Race Sherpa Rises

Race Sherpa Rises

Monday, October 26, 2015

Thoughts From Inside the Tube, Words That Should Not Be Spoken, and a Timely Visit

Every day I try to find ways to fully engage the moment I am currently experiencing. I fail quite often, but life events provide an opportunity to focus more intently. Going to the Med Center on Friday was one of those opportunities for me.

Yes, I was going there to have a test done to determine whether I am going to have to have a 12-14 hour surgery, a 7-10 day hospital stay, and (at least) a three month recovery. But I decided that I was going to engage and interact with every single hospital employee with full eye contact, attention, openness, kindness, and humor (if appropriate). It is such a great practice, and the outcomes serve both parties; me, because it keeps me grounded in the moment and in contact with fellow humans I am sharing the moment with, and the other person, because I am completely engaged and giving them my full attention (as oppose to being caught up in my own thoughts).

It actually went very well, for the most part. The most difficult interactions to sustain that type of mental focus are the ones we have with people we already know, probably because of how easy it is to default to previously conditioned patterns (perhaps making it the most difficult practice of all).

Anyway, as I mentioned in my Facebook post, I am not one who is prone to claustrophobia, but for some reason, my first 15-20 seconds in the MRI tube was a little sketchy. I'm not sure what triggered it, beyond the fact that I was being stuffed in to a small, confined space, of course.

I had decided to not make the situation any worse by leaving my eyes open, so I closed them as soon as I started to go inside. There was something about the tight fit, the position of my arms, the big plate that was strapped on top of me, the fact that my headphones slightly yanked off at the last second, and that my hospital gown slid up tightly against my neck, that created a perfect storm of momentary uncomfortableness. Regardless of all of that, however, we all know that it is really our thoughts that doom us. We start thinking and imaging scenarios that make the situation worse. (It's not surprising that this happens inside the MRI tube, because it's the same thing that happens to us in every day life.)

At any rate, I was able to push those crazy thoughts aside, and within 20-30 seconds I settled in and everything was fine.

In addition to being in a confined space, I was also given the instruction to not breathe deeply. First of all, I am a slow, deep breather, so that is already not easy (or fun) for me. Secondly, deep breathing is a great technique for people to use to stay calm. Telling someone who just got stuck in to a narrow tube, with a big plate strapped to their chest, to breath very shallow is not a comforting strategy, especially for someone who is having a hard time being in there in the first place. But, I understand that that is what they need to get good images.

While the total time of the MRI was about 90 minutes, they pulled me out a couple of times for some brief adjustments. Pelvis, abdomen, add contrast, continue abdomen, back to pelvis.

Finally, the tech announced through my headset that we were done. A few seconds later I heard the door to the room open and I decided that would be a good time to open my eyes and take in the full experience of the MRI tube. I laughed to myself immediately.

To my surprise, I had been pushed so far in to the tube that my head was almost sticking out the other end, meaning the super tight confines that I had been imagining (and that I had to pass through to go in) wasn't nearly as bad as my imagination had made it out to be. In fact, seeing the open space of the room so close to the top of my head totally re-framed the situation for me.

So, as mentioned above, there is this thing that I do...

I try to use daily experiences as opportunities for self-improvement. Sometimes these experiences are pretty obvious; getting angry with an aggressive driver, saying something that I later wish I hadn't, not paying full attention to someone I should be, etc...

But sometimes I search the metaphors for the lessons. It's like my own personal I Ching, but with way more than 64 possible hexagrams.

When you think about the uncomfortable experience that some people have when having an MRI, it's easy to understand why many would choose to close their eyes. Having their eyes open is a constant reminder of the confined space, and that visual data can easily add to the sense of panic. Closing one's eyes, however, not only eliminates the visual feedback of the immediate situation, but it allows one to mentally create a more preferable scenario; one that might help in their managing of the situation.

