Monday, December 23, 2019

A tale of two races

This is a tale of two races. One for me. One for her. Both 100ks (and a little more) but both very different kind of races.

Dec. 7, 2019 was a test. It was something I had to do. Alone. I had only started one race since completing my 20th Mountain Masochist race in Nov. 2017. I failed miserably seeking an 11th finish at the incredibly challenging Hellgate 100K in December of 2018. In those two years, an injury post-MMTR kept me from running. Caring for a dying father-in-law in our home added to stress. When I did begin to run, it was like going nowhere fast. I felt like my engine was equipped with a governor set at the lowest speed possible. Then in February of this year, I was nearly killed when a piece of equipment fell on me, breaking my shoulder in three places, gashing my arm, and dealing a non-fatal blow to my head.

When a screening cardiac CT test came back positive for heart disease, late July of 2019 found me sharing my story with a cardiologist. That Friday visit landed me on the cath table first thing Monday morning, waking up from that procedure with a stent in the left anterior descending coronary artery. So then it was cardiac rehab and a new opportunity to chase fitness.

After weeks of hard work, I was pleasantly surprised that I could often run up hills without walking. Whoa. I hadn't been able to do that in a very long time. Trips to the mountains began to fill my calendar and dreams of completing more ultras spawned in the muddy muck of making fitness gains. The Devil Dog races up near DC came at a good time with two options; 100k or 100 miles. I felt I displayed considerable self control when I checked the 100K box as my re-entry into raceworld. So it was set. December 7 would be my test. My confidence builder - assuming I was not asking my heart to do more than it was capable.

So while the Devil Dog 100K would be my race, the Hellgate 100K (more like 66.6 miles) would be her race. "Her" is Hannah Quigg, younger sister of two of the original Shindigglers, Sarah and Abby. Hence, Hannah is a Shindiggler Jr.. Hannah had completed a number of 50Ks and a 50 miler in her young life as a college student. Being the have-no-fear type, she wandered into my office one day to ask if Hellgate was a good idea. "If Horton will let you in, go for it" I replied. Thus began 1 a.m. start training runs to know what it was like to run through the night and see the sun come up. Complicated training runs involving hopscotching cars at the start and end of the run and shuttling back and forth were included in our training itineraries. On race day, Hannah would run. I would crew one week after my test race.

The two races are as different as night and day. Devil Dog is run almost entirely on single track; the terrain quite runnable though there are rocky and rooty sections. A 23-mile loop is followed by two 19-ish mile loops. Run in the Prince William National Forest, it is hardly remote. Sirens and motorcycle vrooms can often be heard. Still, creekside running is idyllic and the open forest pleasant enough. Though there are some rolling hills, no mountain peaks rear their ugly heads. Instead, the trail beckons the contestant to actually run, or at least saunter. The trail is far removed from her sinister cousin, Hellgate.

Hellgate fights you from the start, delivering one after another bare-fisted punches until you are black, blue, and bleeding. Relentless, miles-long climbs on gravel roads, punishing descents, off camber-technical trail, and rocks hidden by mounds of leaves dominate the course, all in a sleep-deprived state given the one minute after midnight start. It is not a race for the tender-hearted. Suffering is inevitable though the extent of pain and misery is up for grabs. Weather conditions are most often brutal, adding to the challenge of staying the course and crossing the finish line.

What follows is a comparison of our experiences in the context of each third of the race. As you will see, my race would prove calmer, perhaps even wimpy and insignificant by comparison. Hannah's race, on the other hand, was nothing less than epic.

Devil Dog: I rolled out of bed around 5 a.m. Taking advantage of a cabin stay less than 150 yards from the start line was more than convenient. My normal pre-race prep was accomplished without fanfare or conversation. No idle chatter. No nervous jitters. Just preparation that had become mechanical after years of racing. My goal was to be steady and solid, explore the dynamics of endurance as the miles piled up, and complete the 62-mile distance without mishap. It was only a test, albeit an important one.

I had probably voiced but a few scant sentences since arriving the evening before. I did not know anyone and chose to stay to myself. The same proved true at the start and for the first 18 miles. Even with 200 runners responding to the start gun, I quietly found a comfortable spot in the long conga line dancing its way along the twisty, turny single track. The pace was easy though there was little opportunity to slow down or speed up given the narrowness of the trail. Once dawn broke, the hardwood forest was bathed in sunlight, making the dry but wintry temps bearable. I was alone with my thoughts, though surrounded by many runners.

