This is the sixth installment of a yearlong training journey towards my first full Ironman triathlon. To start at the beginning, click here.
New year, but the same training. I felt better this month. Some life stressors were situational and temporary: My licensure exam (I passed), Christmas, the flu, ….so I was not expecting to be more stressed out. I expected some negative side-effects from the medication, but none appeared. No increased heart-rate, no weight gain, no foggy head. I decided to stop worrying about what could possibly go wrong with taking medication. I was taking it. I felt better. How about I just enjoy that for now?
Training continued as usual as I continued to build my aerobic base. I knew that things would start to ramp up in the next months and I prepared myself mentally for that. As with all things, a routine can start to get boring after a while. As humans, we detect change more readily. I noticed that I was looking forward to my swims the most right now. Why? Probably because the runs and bike rides were on the same routes for the same amount of time. My swim workouts with the Masters team were different each day and forced me to be mentally engaged.
The real manatees….
….and the stuffed manatee.
Our vacation to Florida to attend a friend’s wedding was a welcome change to the schedule.We made sure to check out the manatees, see Disney World, and feed the ducks whenever we could. Seeing my daughter, Addie, smile and giggle meeting her favorite princesses and enjoy the rides made my heart sing.
Riding the Teacups at Disney World
Not having access to a local pool or bikes meant I was mostly running and walking -alternating each day. Even running new routes felt like a whole new sport. I had underestimated how a change in scenery can better things. Training-wise, my favorite part of the trip was finding an open-water swim near Orlando. Lucky’s Lake Swim is world-famous and boasts a cult following of locals.
The day greeting Lucky’s Lake
Later in the week, we headed to the Cocoa Beach for the day. We saw a large shark circling the pier in search of some lunch in the clear water. Awhile later I decided to take a dip in the water.
My daughter reassured me, letting me know, “ the shark is probably gonna bite you, dad.” Thanks.
Just happy be to here!
Being a parent forces one to find creative solutions. Three-year-olds don’t always like cross country flights and let that be known in subtle to not-so-subtle ways. During our two hour layover in Austin, I changed into a galloping horse with Addie on my shoulders. Daily workout: check. Pacified kiddo: check.
Family time has gotten much better. What do I mean by that? I was able to participate and enjoy being there. Sure there were always challenging parts of parenting like handling tantrums and trying to convince a three-year-old that they will feel better if they actually eat something. The balance of training and family life is more than just paying my dues to watch the kids. If things aren’t going right, the stress affects my training. It also makes me go back to why I am training so hard in the first place – to be a better version of myself. This means not being absent from the family all day every day just to get some more training in. If I’m not exercising or training, then my body isn’t moving like it should and I’m not as great at being a family man.
For the technical aspects of my training, my mile times hovered around 10:20. Not great, but I am trusting in the training and realizing that life stress is playing a part in this. Increasing sleep and fun time with family is helping. One more month down and halfway towards Ironman Santa Rosa.
This is the fifth installment of a yearlong training journey towards my first full Ironman triathlon. To start at the beginning, click here.
I knew it was bad when it got to me in the pool.
(If you were hoping for a simple training update with no real life stress, you should probably skip this post)
Training and Real Life Collide
The stress of life and everything that wasn’t Ironman got to me. I mean, really got to me. December was packed with the usual obligations of Christmas shopping and holiday parties to plan or attend, but this year there was much more on my plate. Studying for my clinical licensure test filled my free time. Someone close to me had been the victim of a horrible crime I could do nothing to stop. My daughter, though really loving her new baby brother, was distraught that her mom could not pick her up or carry her because she was healing from her C-section still. Our family unit was trying to find homeostasis again. Continue reading →
This is the fourth installment of a yearlong training journey towards my first full Ironman triathlon. To start at the beginning, click here.
Ironman Training Month 4
November started off in a powerful way. My son was born on November 3rd, healthy and well. After the hospital stay, my wife and I brought him home and began the juggling act of raising two kids. Needless to say, there was not much training for the first week after his birth. I did my best to prepare food, run errands, and wrangle my three-year-old daughter. I spent lots of time at the park so my wife could rest and attend to the newborn. In the first two weeks I snuck in a couple bike rides and swim, but with minimal sleep, rest and recovery were priority number one. Some days, keeping my eyes open just to push my daughter on the swing was a major victory.
By Thanksgiving, I was back to swimming, biking, and running per the training plan laid out by Coach Nick Carling. I ran my MAF test in just over 30 minutes with 9:56, 9:58, and 10:18 splits. Relief set in that my fitness had not totally disappeared and I had even improved from last month’s MAF test.