While imagining that you are not in the tube, or in some other uncomfortable situation, might not be "real," it is extremely functional. (Someday I am going to write an entire entry on this idea of real/true vs functional.) It is clearly a very useful strategy.

However, in my particular situation, it turned out that I was pushed so far through the narrow section that my head was almost near the opening. I just didn't know it until I opened my eyes right before they pulled me out. Eliminating the visual input (by closing my eyes) removed the opportunity to see a more favorable situation (my head was almost out of the other end of the tube).

Not long after this experience my mind started working through the metaphors, because, as I mentioned, that's just kind of what I do.

Creating a more desirable, and functional, re-frame by "closing one's eyes" to a situation can be an appropriate and useful strategy at times. It's less about "denial" and more about a temporary coping mechanism.

At the same time, giving yourself the chance to see the full context of the situation might be enough re-frame to get you through it. In this case, the re-frame was based on the reality of the situation (my head was near the opening of the tube), as opposed to the perceived/imagined situation (that my whole body was confined inside the narrow tube).

How might this apply to strategies I use in my own life? That is my own personal roll of the I Ching. What is more important is how might those principles apply to you?

The point of all of this rambling is that you can use this technique of evaluating life situations to learn and inform future behaviors. It's not just about being in an MRI tube.

In other words, every single day life presents us with these types of opportunities to wake up and evolve a little bit more, whether it comes in the form of something explicit or whether you have to discover and extrapolate the metaphor.

To me, it is a living, breathing, fully-engaged "meditation practice." One that is certainly worth trying.

A number of weeks ago I was talking about my disease with someone and I said, "It's so bizarre to think about possibly needing this massive surgery when I am asymptomatic for the disease." And the moment I said it, a little voice in the back of my head said "Don't say that out loud, you might make it happen."

I found myself using that same language a number of more times in the next few weeks, and each time I thought to myself "I hope you don't regret saying that."

The words that should not be spoken. :)

Superstitious? Absolutely. And yet, I'm sure we've all had the experience of saying something and then having it almost immediately come true. (I know, I know...confirmation bias. Blah blah. Labeling it as something isn't always the whole story, although it is a convenient way to dismiss it.)

I mention this because while I have been asymptomatic this whole time, last Monday I started to notice stuff seemingly out of nowhere. Mostly just pressure in my abdomen, specifically around my diaphragm. Since then I have been like, "Dude, seriously? I am feeling all of this stuff all of the sudden?"

Of course, I can't attribute the feelings to anything for certain. They could be a result of the disease. They could be unrelated. Maybe it's the food I eat when I am back in Nebraska.

Still, I will choose my words more carefully from here on out. :)

As a quick aside, on Sunday a cousin of mine who I probably haven't spoken to in 15, 20, 25 years showed up at my parents house. We talked for an hour or so. Until he brought it up, I had totally forgotten that he had been shot in the abdomen and had to have a pretty intensive abdominal surgery, including removal, resection, etc. What are the odds that that conversation would happen right at this point in time? Strange.

This afternoon I meet with Dr. Foster. I imagine we will go over the MRI results and then he will give me his plan. At that point, the probability waves of possible paths will collapse down to just a couple of options.

It will be a Schrodinger's cat type of afternoon.

Friday, October 23, 2015

Fear, 90 Minutes in the Tube, and the New Normal

Way back, when I first started this blog, a few people asked me about fear.

If you have been following along, you already know how I feel about indulging fear of a potential future scenario. And emotionally, I can say that I don't venture in to that realm.

But if you asked me what potential fears I have on a cognitive level, if I allow myself to wander in to that mental landscape, there is one thing that sticks out. I mean, yes, the pain and the discomfort of the recovery from such a major surgery is not something to ignore, but it's the future me that I wonder about.

While I have been athletic my entire life, it is fortunate that I don't solely identify with that quality as "me." Like all of us, we are so many things; each aspect potentially as worthy as the next. But being physical and athletic has always been a big part of my life, and I would be lying if I said I would not mourn the loss of that.

