Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Humility in the Process

There is an old adage that you can’t teach an old dog a new trick.  I don’t know if that is true but I learned that you can teach this old dog a painful lesson in humility.  I often marvel at many of the beautiful things in life so many people never notice.  As an endurance athlete, I am up at 4:00 am every day and when running on the roads by 4:30.  Not only am I at my best in the morning, working out at this time does not interrupt family time and there is a peaceful feeling pounding out twelve miles before the rest of the world is awake. 
I marvel at a star-filled sky on a cold morning and running with a beautiful sunrise is breathtaking. I also am in awe of God’s sense of humor and ability to teach us lessons when we need them the most.
I embarked on my fitness journey in December of 2009 by eating a healthy diet and beginning a running program.  Unlike other things in the past I had managed to stay with my new lifestyle through mid-February.  I was running every other day and had reached a long run of three miles every week. 
Enjoying this new found energy and zest for fitness, I remembered how much I enjoyed biking in my early twenties. I thought adding biking to my current exercise routine would give me some diversity in workouts. It would also allow me to enjoy the beautiful countryside.  Having done my research my bike was ordered and would be ready my mid-March.  I could hardly wait.
I picked up my bike on a Saturday morning after a good three mile run and the plan was to go for my first ride in over twenty years on Sunday after church. That Saturday afternoon May and I decided to take a ride in the car on the six mile loop I would tackle tomorrow. At least I was smart enough to check out what I was getting myself into, and as the story goes, I obviously didn’t pay much attention. 
We headed out in the car with great conversation and enjoying the countryside of our neighborhood.  Four miles into the loop and so far so good, I could tackle this course with intensity and passion with energy left over for a run afterwards.  That was an arrogant and HUGE overestimation on my part…but hey I was in shape now and how hard could it be to get back on a bike and knock out six miles?
I remember driving up the first hill and saw gentlemen well into his golden years pedaling up that hill.  He was laboring but pedaling steady and slowly attacking that small bump in the road some would call a hill. I was even callous enough to comment to May something to the effect….”Come on fella, keep your knees in and get up that hill…it’s not that bad!” 
That probably was not the smartest thing I ever said out loud about anyone and by grace the comments stayed in the car.  As we pulled into the driveway I was excited for my bike ride on Sunday and confident I would knock those six miles out in a matter of minutes….after all I was now in shape.
Sunday afternoon finally arrived and after a light lunch I dressed in my biking gear, got out my brand new Trek Madone and was ready to “assault” that six mile loop.  As I mounted my bike and headed out of the subdivision, I was impressed by just how good my new bike felt.  I imagine a good bike feels a lot like a nice performance automobile, stiff yet soft when needed, fast, powerful and performance oriented.
 For anyone that has ever ridden bikes seriously, you never forget that wonderful feeling of being on a nice bike with the wind in your face.  I was riding down memory lane and at a great rate of speed.  No problem I mused to myself, I am flying, this six miles will be a breeze (I didn’t realize I was riding downhill)…after all I am now in shape!  That was all about to drastically change.
As I made my way to the back side of the Longtown loop, the zest and energy I had for my ride when I left the house was suddenly nowhere to be found.  I was tired, my bottom was sore, and my legs felt like cooked spaghetti that was well past being al-dente.
 I was not in as good of shape as I thought…or wanted to be. “I can do this I kept saying to myself over the harsh sounds of rapid inhalation and exhalations, I can do this.”  The problem was, and I sure didn’t want to face it, I was two and a half miles from home and I had not yet started the hill by Lake Windermere. As I struggled across the bridge into the head wind there it was looming as large and Mount Everest, the hill I so affectionately referred to yesterday as simply a bump. 
