lay out fresh bedding once more. It's not his fault. It's never the patient's fault. My poor dude is so out of it from his pain meds, neither his doctor nor I are sure he's even aware of where he is. We've been tweaking his doses for the last two days and are still working on it: the doctor depends on my feedback on our patient's status to know whether he should continue trying or not. Thankfully by the end of the day my doctor nails the right combo of pain meds on the head and my patient is able to get up with more ease, focus on his surroundings, and actually do his business outside like a normal dog.

I am on my fifth wind by 6:30 pm, when I walk into the elevator with our giant roll-away bin to take the ICU dirty laundry downstairs to the basement to be washed in our industrial washers. I fist my hands, place them against the elevator wall with palms against the cold metal, and then press my back hard onto my knuckles, which helps release some of the knots. There isn't a single fiber or joint in my body that doesn't hurt right then. I close my eyes and relax, wishing the basement was 20 floors down instead of just two, because within 30 seconds the doors open and I have to step off the elevator.

We get a rush of emergencies around 7:00 pm, all critical, all requiring we step away from the hospitalized patients to stabilize the incomings. I find myself perched on one of the ICU wet tables, taking turns with our head ER doctor doing chest compressions on a giant Anatolian Shepherd that has come in for heat stroke. He is the first heat stroke of the summer. The dog is enormous, both longer, taller and heavier than I am, requiring maximum physical effort to keep the blood pumping through his body with our own strength while we try to bring him back to life with CPR. Two minutes is the longest you should do chest compressions before switching out with someone else to continue. Dr. B and I are the fittest on the floor: we can each go on for longer than that if required. But even then we can't bring the dog back and it's a good thing: there are some things that no patient should come back from, and one of them is heat stroke of this magnitude.

We clean up afterwards, I catch up on my treatments, and round my patients to the overnight tech that will be taking them.

I clock out at 8:45 pm, almost an hour past the time my shift is supposed to end. It is 9:30 pm by the time I swing into the gym by our apartment to do the prescribed hour of cardio on the Stairmaster. It is midnight by the time my head hits my pillow at home. If you're counting, I just had a 20-hour day. I am off the next day but I don't get to sleep in tomorrow because I have a session with Trainer at 6:00 am.

I am unconscious before I can think about the fact that I'm going to be running on only 5 hours of sleep the next morning.

The purpose of me showing a glimpse of a work day during this time is not for you to feel sorry for me. Nope: the point of it is so you understand how this was an added variable. My job is tough both mentally and physically, and I still got through the added workouts and diet restrictions successfully, even when I was bone-dead tired on work days. I didn't whine, I didn't complain, and I didn't make excuses: I still got it done. This sport is a completely different experience for a person that has a regular desk job. 


I ultimately ended up moving trainer sessions to 8:00 am whenever possible, which meant my brain was actually awake for training. At 6:00 am, especially on Tuesdays after working my weekend shifts, my brain felt like a giant static screen. My body would be awake thanks to caffeine but it would be a wonder I could string together sentences in either language because I was functioning on half a neuron going, "Buzz-buzz-buzz.." At 6:00 am I would have questions about the training or the diet or the show, but would promptly forget them while working out because my brain couldn't both word and tell my muscles to fire.

If you're wondering if this was the part where "this is hard" caught up to me, you are absolutely correct.

In my world, when the going gets tough, the tough gets funny. It's a defense mechanism learned from working in the veterinary ER for so many years: gotta keep the sense of humor flowing.

The workouts continued changing. The super slow reps from the beginning were banished from training sessions during this phase: we were now working to failure. "Failure" in strength training refers to pushing through until you literally cannot do it one more time. Didn't matter the number of reps. I was to continue until I couldn't do any more, and then Trainer would help me eke out another 5 reps or so.

I closed my eyes in anticipatory dread when he described the first of these workouts. It was Shoulder Day of course: my nemesis. I was pretty sure he was adding a psychological component to this because he didn't always describe in advance what we would be doing, nor did he often describe it with so much glee.
"This will be fun!" he said with an enormous grin in response to my expression.
I snorted. "Of course it will be fun! It will be fun for you, who gets to watch me suffer."
He laughed. We both knew this was true: training people for this sport really is something he enjoys because not everyone can take it. And then there is the fact that I do enjoy being worked beyond my perceived limits. I can still pretend to complain about it though.

Five. He said 5 more.
Despite there being a thread of real dread over this session, Beast Mode me had shown up to play, and I was immediately firmly determined to kick this workout's butt. And so this is how we discovered that my body rapidly adapts to anything. The first set would be brutal. The second set would be less so and I would go on longer than during the first set...so Trainer would pass me heavier dumbbells. The third set would then majorly suck, while I would think to myself, "How was the first set so hard?" It blew my mind.