The fact is, if I have this surgery, I don't know what my future physical self looks like.

To some degree, the loss has already occurred. I have mentioned my on-going breathing issue a number of times, but I haven't spent much time describing the loss of strength and the fatigue that also set in back in 2013. It might have started even earlier, but by 2013 it had become obvious.

All of my lifts were much lower, and I would tire easily and quickly from workouts. I remember one day I hung a rope up in the backyard for Rose to practice on. To make sure it was secure, I grabbed on to it to pull myself up and found that I couldn't even get myself off the ground. Just a couple of years before I was able to hand over hand climb a rope in our gym, so I knew something was wrong.

In addition, even though I can still do 12-15 slow, controlled, full range of motion pull-ups, I can't dead hang by one hand from a bar.

My bench, my squat, my deadlift...all of the numbers are much lower than they used to be. And, of course, because of my breathing issue, my running times are not so great.

So I guess, in some way, I have gotten accustomed to it, even though in the back of my mind I have been waiting for the opportunity to turn it around. Biding my time for the great resurrection.

But what does the future really look like? I don't know. And I don't know that I have a way of accurately predicting it. I don't even know if this disease is the actual cause of it. But whether it is or not, the question is how well does one recover from this surgery.

I am scheduled to have an MRI this afternoon at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. It will be 90+ minutes in the tube, and I am thankful that I am not prone to feeling claustrophobic. I already have lots of visualization planned. :)

On Monday, I have an appointment with another surgeon; Dr Jason Foster of UNMC. Having already gotten the opinion of Dr Even Ong at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, my appointment with Dr. Foster will shine a lot of light on how I move forward. The time for alternatives and options will narrow down to but a few.

So, I guess we will see....

Until then, there is a whole weekend to live "normally." No, wait....why normally? How about extraordinarily?

Or even better, make extraordinarily the new normal. Why not? What's the alternative? :)

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

The Mountains are the Terrain of My Soul

I have loved Colorado for as long as I can remember.

My family vacationed there when I was younger, and I always felt the inclination to return there, permanently, as an adult. It is no coincidence that when I left my corporate job in 1992, I went straight to Colorado.

It was on that visit that I dubbed Colorado my "spiritual home." I had been there many, many times before, but that trip was different. Unlike the fun summer vacations of childhood, it was a time of deep reflection. A time of questioning what life was all about, and what part I was going to play in it going forward. Those questions began in Dallas, at my corporate job, which is primarily why I left in the first place.

I remember that for fun I decided to play a John Denver CD in my Jeep, over and over, and the line "He was born in the summer of his twenty-seventh year, coming home to a place he'd never been before," from his song Rocky Mountain High, resonated strongly with me. I was almost 26, and that was exactly how I felt; like I was born again, home, and exactly where I needed to be.

To write about that time now would steal the focus away from my time spent there this summer, which is the primary purpose of this blog. For now, it's only important to know how strongly Colorado resonates with me.

While it is true that our primary reason for going to Colorado this summer was so that Rose could live and train at altitude to prepare for the Spartan Race World Championships, I had my own agenda. I was given 6-8 weeks to put off my surgery, and spending them in the place that feeds my soul the most was the best possible way of using that time.

I don't know what it is about a place that makes us feel that way. I am more apt to believe that it is actually (and always) an internal space that leads to that "I am home" kind of feeling, and that certain external places are better at providing the fertile ground needed for us to make that connection. Whatever the source of resonance, the mountains themselves, or the conditions that they provide, being there is a real source of joy and power for me.

On the weekend that Rose was racing at BattleFrog in Lake Geneva, I did a fast push up to Pikes Peak via the Crags Trailhead and Devil's Playground. This is the "short and steep" way to the summit (as compared to Barr Trail), and much, if not most, of the trail is above tree line. I went up by myself that day, and ran in to almost no one along the way. The few that I did see were on their way back down as I was heading up.

