Monday, October 28, 2019

Goals. Good or bad?

I like going long and solo. It gives me time to think uninterrupted. On this particular fall day, I was perplexed about something and needed to figure it out. By the time I arrived back at my car, I was content with my conclusions. But let me start at the beginning.

Goals. What do we do with goals? Since our knee-high-to-a- grasshopper days we've been told we need to set goals; to aspire to great things.
  • Win the conference. 
  • Beat our nemesis, School XYZ
  • Run a PR
  • Shoot 85% from the free throw line
  • Claim a state title
  • Be highlighted on ESPN for claiming that National Championship we chased all season long.
Of course, goals are not unique to athletics. Business culture tells us we must set lofty goals because if we don't know what to shoot for, we'll miss every time.
  • Add 15 new clients
  • Increase sales by 30%
  • Be the leader in commissions
  • Earn that incentive trip to Hawaii 
  • Hang the plaque for winning the prestigious award for customer service
What about education? Goals are often set--and demanded.
  • Make the honor roll.
  • Claim bragging rights for a 4.0 GPA
  • Be at the head of the class
  • Score the highest on a test and nab an academic scholarship
  • Have three advanced degrees by the time you hit 30
Are goals motivating? Do they incentivize us? Maybe they do. Maybe they don't. And maybe, just maybe, a preoccupation with an end goal may distract us from being the best we can be along the way.

Let's say you are a soccer player. By definition, the team who wins the game will need to score more goals than the other team by the time the clock strikes zero. So then, should our emphasis be to win by scoring more goals than our opponent? Well, yes, of course. That is part of the game. But we need to put some qualifications on how much importance we place on the scoreboard.

Can we totally control who ends up with more goals? No. The other team might be bigger, faster, stronger, and much more skilled. They might be playing athletes who are on their way to professional careers. We might have sidelined our top three strikers with injuries. They may have scored the winning goal on a totally bizarre ricochet of the ball completely outside of our control.

Given all that, let's say the scoreboard says Them 2. Us 1 at the end of regulation time. We lost, right? Yep. Absolutely.
We lost by definition of the rules and intent of the game. No argument there. We may have done everything possible to win, but we were not able to come away with more goals than Them.

What do we do with this? Are we big fat losers? Are we failures? I contend that if the only thing we were shooting for was our team's neon number on the scoreboard, you may rightly conclude that we failed. However, the repercussions of such an attitude can be devastating, emotionally debilitating, and detrimental to future growth. It could create a dire situation that colors our every thought and action from that time forward.

However, what if we saw our intended outcome of the game (a win on the scoreboard) as an intermediate step in our journey to become excellent. To become the very best we can possibly be. To optimize every opportunity. To focus on the process and in doing so, surrender the outcome. To do every daily drill whole-heartedly and with purpose. To improve fitness. To build teamwork and foster relationships. To find a way to fight through challenges and struggles. To, as Joshua Medcalf writes in Chop Wood. Carry Water, "Dream big. Start small. Be ridiculously faithful. Focus on what you can control."

What if?

What if we saw a goal as a push pin on a travel map? You mark the beginning of the route and then
identify where you need to end up with another push pin. Next, you tie a string around each pin and carefully and thoughtfully determine the intermediary steps that will allow you to arrive at each location. Those intermediary stops are also marked with push pins, helping us define the path we need to take to get each destination. In this way, even an intimidating trip from LA to NY, for example, is broken down into doable, definable segments that will ultimately have you belting out New York. New York.

As I began my long trek through the mountains, I thought about what my "win" would be. Truly, getting back to the car alive and uninjured should put a check mark in the "W" column, similar to scoring more goals than the other team. By definition, my training run success meant that I had to start, cover about 23 miles, and arrive intact back at the car. It would require ascending some big mountains, descending the same, and passing through valleys, each presenting their own set of unique challenges.

The biggest climb of the day began with a northward ascent on the Appalachian Trail that promised to land me on the summit of Cold Mountain, a picturesque open bald that begs a rendition of "The hills are alive with the sound of music..."  But rather than seeing that mountain as simply a pushpin along the route, what if I viewed standing on the summit as THE goal to be achieved, nothing else mattering, forgetting there were miles to conquer after topping out? Well, here's what I think would happen.
  • I would appreciate the view for awhile and feel quite accomplished. (And yes, I know that Cold Mt. is not a terribly difficult climb. Just play along so I can try to make my point.)
  • Talking to the hikers who pass by might entertain me for a period of time.
  • As time goes on, I would start to feel the chill of the wind and put on my jacket.
  • The big rocks, warmed by the sun, would provide a spot to lay back and take a nap. This will help the time to pass.
  • The sun would begin to disappear beyond the mountains to the west.
  • The realization of being alone would settle into my soul. 
  • My excitement for being there would begin to diminish.
  • I would wish I had a blanket and a fire to keep warm. 
  • I wish there would be others to help me through the night, no matter how cold and blustery.
  • Darkness would displace the sunlight, leaving me to shiver in it's wake.
  • I would feel despondent and lonely, despite having accomplished THE goal.
  • By morning, I would be tired, cold, and hungry. 
  • With no one with which to share the experience, I would hang my head and head back down the mountain, dejected and depressed, and unappreciative of the journey to the top. 
Alternatively and so much better, what if I looked at the goal (in this case a well-executed traverse of the entire course) as a series of pushpins on a map? Each of these equally significant waypoints would allow me to concentrate on completing the smaller sections in a particular manner and with great focus. Certainly, the climbs require something different than the descents, smooth trail begs for increased speed, while technical trail demands more attention to footing. That grand mountaintop along the way simply becomes another pushpin on the map, helpful in tracking progress. The mountaintop is not, nor will it ever be, THE ultimate goal because it's only a tiny spot on a long, continuous journey.

