No Pain, No Gain…

I received a comment the other day from a women who was  hit by a car while jogging 3 years ago.  You can read about her accident and her comments in the reply section of John’s Story.  In short, she wanted to know how I managed to get myself back into the gym when I was dealing with so much pain?  The short answer is very slowly and with many set backs.  As I continue to train to run the Warrior Dash on June 17th, it is easy for even me to forget what it was like the first year I started back at the gym…

This is what I looked like 14 weeks after the accident…

155 lbs

When I arrived at Pinnacle to begin rehab I was down to 155 lbs from my pre-accident weight of 185.  While living in Manor Care Nursing Home I tried to maintain as much upper body strength as I could by having “stretchy bands” tied to the rails of my bed and doing upper body exercises every day.  I thought I would be in a wheelchair the rest of my life and I wanted to be strong enough to roll myself around when I went home.  I didn’t want my wife and kids having to push me.  The thought of that was too much.  I guess I really started “working out” a few weeks after arriving at the nursing home.  It turned out that because I still had some upper body strength I was able to “fake walk” almost immediately upon arriving at the rehab center.  When I was between two parallel bars or later, on a walker, I could hold my body weight up without really touching my feet to the ground.  This is also how I first learned to get up steps.  I couldn’t go home to my family until I could manage steps.  I guess some form of exercise was part of my recovery from almost the beginning…

This is was me a year later… Yes, that is a lizard sitting on my belly!

185 lbs. Not much of it muscle...

Honestly, at this point I was just happy to be alive and walking with a cane.  I had begun to accept the “new me”.  I hadn’t started having the really bad leg issues yet and the large amounts of narcotics I was taking helped me manage the pain.  Sleeping pills allowed me to get more than a few hours of sleep most nights.  We built an addition on our house so that I would have a first floor office where I could work when I wasn’t feeling well enough to go to work.

Two years after the accident I looked like this.  I got off the narcotics and found my appetite.  Sitting on my butt, eating and drinking wine, was going to be my new hobby.  I stopped going to rehab and was content to not get any better…

210 lbs

It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what a high calorie diet and little to no physical activity leads too.  Within a year I was up 25 lbs.  Truth was I didn’t care.  It wasn’t like I was planning to take my shirt off at the pool so that everyone could see my scares!  Sure it was even harder to get around weighing 200+ lbs.  I never really re-built my cardio strength from my lung collapsing and it was now actually starting to get worse.  My issues with the vein damage from the blood clots were just starting and the likeliness that I would ever run again was now almost zero.  “So what if I am fatter than I had ever been in my life.  Just trying to move around is painful enough. There was no way I can exercise.”  This was about as out-of-shape as I got.  A few months after this photo my daughter told me something that changed my way of thinking, and in many ways created another life changing event…

One day in early October of 2009, my than 10-year-old daughter Katie, who was in the front yard dribbling a soccer ball, came to me while I was sitting in my office at home.  She was crying.  “I miss my old daddy.  The one who would practice soccer with me outside every day.  The one who was fun,” she said through her tears.  She didn’t mean to hurt my feelings, but she broke my heart.  She crawled up on my lap and laid her head on my shoulder.  I was so sad and so angry that I just shook.  Tears rolled down my cheeks and onto her hair.  All I could think was, “I am ruining the childhood of my kids. They have to continue to suffer because of me.”

That was probably an irrational way of thinking about it, but at that time in my recovery, I had concluded that God let me live so that my kids would have a dad.  Anything short of being a “great” dad was a huge failure.  At that moment, I felt like the biggest failure in the world. As Katie sat on my lap we talked about the idea that it was time for daddy to start “training”.  She understood very well what that meant.  Since she was 3 years old we would go into the back yard almost every night and “train”.  We would work on her running form.  We would run laps around the house.  We would run through soccer drills until it was dark.  She continued to train even after I could no longer train with her.  She did it because that is what I had taught her to do.  Until that moment, I didn’t realize how much it upset her to do it without me.  It was time to take the next step in my recovery.

The next day I walked into Carlisle YMCA.  It hurt to sit in a chair.  How was I ever going to be able to workout?  As I struggled to get though just one circuit of the weight machines set at the lowest setting, I thought I would pass out, either from shortness of breath or pain, or a combination of both.  It was not a good experience and I had no intention of going back when I left the gym 30 minutes after arriving.

The following morning a strange thing happened.  I woke up after a decent night’s sleep and the first thing that popped in my head was, “Damn, my shoulders hurt!”  For the first time in over two years the first thought I had upon waking wasn’t the chronic pain in my pelvis, abdomen or my back, it wasn’t the nerve damage in my left leg.  This feeling was my sore muscles from lifting the day before.  I was still in pain, but now I also had “new pain” and at that moment, it hurt more!  The best part was that I understood why I had it and it was my own fault.  No one else did this to me, I did it to myself.