I was on my last set of front raises and heavily relying on my lats to push my arms up because my shoulders were done. Trainer was sitting on the bench in front of me, ready to assist with the last reps once I couldn't continue anymore.
"Stop using other muscles!" he chided with a smile, "You'll reach failure faster and this will be done sooner."
"Yeah. Except regardless of when I get to failure, you'll still work me just as hard beyond failure." I was grinning: I was being a smart-ass.
Momentary pause from him. "You're not supposed to think rationally when you're working out!" But he was grinning too. That was the best he could come up with. I didn't laugh because I wouldn't have been able to lift any more.
"That's what happens when my brain is awake," I replied. But the entire point of my being there was to work, and work hard, so I did do as I was told. :)


Trainer was leaving on vacation for a week right when I was set to be three weeks out from the show. Time was ticking by so fast!

I arrived at 8:00 am for the last one of these sessions before his trip. I was supposed to be coming in after the group training now so I was surprised to walk in a few minutes early to discover Trainer by himself, sitting down at one of the wooden boxes lined up by the wall. He was twiddling with his phone but he looked up when he heard the door and said hi. There was something subtly off about the environment and I couldn't put my finger on it.

"How are you?" I asked brightly.
"Good," he responded, but there was a pause before he said it and his expression seemed alarmed.
By then I was maybe 6 strides away and could now see that his entire body was trembling violently, his hair dripping with sweat and the veins standing out in stark relief across his arms.
"Are you okay???" I asked him
"I'm not sure," he said, standing up. He was breathing hard.
For a second I wondered if I would need to call an ambulance...and then noticed the red weightlifting belt around his waist and matching shoes that had taken the place of his usual neon sneakers. And saw the equipment that was laid out at the far end of the gym: the new Farmer's Walk handles were fully loaded and ready for action.
"You were training for Strongman," I said, finally putting two and two together. It's his next competitive goal; he's been slowly collecting the equipment for it. (If you don't know what Strongman is, this is the best explanation I can find for the sport.)
"Yes. Stringing all of those movements together is hard!" he exclaimed, and went on to explain why. I won't deny that ever since learning what Strongman is when he first told me about it, I might have decided I could be interested in it...especially since he is going to have all the equipment required to train for it. So I listened with pricked ears now. But also awe as he rapidly recovered within minutes while talking: Jesus, this is how he trains himself??? I was kind of glad I hadn't seen him post-workout earlier because I might have run away screaming (lol) but at the same time it was...inspiring. If he can work that hard on his own, I certainly could too, and this was exactly what I needed to see at the best moment possible: I had been afraid I would not train as hard while he was out simply because the last two weeks of 7-day workouts were starting to catch up to me in terms of true general body soreness and exhaustion, and there were still a couple more weeks to go.

This would not be the most mind-altering part of this particular session though. It was the Leg Day version of the previous Shoulder Day I described above, with the goal rep number = whatever it took to reach failure. Except there was no help beyond that point: I was to squeak out another 5 reps all by myself.

He was playing the alternative rock station on this day on the Bluetooth speakers and I just wasn't feeling it.
"Soooo...if you're going to kill me with leg work, I have a music request," I said.
"Do you have a Pitbull station? Or Flo Rida. Something like that. Kill me to club music."
He laughed. "I wouldn't be caught dead with a Flor Rida station." But he picked up his phone, fiddled with it for a minute, and Pitbull's "Bon Bon" blared through the speakers.

When you live in South Florida for as long as we did, you get Pitbull shoved into your ears whether you like him or not. You either assimilate and learn to love his music or you leave. 
We left but the damage was already done: both Carlos and I not-so-secretly love his music. I have a lot of his songs on my more upbeat workout playlists.

Grinning from ear to ear, I got to work.

And I did it. I did it all. Halfway through it I was having to consciously think about walking, and getting onto the bench for hamstring curls elicited giggles because it was Not Graceful at All. (I don't complain during workouts, I do as I'm told and just laugh when my body stops working the way I expect it to!) But I did it.

And then I pushed the sled...followed by being strapped into a harness so I could alternate with pulling it. While sprinting. Pulling the sled with the harness was surprisingly much easier than pushing it. So I had a blast sprinting across the gym floor on my formerly tired legs. Where did this power come from????

Kanye West's and Daft Punk's Stronger

We still had 10 minutes left though, and I wondered what else Trainer had up his sleeve.

The answer was isometrics. Isometric exercise means "no movement". Planks are an example of an isometric exercise where you hold a basic push-up position for x amount of time. So now Trainer had me go into position for a Bulgarian split squat with one foot resting on one of the wooden boxes behind me while he timed it. I was not told for how much time and I didn't ask because I didn't want to know.

Bulgarian split squat.
I got into this position and held it indefinitely.
You think regular squats are challenging? Try this.
Working the left leg was hard. Working the right leg was impossible. To my utter frustration, I could not hold the position for more than a few seconds when it was my right leg supporting my weight. He noted that it was not surprising since I favored my right leg so much more: it was tired.

Wait, what?

I would later realize that yes, I do use my right leg a lot more than I use my left...the result of years' worth of guarding the left hip that was crushed by the horse that flipped over on me when I first moved to the mainland. Funny how old injuries like that can have such lasting effects over such a long period of time.