Our goals, whatever they may be, should ultimately establish a series of "pushpins" for becoming great and achieving excellence. Our goals should demand ridiculous faithfulness in every step of the journey and in the controllable processes.The outcome will take care of itself.

There is little long-term satisfaction in holding high a championship trophy (although there is certainly nothing wrong with earning one). Just ask the myriads of champions who have been on the mountain and still feel small and unfulfilled. The significance of that hunk of metal will tarnishes in the aftermath of fleeting celebrations. But the greatest sense of fulfillment comes when the journey itself is embraced rather than chasing outcomes over which we have no ability to fully control. As Medcalf describes the person driven by a scoreboard, a championship ring, or a top podium finish, ". . .with one eye on the goal, you only have one eye for the journey." Sounds to me like an accident waiting for a place to happen.

I prefer my journeys to be taken with both eyes wide open and focused fully on the task at hand.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

When calls the heart

When the heart calls, listen.

I should not have been surprised. And to be honest. I was not. But there I was in the doctor's office being shown the results of a Cardiac CT, a totally non-invasive screening test that looks for calcium deposits in the coronary arteries and aorta. My numbers indicated a high likelihood of coronary artery disease. Shoot.

Within days, I sat in another office, this time cardiology. I specifically picked Dr. Pete O'Brien
because as an outstanding runner himself, he understood runners. He listened carefully to my conundrum: Was my inability to get fit a result of a natural aging process or was there a cardiac issue? Let's pause so I can fill in the back story.

The last year and a half have been rough. Between a knee injury post the 2017 Mountain Masochist 50 Miler, caring for my father-in-law in our home during the final nine months of his life, and an unfortunate incident in February of 2019 that left me with a distal clavicle fracture and two scapular fractures, training has been difficult to say the least. Try as I might, it was just so hard. Yes, I know getting fit is supposed to be hard, but THIS hard?!?!? I kept having conversations with myself. Was I just playing out the age card that tells me I am supposed to be getting slower and wimpier? Or, was there something else, something more medically sinister in nature?

That something else was cardiac disease. Several years after a massive heart attack suffered while playing a championship tennis match, my father died post cardiac surgery and on an LVAD (left ventricular assist device) at the age of 62. I am currently that same age. My mother also has cardiac disease, earning herself a stent some years ago and now suffering with significant valvular disease at age 91. Many of the grandparents, aunts and uncles on both sides have died as a result of cardiac-related issues. My chances of escaping this ominous heritage is slim.

There have been a few runs in the last year or so when I felt somewhat normal. Not fast. But OK. Reasonable. However, on too many occasions to count, it just felt harder than it should have been despite my snail-like pace. I ran mostly by myself, avoided roads with traffic, and embraced night runs. I was embarrassed, quite frankly, with how pedestrian I had become and wished no one to see me slogging along. I know what it takes to get in shape but this seemed a bit ridiculous. I tried to be patient. "Just be glad you are moving," I would tell myself, even if it meant A LOT of walking. It was immensely frustrating.

The day before I saw Dr. O'Brien, I went for a short run through the woods. "Smooth and efficient. Just be present. Don't rush. Enjoy the cooler temps and lower humidity." But even on an extended downhill, it didn't feel right. When I began the trek back up the mountain to the car, my legs and arms felt very heavy. I had no chest pain per se, but did feel a tightening in my throat and up into my jaw. When I slowed down to a walk (which wasn't far from my "run" pace), things felt better. This pattern, that had become typical over the last 18 months, was repeated all the way back to the car.

"How do you feel about invasive procedures?" Dr. O'Brien quarried.

"YES!" Let's do the cath!" I was sick and tired of wondering if there was a cardiac issue. A cardiac cath would leave no doubt. If I was cardiac disease-free, I would chalk up my pitiful attempts at training to being older, but commit to do the best I could under the circumstances. If it was cardiac in nature, then there would either be an intervention in the cath lab or a trip down the hall to see my favorite cardiac surgeon. Either way, I was so happy that answers were forthcoming. Without hesitation, Dr. O'Brien scheduled me for his first case Monday morning. This was Friday. I couldn't help but think there was a degree of expediency to get this done.