It sure didn’t look like a hill from the comfort of my car. The same hill I now realize my fellow biker was so artfully attacking yesterday.  OK, lesson one learned….never find fault with what someone’s performance period. He was 30 years my senior and riding up that hill like gazelle! And as for being in shape, well lesson two learned….no matter how good you feel, you can always improve and keep your ego in check.  Someone once told me to enjoy the process, well I was seriously wondering what joy there was to be found today and I wondered if they had experienced the same thing?  “Keep pedaling, just keep pedaling and this nightmare will soon be over.”
As I started the hill I wasn’t yet half way up and I knew I was in deep trouble.  My breathing had reached an anaerobic state, my heart was about to pound of my chest and it was about to get worse.  My speed was slowing at a rapid rate and I was out of gears!  I was in the easiest gear, and I had twenty-one of them.  As I contemplated my next move I reasoned it was time to get up out of the saddle and climb that hill like a man standing up. 
Remember the spaghetti legs?  I was so tired and my legs so weak, I couldn’t stand up and pedal. I had to sit back down and reassess with half the hill ahead of me.  What an absolute mess.  I managed to scrape a few coherent thoughts together and made a promise to myself that I would NOT get off and walk. I was going to pedal up this hill and make it or I was going to fall over and just lay on the side of the road until someone stopped to help. I only hoped it was not the gentleman I saw riding the hill on Saturday.  Big Foot would have been better! My pride got me into this mess and now I had to pay the price.
I managed all the strength I had and made it up that hill and the little one that immediately follows.  How I did not tip over I have no idea. Had a deputy sheriff been sitting at the top of the hill he would have caught me on the radar going about a quarter mile an hour.  Having survived the hill (it will never be referred to as a bump ever again) I was spent.
There was nothing left in my tank, I couldn’t sit up straight and I was barely moving. A little over a mile to home, it was flat and I had made it. I was out of the danger zone.  Letting a little pride seep back in, little did I know that I had one more adventure to endure. 
In my exhausted state I managed to look to my left and sitting in the yard of a stately home was a huge German Shepard.  As I inched forward I prayed he was on a chain.  The gigantic beast rose to all fours.  “Nope, no chain, great, just great.”  As I crawled along I began to think what it would feel like to get torn to shreds by a majestic creature as this one.  At least it would make for a good story. 

Then something amazing happened.  The dog took four steps towards me and stopped.  He tilted his head as dogs do when they don’t fully understand something and just looked at me for what felt like an eternity.  Then, without so much as a bark, he turned around walked back to the house and sat down.  I was going to make it after all.  I had to laugh as I realized you are really out of shape when a dog doesn’t find any sport in chasing you.  Talk about a humbling moment!
As I rode the last mile home, I recounted my arrogance on Saturday and was thankful to escape the hill and the dog.  I learned many valuable lessons that day. First, never be so cavalier about someone’s performance.  We all are in different places and should help each other and be supportive. I don’t care if it’s your first day of exercise or you have completed several Ironman Triathlons.  Work as a team and support each other. 
Second, take inventory of your fitness, set goals, be humble and realistic on what you can do and enjoy the process. Having survived that ride I started to realize what my friend was trying to tell me.  Be humble and enjoy the process.  Measure your success and growth against no one but yourself.
Since that day I have ridden that hill many times and always attack it no matter what point in the ride I am.  I manage to take a moment and reflect on the lessons I learned.  I have never seen that German Shepard again, but I keep a watchful eye out for him and know that next time I won’t get a reprieve…but I will give him a good game of chase!  Enjoy the process, stay humble and Here is to being fit for a lifetime!

Monday, May 6, 2013

Sometimes Life Has a Strange Way of Getting Your Attention

Sometimes life has a strange way of getting your attention.  It was mid December and I was waiting to see the doctor.  I had a horrible bug of some sort but that was the least of my concerns.  I had been feeling generally bad for most of the year, my cholesterol was way too high and at the age of 43 I felt like I was 70.  As I stepped on the scale the nurse stated my weight to which I replied “you need to check that again! Without breaking even a hint of a smile she replied “you need to stop eating so much!” 