Finally, at around mile 18, I could finally breath in the crisp and welcomed air of solitude. Gliding along the trails, I was happy and content, marveling that with all the actual running, my legs had yet to protest. Miles between the two aid stations seemed long and yet, the start/finish line with it's well-stocked aid station eventually came into view. The first 23 miles were completed in 4:56. Not speedy, yet not too embarrassing-especially for a 62-year old grandma. I sat for a moment in the well-equipped pavilion, changed socks that just didn't feel "right," restocked, and headed off again for round two. I sauntered without suffering.

Hellgate: The weather predictions for Hellgate were horrible --and accurate. Temps in the 30s, rain, freezing rain, icy roads, and Blue Ridge Parkway closures. Milling around in the darkness at the start, Hannah seemed to embrace the challenge. She was dressed appropriately, carried options for more warmth in her pack, and had prior training run experience to know what lay in her future. As rain fell, we sent her off among the crowd as the dial on race director David Horton's watch struck 12:01 a.m.. Hannah was smiling as her journey began.

I, along with Shindiggler Jr, Makena Bonheim, drove up the long, steep mountain to the first access point for crews. The rain was falling harder and temps had dropped. Still, in very good time, our runner with bib number 112, ran into the soft glow of the aid station lights. She was wet but not terribly cold, the strenuous climb upping her body temp. Now she was faced with technical, wet, slippery, rock-strewn trail, followed by miles climbing on gravel road before reaching the next aid station. Without crew access there, about 8 or 9 miles, predominately up, stood between her and the aid station moved down two miles off the parkway. Another six miles from there would have to be conquered before seeing her crew at Jennings Creek. Still, Hannah smiled as she turned her back on us and ran further into the dark and dreary night.

With hours before intersecting with our runner was possible, Makena and I parked at Jennings Creek and created a make-shift bed in the back of my Jeep Cherokee. I felt guilty fading off into slumber while the rain beat down on the roof with increasing intensity. What a night to be tromping through the woods! As the very first hints of dawn appeared, here came Hannah.
Looking much like a drowned puppy, she surrendered to our tugging and pulling in an effort to get her warm and dry. Still, she told us about hooking up with Darin Dunham, a guy who was going for his 17th finish in as many years. The time passed quickly but the fact remained; Hannah was freezing cold, her hands so numb as to be worthless. It's no doubt her positive attitude helped her complete her first third (plus a few miles) in as good of shape as any.

Devil Dog: I began the second loop, looking forward to more solitude, more time for personal reflection, and uninterrupted time to assess and make any necessary running, fluid, and/or nutrition adjustments. But the most carefully laid plans often go awry. Unexpectedly, I found myself falling in
step with a guy who commented on the Hellgate socks I was wearing, and his newly found side kick, a woman attempting her first 100 mile finish. He had finished Hellgate last year as the final race in the Beast Series. Nate, Jennifer and I began a pleasant conversation on a variety of topics that lasted for miles and miles. When Nate finally matched pace with a runner who was slightly faster, Jennifer and I dove headlong into significant topics. As a mom of three, a GYN oncologist surgeon, an author, and CEO of a non-profit living in Beverly Hills, we had a lot to discuss! Together we ran, hiked a few hills, and sucked most of the oxygen from the forest's atmosphere by our constant chatter. As we ended our first 42 miles, we were delighted to have shared a bit shy of six hours together.

Hellgate: When we left Hannah in the pouring down rain at the Jennings Creek aid station (about 29 miles), we would not be able to see her again until Bearwallow Aid Station, supposedly 42 miles into the race but likely more like 46. After a harrowing drive up a mountain road that already held captive two aid station vehicles in its icy clutches, we refreshed ourselves with a Burger King breakfast. I again felt twangs of guilt sitting in dry, warm comfort while eating a nice hot meal. We could only surmise the extent of Hannah's suffering. Despite her great attitude last we saw her, suffering would surely be inevitable.

Makena and I chatted with other crews around a compact campfire lit by the aid station (AS) workers.As we waited, the rain began to abate around 9:30 or 10 a.m., blue skies occasionally teasing everyone before being covered again by clouds. At about 11:30 a.m. Hannah made a slow approach to the tent. Gone was her smile and effervescent self. Somewhere along the Devil Trail that she had just traversed, a demon must have snagged her soul. She was weary and worn. Tired and downtrodden. Her expression clearly denoted doubt and trepidation. "How am I going to do twenty more miles?" was the unspoken question.

While she nibbled at a portion of a grilled hamburger, we decided Makena would pace her the last 20 miles. Hannah needed the emotional support that only a best friend could offer. As I watched them make their way up the mountain, I could not help compare what lay ahead in their last third of the race compared to what I faced a week prior.