In the aftermath of the visit, I glanced at my instruction papers. It was strange to see CAD listed as a new finding. I began to mull over contingency plans work-wise should I end up on a surgical table. That would really booger up plans for the scheduled August and September team retreats I was tasked to implement. And should I run in the meantime or not? Running is a way to clear my head. So, yes. I ran. Don't worry. I ran comfortably in the cooler darkness, only about 4 miles, and it was fine. Still, questions and possibilities swirled. Potential plans slowly evolved.

Arriving at the hospital at 6 a.m., I was quickly admitted to the unit, changed into a hospital gown, and prepped for the procedure. Having been a cardiovascular perfusionist for so many years, I spent a good amount of time in cath labs. They didn't scare me. In fact, I was looking forward to experiencing the whole process from a patient's perspective. In fact, for the first ten minutes in the cath lab, I had a grand time chatting it up with the nurses and techs. I noticed the circulating nurse loading a syringe into my IV line, immediately feeling a slight swoon. "What was that?" One CC of Versed had left it's mark. But I was still able to tell him that I wanted to be alert and watch everything. Well,
that didn't work out too well. Other than a few moments when I saw the guidewire across the lesion on the monitor, I remember nothing. Nada. Not the doctor coming in. Not any discussions I may have had or heard. Not any dye coursing it's way down the arteries. Nothing. That makes me sad.

I do not remember the procedure being over. I have no recollection of arriving back in my room. To me, it seemed like only 15 minutes had passed. I was shocked to know I was in the lab for over an hour and a half. Gary tells me I asked him the same questions a million times, suggesting a foreshadowing of my senility as an old woman. Supposedly, the doctor told Gary I was talking appropriately after the procedure when he explained all that he did in the lab. Dr. O'Brien also told Gary I may not remember that conversation. He was absolutely, unequivocally correct. I recall NOTHING. NONE. NADA.

Dr. O'Brien, the good doctor, later come to my room armed with his computer. This I do remember. For me, this was the first time I actually heard him explain that I had a long lesion in the mid-LAD. (The Left Anterior Descending is a major artery supplying a significant portion of the left ventricle. When blood flow is insufficient, that part of the heart dies.) Tests he did evaluating blood flow (IVUS and FFR, both state of the art technologies) led him to place a drug-eluting stent across the 60% stenosis, therefore increasing the diameter of the lumen and theoretically allowing sufficient blood flow to all left ventricular tissue feed by the LAD. A blood-fed heart is a happy heart. "Do you think this explains the way I felt when running?"

"Yes," came the confident reply. I felt relieved that my slogging was not imagined nor was it self-imposed. I was happy and hopeful that I would be able to get back to normal training without having to second-guess myself. He left the room, and I returned to asking Gary the same questions over and over.

And now in the aftermath, reality sets in. I am now a card-caring cardiac stentee. I am to carry this card at all times since having the stent may impact future treatments or procedures. I have a mesh tunnel inside a coronary artery. It's my personal tiny alien who has taken up residence. It's my forever buddy. Perhaps I should name it. Hum...Stanley Stent?
There is a treadmill stress test in my near future, followed by three months of cardiac rehab. I have a plethora of drugs that I must take. The stent is a foreign object in my body. Means need to be taken to prevent a clot from forming on the metal mesh. "Whatever you do, don't forget to daily take the Prasugrel! You will take this for at least a year, maybe a lifetime," explained my discharge nurse. My new normal has turned my kitchen counter into a satellite pharmacy. Maybe I should get those little multi-day pill boxes to keep myself straight.

But I am grateful. Grateful that I never had an actual heart attack or inflicted damage to my heart. Grateful that I had the screening cardiac CT. Grateful that I did not ignore that inner voice telling me that something was not right. Grateful for a cardiologist who took me seriously and refrained from-- and will never tell me--not to run. I am grateful there was an actual explanation--the blockage--for my inability to get race-fit. And, I am hopeful.

Hopeful to be able to train. Hopeful to be fit. Hopeful to embrace challenges rather than fear them. Hopeful to develop a third generation of "Shindigglers," young women who grow to love the mountain trails as much as I do. Hopeful to push the limits of what is possible. Hopeful to dream--and complete--great new adventures. Hopeful to run long, run day at a time.

Tuesday, April 23, 2019

I remember when

It had been awhile. Life - including a busted up shoulder - had gotten in the way of regular trips to the mountains. But with near perfect weather, the mountains called my name and I had to go.

It's not that today's ramblings were of epic proportions. It was probably no more than 11.5 miles, though fairly technical and rocky. But with sun shining, birds chirping, and pleasant temps, my solo venture was a welcome escape from normal day to day schedules. I was free to climb, free to go faster or slow down, free to lollygag to snap photos, free to scramble, free to think, free to figure, free to remember. But most of all, free to be me.

