We all have a mountain to climb. For some, it is the simple goal of getting up and making it through the day without physical or emotional pain. Somehow we find a way past a devastating injury, death of a loved one or a difficult divorce. Whatever the hurdle, we all have it within ourselves to attain the unimaginable.
My nephew conquered his own mountain, Kilimanjaro, after months of treatment for a rare tropical disease. My peak was the Half Ironman, my longest triathlon distance attempted, after my own recovery from a rare medical condition. When do we decide when the rewards outweigh the risks and take the first steps to realize the dream? What is your mountain?
In order to achieve success- and to even dare to register for the race, I had to be ready to first slow down and take the risk of not reaching my goal. It was an ambitious endeavor: 1.2 miles of swimming, 56 miles of biking and 13.1 miles of running. During training, that often meant running at a tortoise pace instead of trying to catch my teammates, in order to keep my heart rate in aerobic zone and avoid the injuries I was susceptible to. I kept to my own race and resisted the urge to compare myself to others. At times during the race I felt the end goal slipping from my grasp. But I continued planting one foot in front of the other, taming any negative thoughts that tumbled through my mind.
In the May 2019 New York Times review of David Brook’s Second Mountain, Psychiatrist Mark Epstein wrote: “The ego, a necessary construction, can also become a burden. In its unrelenting focus on power, achievement and gratification, it breeds a culture of oppression, insecurity…. Enough is never enough. There is always someone more accomplished and more successful than you are.”
Racing for a Purpose
This is certainly true in among Type A triathletes, who forever tweak their athletic efforts in order to achieve their optimal performance. In my own quest for athletic improvements, I became somewhat obsessive about monitoring my training efforts on my Garmin fitness tracker. With each workout completed, I wanted to attempt another one to see if I could go further or faster. To achieve my Half Ironman goal, I wanted to become less inward focussed, and race with a purpose. So I signed up for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation’s Race in Orange program, to raise funds for those with digestive disorders, as I have suffered from GI issues for years.
What thrills me as much as reaching my goals is helping others achieve theirs. Epstein goes on to write “there is another kind of happiness, let’s call it joy, that comes from helping others.” What fueled me most in my training efforts was to inspire others to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds, having overcome a few hurdles of my own…
A Dizzying Journey
My journey to my fist Half Ironman race began in earnest after a moment of unsteadiness and a tumble from my bike led to an unexpected health discovery. That morning I had dashed off for a quick ride with a friend, a fellow avid cyclist. I stood at a light watching the cars whiz by and my head started to swim. I shook it off but then toppled over while still clipped in to one pedal, landing hard on my hand. It started to immediately discolor and curl up, so I assessed the injury and rode the few blocks back home. By the time I drove myself to the doctor’s office the pain set in and they brought me a wheelchair, which only only made me more woozy!
At the time, I was a few years into remission from a chronic pain disorder (CRPS aka RSD) that had begun after surgery to remove a mass in my leg. It affects your nervous system in bizarre ways, bombarding your body with pain from the most benign injuries, and can distort and discolor your limbs in alarming ways. As a precaution, I was sent for X-Rays and a hand specialist.
After a few days the hand unexpectedly recovered, but I began to explore in earnest the reasons for the longtime lightheadedness. I had usually blamed it on fatigue from poor sleep quality, allergy-induced sinus issues or blood sugar lows. But when my head started swimming while seeing a train rush by, sitting in heavy traffic, or backing up in my car, I knew it was time to seek help. Coming to a sudden stop on my bike often had the same effect, which could prove detrimental in my triathlon endeavors!
Diagnosis at Last
My sleep doctor suspected an autonomic nervous system dysfunction, due to the varying heart rate, blood pressure and fragmented sleep patterns, even while on a C-PAP machine. I contacted a naturopath who referred me to a doctor specializing in functional neurology and brain injuries. A few months prior I had been T-boned by a car so that likely had not helped, but I had always been prone to dizziness.
After a series of tests to assess balance, the doctor discovered deficiencies with the vestibular system, the part of your brain that incorporates signals from your eyes and ears to regulate spatial perception and movement. Two Stanford neurologists, specializing in vestibular disorders, confirmed the diagnosis with additional tests. When the body works harder just to stay upright, it tends to remain in the sympathetic nervous system–fight or flight mode.
This can be helpful when rushing to meet a race cut- off time but can put continual strain on the body and impact sleep and recovery. With a diagnosis of Vestibular Migraines and Persistent Postural-Perceptual Dizziness, I continued with balance and brain exercises. When I asked a neurologist and physical therapist about competing in a Half Ironman, Santa Cruz 70.3, they replied, “I think that would be good for you.” I had no more excuse to ditch my dream!
I worked up to balancing on increasingly unstable surfaces and standing on one leg with my eyes closed. This all had a huge impact on my joint health, as my body became better spatially-oriented and I was able to resume running. (After a busy 2016-triathlon season ending with the Alcatraz triathlon, I had bounced between back, hip and knee pain for two years.)
Fast forward to September 2019, where I ran 13 miles after a 56-mile blustery bike ride and choppy 1.2-mile swim. For once I did not wobble out of the waves and was able to run a quarter mile to transition, where I steadily mounted my bike, completing a personal best 40K time and a record bike speed on the return. I ran pain-free and crossed the finish line to the cheers and hugs of my teammates. There were so many moments along the way where I thought I should toss the dream and not tax the body. But I just could not walk away from that Half Ironman goal. If I did, I would always wonder, could I have done it? We are capable of far more than we know.
Due to the diligent training in the low heart rate zone and the encouragement of my triathlon club teammates and Crohn’s and Colitis Team Challenge coach, I steadily progressed my fitness level. And ultimately I achieved an accomplishment I could never have imagined. Fitting that the ribbon on the finisher medal contained the words “Anything is possible.”
My mind flashed back to the spring of 2012, in the early days of a frightening “incurable” pain disorder. I was forced to rely on my “good” leg-the one that had been run over by a bus in high school. Each time I practiced hill repeats at the county park with my triathlon teammates, I recalled the days of wincing in pain in a wheelchair over every bump in the path. I never imagined during those wakeful nights that I would be completing a Half Ironman race. Yet here I was, strongly and steadily sprinting through the sand to cross that finish line I had worked so hard to reach.
Time is Only a Number
I was so fearful of missing the course cutoffs and having my timing chip pulled, I nearly talked myself out of even entering the race. Gut issues threatened to derail me on the run course, but I refused to give up. Prayers, pre-race encouragement from friends and positive self-talk propelled me forward. In the end I sacrificed my dream of reaching the “official” time limit, in order to take care of my body, finishing in just over 8.30 hours. While frustrated at first to be that close, I was determined not to let an arbitrary number diminish my final achievement. I took pride in powering through difficult conditions, reaching many personal bests in the process.
Never will I forget my teammates running beside me in that thirteenth mile and hugging me at the finish. In 24 athletic events in five triathlon seasons, it was my most emotional race. Thank you to the photographer who captured my joy at crossing the line, and to God, for all the people He put in my path to help me get there. I wish everyone could experience the thrill of achieving a huge feat and accomplishing the unimaginable, including fundraising amounts I had never thought possible. Dare to dream the impossible! And then find the right support team.