Saturday, August 11, 2012

A Walk to Remember

Yesterday, as I had done so many times over the last few years, I strapped on my Garmin watch to record by GPS my time and distance. In preparation for marathons, keeping diligent track of each mile served to motivate me for the next one.

This time all I wanted to do was prove that I could walk more than the few feet allowed in and around my house. With Sally by my side--and sometimes in front of me--I did it. Exactly 0.75 miles, time immaterial.

A week after back surgery I have, for the first time in almost two months, walked. That's only a slight exaggeration. Yes, I could walk from my bed to the bathroom, from the parking lot to my office, from outside a doctor's office to the inside, and, finally, to the surgical waiting area. But, for this whole time, exercise of any kind was not an option. In a matter of just a few minutes, time on my feet meant tremendous pain in my left leg, the only relief was sitting or lying down.

I can't believe how amazing it feels not to feel that way anymore.

Each time I've ventured outside over the last few days I have remarked how bright it seems. I think my senses adjusted to indoor environments so thoroughly that everything is more intense outside. Sounds, sights, smells, everything. I missed a whole summer season, but maybe that will make the fall even that much better.

Yes, I'm still pretty stiff and sore, but I'll take it for now. Physical therapy is ahead, and full recovery may not be in sight yet, but I'm gaining some optimism that it's very possible.

I have renewed and immense respect for the elderly and the infirm. So many people, I'm afraid, deal graciously with greater pain than I had to and the world does not accommodate them readily. I won't ever be impatient when someone in front of me is moving slowly. I've been there. No matter how hard I tried I just couldn't move any quicker or farther. Sometimes, too, I hope to offer assistance. It was nice when people did, even when I didn't accept the offer.

Marathoning? Only time will tell how much running I can do again. I always wanted to run a marathon, and I'm glad I did my three when I could, so I have no regrets if I can't do another. I wouldn't mind being able to run a decent 5k at Thanksgiving, but I'll be okay if I don't.

Cycling? Not sure about that either. I'll have to be more aware of my limitations and what positions have the potential to hurt my back. Maybe I'll try a recumbent. That seems safer and maybe a less-harmful position. We'll see.

Living well? You bet. And I have lots of people to thank for getting me back to that starting point.

Of course, I don't know how to thank Sally enough for what she did for me over the last several weeks. She literally had to wait on me hand and foot, but never once complained. I'm serious, and I'm not sure that I could do the same so well, but I'll sure try. Our anniversary came and went two days after surgery, and the flowers I ordered for her dried up quickly, but my gratitude remains.

Anyone who knows my mom knows that she is a gift-giver extraordinaire. She arrived at our house the day after surgery toting more shopping bags of food than a Christmas Eve haul, and each one was filled with thoughtfulness. It wasn't the best day--because that's when the recovery pain set in--but it was as good as it could have been thanks to her.

Carvel Ice Cream used to make "Fudgie the Whale" cakes, and we'd get one for my dad every Father's Day. Inscription: "to a Whale of a Dad." A terrible pun, but one that made us laugh every time. You'd probably have to know all of us to get why we thought that was funny year after year, and my sister re-purposed the joke sending a bouquet of cookies to "a whale of a brother." "Get Whale Soon," I loved it.

Our friend Elaine sat with Sally during surgery even when it was rescheduled at the last minute from 11:30 to 7:30 in the morning. Later, she made two evenings worth of a spaghetti dinner for us. Pidge made chicken and rice and the Coles brought fish tacos for us. At first, I thought the latter wasn't going to be a good recovery meal, but it turned out to be delicious and just right for that night.

Lots of other people did little things once they heard I was sick. The phone calls, eMails, text messages, well, they won't soon be forgotten. I don't kid myself that the road to full recovery is going to be perfect. I have only just begun to test my limits, and I'm going to take it slowly. But, thanks to our friends and family it is off to a good start.

And I won't ever forget that first walk. In a way, I hope I have learned to appreciate each walk I take as a special gift in and of itself.

Walk on.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Slowing Down for a Bit

A year ago this time I was running my last 20-miler as I prepared to take part in the 2011 San Francisco Marathon. Now I see the ads for this year's event and I know I'm not even close to being ready. I missed my long run today as I have missed all of the short runs, too, over the last couple of months. 

It's not choice, or heat, or lack of motivation. It's pretty nasty back pain that's taken me from health I take for granted to health I wish I had. Sleeping and sitting are just fine, but walking or standing--let alone running, cycling, or kicking a soccer ball--are out of the question. Actually, it's not really back pain any more, but radiating leg pain that's the most intense.