With my car parked at the end of a gravel road, I began the steady climb. How many times had I been there, done that? Too many to count. I remembered many January 1 "Kingdom runs" that had their beginnings and end at the same trail head. I recalled how I shared these beginning steps with neophyte trail runners, some of which were kids I was coaching. Usually, a half mile up we took the trail to the left to begin the loop. With gentle ups and down, ins and outs, and multiple stream crossings, it was a good way to ease into the run.

Circa 2014
Instead of making that turn to the left, today I forged straight ahead. "Straight ahead" meant three miles of steep, hard climbing, interrupted only by two short descents to be positioned for the next extended ascent.

I remember in former days doing repeats of this climb in an attempt to beat my body into submission; to become accustomed to climbing harder and then descending faster without regard to fear or failure.

I remember the rock garden, steep and difficult to climb, but even more challenging to descend. So many memories of snowy, icy, and wet and leaf-strewn conditions which rendered the downhill direction treacherous at best. Today I was glad for the slower, more controlled uphill direction.

Place where runner was on the ground
Ascending further, I remembered when the earliest version of the Terrapin Mountain race was run in the clockwise direction one year; the next in counter-clockwise direction. I remember running this section with Jonathan Basham, pushing hard to stay in front of the crowd, but managing to talk about time spent on the AT. I remember passing a runner who collapsed out of exhaustion halfway up the mountain. He was a road runner who apparently had little respect for what it took to conquer a couple thousand feet of ascent.

Some of my runners, 2014
Arriving at the rocks with a view, I pondered how many times I had stopped to take in the scenery. Across the way wound the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail. Down below, the road through the valley had been my chosen path in many a training run or race. But the rocks themselves? It was a photo op for all the people I brought along with me in years past. The rocks were a place that encouraged a welcome break from the downhill quad pounding. And to be honest, those rocks were one of the first places I learned the art of peeing standing up, carefully noting wind direction to avoid a warm stream hitting my shoes. These were the best of times and the worst of times.

Entering Fat Man's Misery

Higher up the mountain I came across Fat Man's Misery, a narrow sliver between rocks that runners in the Terrapin Mountain races must pass through. But besides the passage during races, this place was a highlight of the time I took my high school distance runners on this loop. It was December. We had encountered thigh-deep snow higher on the mountain, with icicles dominating this hollowed out rock alcove. Those who failed to wear tights and ankle-covering socks, sported bloody ankles at this point, a result of breaking through the ice-covered snow. Still, I remember nothing but smiles; sweet, sweet smiles.

Rhodo tunnel
"One more knoll"
 I remember passing through the rhododendron tunnel many times when it was in full bloom, the white showy flowers marking a magical pathway. Unfortunately, today's journey preceded the flowery spectacle. But shortly after the traversing the tunnel, I glanced up to see the summit and the knoll that came before. Immediately, I could hear faint echos of David Horton quipping, "Just one more knoll until
the top," as if he thought his humor could ease the reality of far more climbing.

Circa 2010
I maneuvered out on the rocky ledge on the summit, something I had done countless times before. On this run, four buzzards startled me by rising gracefully from the treetops below to soar effortlessly overhead. I could not recall this ever happening. Still, as I gazed over at the valley and then to the "golfball" perched atop a neighboring mountain, I clearly remembered so many races and training runs through those hallowed grounds. Blazing hot, freezing cold, or somewhere in between. Some runs were with friends. Many I chose to venture solo. So much time spent. So many miles covered. So many memories made.

Today's overlook

This journey was in a counter-clockwise direction. I breathed a sigh of relief once I reached Camping Gap, glad that the technical and rocky trail off of the summit was behind me. I remember thinking about how happy I was during the counter-clockwise races to feel free to pick up speed on the next three downhill miles. And then as I ran further down this section of trail today, I clearly did NOT remember how rocky and crappy those miles actually were. Perhaps years of washouts have turned up more loose rock, or perhaps I merely suppressed the memory of the ankle-wrenching
Circa 2014
terrain. Nevertheless, I picked my way off the mountain, amazed at how fast the streams ran, overflowing normal boundaries and flooding the rough forest road. Though I plunged right through the water on this run, I remember so clearly times when my running partners and I tempted fate and the risk associated with crossing mid-stream rocks in an attempt to own dry feet.

Circa 2010; Successfully crossing Reeds Creek
Reed Creek was stampeding today, cascading over rocks and creating small whirlpools between the boulders. How many times had we posed for pictures at this same spot? Too many times to count. How many times did I rush across the stream in the other direction, anxious to complete the last mile and a half of the race? Lots. But today I did not rush. I put those impulses aside and carefully picked my way through the stream laced with algae-covered rock, bracing myself against the swiftly running water.