Devil Dog: It was a little shy of 4 p.m. when I finished my second lap. With 19 miles remaining, I inwardly predicted another six hours until I could hit the showers and crawl into my bunk. With the sun descending on the horizon and crystal clear skies, an impending big chill threatened. After downing broth and a grilled cheese sandwich, I made sure I had my waist light, an extra battery, and a backup light before venturing from the well-stocked aid station. I was alone again, Jennifer heading out before me, spurred on by the fact that she had three more loops to complete for the 100-mile distance.

Unlike the stampede of the first loop, there was no need to keep pace with other runners because there were no runners around. Occasionally, I would pass someone or someone would pass me. However, most of the time it was without comment, save the ever-popular "Good job." Sections I had twice covered earlier in the day seemed to grow in length, landmarks growing increasingly difficult to identify.

I soon pulled my jacket from my pack, snugged up the zipper on my top, and turned on my light. The dusky evening hours had given in to the darkness, and the darkness to falling temps. Though I now ran and hiked intermittently, I felt I was making steady progress, howbeit slowly. I embraced the darkness and the solitude that came with it. I passed the first aid station, thanking them for their tireless work. Then it was more of the same until after what seemed like an eternity, I arrived at the 55.5 mile mark and the second aid station. Hot broth hit the spot now that the temps had fallen into the low 20s. I asked for help to change the battery on my main light, confident that the new battery would light the rest of the way. Then off I went, looking forward to clicking off the final miles of this race.

I was hiking quickly now for the most part, having lost interest in actual running. On a particularly technical section, I unexpectedly found myself in the dark. The new battery decided to give up the ghost. I flicked on the back up light. It's beam blinked and then quickly died. "What?!?! You gotta be kidding me!" Since the first battery for the main light was not dead when I changed it out, I fumbled around and put it back in the light, praying there was enough juice left for the remaining 45 minutes to an hour of the journey. I was relieved when it's light pierced the darkness, but dismayed when almost immediately, it flashed three short bursts, a warning that the battery was about to run out. My prayers became fervent, asking God to miraculously let the light shine on. I tried running by orange-hued moonlight, but under tree cover and on rocky single track, it was very difficult. My pace certainly quickened, and out loud prayers ascended each time the light blinked it's warning signal.

Finally, I crossed the final bridge, managed the last hill, drawn to the top by the finish banner. Without fanfare, I announced to the workers that my three loops were complete. The timing chip was removed from my shoe, and I was handed an award. My time was 16:08. I was the 9th woman and 37th out of the eventual 93 finishers. My race ended as unremarkably as it had begun. Though I grew weary, the suffer-meter never really pegged. I had accomplished what I intended: 62 miles covered without any major mishaps. I walked to the cabin, got showered, and took my place in my bunk. I had finished, but honestly, it didn't feel like much of an accomplishment.

Hellgate: By stark contrast, Hannah and Makena had a very different last third. A tough climb marked the beginning, miles of relentless single-track followed. They ran when they could run and hiked when necessary. I walked a half mile down the trail to meet them as they approached the Bobblits Gap aid station. Hannah looked whipped but happier than before. With 15 miles to go, I
helped her restock her pack, reminded her of what was coming up, and sent the two of them on their way. They now faced the infamous Forever section, an arguable eight miles of up, down, and all round trail. I predicted they would be on the move for two hours before meeting them at the last aid station.

Sure enough, they emerged from the trail at precisely two hours. Hannah looked much more upbeat, although she was a bit wobbly as I sent her off on the final six miles. "3 up. 3 down." I felt like an emotional mama, tearing up as we both realized the enormity of what was soon to be accomplished. There was no doubt Hannah Quigg was going to finish.

And finish she did. With nothing left in the tank, she gingerly ran up the incline to the finish. She was totally spent. She had been on her swollen, battered feet for 17 hours and 9 minutes, enduring horrendous conditions, and overcoming the desire to stop the suffering prematurely. Her mother, sister Abby, and Makena and I looked on as she ran into the congratulatory arms of race director David Horton. At the age of 22, she had accomplished what few even dare to imagine. She was an official Hellgate finisher.

Devil Dog was my race and Hellgate hers. Both served a purpose. Both instructed. But hers is the race to loudly applaud. Congratulations, Hannah, on the massive accomplishment! This TrailMama is so proud of you!

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!

A walk in the park and a pink finish line

By the time I finish most races, I've figured out at least the first paragraph of my post-race story. This was one of the few where the ...