TKOs, Strategic Retreats, Halls of Mirrors and Being Adamantine

It would seem the year that was getting punched in the face has won via technical knockout.  This is not to say goals haven’t been achieved – they have – but it is to say that 2017 has stepped up to take back the idea that while you can fight age, no you cannot fully outrun it.  A seemingly obvious truism, but it is a lesson I think we each learn in our own way.

An ironic lesson perhaps that I started on a fitness journey to be sure that I reclaimed everything I possibly could because I was all too aware that life is short, opportunities come by once and I was determined not to allow Father Time to advance on me without giving myself the best opportunity to enjoy my one trip here.

In June, the year that was getting punched in the face punched back and I was put out of commission for 6-weeks. Made worse by the fact that at the fact that at the beginning of June I was bold enough to say that I was dissatisfied with punching in the face and was going to tear the face off the year.  On the 10th, I had fallen down a mountain.  9 stitches in my forearm and tendon surgery on my foot.  Had I to do it again, I probably wouldn’t continue the remaining 20+ miles of the race, but I was headstrong enough that I was not going to quit.  Hard to know if this was a “win” or if it was failing to accept a strategic retreat.

But that was an accident.  A failure perhaps of training, a failure to pay sufficient attention to what was required of a highly technical trail race.  Perhaps a failure of focus.  It was not a failure due to age.  Anyone taking on that race, under the same circumstances would have suffered the same injuries.  In fact, I feel confident in saying not too many people would have had the fortitude to continue on to finish – for better or worse.  In my mind’s eye, the fact that someone less than 1000 days from age 50 was out there on that course was testament to the idea the Reaper was getting further away in my rear view rather than closer.

This is different.  This is the reality check.  There may be times when the Reaper seems further behind, but that is perception in the hall of mirrors that is life.  After that involuntary layoff, I doubled down on my efforts.  More miles on the odometer.  Faster miles on the odometer. More races on the calendar.  Longer races on the calendar.  I improved personal records on 5k races, 10m races, 50k.  Running more, running faster, running more frequently.

And then, that pain in my heel.  I “knew” at the end of my run what it was.  It wasn’t an ache.  It was acute and localized.  I was pretty sure I had done something to my Achilles.  I was hoping it was a strain.  I ran a few more times, each time my pace suffered, my pain increased.  One last struggle of a run and the accompanying pain the next day, I knew I had to go to the doctor.


And thus I find myself in an immobilizing walking boot.  My year of goals without fear is over.  I accomplished more than 1100 miles on a plan of 1000.  I ran something like 47 races even while missing more than a few while recovering in June and July.  I failed at some goals, but I succeeded at my most important ones.  It’s important now to focus on what I want to accomplish in 2018, and what this injury means for those goals.  Right now, there’s no surgery planned.  The doctor seems content to give me a few weeks in the boot anticipating that time should give me the time to heal and then work toward strength building.

I took too long to admit it, but I did. Like my experience in June, I tried to solider on and get it done.  Unlike my experience in June, I quit before it cost me more than it already had.  Perhaps a degree of learning or growing up on my part to realize that calling a strategic retreat isn’t an admission of defeat – it’s the appropriate reconsideration of the requirements given changing conditions on the battlefield.

Building an athletic level of fitness is not a means to fully prevent injury or illness.  It is, however, a means to mitigate those injuries or illness.  A runner may in fact be less likely to suffer a heart attack, but that runner is also more likely to have a heart that can mitigate the damaging effects of a heart attack.   Stronger hearts fare far better in both survival and recovery rates.  Because I’ve been running, because my body is strong an injury which may have completely ruptured my tendon 2 or 3-years ago, resulted in a partial rupture.  Why was my tendon prone to rupture? I’m less than 800 days away from age 50.  Time waits for no one, age will come to collect its toll.  The object is to resist.  As any personal trainer knows, resistance creates strength and strength allows further resistance.

The Reaper still remains, hiding somewhere in that hall of mirrors.  Ultimately, he will come to collect his due, but just like everything else in life, putting in the work to prepare for that which may come is the best way to get the best results from any encounter.