I clearly remember the four or five miles that wind along the front of the mountain. Up and down. In and out. Countless sweeping turns and shallow streams to cross. "Surely, I'm getting close." But alas, another up, another down, another twist, another turn. My memory served me well. But rather than feeling my

impatience in the past, today's travel along these miles made me smile. The temperature was perfect, the late afternoon
sun filtering through the newly budded trees. I owned the trail, sharing it only with an occasional squirrel taking advantage of his own outdoor playground. Ground flowers in a variety of colors and shapes seemed to nod as I passed by. I gleefully stomped through streams and admired the waterfalls. I was happy to run, happy to hike, happy to remember.

Arriving back at my car, I recognized that same satisfaction of finishing a journey as I experienced so many times over the last 25 years. I realized that despite what might come in the future, being able to remember what happened in the past is enough. I am grateful.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

When life comes crashing down

I glanced up just in time to contemplate what was about to happen. In the next nanosecond, my body felt like it had exploded when the 500 pounds of hardened steel crashed down on me. The pain was searing. I could not breath. I heard myself let out a guttural scream from within while I thought to myself, "Give it a second. You'll be alright."

But I wasn't alright. In a freak accident, the spotting rig of a trampoline used by the divers
unexpectedly crashed in the process of taking it down. I don't have clear recall about the ensuing moments, but the pain in my shoulder and back will be forever unforgettable. My vision was cloudy and voices seemed very far away. I was in a haze but curiously fascinated by the ever-expanding pool of bright red blood a foot away from me. Though my forearm was bleeding from a three-inch gash (a fact I was unaware of at the moment), I was confused by the steady red drip. Someone said it was coming from the head of the assistant dive coach. I remember wondering if he was still alive. (John did survive the glancing blow to his head, requiring but three stitches to seal the wound.)

Slouched on the floor with back now against the wall, I continued to come and go from reality. Someone was trying to butterfly together the wound on my arm. When I heard another say that EMS was on their way, my mind protested because I had planned to get in a lengthy trail run in the rare and warm sunshine. But alas, that was not going to happen. The pain in my left shoulder, forearm, and right rear flank gave my mind permission to concede defeat. My immediate future necessarily required transport to the hospital in the back of an ambulance.

Wheeled from the natatorium on a gurney and loaded through the back doors of the emergency vehicle, I began to spontaneously shiver, perhaps from the pain, perhaps from the shock of it all. Assessment of my status continued and IVs were started. For the most part, I squeezed my eyes shut tight, trying to get to that place deep inside where I could get a handle on the course of events. I began to settle in, although the substantial hit of morphine likely helped in that process.

There was something about being rolled through the hospital hallways that was disconcerting. I could only see the ceiling tiles wiz by, my head being held in position by a cervical collar. I didn't particularly like the whole scenario. It bordered on embarrassing. But soon enough, I was settled into an emergency department bay, hooked up to monitors and awaited the next steps.

Waiting with me was Chelsea, one of the swim coaches. I appreciated her willingness to take that ambulance ride with me and chat while we awaited the arrival of Gary, my husband. X-rays, CT scans and other assessments followed, along with more morphine. My laceration was closed, and news of a fractured shoulder delivered. I was released hours later to go home. Despite nausea and dizziness thwarting my effort to get out of the wheelchair and into the car, the journey home and into this new normal began.

A visit to orthopedics two days after the fact revealed not one, but three fractures; the distal clavicle and two fractures in the scapula. Complete healing will be, I learned, a lengthy process. Therefore, the immediate challenge was to figure out how to complete the simplest of tasks, such as securing my ponytail or tying my shoes.

It's been a week since the accident. Each day gets a little better and I am finding I can walk fast without much pain. In fact, it's possible I may occasionally break into a slow run test while holding my slinged arm tight. It's actually not too bad, and that is encouraging. Of course, lifting my arm is difficult and getting out of the deep claw-footed bathtub using just one arm is a problem yet to be solved. Dressing and undressing is also a challenge. Still, I can't be too upset. I am fully alive.

Had my head been two inches to the left, there is little doubt that February 19 would have been my last day on earth. I am not trying to be melodramatic or overstate the case. But it's the truth. A direct blow of 500 pounds to the head would not have been survivable.

Sometimes as I lay in bed, I see that rigging descend upon me. I cringe at the memory of the horrendous impact and the narrow margin between life and death. And then I think about the "what if's." What if the outcome would have been different? Would my last day have cemented a legacy of a life well-lived, or would it be left wanting?

I will heal, I have no doubt. But if this unfortunate accident has any value (and it clearly does), then I will be thankful for the reminder that each sunrise should be greeted with gratitude. Each day should be lived intentionally, righteously, and with purpose. It's pretty simple, really. "What does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God." (Micah 6:8)

Oh help me, God, to live this way every day!

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Can't fake fitness

More specifically, I can't fake fitness anymore.

