Book Cover: Hot Flashes And Half Ironmans

Women's Health Winner in USA Best Book Awards!

Middle-aged Endurance Athletics Meets The Hormonally Challenged

Women get older, dammit, and sometimes it sucks, especially for women who pride themselves on athleticism and an adventurous spirit. Hot flashes. Weight gain. Sleepless nights. Yes, it can be hard, but middle age doesn’t have to be a flashing red stop light. It’s perfectly acceptable for women of a certain age, a certain level of hormonal imbalance, and a certain amount of cellulite to don spandex and even enter the rarefied sport of endurance triathlon.

In fact, there’s a huge advantage to aging: much of the potential competition drops out in favor of the couch and a remote control. And the endurance high? The elation of dietary purity and discovering you can have arms like Madonna? The Zen of goal attainment? Better than a good Shiraz buzz. Once you get past the ugly mood swings, chafing on your girly parts, and a “kill your own mother” craving for sleep and a hot Cinnabon, that is.

Pamela Fagan Hutchins has been there and done that, with lessons learned and sense of humor (usually) intact. She completed her first triathlon at 39 and her first Half Ironman at 40. She has her eye on an M-dot tattoo in 2016.

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Don't miss the USA Best Book Award-Winning fictionalized version of this story, Going for Kona (What Doesn't Kill You, #4): A Michele Romantic Mystery.

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I don’t ask much.

They say youth is wasted on the young. They are full of it.

Youth is too full of angst and drama for me. Give me middle age, wisdom, and a healthy libido any day. Give me some crappy life experiences so I’ll recognize awesome when it lands in my lap. Give me cellulite and wrinkles so I can get the hell over myself. Give me boredom so I can appreciate a challenge, and give me a failed marriage to humble me. Give me hot flashes and migraines so I can enjoy feeling good the rest of the time.

And then, then . . . give me a hot day in June. Let me fill our beater Suburban to its capacity with tweens and teens, some of them mine, some of them his. Let us pick up my second and last husband at the airport after a long and tiring business trip, let us giggle all the way home and nearly burst with the pressure of our shared secret. We have a surprise for him, you see.

We whisk him home to his bicycle and tri bag.

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“What’s this?” he asks, dark circles under his camouflage-colored eyes. Eyes that are sparkling now between the red lines.

“Here!” his daughter Liz cries, unable to hold it in any longer. She waggles her hand at Clark and Susanne, who pull t-shirts on over their heads. The hand-ironed custom logo is slightly askew on each of them. It reads “The Eric Ralph Hutchins First Annual Invitational Triathlon” above a (really bad) picture of Eric.

“Those are great, guys, thanks,” he says as Liz hands him his and he slips it on.

But that’s not all. “Put your swimsuit on, honey, because the race starts in fifteen minutes,” I say.

Now he’s grinning ear to ear. We all jump on our bikes and pedal over to the Marilyn Estates pool. We swim ten thrashing, splashing, laughing laps of the tiny rectangle of water. We race our motley crew of bicycles around the block. And we finish by running figure eights around the trees in the park by the pool. Fifteen minutes later, we each get a trophy, with awards for first (Liz), second (Eric), poutiest (Susanne), goofiest (Clark), and best-looking, AKA last (me). We’ve attracted quite a crowd, and they cheer as the kids present the awards.

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My husband doesn’t seem tired anymore. He looks like the luckiest middle-aged man in the history of the world. Although he doesn’t look middle-aged, which makes me the luckiest middle-aged woman ever.

This. Give me this. Or something a whole lot like it. Give me beautiful days together, active and alive, happy and feeling fifteen instead of closing in on fifty.

This, or something like it.

Putting The Fun Into Dysfunctional

I am a planner. I plan and schedule and plot, much to the delight of my engineer/triathlete husband, who loves to live by a plan. Even more, he loves for me to make the plan and then for us both to live by it. And what he loves most of all is when the plan I make and we live by includes a healthy dose of us bicycling and swimming together. I believe a plan is a structure to make reasonable changes in, while Eric casts his plans in cement. Obviously, I am right, so there usually isn’t much of a problem.

But I did not plan what happened to us in the Good Old Summertime Classic, a sixty-nine-mile bicycle ride along some of our most favorite cycling roads anywhere. The bike route runs in and around Fayetteville, Texas, and includes the tiny old town of Roundtop. We had trained for it. We had talked about it with joy and reverence. Eric even accidentally went to get our packets a full week before they were available for pickup. (Don’t ask.)

The night before the race, I developed a PMS hormonal migraine. (Technically, I suffer from premenstrual dysphoric disorder, but try to say “I’m feeling PMDDy” or “I’m really PMDDing right now.” Yeah. It doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue. PMDD is a severe and sometimes disabling form of PMS.) Because it was the middle of the night, I took one of my gentler migraine prescriptions, hoping that this pill plus sleep would be all I needed. But when I woke up at 5:00 a.m. to the mother of all migraines, I caved in and went for the elephant tranquilizer. When morning came, I was so nauseous that I couldn’t eat. My husband, a man of immense patience and even greater kindness, suggested we stay home. But we had made a plan, so I got in the car. I theorized that I had no idea now how I would feel in two and a half hours—but I kinda did know, and just didn’t want to admit it.