Brace Yourselves, Winter is Coming
With winter approaching and Daylight savings time shortening the hours of sunlight, I sweated out most rides on the indoor trainer. One challenge I faced was being able to “let go” and accept that I would not complete all of my prescribed training sessions. At the same time, I made sure not to swing to the other end of the spectrum and justify sitting around when I had the time to train and ample sleep the night before. So goes the balancing act of parenthood and Ironman training. Since I work 10 hour days, I plan ahead to make sure my workouts fit into the day. To streamline my mornings I usually lay out workout clothes and gear the night before.
Even though I could not put in the training hours, my daughter was a big help with nutrition. She is at the age where she wants to help out, so I recruited her to help make my green smoothies.
My daughter loves to help make healthy smoothies.
My favorite swim was a Thanksgiving Day workout with the Walnut Creek Masters. We had the options of what we chose to “eat” on the menu, choosing different sets of freestyle and non-freestyle strokes. All said and done, it totaled about 4,200 meters.
The Big Picture
Whenever I felt frustrated by the setbacks or stalls in fitness and training, I reminded myself of the bigger picture: I train and race to improve myself as a person and triathlon is only part of that equation. It’s easy for me to get this confused and expect the rest of my life to conveniently fit around my training. Frustration and resentment build when people and events don’t align with my triathlon life, so the reality check and shift in perspective keeps me grounded. I think a lot of age-groupers feel this from time to time, expecting the results that the professionals get, forgetting the pros don’t have a full-time day job or other serious commitments outside of sport. And like all endurance races, it is a journey of consistent effort and not a sprint.
“We provide all alligators for free. There is no extra or hidden charge” boasts the Lucky’s Lake Swim website.
After reading that I knew my casual google search for open water swimming in Orlando had struck gold. My family and I were on vacation and I hoped to get some training in during my time in Florida.
Not only are the alligators provided, but Lucky’s Lake Swim is a totally free event happening daily. In a world of $1000 entry fees for Ironman triathlons, I figured there had to be a catch. Who would open up his own home and let strangers come each day for a 1k swim in the warm Florida lake waters? As it turns out, Dr. “Lucky” Meisenheimer would. Besides creating a swim with a cult following, Lucky has quite the resumé. One needs only to glance at Dr. Meisenheimer’s wiki page to discover the man who is the cross-section of medical doctor, author, former collegiate swimmer, actor, yo-yo enthusiast, family man, and foot-in-mouth-swim record holder. (Yes, that’s a thing.)
Am I in the right place?
I drove to Lake Cane, entering Lucky’s lakefront property around 6:00 am and parked beneath an outdoor basketball hoop. A regular to the pre-dawn ritual greeted me, “You swimming today?” Al Johnson, a Vietnam Vet, took me down to the dock and got me the orange clip-on float buoy, required for all newbies, including “Michael freaking Phelps” as the website states. He traded my signed waiver for a green swim cap and we set our gear on the dock. Al noticed my outsized military tattoos and told me he had served with the 173rd in Vietnam. Apparently, I’m not the only veteran-turned-endurance-junkie out there. Al and a pair of former Air Force F-16 pilots were regulars.
It’s a little more convicing in the dark
It was then that I noticed a hungry gator just a few inches deep staring up at me. “It’s not real!” Al chided me after glancing my open jaw. Good to know.
Floaties are provided for Lucky’s Lake Swim
The swim starts at 6:30 on weekdays, so it would not be light until halfway through. The other regulars showed up, some with wetsuits because it was likely the coldest swim of the year. In central Florida, this means 63º, which felt like a bath tub compared to the San Francisco Bay. And to boot, the water was a full 20º warmer than the air temperature that morning! A novel experience for a west-coaster like me.
When it finally reached half past six we all paddled out and began our lake crossing, keeping left of the buoys. Of course I wasn’t thinking about gators biting my legs, or arms, or neck. Nope. Quickly those thoughts disappeared as I settled into the familiar rythm of stroke and breath. The silence of early morning complimented the still, dark waters of Lake Cane. The only sounds were my breathing and the splash of my hands entering the water. Soon enough I touched my feet to the soft banks on the opposite side of the lake. Halfway there.
During the trip back a sunrise slowly peaked over mossy oak trees and simplified the sighting back to Lucky’s dock. A thick mist hung over the Lake Cane’s surface, catching the orange rays of the dawn. Twenty-seven minutes after I had jumped in, my hands reached the dock and feet found purchase on the shore. My first crossing was complete!
The air temp. was still in the 40’s. Warm up back in the truck with the heater on, I figured, until I heard someone call out to me “you gotta try the hot tub!” A quick rinse and then into the tub. Heaven. I chatted with a few of the other regulars who were happy to hear about my swims in the Pacific. They were used to the out-of-towners and glad to hear about my first time here in Lake Cane. They told me about the duck who sometimes made the crossing with them and a Jack Rusell terrier who also completed multiple swims. Why not?