So let's address the elephant in the room. I began my 12th Hellgate 100k+ (66.6) at one minute past midnight this morning, and just like that, I chose to quit after a predominantly 25-mile uphill jaunt under the dark, moonless sky. It wasn't like I missed a cutoff. There was nothing really wrong other than being turtle-like and having a few hamstring cramps. The temps were quite tolerable and wind minimal. I was dressed just right. I just decided I had lost interest in the entire affair. I contentedly quit. And to be honest, I felt little guilt or remorse.

After 25 years of ultrarunning, how did this happen? It was a novel phenomena in personal experience. For what its worth, the following are not excuses. They are simply the facts.

2018 was a rough year but it had its start in 2017. My father-in-law moved into our home in August, his health requiring increasing levels of care as the months progressed. In early November, I completed my 20th Mountain Masochist 50 Miler. A mysterious injury in the aftermath made running nearly impossible for six months, though not for lack of trying.

By the time summer hit, the schedule lightened with Dad Trittipoe's passing. Simultaneously, I was able to ease onto the long road back to the fitness I so desired. But each run was incredibly laborious, leaving me to wonder if my genetics was putting me at risk for an untimely demise. My father died just one year older than my 61 years following cardiac surgery. My mother also had been treated for heart disease. I sought out a stress echocardiogram to identify potential problems. When I passed the test without keeling over, I concluded that age and being out of shape combined with obnoxious heat and humidity had to be the explanation for my pitiful attempts at slogging.

With cooler fall temps, things improved. Mileage was still more than modest but I could tackle steady-state two mile uphill runs. The ill-defined knee/leg issue was manageable, though not perfect. I occasionally meandered along mountain trails in the 15 mile range, but never matched the single 20 mile summer slogfest.

Then Horton asked me to post Hellgate info on the website, including the following query: "Do you want to run the race?" Hum. In the last quarter century, I had never gone an entire year without racing. If I ran Hellgate, I reasoned, I could get at least one race in the 2018 books. So yes. I would run. I was hopeful that I could will my way through the course I knew so intimately. The celebration would be complete when my family boarded a plane Sunday morning, the dawn after such a hard effort, for a long awaited vacation. I was hoping to bask in the satisfaction of a race well run as I played in the resort pool with my granddaughter.

Then the ice storm came and destroyed much of the trail. The Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I gleefully became part of a chainsawing and hauling threesome. By the end of the 12 hours of hard labor, my knee and quad had swollen to playground ball size. I held little hope of running the incredibly challenging race.

Little by little, I noticed modest improvement but was hesitant to test the leg. In total, I may have run four or five miles between then and race day.

With a compression knee sleeve under a beefier knee brace, I toed the line. Three Junior Shindigglers anticipated a night of crewing and adventure. As I started down the trail from the start, the leg felt okay and I ran appropriately comfortable. The last thing I wanted to do was set myself back by more non-running months in the future.

I felt I was moving okay on the long climb up to Petites Gap. Oddly, few lights pierced the darkness behind me while streams of lights glowed from above. It seemed odd and a bit disconcerting. I had never experienced this position in the back. And yet, my arrival at the Petites aid station was a scant three or four minutes faster than the calculated 18-hour runner.

My confidence was buoyed as I passed a few runners on the downhill. But alas, they pulled away on the next long uphill. Still, I felt I was making decent progress though no easy chatter or laughter as I had been accustomed to in prior years could be heard. I was alone. By the time I arrived at Camping Gap, the aid workers were cleaning up their tables. Only three runners were behind me. Reality was setting in.

My solitude was broken when a couple good friends came up from behind. We chatted together for about 45 minutes in the still darkness until they finally pulled away. Another runner from behind also passed me and disappeared in the distance. By my calculation, there were but one or two runners behind me. This was very strange. Was I really that pedestrian?

I continued to obsess about the impending snow storm predicted to hit in the wee hours of Sunday morning. Texts telling me about changing flights started to arrive Thursday. But with the race ahead of me, there was no realistic way to fly out Saturday night since a finish for me would make it a late return to home. I had actually contemplated withdrawing from the race all together on Friday morning to prioritize precious family time with husband, son, and granddaughter Addyson. But I did not.

And then it hit me. I was not going to be able to fake finishing fitness. If I was honest, I never had a real commitment to this endeavor. Today's scant 25 miles were more than I had run at any one time since November of 2017. What I had was more like wishful thinking that the stars would align to grant me a race I did not deserve. I did not want to endure. I just wanted to go home relatively unscathed and see if we could catch a flight for the afternoon or evening, beating the storm and saving our vacation.

Arriving at Headformost Aid station ten or fifteen minutes before the hard cutoff, I informed them I was done. Other than a sore back and occasional hamstring cramps, I was tired but physically intact. I had told my friends to let my crew, waiting at the next aid station, know to head to Bearwallow, where I would be transported in the drop bag van. I was actually delighted to soon be heading home. I surprised myself at my lack of shame. For the first time, I understood that I am more than my sport. And sometimes, sport is not the end all.

