Obstacle Racing-”Spartan Style”

“What was I thinking?”  I said that sentence over and over again in my head as I stood at the bottom of Blue Mountain Ski Area, looking up the mountain at runners/climbers headed toward the top.  I quickly realized that the Spartan Race was not going to be like any race I ever ran…

Two days before the race, an email came from the director of the Spartan Race stating the following: “This course is going to be awesome (assuming awesome means steep and treacherous). The course is around 5.0 miles of hills.  This is our hardest sprint race because of how steep and treacherous the terrain is.  It’s harder and longer than last year.  Race smart and watch your foot placement!  “What the $#@*!!!!” was the first thing out of my mouth.  I was under the impression that this was going to be a 3 mile race on a fairly flat course.  (The description on the Spartan Race website describes the sprint race as “3+ miles”. Technically, 5 miles is 3+.  But, so is 100!) I guess in hindsight, I should have figured out it would be steep when I saw that it was at a ski area.  I am not always the most observant…

I struggle with a lot of different parts of running.  The one part that always kills me is hills.  I have worked with running coaches to try to improve my hill running, but it has been no use.  When I run hills, my damaged veins can’t get the blood out of my leg fast enough.  Quickly, my leg muscles start to lack oxygen, and then the “real pain” starts.  “How bad can the hills really be?” I said, trying to convince myself that I would be fine.

 

As I stood in the “ski village” with my team, I was kind of wishing I had added a doctor or two to the team, maybe an orthopedic and perhaps a cardiologist as well.  I did have my friend Rob Hadley with me to run the race.  He used to work for the pharmaceutical company that made the stents in my leg.  Now he works for a company that makes the plug that might some day be used to fix the hole in my heart.  He has scrubbed in on hundreds of surgeries.  He is practically a doctor, right?  I am sure that with a Swiss Army knife, a Bic pen and the right “product” from the trunk of his car, he could save my life in a pinch!  The rest of my team also consisted of Hadley’s.  Rob’s two sons Patrick AKA “Patch” (16), Joe (14), along with Rob’s brother Chris. Chris and Rob run marathons; Joe is a heck of a good cross-country runner and Patch….  Well Patch can “pick things up and put them down.”  He is a strong kid!  My wife Tonia was also there for support and my son James (8) came along to run the 1-mile kid’s Spartan Race.  Tonia quickly became the pack mule as we handed her our backpacks filled with towels and our clean clothing for after the race.  She would later describe her day as a “Mini-Spartan Race” as she lugged the bags all over the mountain while taking photos for me.  Finally, 11 o’clock arrived and it was time to get this race started.

I would be lying if I said that I wasn’t concerned about finishing this race as I stood at the starting line staring at the first of what would be many hill climbs, 50 yards in front of me.  But, as the guy in the Spartan costume gave his “warrior speech” and then sent us “into battle”; I did what I have done so many times since the accident.  I took the first step, then another…

I needed to celebrate finishing this race.  I needed to know I could do this.  There would have been no question that I could have done the Spartan Race before the accident.  After the accident, as I laid in a nursing home, no one would have even given any thought to the idea of me ever doing such as race.  Now it was time to get rid of some more demons. There was only one way to celebrate at the finish line and that was to run the race…

This race was the single hardest thing I have ever done.  I definitely suffered more pain and mental anguish from the accident, but then I had no choice.  At that time I could only simply accept my fate.  Running this race was my choice.  I could stop the pain form getting worse if I wanted…

I could write 5000+ words describing everything we went through on the course that day.  (Honestly, I plan to do just that for my book.)  But for now, I think the easiest way to describe it to you is to mention a few of the highlights and show some photos.

I want to start by saying that everyone in our group finished.  We decided in the beginning that no one would be left behind.  We would finish as a team.  We all struggled throughout the course, but when it happened someone from our group was there to encourage you to keep going.  Patch trained the least for the race and was “talked” into doing it by his dad.  He really had to push himself to finish.  I say this not to point out his struggles, but rather to point out that I didn’t hear one complaint out of the kid’s mouth!  I am sure he called his father a few choice words under his breath, but he simply didn’t whine or complain.  He knew he was in over his head, but he kept pushing. I am sure he wanted to quit, but he never did.  Not the typical response a lot of people would expect from a teen.  I was really proud of him and I am sure his dad, brother and uncle were prouder!

This race up the mountain would have been challenging enough without obstacles. The Spartan Race people don’t tell you what obstacles will be on the course so every time you come to one it is always a surprise.  Especially, if like us, you never ran one of their races.  Some obstacles favored size and strength while others were more a test of one’s cardio fitness and ability to recover quickly.  Carrying a 40 lb. bag of sand down and back up a double black diamond ski hill at mile 4 would end up testing every part of a person! We climbed walls and ropes.  We climbed monkey bars and crawled for 50 yards under barbed wire. (I have the cuts on my back to prove that one!)  We carried 50 gallon buckets filled will stones up and down a hill.  We went down a giant slip and slide into a pond (That was actually fun!).  We drug a 40 lb. concrete block by a chain down a hill, through waist deep water and back up the other side. We flipped tractor tires and threw spears!  In the end, we climbed 2200 vertical feet over 5.1 miles and conquered 15+ obstacles in 90+ degree temps.  It was a great day!