I should have listened to my husband.

On the way to the race, driving in the dark, the unthinkable happened. I had my head on Eric’s shoulder, sweetly sleeping (make that “snoring and drooling under the influence of the elephant pill”), when he let out a tiny swear word. Actually, I believe it started with an F, and was preceded by the word “mother,” and that his voice blasted through my cranium and echoed madly inside my impaired brain.

“What happened?” I screamed, heart pounding, hand clutching throat, eyes sweeping the road for signs of the apocalypse.

“I hit a cardinal.”

OH MY GOD. HE HIT A CARDINAL.

Since the time he could speak, my husband has proclaimed himself a fan of the Chicago Phoenix St. Louis Arizona Cardinals football team. His screen saver at work has always been a giant Cardinal head logo, until very recently when he finally switched it to a picture of us, under teensy-tinsy little applications of subtle pressure from me. He watched their 2009 playoff game at 2:00 a.m. from his hotel room in Libya through a webcam picture of our TV on his laptop. He collects cardinals and Cardinal paraphernalia and insists on displaying them prominently in our bedroom, which is painted Cardinal red.

Despite his lifelong obsession, Eric had never seen an actual live cardinal bird until we moved to Houston. Growing up in the U.S. Virgin Islands, he’d caught glimpses of them on TV, and he pictured them as red, fierce . . . and large.

One day while unpacking boxes in our new house, I saw a male cardinal through the window. Nonchalantly, I called out to my sweetie, “Hey, Eric, there’s a cardinal in our bird feeder.”

Eric, whose physique looks like you would expect it to after twenty years of triathlon and cycling, pounded into the living room like a rhino instead of his usual cheetah self, wearing an expectant grin and not much else.

“WHERE IS IT?”

Lost for words, I pointed out the front window and prayed the elderly woman next door was not walking past our house.

“It’s awfully small.” (That was Eric that said that, not the elderly neighbor.)

He was crestfallen. The mighty cardinal was a tiny slip of a bird.

Back to the car: ear-splitting expletives and wife under the influence. “Honey, I didn’t feel an impact. Are you sure you didn’t miss it?” I asked.

“They’re awfully small birds,” he said.

Ahhhh, good point. We drove on, somberly. We arrived at the race. I stumbled off to the bathroom. When I came back, Eric was crouched in front of the grill of our car. I joined him, confused. He held up a handful of tiny red feathers.

I swear it was the drugs, but I burst out laughing. “You, you of all people, you killed a cardinal?”

He glared at me as he picked out the brightest of the small feathers and tucked it reverently into the chest strap of his heart monitor. “I’m going to carry this feather with me in tribute, the whole way.”

So we got on our bikes: me, wobbly, cotton-mouthed, and somewhat delirious; Eric, solemn and determined. This, the ride for the cardinal, would be the ride of his life. Sixty-nine miles to the glory of the cardinal.

I made it all of about two miles before I apologized. “I’m anaerobic, and we’re only going twelve miles per hour on a flat. My neck and back are seizing up. I don’t know if it’s drugs or hormones, but I’m really whack.”

“You can do it, honey. We came all this way. Now we’re riding for a higher purpose.”

I gave it my best, I really did, but a few miles later after a succession of hills where going up with a racing heartbeat was only slightly less awful than cruising down with a seriously messed-up sense of balance, I pulled to a stop. “I’ve never quit before, but I can’t do it today, love.”

A beautiful male cardinal swooped across the road in front of us. Eric bit his lip. “I understand. Do you want to flag a SAG [support and aid] wagon?”

“I can make it back if we just take it easy. I’m sorry, honey.”

My husband treated me like a princess that day, but all the excitement had drained out of him. This race was not to be, and a teacup-sized bird had sacrificed his life in vain because I’d overdosed on Immitrex and ruined the plan. The waste of it all, the waste of a day, the waste of a life—it was hard to overcome. But Eric tried; I’ll give him credit for that, the man really tried.

That night, after we did a make-up ride on the trainers while we watched We Are Marshall (interrupted occasionally by Eric’s sobs, because the only thing worse than a dead cardinal is a dead football player), I pulled our sheets out of the drier and brought them into our room. Eric, wearing his new Fayetteville Good Old Summertime T-shirt, helped me put the warm, clean cotton on the bed.

As we hoisted the sheets in the air to spread them out over the mattress, a tiny red feather shot straight up toward the light and wafted down slowly, back and forth, back and forth, until, pushed by the soft breeze of our ceiling fan, it landed on the pillow on Eric’s side of the bed.

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Above: Actual cardinal feather on Eric’s pillow.

Steeling myself for the worst, I shot a glance at him to see if he had noticed. I did not exhale. Maybe I had time to brush it off quickly? Too late—he was staring at the feather. “Is that damn bird going to haunt me for the rest of my life now?” he asked. But he smiled.

Now I could breathe. And tease. “Probably. You did senselessly murder a cardinal, Eric.”

And he laughed.

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