Conquering Mountains

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, the 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 a Half Ironman race, my longest triathlon distance attempted, after my own recovery from a rare medical disorder. When do we decide when the reward outweigh the risk and take the first steps to realize the dream? What is your mountain?

Redefining Success

In order to achieve success- and to even dare to register for the race- I had to be ready to first slow down and to 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-focused, and to 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 tumble from my bike led to an unexpected health discovery. That morning, I had dashed off for a quick ride with a friend. As I stood at a light watching the cars whiz by, my head started to swim. I shook it off but then toppled over while still clipped to one pedal, landing hard on my hand. It started to immediately discolor and curl up, so I rode the few blocks back home in case I needed to see a doctor. By the time I arrived at the clinic, they took one look, brought me a wheelchair, and steered me to the X-Ray department.

At the time of my tumble, 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 severely, bombarding your body with pain from the most benign injuries, and can distort and discolor your limbs in alarming fashion. As a precaution, I was sent to 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, 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, a driver had collided into the passenger side of my car, but I had always been prone to dizziness. I had also been run over by a school bus at the age of 12, which likely did not help my nervous system health!

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, which impacts 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 about competing in a Half Ironman, Santa Cruz 70.3, she replied, “I think that would be good for you.” I had no more excuse to ditch my dream!

Staying Stable

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 hip and knee pain for two years.)

Fast forward to September 2019: I ran 13 miles along the coast, after a 56-mile blustery bike ride, and I swam over 1.2 miles in choppy ocean water. For once I did not wobble out of the waves, and I was able to run almost a mile to transition, where I steadily mounted my bike and completed a personal best 40K time. I hit a record bike speed of 43.1 mph 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.

Team Effort

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 had hoped to bounce back from this setback as quickly as I did after my school bus accident, but it took months of extensive physical therapy to regain my mobility. I prayed to walk again, but God gave me so much more. Each time I practiced hill repeats at a beautiful county park with my triathlon teammates, I recalled the time I had winced in pain while being rolled in a wheelchair there. With every bump in the dirt path, I had wailed to my sister, “How much further?” I never imagined then, that I would be completing a Half Ironman race– asking the same question! But this time I was smiling 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 that 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 to not 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 Ironman 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.

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