WOW, I don’t know what was worse; the fact that I had gained over 30 unwanted, donut laden pounds or that someone gave it to me straight!  Merry Christmas I thought to myself on the way to the pharmacy to pick up an assortment of “wonder” drugs and of course a soda, candy bar and box of Mike and Ike’s.
Fast forward to Christmas Day. I have always loved giving at the Holidays and of course receiving gifts is fun as well.  I was laying on our couch thinking about the year and how even though my cold was gone, I still felt absolutely awful.  I realized the best gift I received that Christmas came from my doctor that fateful day as I tipped the scales to new weights.
He simply stated that if I did not make changes to my life, I would end up like my father!  My dad died of a heart attack at age 47 after gaining thirty pounds and letting his cholesterol rage out of control.  I was fast becoming a chip off the old block in ways I certainly didn’t like and I am sure he wouldn’t either.  I was 43, May and I were trying to have a baby and I was a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.  I certainly didn’t want to leave my family early like dad left us.
With stark clarity, I recalled having a decision to make.  I could choose the path my father took and be dead in a few years, or I could take control of my life and make the most of the precious gift God had given me. The decision was made, it was time to get serious and get into shape! Now I just needed to decide how to get into shape. I enjoyed that Christmas Day to its fullest, tomorrow would be a new, and healthy beginning for the rest of my life.
The plan was simple.  First I would implement changes to my diet and second I would run two miles.  This was an interesting choice for me in that I never like to run as child or as a young adult, yet the lure of a marathon was always in the back of my mind. I had run before, but never more than two or three miles at a time and that was mostly as a means to lose weight for wrestling in high school.  I had also dabbled with some running in my twenties but nothing substantial.  Strange bedfellows at that but the lure of running had finally caught up with me and no better time that now to commitment to running as a means to fitness. 
Running two miles would be easy and a great start, or so I thought!  I went to bed that night with a nervous anxiousness that was scary yet exciting.  I thought to myself….”What have I done?  Can, or better yet, will I really do this?  What if the weather is bad? It’s still the holidays, etc.  No, no more excuses, there is no time like the present to start a new beginning.
As sure as I was out of shape, the sun came up the next morning and it was time to face my new beginning.  The choice was made, now I just had to do it. I managed to assemble some workout clothes, a six year old pair or running shoes that were used to mow the yard and headed out the door for my first two mile run in over twenty years.  The day was sunny and cold and I set off on my run with the nervous energy of a child leaving the house for her first day of school. 
I learned quickly just how out of shape I was.  I managed to finish the two miles in just over forty minutes.  It wasn’t fast, it wasn’t pretty, I could hardly breath and my legs felt like overcooked spaghetti but I DID IT!  I ran two miles and the burning in my legs and lungs felt incredible.  Tired, sore and completely energized, I rewarded myself with a healthy bowl of oatmeal and some whole wheat toast….the breakfast of champions.
 As I finished my breakfast I could not help but be proud of what I had just accomplished.  I had not won the Boston Marathon or the Hawaii Ironman, but I felt like I had!  I set a goal and I achieved it.  I had to chuckle out loud when I realized while running I imagined I looked like  Frank Shorter or triathlete Craig Alexander, when in all actuality I  looked like Elmer Fudd wrestling a small raccoon on the side of the road…and I don’t have to tell you who was winning.  
I was a champion none the less and reveled in the moment.  I realized that eating better and running was not the hard part, the hard part happened on Christmas Day when I made the decision to make changes in my life, the rest was a formality.
 I reaffirmed the commitment I had made to myself and could hardly wait for tomorrow to get here so I could do it all over again.  One day a habit does not make, but YOU will never make a habit without day one!  As I continued running that winter, the lure of the marathon kept calling. I decided in February to do the Walt Disney World Half Marathon the following January.  With my training plan in hand, I set off on a quest to do something I had never thought I could do.  Although I would not have to officially start the training plan until late fall, in July I found myself able to run four miles at a time. As an individual driven by challenges and goals, while celebrating the July 4th holiday, I decided to go for it and upgrade my entry to run the Walt Disney World Marathon.  I had no idea if I could do it and was entering uncharted waters.  My legs felt like overcooked spaghetti after that first two miles how was I going to run 26.2? Never the less, I trusted where there is a will there is a way.