I’m determined at this point not to follow the path I followed in June.  I let my nutrition go and gained weight.  I focused on what I could not now do instead of what I could do and my conditioning suffered for it.  I’ve found vigorous activity keeps my emotions in check and keeps my head in all aspects of my Life’s game. I’m a better, more full and interesting person when I have been working out.  I’m determined not to see why I cannot run.  I am determined to see what I can do to maintain fitness while I’m recovering from this setback, what I can do to avoid a similar setback and what I can do to be sure I find the opportunity.  I’ve been duly reminded that I’m not 20 and bulletproof.  I’m screaming toward 50 and far from bulletproof, but I’m in the game.  If I’m to stay in the game, I need to be sure I’m more cognizant of the rules.   It’s all about resilience. Positioning oneself to be able to resiliently face the challenges in front of us is the key.

Doing the work – no matter how slow the results – to position yourself to best withstand whatever form the Reaper presents himself is your best bet for surviving and thriving despite the Reaper’s call, whether that’s wearing your seatbelt, or maintaining heart health and a generally healthy lifestyle.

Sometimes that means a strategic retreat.  Something that’s easier to acknowledge later in the battle than sooner.  In June when I hadn’t  accomplished anything that was hard to hear.  In December, it’s easier.  I’ve done the work, and now I have the perspective.  I’m glad – eternally grateful – that I realized that in the middle of my life, and not in the December.


Failure Potential

I had made up my mind that I would challenge myself this year.  I would try things I had a good chance of failing at doing.  I would try some new things.  In 2016, I set a volume goal and I hit it easily.  In fact, I really didn’t fail at accomplishing any of my goals last year, so among the goals this year was a challenge to do 5 things at which I might fail.

I actually did fail at my first attempt at a 50k – we accomplished about 30k, but decided to stop due to weather conditions and the potential (turned reality) of a harrowing commute home.

My second attempt at a 50k was my second “Failure Potential,” but although it took me just about 7 hours I completed it.  I really really really hate failing.  I got the distance, but in terms of trail races, it was a relatively flat course, so while it was a personal victory not to fail it wasn’t the most technical of courses.

My third “failure potential” attempt was another 50k on a very technical course and about 6100′ of elevation gain up and down a mountain. This as one I probably should have allowed myself to fail; about mile 10 I fell, gashed open my arm, broke a toe and damaged a tendon.  I was so delirious, I actually wound up adding an extra mile by wandering around a little off track. It took more than 10 hours on a course with a 10 hour limit, having been allowed to finish by virtue of avoiding course marshalls for the last 40 minutes or so.

So the fourth was another 50k, and at this point you’re probably saying to yourself, “if you’ve already done 2 what would make you think you couldn’t do it again?”  Here’s where my head was though: the last time I had done the distance, I had messed myself up.  Badly. I really wasn’t sure I was ready to do this again physically, I wasn’t sure I was mentally able to do it.  Frankly, I may not have been able to do it, but at the end of my first of 3 loops there was my friend Rich and his son.  I was such a great feeling seeing them there to welcome me in and to see me off that it was just what I needed to keep going.  Had they not been there to volunteer, I likely would have given it up.

So where am I for the fifth?  Originally, I had a different plan.  I am registered for a December 32-miler that’s described as “nightmarish” and with December weather in New England such as it is, I’m pretty sure this may be one of the bigger challenges of the year – except my boy now has an event on that day and I need to be there.  So I needed a different plan.

Another goal was to break two-hours running a half marathon.  I was able to accomplish that in October. 1:51:56, but a week ago I as given a bib for another half marathon with a three day notice on a much flatter course than the October race.  The week before that, I had run a 10-miler at an 8:18 pace so I really thought I had a good chance of beating that 1:52 time. And so it was, my Failure Possibility was to break 1:50:00.

Image may contain: 6 people, people smiling, crowd and outdoor
That’s me in the orange shirt about 3 rows back. For the record, this was the Wave 2 start line. 9:00m/m runners don’t start at the starting line otherwise.

