We were only a few hundred meters from the start when I suspected our pace was entirely too fast. A quick glance at the GPS on my wrist confirmed it was time to reel back my overly enthusiastic legs.
I nodded my head to Chad, running next to me. “Dude, we need to back it off a tad.”
“What are we doing?”
“Sub-8. I can do that for 5, but not a 10K. Need to stick closer to 8:30.”
The Bolder Boulder is the largest timed running race in the United States. Boulder is an odd city: a cross between the usual liberal college town, Silicon Valley, and an Olympic training center. It is one of the most active cities in the world, where even the couch potatoes ski better than you, own a mountain bike, and have probably bagged at least one 14,000-foot peak.
There is also no shortage of orthopedic surgeons, physical therapists, massage centers, and rehab clinics.
I was back in town for a family vacation. Over a string of catch-up dinners and lunches I noticed a disturbing trend. One friend said it best over a glass of wine as our kids all played downstairs: “One night, we realized nearly all of our friends in Colorado had at least one surgery before they hit 40.”
Nearly everyone had had at least one knee worked on, followed by a scattering of hip resurfacings, spinal fusions, rotator cuff repairs, and the odd hand or foot. All were still active, very active, but we had been forced to adjust to new physical realities.
I was not an exception.
Chad started dragging about mile three. My knee was hurting, but in the way I knew would fade if I kept moving. We were right around our goal pace, but we had lost a little over a minute due to an unfortunate potty break. I told him to go when I did before the start.
“Rich, this is Dr. Bailey calling with your test results.” 1
“How close are you to the hospital? Is someone around who can drive you?”
A few days earlier, in June 2003, I had pulled my car over to the side of the highway on my way to the airport, grabbed my cell phone, and canceled the three-city speaking tour I was about to leave for. As a Gartner analyst I was on the road so much that I stopped competing in martial arts tournaments (I hate losing) and started training with a triathlon coach, picking a sport I had no chance of doing well in to enjoy the rapid improvement.
I’m not sure where I caught the bug from. Maybe Brazil, but just as likely Vegas. My blood work noted severe liver dysfunction and perplexing blood counts. I spent the next few weeks lying on my couch, barely strong enough to make it to the bathroom. Two months later I infected the girl I was starting to date, who described it as the worst illness of her life. She later married me anyway.
We never determined what it was, but after a healthy dose of time on WebMD I suspect a version of mono.2 I was weak for a year.
The problem with a lingering illness or injury is maintaining mental balance when you lose your primary coping mechanism. The early days aren’t so bad; almost an enjoyable off-season respite from the training routine.
Then you hit the danger zone of withdrawal. Exercise releases endorphins, and, as with any other addiction, you become attached to the social reinforcement and the routines associated with getting your fix. I couldn’t even drink; it made my liver hurt.
Somewhere after mile four I was cooked. It was right around the time we passed the belly dancers. I told Chad to go ahead, but he refused, and we kept pushing along as the hills steepened slightly and we looked longingly at the occasional keg in the front yard.
My original plan was to train up for the race during the couple of weeks of vacation before the start. My elder daughter vomiting into the baby’s car seat the morning of the trip was my first sign the plan was blown.
The shoulder is an amazing joint with an incredible range of motion in nearly every direction. In case you were curious, that also means that, when injured, there isn’t a single position the body can take that doesn’t put some sort of strain on it.
I tore my superior labrum, and likely my rotator cuff, picking up my laptop in Kuala Lumpur. Rehab alone failed, and in a mere 30 minutes of surgery my doctor cut my bicep tendon, strung it up with some surgical cord, pinned it to one of my shoulder bones, and stitched up the torn muscle.
A few days later I learned that I never have to worry about being busted for frequenting an S&M dungeon. I derive absolutely no pleasure from paying someone to torture me. “Rehabilitation” for shoulder surgery means maintaining joint flexibility by consistently tearing the healing adhesions that reduce range of motion. I don’t think I cried, but since I suspect I passed out from the pain I can’t be entirely certain.
I started having identity issues around the first year after surgery. It wasn’t the pain; I wondered if I would ever be physically capable of climbing a rock face or throwing a football again. I was depressed, despite everything else in my life being absolutely perfect. The key thing I noticed was a loss of confidence. I didn’t feel like myself, and I felt “weak” in a way I still can’t fully articulate. Part of me was missing.
It took three years for the shoulder to feel normal again.
As we turned onto Folsom Avenue, heading toward the CU stadium for the finish, I started obsessing over my GPS watch. Chad and I were neck and neck at this point, both of us relying on the other to keep up the pace. If we didn’t slack off we had a really good chance of making our goal time, but we still had a steep uphill before the course turned into the stadium.
I am one of the lucky individuals in the world who doesn’t need to worry about what their last thoughts will be. In 2010 I learned that, in my final moments, I will worry about what will happen to my wife and children. It comforts me immensely that I will not, instead, be concerned with making sense of the series finale of Lost.
