I’ve always viewed exercise and sport as a vehicle with various meanings. One is the pure and basic opportunity to challenge oneself, push boundaries and find out what our bodies (and minds) are capable of. Another is that it simply makes you “feel alive”. It’s not always easy to get out the door, but once you do, you find through movement & exertion you begin to think through things in your life if even subconsciously; your perspective changes and once you’re done, you feel a little renewed. As I’ve moved through many years of triathlon and sought to compete at the highest level of the sport, I found myself seeking something else out of my purpose with competing.
People filed into the hotel Thursday afternoon. It was an assortment of campers, coaches, and volunteers. You could tell who the campers were, as they all arrived with easy smiles; outgoing, and eager to learn and take advantage of this opportunity. Our evening included a casual and social few hours of burgers and beers under a warm Texas sky, while the mechanics worked tirelessly to dial in bikes. Although informal, we went around the group and briefly introduced ourselves, telling our new friends where we were from and what brought us here. A few tears were shed, and I knew then staring at the group of friendly strangers that it would be a special few days.
Friday began early with a leadership session, followed by loading up the vans to head over to the lake for a full day of challenge and learning. Many campers had yet to ride a bike while ‘clipping in’ (intimidating for us all the first few times), and don a wetsuit; much less swim in open water. Derick did his usual incredible job of leading them through not only clipping into their pedals but proceeding to make them spend a good 90 minutes riding around in a grassy field (complete with a few potholes), tasking them to ride one-handed, next to a partner, bumping shoulders, and even picking up a water bottle while pedaling. Watching them, I was amazed at how quickly they picked up new skills and progressed through the tasks. By the end of the session, everyone had laughed hard, fallen over a few times, and gotten back up again. Suffice to say, it was the beginning to a successful weekend.
Only 24 hours later, due to schedule changes because of weather (they were supposed to have 2 days to learn!), they were all toeing the start line for a triathlon. This was a first for many, yet for the ‘veteran triathletes’, a chance to race alongside their fellow veterans. Under ominous Texas skies threatening a storm, each and every one of them swam, biked and ran to their own finish line. They all had different stories; various reasons for wanting to be here. While I cannot speak for them, I imagine through the challenge of the race and the entire weekend, they often thought of those reasons; and this passion propelled them through countless emotions and experiences.
I came to this camp as a ‘pro coach’. I’ve watched Derick lead the camp the past 5 years, and I’ve heard from him how moving it has been. I was anxious to be a part of the entire weekend, not just the closing dinner as in years past. But I didn’t want to be put on a pedestal, as a ‘pro’. I actually came into it a bit intimidated. I am not a veteran. I’ve not had the balls to put my own life on the line to serve our country. Who am I to have any sort of hierarchy amongst these men and women? Alas, I realized I had skills and experiences in the triathlon realm with which I could help them; much like they have had life experiences I’ve not had, and could help me, too. To understand a different point of view; a different life story.
The recurring concept I keep going back to when I re-hash this weekend is: Tell Me Your Story.
These few days were all about listening, opening up, being vulnerable; letting others in to our own experiences and insecurities, our worries and our fears; so that we could all go back out into this strange and crazy world a little stronger and a little more confident. We learned valuable leadership and communication skills. We laughed a hell of a lot. We cried a bit too. We learned empathy; and how empathy differs from sympathy. We learned what is truly important, and what is really not. I looked into people’s eyes and heard them talk; I tried to walk in their shoes, to understand where they were coming from. It was empowering to watch them, it was a thrill to have the honor of helping, and it was inspirational to witness. The environment was safe for everyone to truly be themselves; authentic, vulnerable, and real.