That day I went back to the gym.  I needed to try to recreate the same experience from the day before. I wanted to keep waking up with sore muscles.   I needed to take control of my pain and it turned out that causing myself more pain was a great way to deal with the chronic pain.  I am sure that if I was still seeing a psychologist at the time, she would have told me hurting myself was not “normal”.  Causing yourself physical pain to block out emotional pain is bad, even I know that.  But I was using physical pain to block out physical pain.  The difference was I could control one of the pains…

One year after starting back at the gym. 185lbs

A lot has been written about what happened next.  Men’s Fitness featured me in a story. Local magazines and news papers have written many articles about my transformation from broke and dying to strong and muscular.  What is often overlooked is how long it took and what I had to do to myself, to get to the point I am at today.  As I got stronger it got harder to make myself sore from lifting weights.  I started trying to lift heavier and heavier weights.  I started eating tons of protein rich foods to build bigger muscles.  By April of 2011 I was 217 lbs  and 15% body fat.  I was really strong considering I was missing one-third of my abdominal muscles.

217 lbs of mostly muscle.

I continued pushing myself to lift heavier and heavier weights until the beginning of 2012.  (On Sept 14, 2011 I benched 315 lbs.  It was my 40th birthday.)  Everything changed again when I had surgery on the veins in my left leg in Oct of 2011.  Finally, I could run again.  Not very far and certainly not very fast, but I could run.  Now I had a new way to inflict pain.

Out of this “mess” of pushing myself to run farther and lift heavier weights came a new goal, completing the Warrior Dash.  Now when I lift, I am doing some sets with 30 reps and other sets of 3-4 reps with heavy weights.   Three times a week I run 2-4 miles.  Sometimes I carry two 20 lb dumbbells while I run the first mile.  Some of the workouts I have put myself thru over the past 12 weeks have been a little crazy.  But in the end, I am back to waking up to thoughts of aching muscles, instead of chronic pain, more days than not.  I have lost 19 lbs and 7% more body fat since the beginning of the year.  Changing up my workout every few months has become the best way to make sure that I continue to make progress and it also insures that my body does not get so use to a particular workout that my muscles stop getting sore.  I am currently 4 weeks into a new 8 week workout plan. With 5 more weeks to go to the race, I hope to make even more progress to better my chances of finishing…

198 lbs and running...

So this is how I found myself living the life of a gym rat.  I was able to get back to working out after the accident because working out caused me more pain.  Not just pain, but controlled pain.  Pain I inflicted on me, not pain someone or something else had caused.  This may sound sadomasochistic, but it is how I deal with my pain without drugs.  The additional benefits of being able to walk without a cane, having more energy and being able to take the trash out far out way the negatives.

OK readers….. Let the psychoanalysis begin….

Are you challenging yourself?

I believe that it is impossible to maintain the status quo for very long. We are either improving or getting worse. I don’t want to go back to where I was, so I will continue moving forward. If that means that one-day I run a marathon or bench 400 lbs, it will be because that is where my body took me, not because that was my goal. Reality is that eventually I will not be as strong or move as well. I hope it isn’t because of medical issues, but rather old age. Only time will tell. Meanwhile, I am determined to persevere as I have for the past 4 years. I have had many setbacks during that time, but I know I can only fail if I stop trying. I will continue to fall down, but I will get back up. I will continue to have doubts about my future, but I will still make plans. When one doctor says I can’t be fixed, I will look for another who says I can. I will continue to push myself, to move forward, because to not push would be to risk losing all that I have gained since the day of the accident. I will not go back there without a fight.

In order to move forward, I continually try to challenge myself. I am always looking for new ways to make myself “uncomfortable”. As I continue to get in better shape I realize it never gets easier, I just get stronger. If it is easy, then I am not pushing. With that belief in mind, I decided to sign up to run the Warrior Dash. It is described as, “a 3.38 mile race with 12 obstacles from hell waiting for you along the course.” (You can check out this video to get a better idea what I am in for.) I will be surrounding myself with good friends who are also training to run this race. I will be introducing each of them as I get closer to the June 17th race.
If you are like my mother, you may be asking, “Why?” after watching the video. This blog post is intended to not only introduce my next challenge, but to also explain why I work out as hard as I do.

Most people have heard the saying, “Give to it hurts.” For me it has become more about giving to it stops hurting. I blog and speak and raise money because it helps others, but I also do it because it helps me. My pain and suffering needs to have meaning. Without meaning, it would be too much to take.

I lift weights and run because the stronger I am, the more I can give of myself. A lot of people want to focus on my exercise regiment as an example of what hard work and determination can accomplish. They believe that my ultimate goal should be to run great distances and lift a ton of weight. I will do both things, but not because that is the pinnacle of fitness success. I will do these things because it is the result of my ongoing commitment to my family to not only be around, but to truly be there for them. Being fit needs to serve a greater purpose for me. Otherwise, it would be impossible for me to sustain it long-term.