As my training journey continued, I remember some key milestones and the overwhelming sense of accomplishment with each. The first memorable mark was my first six miles. Upon completion I was standing in my driveway, bent over in complete exhaustion but reveling in what I had done.  I had just run six miles!  “WOW, that is a long way,” I mused to myself.  I also learned how wonderful and supportive the running community is.  My neighbor was on her way to work and stopped and asked how far I went.  “I just knocked out a very long six miles, man that is a long way” I said to her with proud bravado!  She smiled and said, “Awesome job, keep after it.  You are doing great!” Little did I know at the time she had completed several marathons and three Ironman triathlons so six miles as nothing but a warm up to her. How gracious to let me enjoy my moment.
One other highly memorable milestone was my first 22 mile run.  It was the week of Thanksgiving and we were spending time with family in Durant, Mississippi.  The plan was the Friday after the Thanksgiving feast, to travel to the Natchez Trace Parkway and complete my long run in this very scenic National Park.  As fate would have it, I learned that you can’t run a marathon without at least one long run in miserable weather and miserable it was.  The weather had been in the mid 70’s all week so I was looking forward to a nice and pleasant run.  On Friday I awoke with the same anxious energy I had the day I ran my first two miles and was greeted by rain, 15 mile per hour wind and 35 degrees!  Yuck!  I was not thrilled at the prospect of running in these less than ideal conditions but I had made the commitment and we headed out to tackle the Trace.

The plan was for May to meet me at mile 13 with food and water and then meet me again at the twenty-two mile mark.  As I started that day, of course I chose the wrong direction and was running straight into the wind. Too late to change now as May had left and I forgot to take my phone.  At mile 13, I was met with food and water and decided to just keep moving in the same direction, wind or not. If nothing else it would make for a good story someday, if not a trip to my therapists (massage and psychological) would be in order. 
The last 13 miles seemed to take an eternity.  I was cold and wet.  The music on my iPod was nothing but noise and my legs got ever closer with each step back to over cooked spaghetti. What was also irritating in my pained state is that every mile on the Natchez Trace is marked with a nice wooden mile marker with bold white numbers, a painful reminder every 5,280 feet of just how miserable I was and how far I still had to go.  Not starting at mile one I had some math to do and even that simple task became labor some, well at least it killed a few more seconds or even minutes.  Mile 18, mile 19, mile 20 and finally beautiful mile 21.  “OK, one mile to go. Oh please God let this pain end soon” I said to myself over and over.  All I wanted to see was my beautiful wife May in our nice red, warm and dry Audi waiting for me at mile 22.  Had it been warm and nice I am sure I would have been walking but as nasty as Mother Nature was, I kept running so I could end the pain more quickly. 
As I ran (or something vaguely similar to it at that point) around the sweeping curve of mile 21, there it was my mile marker 22!  “Oh glory, 22 miles completed, but wait, where was May? “ No May, no Audi.  “Crap” I said out loud almost in tears. I could not run another step and there I was cold, wet, tired and spent on the side of the road in nowhere Mississippi. Maybe I would become a Thanksgiving feast for some wild turkeys, after all wouldn’t that be ironic?  Nearly broken and staring straight ahead, the rain let up slightly and I could see May off in the distance about a quarter mile parked in a driveway waiting for me as promised.  I had had enough, the cavalry was near and I sat down on the side of the road resting on that wonderful yet evil mile marker, not willing to take one more step.  As I waited for my ride, I thought to myself “how in the world will I EVER be able to run another four miles?”  But that would have to be answered another day. 