There are about five minutes left for runners to be official finishers as I write. Bless their hearts for staying the course. Cudos to all.

Postscript (Sunday, Dec 9): We did not find a flight but it took hours and hours to rebook for Tuesday out of Roanoke. And, I actually do have some regret for pulling out on this day after as finisher pictures pop up on Facebook.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

Face the fear with rock-solid preparation

Fear is an emotion that triggers a staggering series of events. Upon first sign of trouble, a tiny organ in the brain, the amygala, begins to shout out audibles, as screeching sirens blare out warnings. The heart pounds, blood pressure sky rockets, breathing quickens, and stress hormones stream out from their hiding spots. Blood shunts to the extremities to enable flight and the cerebral cortex, the center for reason and judgment, puts out the "gone fish'n" sign. In both acute and chronic situations, poor decisions are easily made.

Granted, these responses to fear can come in handy. A guy jumps from behind a bush to attack, and you set a new world sprint record. Or, you come across an upside-down car, righting all of it's 2000 pound mangled frame in an effort to free its passenger. Fear can drive unexpected performance. But, fear can also destroy in a much more sinister way.

We talk a lot about fear in athletics; fear of failure, fear of not being good enough, fear stemming from the past, and fear contemplating the future. Fear sometimes comes into play by what we have done. Other times we fear because of what we have not done. It's possible fear can help us see more clearly, like when we get caught doing something stupid and we panic anticipating the consequences. We are awakened to our own idiocy, much like getting slapped up side of the head. But more times than not, residing fear, in particular, clouds judgement because of loss of perspective. We fret "what ifs" and become mired in potentialities. The result? We go no where fast, paralyzed to take the next step, fearful of the leap to new levels, intimidated by others, and held in place because our tongues are stuck to the frozen pole of unhealthy comparisons. I don't think it has to be this way.

I came across a fascinating TED Talk the other day. Alex Honnold opens the speech by showing a video clip of him climbing El Capitan in Yosemite Park, CA. He is wedged into a narrow split in the vertical wall. He can be seen reaching into his chalk bag to cover his hands in the white powder. But what is not seen is a rope, because there is no rope. 2500 dizzying feet below him is the ground. 500 feet above, the top of this humongous slab of granite. All that holds him to the wall are his well-placed hands and feet. There is neither place nor means to cut the climb short or take a do-over. He is alone. Just him and the wall. One wrong move equaled sure death. I felt my own breathing quicken as I imagined being in his spot. How in the world did he not let fear rule the day?

As I watched his story unfold, I heard him tell of his harrowing solo free climb of equally iconic Half
Dome. At a particularly difficult spot, panic set in. He had doubt whether he could perform the next move necessary to propel him further upward. He had climbed the wall two days prior but with a rope for safety's sake. But now, with the  knowledge that mis-playing that critical move would result in death, he had no recourse but to go for it. He did, and he lived to tell of the successful climb. Still, Honnold spoke of a dissatisfaction even with the accomplishment. He yearned to be a great climber, not a lucky one.

Though he did not free solo for the next two years, he spent seven dreaming about a free solo of El Cap, a 3000-foot wall most people take days to climb while harnessed into a sophisticated rope system. Then for two years he relentlessly prepared. He spent days on end rappelling off the top on a 1000 foot rope, inspecting every potential hand and foot hold and memorizing the thousands of moves that would be necessary. He felt the texture of the rock, visualizing his mindset as he anticipated the epic and ropeless future climb. From the bottom, he rope-climbed with an empty backpack, collecting loose rocks that cluttered many of the cracks. For a full year, he specifically stretched knowing he needed to have optimal flexibility to make the same kind of move he had experienced on Half Dome. Honnold says it was imperative that he "consider every possibility" to eliminate any room for doubt to creep in, because doubt is the precursor of fear. He was meticulous in preparation for his "choreographed dance" up the sheer face of the wall. He was ridiculously faithful in controlling the controllables, and in doing so, fear was conquered as well as that wall. In "achieving mastery" with relentless pursuit of excellence, fear was not even a factor.

The Liberty volleyball team left today for the conference tournament. The women on the basketball team play their first game this evening. The swimmers and divers have a weekend meet in their sites. I wonder if they are ready to face fear head on. Will there be fear in serving what could be the last point of the match? Will a player on the free-throw line be thinking about missing? Will the diver play it safe on the take-off out of fear of over-rotating and creating an embarrassing amount of splash? If they prepared well, fear should not win. If they did not prepare well, all bets are off.

What strikes me profoundly is the fact that fastidious preparation is the most significant deterrent to fear. Sure, there will be some nervousness because nothing is ever guaranteed. But fear? Not if we consider every possibility and leave no room for doubt to creep in. The process is not easy, but it is worth it, even if your life does not actually depend on it.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

The race I did not run

It was the third Saturday in October 1994. As I stood in the dark pondering the day, I was a jumbled mess of nerves gone wild. "Fifty miles? What was I thinking?!?"