Either the combination of physical therapy and steroids is going to work soon or it will be a quick surgery to correct a lower-back herniated disc. I'm anxious to reach that conclusion so I can get back to a life of activity, but I certainly have come to respect the challenges that people face as they age or become physically limited in other ways.

One thing that I have learned to become is more economical. I think more about what I'm going to do before I get up because I know I have a limited amount of time before the pain kicks in. I also appreciate the things more that are in range of easy reach. Conversely, the things that are not so easy to get to become less important to me. In the end, this kind of thinking might not be too bad a thing because it's resulting in some simplification in my life.

My love and affection for my Uncle Mike have increased, too, because he deals with pain like this, and far worse, constantly, yet he lives a dynamic, abundant, and kind life, a model not unlike the one my father set.

One conclusion, many handicapped parking spaces meet regulations, but don't necessarily make things easier. I got a temporary pass to use until this is over, but I have noticed the ramps aren't near the spaces and the spaces aren't necessarily near the doors. There's rarely a place to sit when you need it, and waiting for slow elevators is way tougher than I had ever realized it might be. I can work at my desk just fine, but I try to time my four-flight descent after work so I can avoid a "local" trip downstairs that stops on each floor. I'm not kidding. Yesterday, the power went out in my office and I had to walk the four flights. I made it with no problem, but I couldn't help wonder how anyone who was truly handicapped could get out of that building. 

I'm not complaining, though, because in my heart I understand that this is just a temporary setback that I will recover from. There is positive to come out of this in that I know I will have had a good reminder about appreciating what we can do with ourselves and our time. 

I'm glad to say that even with this inconvenience I can look back at my life and say that I have used my physical ability as well as possible for the most part. I've been able to finish a few marathons, climb a mountain or two, cycle lots of miles, and coach hundreds of young people in soccer. I think I will be able to do most of that again soon, and I will love it even more when I do.

I'm slowing down for a bit, but I'm not giving up.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Two Good Guys I Sort of Know

I love team sports. Playing, watching, coaching, it doesn’t matter. Mostly, I love what team sports show us about our character and who we are as human beings.

The two NFL conference championships played last weekend were thrilling to witness yet both turned on individual mistakes. In one game, a kicker missed a potential game-tying field goal in the final seconds to leave the Baltimore Ravens just short of the Super Bowl. In the other, a punt returner twice fumbled away glory for his team, the San Francisco 49’ers.

Read any commentary you can find about how those two teams handled themselves afterwards and you will be suitably impressed by the pride, maturity, kindness, and solidarity that the players and coaches demonstrated. Their positive behavior reminds us that amidst all of the high profile, high-flying, highly-paid, professional athletes are lots of really good young men and women.

Which reminds me of a story about two of them…

Back in the 90’s, when the Redskins were regularly at the top of the football ranks (and I was a huge fan), I was riding my bicycle literally thousands of miles each year. I wasn’t a fast rider, but I was a strong one that could easily do twenty miles of commuting on a weekday basis and fifty miles or more on weekend days.

One nice spring afternoon as I was riding home from work—on a route that passes close to the Redskins training facility—I was joined by two big men who dwarfed me and the bikes they were riding. I knew instantly who they were, but rather than get overwhelmed by their fame, I did what all good cyclists do. I let them grab a wheel and then I paced them over the next four or five miles.

In my mind I was giving them a good, hard workout, but since I couldn’t see them I had no idea whether they were even breathing hard. It certainly would have been easier on me to draft behind them, given the size difference, and it would have been simple for me to take a back seat given their celebrity, but it was a unique opportunity for me to take as the ride leader and I took it.

When we reached my turn for home, we stopped for a moment. I reached for a handshake not knowing what else to do or say because I’m terrible at brushes with fame.

“I’m Art,” said one, “and this is Monte. Thanks, man.” And we shook. And we went our separate ways. That’s it. No show. No brush off. No attitude. Just two good guys I now sort of know.

Art Monk, wide receiver, NFL Hall of Fame, Class of 2008. Monte Coleman, linebacker, selected as one of the 70 greatest Redskins of all time in 2002, the team’s 70th anniversary.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Personal Flight

“There is an art to flying, or rather a knack. Its knack lies in learning to throw yourself at the ground and miss. Clearly, it is this second part, the missing, that provides the difficulties.” -- Douglas Adams, in the “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.”

I bought a new car a few weeks ago, and I had an accident on Monday. It was a pretty scary accident, but the car doesn’t have a scratch on it. That’s because I wasn’t in it.