These past few days impacted me perhaps as much as it impacted every one of those 32 campers; and I’m guessing I am not alone, given the amazing coach and volunteer staff we had assembled; who also put their energy and hearts into everything to be sure that this experience was nothing shy of awesome for those who took the time to attend. I’m humbled to have been able to be a part of the Team Red White & Blue 2016 Triathlon camp. I only hope that these 32 individuals…heroes…now are equipped with the skills, knowledge, courage and confidence to go out and go after their own goals. After all, they’ve more than earned it.
I was diagnosed with RRMS in January of 1999 at the age of 48. I had noticed various symptoms for the previous 9 years ranging from foot drop, numbness, and vision changes, to balance issues, but the thing that drove me to find out what was going on was the paralyzing fatigue. I spent the next three years trying to get my mind wrapped around the diagnosis of MS, a disease which the wife of a very good friend of mine had passed away from just a few years earlier. Eventually, the worry wore me out and I decided to just get on with living.
Through out my life I had generally managed to stay active. Although I have never been a swimmer and now running was becoming more and more difficult, I eventually discovered that riding the spin cycles at the club was doable. That prompted me to dust off an old mountain bike I had and start riding outside. The bike took my mind off of the MS because there were so many other things to think about like where I was, where I was going, how far, how fast, the rain, the wind and the traffic and of course the scenery and whatever chaos might be going on around me. It was an exhilarating opportunity to experience life again and I fell in love with it almost immediately.
I attempted my first MS 150 in 2005. I was only marginally successful. I sagged and short cut my way to the end and still barely made it. I felt my effort was so miserable that I didn’t even attempt the ride in 2006 but I did step up my training on the bike. I successfully completed the MS 150 in 2007 and it was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done in my life, but I decided then that I would do this ride every year until I couldn’t do it anymore.
In 2008 I noticed that my time on the first day of the MS 150 seemed to improve and by quite a bit and I began to see that the bike riding was actually helping me overcome some of the MS damage, so I started to pay more attention to that aspect of riding. I began to notice positive changes in fatigue levels and strength. I found things I had not been able to do at all in previous years that I could at least do to a moderate extent. I stepped up my training again in 2009 and again improved my first day saddle time in the MS 150. I decided to step out and try some longer, harder rides.
In 2010 in honor of our 60th birthdays, a friend and I did the “Ride the Rockies”, 7 straight days, 532 miles, 27,000 feet of ascent. Although I took one of the recovery days off to visit some old friends, I DID climb ALL 6 of the mountain passes the ride covered. The MS 150 that year was relatively easy for me and again I improved my first day saddle time.
At the end of 2010 I had a brief relapse that I felt was brought on by an MS drug that I tried. I spent the first part of 2011 getting through the damage from that relapse. In spite of it though, I signed up for the MS 150 including the 2nd day century. I also signed up for the “Triple Bypass”, a single day, 123-mile ride with 10,000 ft. of ascent. Again I improved my time on the first day of the 150 even if only by 7 minutes and I didn’t have any problems on the 2nd day century either, except maybe a little with the heat toward the very end. Unfortunately, I failed miserably on the “Triple Bypass” though. I did several other rides with varying degrees of success that year too and I took the liberty of blaming my failures on the relapse I’d had late in 2010 and my successes on my training. I decided to repeat most of the rides that I did that year again in 2012 to see if I could improve my success rate.
Although the “Triple” would only constitute a relatively hard training ride for a pro, there is a good chance that it might be more than I am capable of, but whether or not I complete it is not really the point any more. The real point of these rides is the training they encourage me to do. I know how lucky I am to be able to ride at all because I know so many who can’t.
Over the years I’ve seen how beneficial the training has been for my MS, I believe there is more at work here than simple strengthening of atrophied muscles. And, of course, the various rides with fabulous scenery and multiple opportunities to make new friends, provides more incentive for me to concentrate on that training. Sometimes it is a difficult concept to explain to a more competitive rider, but although I appreciate being able to complete the rides I sign up for and I thoroughly enjoy seeing the improvement in my riding abilities, it’s really all about the training and the tremendously beneficial effect it has on the MS.