I thought back to that first two mile run and realized I felt the EXACT same way today, but with one difference, I had just run 20 miles further.  Reflecting on what I had accomplished, a non-runner that never like running, just completed a 22 mile run.  As tears of pride and accomplishment filled my eyes, I had all I could do to stand and get in the car.  “Get up” I said to myself. “You just ran your first 22 miles; walking ten more feet won’t kill you.”  May was a beautiful as ever; the car was warm, dry and stocked with food. I really didn’t care where we went or how long it would take to get there, I just wanted to enjoy this moment.  For the first time since I committed to running the Disney World Marathon, I thought maybe, just maybe I could finish the race and if I could do it in four hours and thirty minutes, that would be an added bonus.
Fast forward to January and the marathon.  Thirty pounds lighter, normal cholesterol levels and a much better mental state, I crossed the finish line of the Walt Disney World Marathon in three hours, fifty-nine minutes and thirty-seven seconds, thirty minutes ahead of my goal! Strangely enough, I never looked at my watch until mile 26 and realized I had three minutes to run a sub four hour race.  “Oh man, I just have to beat four hours or I will never be able to live with myself” I said silently between hurried and shallow gasps.
I recall with stark clarity clenching my teeth and running as fast as I could to beat the hallowed four hour mark. I made the last right hand turn and there it was the most beautiful finish line I have ever seen.  Of course I had only seen one but if they had two people holding string and nothing more it would have been just as beautiful.  With thousands of folks cheering and adrenalin rushing through my veins, I felt as though I was Usain Bolt running that last tenth of a mile, head back, knees high, long and graceful strides. Happy to finish and doing so in just under four hours it could not get any better than that!  Today I’m still not for sure what I was happier about, finishing well or just finishing.
Having come in just under four hours, all I could do during the six hour ride back to Columbia was tell my May and my mother in law just how fast I ran that last two tenths of a mile.  “I was flying” I said over and over to my captive audience.  On Monday I received an email from the race with my results and a nice added surprise, a video clip of my running across the finish line.  I shouted for May and Martha Jo to come quickly and share one last time my incredible, sprint filled finish.  With an anxious click of the mouse I started that video with May and my Martha Jo once again a captive audience so they could now see what they had heard for six hours the day before.  As the video started, there I was barely lifting my feet above the ground, my head leaning to my right, arms barely swinging and moving slower than a turtle crossing the road.  With her fun loving wit May simply stated, “You don’t look like you are flying” she said with a loving smile.  “Well it felt like it after 26 miles!” I shouted….and we all sat back and had a good laugh.  Yes I had run a marathon but learned a lesson in humility as well.
I still did not look like Frank Shorter or Craig Alexander but I wasn’t Elmer Fudd either!  I was me, happy to be alive and in the best shape of my life. As I started that race, I thanked God for giving me the ability, discipline and motivation to change my life but I also realized one other very important thing,   enjoy the journey and the process.
The race was merely a formality, the real success came from enduring the process of setting, working towards and reaching a set of goals.  I was hooked and I changed my life for the better. For me, getting in shape took the form of running a marathon and other assorted endurance goals.  But that is me; the beautiful thing about getting into shape is you make it what YOU want it to be and the motivations and direction will be different for everyone.  It’s YOUR life, YOU take control of it.  I can tell you that the running community is incredibly supportive and there is no feeling like running a marathon.  I strong encourage anyone to give it a try.
I have enjoyed sharing my story with you and hope it made you laugh and inspired you at the same time. I am in the best shape of my life at age 47 due to running and you can do the same thing, regardless of where you may find yourself. Since that Marathon I have run countless half marathons and the Goof Challenge at Disney. As of this writing I am preparing to run the Goofy Challenge for the second time and preparing for my first 50 mile ultra-marathon in July and two Ironman 70.3 events in July and August.  Running has given me a new life, confidence, humility and a lot of new friends.  If I can do it, you can too!  Good luck and I hope to see you at the starting line or better yet, the finish line!