When I was a kid I often dreamed of flying. Not in a plane, mind you, but on my own; like a bird, like an eagle. Effortless and free.

As an adult I embraced the concept of personal flight described above. That’s just the way I wanted to do it. No strings attached; no propellers; no engines. Just me. The trick, Adams says, is to stop thinking about hitting the ground right before you do.

I never really imagined that I would get the chance to try that out, though, so in the middle of one of the best morning jogs I’ve had in a long time my mind was occupied with thoughts of the upcoming holidays, a few worries about aging parents, nursing my injured soccer team back to health, and all kinds of things other than the running itself.

Then it hit me. Literally. And it wasn’t the stuff of dreams unless dreams are sold at the Honda dealership.

As I crossed an innocent neighborhood intersection just at sunrise I remember seeing a pair of headlights about five feet away. I instinctively braced and bent my body away from the oncoming traffic, but I just wasn’t fast enough to avoid it.

Have you ever laced into a pitch where the sound—and the feel—of the hit is perfect? The car was the bat, and I was the ball. You get the picture. It was one of those moments where everything slows down and your senses come alive.

I remember what it felt like while I was in mid-air. Really, I do. I only travelled about fifteen feet because the driver had just turned a corner and had not gained a lot of speed. But I was flying, I knew it was happening, and there was an eerie sense of calm all the while. Thump—then quiet—then thump again, and back on solid ground.

I landed nearly perfectly flat on my back which meant that somehow I twisted either 90 degrees or 270, but I’m not sure which. I think I closed my eyes, and I didn’t hit my head, which I’m very thankful for. I stuck the landing, Bela.

My foot hurts, I have a few bumps and bruises, and I pulled a muscle in my back. But, after all is said and done, I’m okay. The hardest part of the whole thing was that I had to call my wife and start a conversation by saying, “I’m okay, but, well, I just got hit by a car.” That’s probably not what she wanted to hear right then. Actually, when would someone want to hear that?

I already knew many of the things below, but they all came back to me during and after my flight:

  • Neon and reflective gear forever. I’m not 100% certain it would have helped me remain earthbound, but having flown on my own now I am not interested in doing it again.
  • Life is too short.
  • Take nothing for granted.
  • Tell people that you love them. Often. Appreciate everyone who has you in their hearts.
  • There are some things worth worrying about. Most are not.
  • Be at peace.
  • Run. Jump. Laugh. Live a life of abundance.
  • 42.

I’m going running again soon—just as soon as I heal up a little bit more. And I’m going to go back and cross that street, too. I’m done with flying for a while, though.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Paying it Forward

The other day I started mapping out my running plan for the next year. Culminating at the 2012 Chicago Marathon, I strategically placed other, shorter events on the calendar. Some are old friends dating back to when I was a real runner almost thirty years ago.

Cherry Blossom Ten Mile RunOne of those old friends is the Cherry Blossom 10-Miler, competed each April in Washington, DC. Framed by the budding trees at their peak, It’s a beautiful setting and one I conquered a few times back in the mid 80’s. Amazingly, I once finished in seventy minutes—a pace I can only dream of now.

To get in the race, you have to enter a December lottery for a coveted spot. On the web site I noticed that you can also get automatic entry if you are a “streaker,” which is defined by completing the course at least ten times in the last forty years and not by the absence of clothing… You might have to be as old as me to get why that’s funny.

Since I couldn’t remember how many times I had actually finished I sent an email to the race “information desk” requesting my times. Expecting to hear back in a few days (or not at all), I was pleasantly surprised by an immediate response from the race director himself. My three repeats didn’t get me an automatic entry, but in thanking him I gave him a little more information about myself.

For several 10-Miler iterations, also in the 80’s, I had volunteered on the pre-race set-up crew—with a bunch of guys I saw exactly once annually—in exchange for a guaranteed entry for the following year. Our job was to secure the start and finish areas so that they were safe for the runners. I probably can no longer lift the bales of storm fence that we carried and then pounded into place for the first and last miles of the course.

Usually, our work was done on Saturday (before the race on Sunday), but the last few times we had to get started in the early spring darkness on Sunday morning. Early—like just after midnight—Sunday morning. It was a tough, physical job, but also satisfying beyond the race entry reward. We felt like we were doing something good for others. Something that most would never realize or acknowledge. And we didn’t need or expect anything more.

About an hour after his first response, I got another email from the race director. He was involved in the race even back then and he did remember our hard work. “Let me know if you don’t get in through the lottery,” he said, “I’ll have a guaranteed entry waiting for you.”