Sitting at breakfast with my work partner outside of Washington, DC, I suddenly felt as if I was going to lose consciousness. He rushed me to the ER, I spent the night at the hospital, and I was kicked loose with a shrug of the shoulders and a “we don’t know what it is, but we don’t think it will kill you.” After many more doctor visits and a couple of ER trips, we narrowed it down to something gastrointestinal that tended to make me feel like I was having the occasional heart attack.3
Even the head of GI at the Mayo Clinic never figured it out, but I suspect that a nasty virus I caught while traveling in China a few months earlier wrecked my gut bacteria.4 For the next year I suffered through massive, sustained indigestion and heartburn no matter what I ate or what drugs I took. My confidence and happiness were at an all-time low.
I didn’t know what was wrong, didn’t know if it was serious, didn’t know if it would ever end, and was in constant discomfort. I hit the point where I forgot what it was like to feel normal. Unlike my other issues, I wasn’t able to simply shrug this one off in a few months, and it forced me to take a serious look at my life.
I wrote out my priorities (in a blog post, of course). First came my family, and then my health, and both intertwined inextricably. Even through the nausea and heartburn I vowed to work out at least 30 minutes a day and maintain a healthy diet. My father died when I was 16, and I was going to do everything in my power to be here for my kids long beyond that. Work came next — to keep the family fed — and anything, everything, after that.
Athleticism became more about staying healthy than about staying competitive. But part of my brain still fights for its old life.
After about a year my stomach issues mostly faded away. I started increasing the intensity of my workouts, but with a new acceptance of my time limitations as a father, husband, and entrepreneur. Work harder, but smarter and shorter.
Because our children were so young I wasn’t sleeping much, and one night I noticed my heart skipping beats. The problem would come and go over the next few weeks, but there was a definite correlation with my training, sleep, and stress. It is a type of atrioventricular block that doesn’t correlate with early mortality, but they have no idea why I developed it.
I’m mostly over the fear, but I still plan on getting a second opinion.
The finish of the Bolder Boulder is one of the most spectacular of any race open to the public. After running six miles under the shadows of the Flatirons, along streets lined with bands and the cheering public, you turn into Folsom Stadium. The crowds in the stands make you feel like you are finishing in the Olympics, not a small-town race.
Between breaths Chad asked, “how we doing?”
I looked at my watch. “We got it.”
I first ran the Bolder Boulder in 1997 at the age of 26 in an hour and 52 seconds. I would run it six more times before Chad and I pushed each other for those ten kilometers, never running under 58 minutes. That day, this past Memorial Day, we finished in 55:38, a personal best for both of us. Subtract our short bathroom break, and we each set a personal best for a 10K, not just for this race.
My string of minor medical maladies is far from over. I’m off running for a while because of an arthritis-induced cyst in my big toe. My right thumb still hurts after having caught it on something as we were practicing Brazilian jiu-jitsu with Forrest Griffin. The surgeon who fixed my shoulder informed me that instead of knee surgery, I need yoga five days a week. I still hurt a bit riding my bike, two months after the vasectomy.5
My illnesses and injuries have focused my life in a way I’m not certain I otherwise would have navigated. I regularly meet other amateur athletes who so define themselves through their sport that everything else, including family, comes second. It is a kind of selfishness that doesn’t age well.
I no longer focus on competing and winning, but on incremental improvement. Athleticism is still very much a part of who I am, but I’m learning that it can’t be my entire social life, personal identity, and coping mechanism. I, like most of my active friends, now focus on integrating my passion into my family activities. We’ve changed sports, shifted gears, and learned to work around the inevitable injuries.
I would be lying if I said I’m completely at peace. I’m also still completely unwilling to admit that my days of personal achievement are over. They will just have to come less frequently, more incrementally, and with greater planning. My family may be the priority, but I’m worthless to them if I’m unhappy. Part of me will always need competition.
Chad and I plan on knocking off a minute from our official time next year. Not counting the potty break.
Not his real name, which I forget. ↩
Mononucleosis is an infectious disease caused by the Epstein-Barr virus. Infections can be difficult to confirm, with high false-negative rates for antibody tests in the first weeks. Even many doctors rely on symptoms to diagnose it. ↩
Esophageal spasms, which stimulate many of the same nerves as a myocardial infarction. The two are often misdiagnosed for one another. ↩
Your gut bacteria is an incredibly complex ecosystem, and there is growing scientific evidence it may be tied to obesity, forms of depression, and other health issues. In my case, the Mayo Clinic diagnosed “functional dyspepsia,” which translates to “we don’t know what it is, but something is wrong,” and suggested antidepressants (for my gut, not my head). My onset of symptoms after a bad illness, and their eventual gradual reset without medications, seems consistent with something related to the bugs. ↩
That’s what my editor gets for not even letting me submit a proposal for a vasectomy article. ↩
Rich Mogull is an analyst and the CEO of security research firm Securosis. He's also an occasional freelance writer and an itinerant former rescue professional.