I didn't get a free pass though: I got to do regular isometric squats instead. Just squat down on both legs and hold until I could not anymore.

Later while I was stretching (and stretching and stretching: if you lose flexibility while strength training, you're doing it wrong) Trainer and I discussed the plan for my week while he was out. I told him I was still concerned over my lower body maybe not being up to speed by the show date. While they were above average for a normal athletic human being, my butt and upper thighs were not quite what I would consider competition material just yet. There is a certain level of definition that you should have before stepping onto a stage with only 7" of fabric covering your nekkid bum.

Of course I'm using a photo of Nicole Wilkins again. Again, she is an IFBB pro, which is international-level pro.
But you see what I mean. Obviously it takes YEEEEEEARS of training to develop a lower body like hers...but you can appreciate exactly how little that tiny piece of fabric covers!
Trainer said we still had time. The plan going forward was that I was going to be working legs to some degree every day while he was gone.

The other plan was for me to take a posing class. He had been trying to arrange this with one local trainer but so far no response. So he presented the alternative option: to go see another trainer he knew that had her own studio down in D.C. and is a long-time competitor. I told him I had no problem with driving down to do this. I really wanted someone who competed in Figure herself to take a look at my posing.

He sat for a minute on his phone, looking thoughtful. I realized he was flipping through photos, photos of the trainer in D.C. from her preparation for a show a couple of years prior.

"Look," he said, showing me a particular set of photos. "This is her during what is probably the final week of her competition prep. She's been doing this for years," he continued. "You see her upper body?"
I looked at the photos. The trainer had a pretty impressive back and shoulders. I nodded.
"Yours is really close to hers. And she's been competing for years...and you're just starting! You're ready." He said it in that same quiet, matter-of-fact tone that he always used whenever I let a sliver of insecurity show through.
I looked at him, at the photos, then finally at my reflection in the wall of mirrors across from us.

An athlete looked back at me in startlement. I saw the strong traps, the sweep of her shoulders, the striations across them that now showed even when she was at rest. The veins running down her arms. The curve of tricep. The wide back offset by the small waist. The swell of quads that had never looked like this before, not even during that one summer she spent posting the trot stirrup-less every day at riding camp when she was 14.

The person that stared back at me was unlike any reflection I had seen before in real life. I had only met her before in my drawings, when I used her to illustrate the way I would have wanted to look if I could have re-designed my body.

Circa 2002.
Right down to the caramel highlights in my hair, which I had completely forgotten about until I stumbled upon this drawing for this post.

Except...I had already done it.

In that moment, I saw what the outside world was seeing.

That athlete in the mirror...she was me.

Photo on the left is from the week prior to the events described in this section.
The drawing on the right is from the year 2000, my second year in college. 17 years prior, without knowing it, I predicted the way I would look now.
"If you're fine with spending a day in D.C., I think you'll have more fun with this trainer anyway," Trainer continued with a smile, bringing me back to the present.

I agreed to it and he texted her right then and there. He said he'd let me know when she responded.

He had no clients after my session and we left at the same time. Once outside I turned to him, wincing as I spoke, "So there's a sled at my regular gym..."
"Do you want me to work on pushing it this week?" I knew I was going to regret offering this.
"Sure. Do 18 reps of 20 seconds of effort." He had that evil grin.
"How often should I do it?"
"How many days can you do it?" he asked.
"Three." I had picked up an extra shift that week at work, so I had 3 days off instead of 4.
"Then three days it is," he said, still grinning.
This was in addition to cardio and strength training.
I wished him fun on his vacation and got into my car shaking my head. "You are insane," I said out loud to myself.

I did it though. I pushed the sled and did the cardio and the strength training and all the leg work erryday. By this point we had reverted to an even slower tempo for reps than at the beginning and it was the sorest I would be during this entire prep. I was walking funny for 8 days straight from it all and by the end of the week I had started a trend at 3 different gyms where women were getting on the Stairmaster and doing rear leg extensions while climbing it (I wish I was making that one up...I'm not.)

Shanna volunteered of her own accord to demonstrate the leg raise Stairmaster trend for blog purposes.
*insert laughing emoji*
Every time I wanted to just stop, I remembered how hard Trainer could push himself on his own. And so I attacked the next thing that needed to get done with a vengeance.

I wanted to die from exhaustion by the time Sunday came around, but I couldn't believe the changes in my lower half by the end of that week. Thighs and butts are not supposed to change that quickly and I hadn't really been expecting mine to, but they did.

As proof for Trainer, Shanna took a video of me pushing the sled. As of this writing, it's had more than 60 hits on IG. Note: this was the 8th of the 9 rounds. If I look tired, it's because I was. #tofinishistowin #henceiwon

Given how fast my lower body changed, I might have to admit to secretly loving the sled now...

And then Trainer came back and we were only 11 days out from the show. *Gulp*

Never thought I'd be quoting Arnold, of all people...but this is so freaking true.


Continued here