Pretty cool. I guess sometimes, when you least expect it, you get paid back for your good work. Even if I don’t have to take advantage of the offer it was sure nice to get..

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Bright Morning Sky

The three months since my San Francisco Marathon have not been the best for my fitness. More calories are going in than are burning off. Maybe a lot more. The bed sheets seem to grip me more tightly as the morning temperatures begin their steady seasonal drop. My brain seems to find every easy excuse for not doing the day’s workout and my heart has gone along.

Instead of a steady diet of five runs per week, I’ve been reduced to 2-3. Seems like Monday kicks off just fine, but by Thursday I’m saying, “I’ll start again on Monday. Really. I will.”

So far this week I’ve actually done pretty well. Monday (slow 3 miles). Tuesday (start slow, go faster, 3 miles). Wednesday (3 miles on the track, every other lap hard). This is the beginning of a good pattern that will help me achieve my goals for 2012.

If I can just stick with it.

So when it came time to get up and run today my mind searched for an excuse. Ah, there it was. The weather guy said it was raining somewhere in the metro area, which meant that anyone trying to run three miles right then risked getting wet. “Don’t go outside this morning unless you’re planning to run less than three miles,” he forecasted, “Better to get in your car and go straight to work.”

Then the alarm went off and I actually turned the TV on…

So what makes me get up and run when it’s cold, dark, and lonely? Most of the time it’s a lofty goal in front of me or the quest to stay fit for life, but sometimes it’s more simple than that.

The first half of my favorite route is to the West and it stays dark throughout that fifteen minutes or so. But when I turn the midway corner everything changes.

Right then there is enough purple to orange light in the sky to help me see, yet the moon remains bright and the stars continue to shine. It’s peaceful and beautiful and serene. There aren’t many people seeing it that way so, just briefly, the world is simple and soft and mine to behold.

Makes me want to see it again. Tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

In the Game

At the beginning of August the roster was just the right size. 17

Since you play soccer with eleven at a time, the difference of six gave us a nice, comfortable substitution margin. And, since my team has rarely had many injuries to worry about, I was optimistic about a really good run ahead.

Right before the season started one player unexpectedly quit. 16

In a casual, non-contact, inconsequential, informal, fun, summertime pick-up game one went down with a season-ending knee injury. 15

In our very first match, our keeper was lost with a season-ending knee injury. 14

But, still, fourteen is an okay number, right? Barring any further injuries or illness…

I shouldn’t have said that.

Two nights before our Columbus Day tournament I got a text message from a parent of one of the fourteen that began, “just wanted to give you a heads up…” I’m not sure in what context something good is coming next, but as a coach trying to get a team ready to play against really tough competition that start is usually a bad sign.

It’s an asthma episode. 13

Oh, and one player had already been sick all week. 12

So, I found two “guest” players from a younger team. 14

We played our first game (of three) and hung in there just fine. 14

We lost another girl to a knee injury at the very end of our second game. 13

And one of our strongest players was limping on a bruised thigh at Saturday dinner, but I didn’t even think about it much because she always, always, always bounces back way more quickly than any. other. athlete. I. know.

She didn’t. 12.

And one of our guest players had a previous commitment so she had to go back home before the third match. 11.

At the start of the last match, the referee says to me, “Coach, when you want to substitute a player just make sure you bring her up to the center line.” I humorously replied, “I would love to do that. Do you have any available?”

He said, “Sorry, I wasn’t trying to rub it in.”

We lost all of our games last weekend. We didn’t score any goals and we gave up too many. We used two players extensively who had never played with us before. We played with keepers who had little experience, but sacrificed their preferred positions to do what their team needed. We had other injuries, and headaches, and exhaustion that I didn’t even mention here.

I searched in vain for ways to defend or attack better, but there simply were no options to choose from.

And if you feel sorry for me or for my team I want you to know that I will never forget those two days because we were in every game. We didn’t have the best skills and we were smallish compared to the other teams, but we were in every game. We were dominated for the most part, but we only lost by one, by two, and by one again. We were in every game. The girls never bickered or complained about their plight, they just fought through it. We were in every game.

Except for maintaining a positive attitude, my coaching didn’t have much to do with our outcome. No, the fact that each of those last eleven could walk away from the match with her head held high comes from only one place. It comes from the heart. And if you could measure heart the championship trophy would belong to the girls in light blue.

We will win again soon and the character the team built in this gritty, determined effort will sustain us through this challenging season. We have six matches left. Some are going to be really hard and some we might have a good chance to win. No matter what, though…

We will be in the game.