Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Mountains and Curveballs

Ten years ago, I had plans to climb Mount Rainier (14,410 ft), near Seattle, via a fairly challenging route, and after a year of training very hard and getting into the best shape of my life, I was ready. Then, a week before my flight to Seattle, I injured my back badly, and had to cancel the trip at the very last minute. 

Fast forward to 2014. I signed up for a slightly easier expedition to Rainier. Then I promptly stuck my head in the sand and, out of a puzzling mix of fear of doing, and fear of failing, did not train adequately or prepare very well. I went to Rainier, had a genuinely wonderful and amazing time, but I did not reach the summit. I knew I would have to go back.

And here we are, June 24, 2015. I fly out to the West Coast on Saturday, and after a few days hanging out with friends, will be heading to Rainier for a 3-day climb via the Muir route, from Thursday to Saturday. I trained for this. I got up at 4:45am most mornings this winter to get on my bike and train indoors with my friends at Real Deal Performance / Gears. I skinned up mountains in the Tetons during a week of backcountry skiing in March, in the company of my friend Peter who is a wise mountain guide and wiser human being. I added track cycling to the mix and outdoor riding in the spring, and joined a regular gym in April to round out my workouts with more structured resistance training and weight-bearing cardio workouts. I spent hours with a 45 lb-pack on an inclined treadmill, and then doing hill repeats at our local (small) ski hills. I switched to more hiking and less riding lately, in part to reduce the risk of an untimely crash on the bike. I'm not quite in the best shape of my life - I'm not disciplined enough yet, but I haven't been too much of a slouch either. 

A week ago (2 weeks before the climb), while working out at the gym, I felt and heard a pop in my right calf, and all of a sudden, I couldn't put any weight on my right foot. Not my knee, not my bones, not my Achilles. But sharp, acute pain, and no weight-bearing ability. Ummm. Not good. Rest, ice, compression, elevation, anti-inflammatory, and 24 hours later, there was improvement. 

Forty-eight hours later, I got to see my favourite healthcare professional, osteopath Katharine Liberatore, who quickly assessed the situation, provided treatment and relief, words of encouragement and an immediate referral to see her colleague for laser treatments. The next day, I was back to see Katharine and her colleague. Things were improving significantly already. It seemed that I had strained my gastrocnemius muscle - luckily, probably not torn, based on the rapid improvement. However, with less than two weeks before a major physical challenge which- ironically - demands more of your calf muscles than about any other activity I can think of (except maybe rock and ice climbing), I was still limping badly and felt pain walking on anything other than flat ground. I'll remind you that Mount Rainier is definitely not flat. 

The very good personal trainer I work with at the gym (Giovanni) adjusted my workouts, which became entirely upper-body and core-focused over the past week, while my cardio work dropped down to slow-paced walks on a flat treadmill. To think, just 10 days ago, I did hill repeats for 4 hours at Blue Mountain while carrying 50 lbs. Two days ago, I did 30 minutes on the stationary bike with no resistance. But at least the leg didn't hurt doing that. And the leg hurts even less today than it did yesterday. The treatments are working and well worth it. The "human care" received from Katharine and her colleague is helping too. 

Needless to say, though, that despite the relatively minor nature of the injury and rapid improvements I've seen so far, the timing sucks. And with a week to go before the climb starts, the mental aspect became even more significant. Last Tuesday when I got hurt, the thought immediately crossed my mind that the climb might be kaput. But I didn't dwell on that too too much and stayed positive. My buddy Jason and I traded texts and had a good chat - turns out, he knows a lot about being an injured athlete and was very understanding. Until Monday, I was focused mainly on the physical and logistical reality of it (painful leg plus the stress of getting to appointments on time, going to work late as a result, or rushing back to the office in time for meetings...), and successfully pushed off negative thoughts.

Monday night, after my 30 painless minutes on the stationary bike, instead of feeling increasingly positive, the realization that I only had one more week to heal started creeping in. Yesterday, the incremental physical improvements felt less noticeable while doubts and fears started becoming stronger. What if I can't keep up? What if it hurts so badly that I can't keep going? What if that "pop" sensation and sudden sharp pain happen again, mid-climb?!? Trying not to let my mind go there - not too badly at least - I enjoyed my gym workout and finished listening to my third audiobook in 4 days (can you spell "escape"?). 

I got to chat with my cycling coach Ed Veal this morning. We hadn't talked in a while, and I had noticed that over the past week, I had gotten no sympathy from Ed regarding the injury. Just facts: "you can still work your upper body even if your calf hurts". No sympathy perhaps, but simple direction and a reality check. If it were soooo bad that I couldn't remain active at all, I would have had a bigger problem - like 10 years ago... Instead, I kept working out - differently and less intensely, but I did it. And it wasn't any harder to show up at the gym, meet up with Giovanni and get some work done, than it had been in previous weeks. I took that as a good sign, a sign that I was physically ok, and mentally dealing fairly well with the situation.

I've worked with Ed now for the better part of the last 2 years, and we've gotten to know each other well. I often joke that he spends a lot of time in my head, whenever I'm training on the bike, or going around the track lap after lap, or doing hill repeats on two feet with a pack on my back. His voice in my head can be amusingly annoying at times - one of his qualities, everyone will agree, is that Ed is stubborn and doesn't give up. His voice in my head... Well, it's relentless and harsher than the real Ed and it rarely let's me take a break. And when I do take a break, the voice sounds sooo disappointed... 

The thing is though, when I talked to "live Ed" this morning, I knew he would have the right words for me, and he did. He offered good advice and shared wisdom that made me think he'd climbed Rainier a few times himself. It wasn't a long chat, but it was enough to make me feel positive and restore the balance I had almost managed to maintain on my own, but not quite.

I don't know if I'll reach Rainier's summit the morning of July 4th - if I do, they're going to celebrate with fireworks across the entire USA! If I don't summit (again...), that's ok. Not great, but ok, and I'll try yet again some day. But I'm not ready to raise the white flag just yet. The leg is feeling better and better, and I'll be giving it my best shot. There will be pain - it's a mountain climb, of course there's pain involved, whether on two wheels or two feet... 

Other friends have helped me along over the last several months, sometimes providing very concrete and direct help, and other times just by showing up to ride bikes at 5:30am. And then there's my mountain guide friend Peter who has, over 3 expeditions together in the past year, driven me to work harder and challenge myself well beyond what I think I'm capable of. Friends like Jason, who understands without me having to spell it out in details. We go back a long way... And friends like Karen, who understands physical pain and hardship and how to smile through it all. And Pearl, who was there 10 years ago when I had to cancel Rainier. She immediately grasped what it meant when I told her I'd hurt my leg. And my loving Mom and Dad, who are almost successful at almost hiding their worry, as I once more become more adventurous than I ever was allowed to be as a kid... 

Yogi Berra said of baseball that the game "is 90% mental, and the other half is physical." At first glance, the math doesn't add up, but the man was right.  

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