 I realize now that obstacle racing is exactly what I need, a single opportunity to test my will.  The accident was the toughest thing I ever gone through.  It has been 4+ years of fighting setbacks, not knowing what will happen next, and pulling myself back up when I fall down.  Obstacle racing is all of those things wrapped up into a few hours, instead of years…

To see more photos of the race, check out my Facebook Fan Page here.

 

 

Warrior Dash 2012 – Blood, Sweat and Beer….

I survived the Warrior Dash….

I spent the entire weekend in the Poconos with my family and friends hanging out on the lake, drinking beer and cooking BBQ.  It was great that we were able to turn my desire to run the Warrior Dash into a really fun filled weekend.  It was just what I needed to put myself in the right frame of mind and to help me remember why I was doing the race in the first place.  After two days of “carbo loading” with my teammates, it was time to run the race.

My two teammates and I arrived at the Pocono Raceway at 9 AM on Sunday morning.  We were in the first group of the day that was taking off at 10 o’clock.  Our families would be joining us shortly to cheer for us.  I stood in the middle of the festival area and just looked around. At the one end of the area was a large stage with a rock band playing 80′s rock.  The other end had two fire trucks with hoses pulled out ready to wash off the mud after the race. In between was beer, food, a giant pile of dirty sneakers and people.  Many strange people…  I saw guys wearing grass skirts and coconuts.  I saw a group of women in bikinis who had painted their entire bodies red.  There were serious looking athletes and there were folks in giant bunny costumes.  There was even a big, bearded guy with a baby doll in a front facing child pack who looked like the guy from the movie The Hang Over!

As I approached the starting line with my life-long best friend, Jason Fralick and my newer great friend and all-around “tough mother” Jeannette Browne, I felt really anxious.  Was I going to be able to do this?  What if I couldn’t do this?  I decided right then and there that the only way I wouldn’t be finishing this race was because I was strapped to a gurney in the back of an ambulance.  What ever happened, I would keep pushing.  I know what real pain feels like and I was sure this couldn’t possibly come close…

As we ran through the starting line, fire shot into the air surrounding us in warmth.  Our group of 200+ runners took off toward our first obstacle.  About 800 yards later we arrived.  Our group was still pretty packed together and the line backed up as racers tried to walk up a 2×6 plank that took them 6 feet in the air and then across a 2×4 that was about 10 feet long and back down the other side.  As I would come to learn, waiting at obstacles allowed the blood to circulate back out of my left leg, bringing much-needed oxygen to my muscles.  We proceeded to run through mud and scale 20 foot high walls via a rope.  We crawled under nets, downed trees and barbed wire.  We climbed ladders and crawled along four-inch ledges.  I climbed across, up and down nets.  That was the hardest obstacle for me. The ropes would give when you stepped on them and because I can’t feel my left foot, it was hard to be sure I had good footing.  At the end of our 3.5 mile run, we jumped over burning logs and crawled on our bellies through mud while avoiding barbed wire over head.  Jason and Jeannette stayed with me even though they could have easily gone much faster.  We crossed the finish line, arms wrapped around each other, mud coating every square inch of our bodies.  It was awesome! After we crossed the finish line, we got our medals and some water and went to meet our families.  Needless to say not one was looking to give us a hug!  We posed for more photos together and talked to our families about the race.  What happened next, I can only describe as a combination of water boarding and a wet t-shirt contest!  We entered a corral with the 200+ other runners and proceeded to beg to be sprayed with fire hoses to wash the mud out of every crack and or crevice in our bodies.  It reminded me of sponge baths in the nursing home which sound like a lot more fun than they were… ;)

The race was everything I wanted it to be.  It was challenging, but I was prepared for it.  Running on the uneven terrain was the most difficult part.  It appears that running will always be a challenge for me which is why I liked this race so much.  Running was only half of the challenge.  Adventure/Obstacle racing may be the best way for me to find joy in running now.  There is only one way to be sure…  I just signed up for another obstacle race.  On July 14th I will be running the Spartan Race.  It appears to be a little more challenging and slightly longer.  We will see if I am up to the challenge!

Running the Warrior Dash was a great way to spend Father’s Day.  As I drove home that day thinking about the race, I was reminded why I even care about doing crazy things like this race.  I do it to prove I am alive and I do it as a sign of my commitment to my family, that I will not let the accident ruin our lives.  But I also do it out of fear.  Fear that on one December 1st, I will look back over the past year and I will not have gotten better than I was the previous year.  Making progress gives me hope.  I can’t see progress day-to-day, but when I do things like the Warrior Dash, there is no question if I am getting better.  I am pretty sure no one ever thought I could or would do anything like this four years ago.

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….