For the first couple of miles I was feeling good, but I really had to pee: the porta potties at the starting line were packed, so I had to wait.  Fortunately there were some on the route and I availed myself of one at mile 3.  That took about 40-50 seconds,  but my mile pace was still reasonable for that mile.  The real problem kicked in after that though.  I had slept terribly the night before; I went to bed too early, woke up in the middle of the night and was terrified I’d over sleep, so I stayed up.  It turns out running 13 miles on 4-hours sleep is really, really hard.  Never mind trying to beat a 1:50:00 pace.

It had rained all morning and through most of the race.  The course was part bike path and drainage was suspect, so on top of low octane fuel I was battling mud and the elements.  As 1:50 came and went I still had the opportunity to finish in under 2-hours.

And there it was. As I hit 13 miles, I was just over 1:55.  The last .1-mile+ was a path along a water element, which was flooded and muddy.  People were trying to avoid the water and mud by running  along the side, but if I tried that I’d never finish in under 2-hours, so I took the Spartan Race option and went through, high-stepping and all.  A minor victory in that I finished 1:57:38 so I had conquered the 2-hour mark twice this year and really twice in a month, but I failed at my time goal by almost 8-minutes. Or put another way, by about 30-seconds a mile.

My 5 opportunities for failure netted a 3 wins – 2 losses record.  Not bad, really. I found some limits, worked harder and got past one of them.  I’m going to try to beat that 1:50:00 time again, but it’s probably going to be next year before I can attempt it so I feel pretty comfortable that I can report out on this endeavor.  I learned more resilience from this than any other goal I’d set for myself, something I hadn’t anticipated.  The goal was to push myself by getting out of my safe zone.  What I got out of it was that I need to aim higher more often and what I learned was how resilient I can be.  Very awakening.

Very awakening.


Keeping It Between the Navigational Beacons

Life itself is a process of navigation. Sometimes we successfully navigate the beacons, sometimes we don’t.  Thankfully, in most of life’s endeavors there’s a pretty significant fudge factor.  Imagine if life were strictly a journey from place to place: in order to get to where you’re going you have to be exactly on point and the slightest deviation will put you a significant distance away.  If you have a 1-degree variance from your intended destination, over 500 miles you’d be more than 8-miles off track.  1-degree!  And that’s if you know where you’re going.  If you don’t have a goal, and just roll with whichever way the wind blows, you’re liable to wake up someday wondering where all the time went and why you haven’t accomplished anything you expected to.

Oftentimes though, the carefully planned path is overly rigid.  Sometimes you want to take a detour and see what else might lie beyond.  Plan that path too carefully, you’re liable to wake up someday and wonder about the path not taken.  If your path requires 100% accuracy – perhaps your assumptions are a little too exact, or require full control over extraneous variables for which there is no way you could possibly account – you’re likely to be very disappointed.

And then there’s all the in-between.  All the space between drifting without a goal and being overly structured.  That’s where I’m thinking about when I say it’s a process of navigation.  It’s the voyage toward the ideal goal along the charted path there.  My life has taken some twists I hadn’t planned for, but sometimes resiliency is the better navigator.  It’s getting by the obstacles that get in your way. It’s about having a destination in mind, but being flexible enough that one, or two, or more roadblocks won’t drive you off course.  It’s about paying attention to how much variance is acceptable and how firm your end goal is: maybe you’re 5-degrees off course but you realize that you’re enjoying where you’re going and decide the heading you’re on is better than the one on which you had planned.  Without that reality check, you wind up somewhere completely different than your expectations.

An article in The Atlantic suggests that the conventional wisdom that with age comes increasing happiness, is changing.  The author posits a couple of different potential reasons for this; the rise of individualism, an absence of emotional bonds.  I’m going to posit my own.  We spend an inordinate amount of time planning and setting expectations.  The generations coming to middle age and beyond now were raised with the expectation that they would do better economically than their parents; and it turns out this may not be so.  It’s about navigating the definition of happiness. We spend a lot of time alone, but very little time in introspection.  We know what we want to do, but we’re planning to get there instead of enjoying the here and now.  We have more capacity to touch more people, but less capacity for those meaningful relationships.  We have the knowledge of the entirety of human history at our fingertips, yet our work often needs little more information than how to press a button.  We give ourselves little wiggle room, and in our highly structured lives, we forget that resiliency matters.