But then again, when David Horton, the author of this race through the Blue Ridge, chides you with "Bet you can't run fifty miles," there is no recourse but to prove him wrong.

That was then and this is now. A lot has happened over the years. I've been on the top of the podium, run sub-9 hours, but I've also finished a mere fifteen minutes under the twelve-hour cut-off. I've had twenty finishes and two unfortunate medically-related DNFs. I've run the entire length sweeping the course, nearly getting stranded in Montebello because  everyone had already abandoned the finish line. And then was the time I left Virginia's borders so I would not be tempted to run too soon after extensive feet and ankle surgery. But today I did something very unfamiliar. I drove around the countryside and watched.

Today was all about Hannah Quigg, one of my Jr. Shindigglers. Some years ago, after kids I coached in high school caught the adventure bug and followed me to the mountains in their college years, we formed an unbreakable bond. Together, the five of them and one of me, called ourselves the Shindigglers. Oh how I cherish all the miles we shared, the adventures created, and the honesty and openness the trail seems to produce. We did life together, on and off the rocky, dirt paths we trod.

But now those five have grown up and gone away. Sarah lives in Mexico, is married and has a tiny wee one, a Shindigglet, if you please. Abby joined her beloved in holy matrimony this last summer and works as a critical care nurse in Minnesota. Rebecca is hitched to a preacher. Caroline is in medical school. Kendal lives in Texas and will say "I do" this spring. She, too, is a nurse.

With the original Shindigglers no longer available to hit the trails, I've adopted a small but growing group I call the Jr. Shindigglers. I coached Makena in high school and now as a college student, she is running long and strong. In fact, she ran the four races in the 2017 Lynchburg Ultra Series, including this race of masochistic proportions. And then there is Hannah. A classmate of Makena's, she is one of four Quiggs who called me Coach T, sister to Sarah and Abby. She ran the first three 2017 LUS races, but a week before last year's Masochist, her knee went wonky when playing broom ball on the ice. It took months to heal. So on this fine November day, it was time for the monkey to quit taking a free ride on her back. MMTR 2018 was a 50 mile run for redemption.

The night before the race, I asked Hannah to email crew directions. I know the trail so well I could run from point A to point B with my eyes closed. But drive? I had no idea what roads would get me to one or two aid stations. So with directions and coffee in hand, I set off. It was crisp, the sun shining brightly. The trees shimmered with brilliant golds and yellows, the reds just as fetching. I was constantly wowed at the beauty. I couldn't remember a previous race that rivaled the spectacle. But then again, I was never riding the roads in a car nor hanging at an aid station. I wondered if I had
previously failed to appreciate the finest nature had to offer in the heat of the challenge.

Runners approached the aid station, traveling along the gravel track that parallels a swift, bold stream. I picked Hannah out of the crowd, her running style well known to me. She was cruising along sporting a huge grin. With a hug, a few words of advice, and a quick refuel she was off again.

I ran backwards on the course from the next crew access point. Makena had jumped in to keep her company, making spotting the pair easier than picking out a screaming baby in a Sunday service. Laughter and optimism reigned supreme, even when Hannah participated in an impromptu interview for my cell phone. When we arrived at the aid station it was more advice and encouragement, more food, more progress. The two started up the mountain and I started up the car. Quite the contrast from the last 24 years.

I had plenty of time to socialize at the next three aid stations. Chatter was light and easy with aid workers and spectators. It was getting easier to anticipate Hannah's arrivals because I recognized the runners who ran a few minutes in front of her. But in the quieter moments I projected myself into the race, recalling what it was like to have 30 miles on the legs and 20 more to go. Was I jealous? Hum. "Not sure," I thought as I zipped up my coat and snugged my hood to keep the wind from chilling me to the bone.

The last time I sent Hannah down the trail she was 35 miles into the race. Though still smiling and positive, she was getting tired. Makena's time as a companion runner had come to an end. The last miles were going to be foundational to Hannah's development as an ultrarunner. She needed to set her own pace, find her own limits, and come to understand herself in a whole new way. It was an important fifteen miles in which to embrace suffering, solitude, and sustaining grace.

The clock ticked 11:07 when Hannah Quigg crossed the line, exhausted and beyond happy to bring relentless forward progress to a halt. Sausage-like fingers told the story of fluid shifts and electrolyte imbalances. Reddened skin spoke of the increasing cold and biting wind as the sun dropped below the tree tops. But she smiled. She accomplished the task. She started. She finished. She cemented her role as a second generation Shindiggler.

I could not be happier after a race I did not run.

Goals. Good or bad?

I like going long and solo. It gives me time to think uninterrupted. On this particular fall day, I was perplexed about something and nee...