The next day I tried to explain to John Yatsko in an email the feeling I get when I'm up on a massive mountain like Pikes Peak, above the tree line, approaching the ridge line, and being the only person around. I am tempted to use the word "awe," but that doesn't convey the full fabric of my emotional content. A better word might be "vulnerable" or "exposed." It's as if I can feel the electricity in the air; the power of the atmosphere; and I sense and understand that it is way more powerful than myself.

It is equally interesting to me that the moment I near contact with others (when you crest the ridge line on this trail you can see the highway that goes to the summit of Pikes Peak), my focus almost immediately shifts away from that mental space. As if it is too uncomfortable to remain there. It reminds me of the lines in Rilke's Duino Elegies:

Who, if I cried out, would hear me among the angels' hierarchies?
and even if one of them pressed me suddenly against his heart:
I would be consumed in that overwhelming existence.
For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
Every angel is terrifying.

Between joy and wonder and awe and vulnerable, so went my life in Colorado. I did virtually no real strength training (which, to be honest, felt kind of nice), but I hiked or ran almost every single day....much of the time with Rose. The trails and mountains are just too enticing to pass up. They are like a jar of cookies sitting out on a counter that you can easily reach. Why wouldn't you?

My ongoing (now 2+ year) breathing issues were always present, but not so badly that they stopped me from doing anything. I just needed to do everything a little slower than normal. I could still do the Incline in 32 minutes, though, and it only took us 2 hours and 13 minutes to get to the summit via Devil's Playground, so it's not like I was hobbling along. I mean, these are not Joe Gray (USA mountain runner) times, but they are pretty respectable for us "non-elites."

In an earlier post I mentioned something about delving in to the "woo woo." I go back and forth as to when is the best time to divulge exactly what I mean. I sense it is not yet the time. For now, I will just say that between the running and the workouts, I spent a fair amount of time examining my "inner life."

One of the most interesting things to come out of it so far, at least the thing that is the easiest to share, is what I learned about my moment to moment emotional state. Being a long time meditator and student of Eastern philosophy, I am fairly good at cultivating an awareness of my mental and emotional content, but I have long ignored my emotional state while being in that state of awareness. I know, I know, a little confusing...

Let me try to sum it up in a different way: I found that I frequently choose "dispassionate and serious" over "happy and joy" while being in that state of awareness about my mental and emotional content.

This will probably not come as a big surprise to those who know me well. :)

At any rate, that recognition, along with my new ideas on the power of our thoughts and beliefs and stories, provided me with a lot of material to work on. That has been my primary focus lately, and I can already see some of the effects of that work.

Medically, I am on stand-by. I have an MRI in Omaha on 10/23, and an appointment with another doctor (in Omaha) on 10/26. After that I will have a better idea of what things look like going forward. Oddly, one of the biggest things on my mind is this whole breathing issue. I am not convinced that it is the result of, or related to, my current medical condition. I just get a strong sense that it is something else, so it is often on my mind. I realized the other day that I don't describe it accurately. I usually tell people that I only notice it "at intensity," when I am running hard or working out hard. I guess I use that language to distinguish it from having "shortness of breath." I know people who have that, and that is not what I have.

But the fact is, I DO notice it at rest. I notice it any time I pay attention to it. There is something not quite right with the "flow." The path is somehow constricted or blocked, and I can't help but think that there is something else at play.

In the last two weeks a few people have asked me about my plans for the fall and the winter, and I reminded them about the whole medical/surgery stuff. They all reacted with an "Oh! That's right! I totally forgot about that."

And because of that, I know that I have been doing something correctly.

I don't want to spend every day living the narrative of the disease. I want to spend every day living the narrative of life and blessings and gratitude. Their responses reflected back to me that, for the most part, I have been successful in my goal.