I’m gettin’ paid by the hour, an’ older by the minute.
My boss just pushed me over the limit.
I’d like to call him somethin’,
I think I’ll just call it a day.

That said, the substantive body of generational and of “happiness” research suggests we do become happier as we get older.  The dawning of middle age was difficult for me.  I took a hard correction in course, really thought about what I wasn’t getting out of life, and reset what those expectations were.  What I didn’t do was decide it was all crap and throw it in the trash.

I started this post literally more than 4 years ago.  I have little doubt the direction it would have taken then would be substantially different than where I am today.  I cannot remember a time when I have felt more empowered by having a goal, having built a plan with a significant fudge factor in it, and working that plan. I’m happy with my work; I have a meaningful career I worked hard to cultivate and got lucky to have been in a few right places when it mattered.  I never grew up with a plan of what I wanted to do, I was however one of the lucky ones who found something I was interested in early and followed that path.

So how does one keep it between the navigational beacons?  By keeping the channel wide, by paying attention to the general direction, knowing what the journey generally should look like, and keeping tabs on where we are along the journey.  By finding meaning in what we do every day, instead of finding meaning in the ultimate goal.  The goal isn’t worth getting to if the journey isn’t worth having.



28 Days of Inspiration – Day 4

James Stockdale

Rear Admiral Stockdale in full dress uniform; US Navy File Photo

The 1960’s are remembered for high profile assassinations, Beatles, love-ins, and Vietnam War protests. A lot is taught in school about the decade of the 60’s but never once did I learn anything about Admiral James Stockdale.

While young men here in the United States resisted military service, perhaps fled to Canada, Stockdale was imprisoned in North Vietnam.  He spent eight years in captivity from 1965-1973 after being shot down and was the highest ranking officer to be held captive there. To put that in perspective, as it turns out eight years was just about 10% of the man’s life.

On September 9, 1965 he ejected from his disabled plane over North Vietnam, landed in a small village, was beaten and taken prisoner.

He relied on stoicism to keep himself grounded and to keep from being defeated.  He was beaten with his shoulders dislocated, legs and back broken, and his will assaulted.  Yet he never gave an inch.  Consider this: as an admiral, he led prisoner resistance.  According to his Medal of Honor citation, he resisted participating in prisoner exploitation by deliberately disfiguring himself; he did this with a razor to cut his scalp and when the Vietnamese tried to cover that wound with a hat, he literally beat himself in the face until it became so swollen as to be unrecognizable.  He slit his own wrists, a near mortal wound, to demonstrate he would not capitulate. He was kept in solitary confinement in a small cell, lights on 24-hours a day, in leg shackles for the majority of those 8-years in captivity.

In Good to Great author Jim Collins talks about “the Stockdale Paradox.”  Simply put, it boils down to this quote:

“Retain faith that you will prevail in the end, regardless of the difficulties, and at the same time confront the most brutal facts of your current reality, whatever they might be.” — James Stockdale.

Those who didn’t make it out were the “optimists.” The men who retained optimism with the groundless belief that they would be out by Christmas, were continually defeated and eventually lost faith that they would make it out.  The idea was that in order to be able to be resilient and see what may lie beyond, one has to acknowledge the current situation objectively.  He knew how dire his situation was, but he still had the faith to believe he was going to make it through.  More to the point, he had to accept his situation as what he had to endure and what he was fighting through.  This wasn’t a temporary situation that would resolve itself with time, it was a static feature that was only going to change with his action.  And it wasn’t going to be overnight, there were no simple fixes.

He returned home, willed himself to health – presumably via the same force of will demonstrated in the paradox quote – and resumed his military career becoming a university President and scholar.

Whatever hard time you’re going through, I urge you to consider the lessons of James Stockdale.  Honor, integrity, resilience.