I challenge each of you to make room in your busy lives to exercise. Do it for you and do it for the good of others. When you hear the saying “fit for life,” do you think of being fit for a lifetime? I look at those words and I think, “Be fit so you can get the most out of life.” Fit people make better parents, better significant others, better employees, better friends and better volunteers. In short, being fit gives you the energy and ability you need to give more of yourself. I could not have accomplished half of the things I have since the accident without dedicating myself to exercise. It is the very best medicine I was ever given!

So, now it is your turn. Are you challenging yourself? My prayer is that everyone who reads this post will commit to at least 30 minutes of exercise every day. It really is amazing the effect it will have on your life and the lives of those around you. Over the next few weeks I will be writing about my race training as well as ways in which we have been able to use the experience to give back. I encourage you to take up a challenge of your own and come along on the journey. Find me on Facebook or Twitter and tell me what you doing, or write it here and keep updating your progress. Let’s motivate each other to get our goal. No goal is too small if it has you moving in the right direction. Remember, there was a time not that long ago that my goal was to just standup. There is no better time to started then right now!

 

 

 

Who are you calling an old dumbbell?

These dumbbells and I have spent a lot of time together over the past two and a half years.  When I first started lifting at the Carlisle YMCA in October of 2009 those dumbbells on the left, the ones with numbers on them like 15, 25 and 30, got a lot of attention.  Today I spend more time with the ones with 55, 70 and 80 on them. I have touched them all at some point.  I intimately know every imperfection on each one.  Some don’t match their same weight partner.  Some of the heavier dumbbells have bent handles.  Some have worn, smooth handles while others still have serrated grips.  They all are a little rusty.  Some of the rust has worked into the calluses on my hands. A point of pride for me, much like my scares.  All the dumbbells smell a little like the inside of the old World War II submarine sitting in the water at Baltimore’s Inner Harbour.  The smell of steel that’s been around people and sweat for a long time…

The YMCA needs new dumbbells.  However, replacing them just isn’t in the budget during these tough economic times that have forced many non-profit’s budgets to get “lean and mean” in order to continue to provide the services that their communities desperately need.  When I was blessed to win the Eagle Rare Life Award for Survival last month, the Carlisle YMCA received $2000 as the award.  We talked about the best use of the money and we all agreed that putting it toward new dumbbells fit on a number of levels.  First, the Y needs them and like I said, they aren’t really in the budget.  Second, as already mentioned, I have an intimate connection to the dumbbells. I use them a lot as part of my daily workouts. Third, and most important to me, new dumbbells would last for a very long time.  People for years to come would be able to use them to improve their health.  Maybe even someone going through what I have gone through…

The best dumbbells on the market are urethane dumbbells.  They are basically indestructible.  They require very little maintenance and they last forever.  They are also the most expensive.  A new set will cost between $6000 and $7000.  Far more than the $2000 donation from Eagle Rare.  I have taken it upon myself to try to raise as much of the additional cost as possible.  In the past I have donated the money I earned giving talks to my home parish, St Patrick.  For the short-term, it will go toward the dumbbells.  I feel that strongly about seeing them come to fruition. (If you have been thinking about having me talk at an organization you are involved in let me know.  For a donation to the YMCA, I will talk at no charge.)  Until this point, I have only shared my goal with the YMCA board and a few friends.  Already, a great supporter of the YMCA, and of me and my family, has stepped up and donated $1000 toward the dumbbells.  I can’t express to them how much that donation means to me.  I am still always amazed by the kindness and respect people show my family and me.  It constantly forces me to stay true to my goal of using our accident to help as many people as I can.  God puts so many great role models in front of me every day…

Now I am reaching out to you.  Today the Carlisle Sentinel will run a story about my goal to get the YMCA new dumbbells. (Read it here.)  I hope that it will bring attention to the fact that the YMCA isn’t just a gym.  It is a family.  As I sat in the lobby yesterday around noon being interviewed, I said hello to no less than 15 people coming and going.  They are just a small number of the people there who support me every week with words of encouragement and a true interest in how my recovery is going.  They are the same people who tell me how I motivate them.  The ironic part is that they actually motivate me.  Like so many people who have taken a vested interest in my recovery story, I don’t want to let them down.

They deserve the fancy dumbbells that the chain gyms have, not because anyone will lift more weight or get stronger faster.  They deserve it because, just like me, they don’t go there because of the equipment.  They go there because of the people.  The new dumbbells will be a gift from those people who understand and respect the importance of working hard for what they want.  I can’t wait to see the smiles in the mirror as people use them!

If you would like to help, click on this link (Donation) and you can make an on-line donation.  Make sure you select “John Ulsh Dumbbell Fund” under the heading, “Do you want your donation to be affiliated with a specific Campaign? You can also send a check made out to the Carlisle Area YMCA to 311 S. West Street, Carlisle, PA 17013. Make sure you put a note in the envelope stating that is for the dumbbells.

Thank you for your continued support!