Rose and I are back in Seattle now, but I carry the mountains within me. And I try to find that sense of awe buried in the loud, hectic moments of living in the city. It is there if you can just remain still enough catch it.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Please Mind the Gap; or Mountain Running through the Shoulder Season

"Live bravely and boldly.
Those negative thoughts - the ones that come from doubt, from insecurity, from frustration - even if they are true, will never serve your highest good.
Take mental account of them if you must, and make preparations and adjustments if you need to, but then set them aside.

Create positive thoughts.
Create positive feelings.
Change the stories that are playing in your head.
You are largely responsible for co-creating your future.
It is already happening.
The question is whether you are participating in the way that you really want to.

A mostly blank canvas lies before you, what will you paint?" - TJS, 9/12/15


It has been a while since I've posted. If you have been following along on Facebook, you know why...

The last six weeks have been a whirlwind for me and Rose as we packed up the Subaru and road-tripped to Colorado Springs to live and train at altitude. In the process of getting there we had a "Tour of Former Spartan World Champions," stopping at Jenny Tobin's, Cody Moat's, and Hobie Call's. All of them are such fun and inspiring people.

When we got to COS we hit the AirBnB circuit, moving around to different parts of town. After three weeks, I can say that I learned the city pretty well. While it does not shine in the areas of food, coffee, culture, retail, etc (compared to other large cities), it is a jewel when it comes to trail and mountain access. Seriously, it is amazing. For our last two weeks there we moved up to Woodland Park. It's only 20-25 minutes up the valley from the Springs, but it is 2000 feet higher in elevation, so it was a good place to hang out as Rose got closer to racing Tahoe.

Most of our days were full of workouts, with a pinch of work and downtime sprinkled in. It is a privileged life (we understand), but also one that we worked for in the last 3-5 years to have. Despite all of our hard work, however, we still could not have done it without the generosity of so many people (Nancy Weintraub, Bruce and Jody Derington, etc etc etc). We are both so grateful.

I will write more about my time in Colorado in a later post, as it deserves it's own entry. Colorado as always been my "spiritual home." My "terrain of the soul." And my time spent there on this trip was no different.

Rose and I had an amazing time in Squaw Valley at the Spartan Race World Championships. But rather than cram too many subjects in to one blog, I will write about race related stuff on my Race Sherpa OCR Facebook page.


You see, this six to seven weeks has been "the gap." The shoulder season between my diagnosis/plan and my potential surgery. You might notice that I continue to use the word potential. I understand the power of our thoughts and beliefs, so I choose to feed that narrative even though I understand that the "reality" is that the surgery is more likely than not.

This "gap" has been a time of reflection and investigation for me. A time to explore my internal state and the external possibilities, however unlikely they may be. It has also been a time of re-connection to all of the things that I love and am most passionate about.

Ever since I was young I have been fascinated by things like placebo, spontaneous remission, nocebo, voodoo hexes, and the like. How does it all happen? I can't say that I know that answer, but I feel like I am getting closer to understanding.

I had assumed that perhaps my 25+ years of Eastern philosophy study might play a role in helping with that understanding, but to be honest, it has been my hypnotherapy background that has provided the most insight.

I continue to be fascinated by how events that appear to be unrelated and disparate at the time seem to weave and blend together in to a cohesive fabric when looking backwards at them. One could argue that this is a trick of the mind...to find a pattern based on current thoughts and beliefs...but I'm not sure we should dismiss it so easily. It is equally likely that we just have new information that allows us to see the connections. How you frame the story is up to you. It's what you do with it that counts the most.

As far as a medical update, I am scheduled for an MRI and an appointment with a surgeon in Omaha on October 23rd. I am considering Omaha over Seattle as far as where to proceed, but I have not decided for sure yet. I will know more after those appointments.

In my next post I will write about my time in Colorado and all of the "inner work" I have done in the last couple of months.

Thanks for following...

"The Universe doesn't hear what you think; the Universe hears how you feel."