Fully reheated, I stepped out and was promptly handed the first-timer’s goodie bag. It included a bumper sticker, patch, and log sheet to track all my future crossings. Swimmers are given various caps and shirts after milestone crossings (25, 50, 100, etc.).
Lucky himself took me to sign the wall and was nice enough to snap a picture with me, talking about how it all came together back in 1989 when he first organized the group swims. Eventually, it grew from him and a couple friends to dozens of people a day and sometimes 200 plus swimmers on summer weekends. Crowds like that sound like great training for an Ironman mass swim start, but I was grateful for the relative solitude my group of seven afforded me that morning.
The photo on the right is none other than Gwen Jorgenson, who swam here in September ’16.
…and it’s official!
I always enjoy the feeling of starting my day with a good swim, especially in open water. But more than the exercise, the feeling of community and shared experience made Lucky’s Lake Swim special. Not only was there a tight-knit group of regulars, but they extended that welcome to me, a tourist. When it comes down to it, the shared experience is what makes this special.
Driving back from Lake Cane, I smiled. Only 24 more crossings until I earned that white swim cap!
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Month 3 of training using the Maffetone Method is complete. I found my rhythm and it feels good. Waking up early enough for swims, hitting those lunchtime runs and getting on the bike are routine. I don’t have any more races for the season so no speed work, no intervals, just good old fashion aerobic training. Coach Nick Carling decided that the next few months should be dedicated to building my aerobic base.
My September training was a bit of an overlap with my last race of the season and the annual open-water swim I coordinate. Unlike Month 1, the second month was a little busier.
Santa Cruz 70.3 was on the 11th of the month, so workouts were planned accordingly to give me a buildup, taper, and recovery from the race. I came down with a minor cold a week before the race and eased off training more than my taper called for. Listening to my body paid off. The race went well and even more of a plus was that recovery did not take as long as in previous 70.3 races. I was satisfied to finish in under 6 hours and seeing the race as practice for a full Ironman in terms of pacing and strategy added a fun element to the day.
Off the Couch
While I didn’t hit all my prescribed workouts, I stayed consistent with the three disciplines after the race. This alone was a major step for me. I tend to anchor myself on a couch for a month after a big race and binge on junk food. Breaking that pattern with some light workouts boosted my confidence considerably. I’ve noticed that many times there is a fine line between staying active and going completely dormant because “I earned it” after a big race.
More yellow and red than I would prefer, but I listened to my body and made the right choice.
The two other major events in the month were the Alcatraz swim and a trip to Boston to see my good friend from the Marine Corps get married. Fitting my training into that trip back east took a little creativity, but was very doable. I had a 6-hour layover in Los Angeles, which I used to get my “run” in by walking the terminal and carry my luggage up and down stairs for an hour. Staying active in Boston was easy. The city offers plenty of things to see and I could walk to most of them. It also helped that the hotel had a pool and stationary bikes for some quality morning sessions.
One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to have a long run and see neighborhoods usually missed by tourists. The early fall weather of New England was optimal for running with the low temperatures helping to keep the heart rate down.
All in all, I made an effort to get my training in and didn’t get down on myself when the schedule didn’t fit into my life. When I couldn’t fit in the exact workout, I just made sure to spend a lot of time on my feet walking.
Ironman 70.3 Santa Cruz was my third middle-distance triathlon. In contrast to the first two, I did not feel an excessive amount of pre-race jitters. The lack of fear coming into the race was a welcome change. I felt confident I would finish and had no attachment to any finish time. Okay, I wanted to finish in under 6 hours, but it wouldn’t be a heartbreaker if it took longer. After all, I race for fun. I race to celebrate being alive and honor other people I care about. It was also the first triathlon training strictly with the Maffetone Method.
Up until a week before the race, Ironman 70.3 Santa Cruz was simply another triathlon. Sure, I cared about it, but I did not raise funds for any charities like my previous race in Oceanside. That all changed when my coworker, Dave, shared some heavy news with me. His wife, Sarah, just found out she had cancer. Both of them were understandably devastated by the news, but as a testament to their strength in the middle of uncertainty, they were not hiding from this. Dave and Sarah were sharing the news with others, partly as a way to have some choice in the matter. How do you react when someone shares this with you? I certainly didn’t know. Continue reading →
When I was 11 years old I raced in my first triathlon with my dad. It was a “one and done” experience up until I watched the Ironman World Championships in Kona, Hawaii 20 years later. The energy among the athletes, volunteers, and spectators was exciting in a way I could not resist. Shortly after coming home I decided to give the sport another try. Continue reading →
Many veterans describe the transition out of the military as a major change in life. That is compounded by a combat deployment where chaos and uncertainty can turn one’s worldview upside-down. But for some the switch is even more difficult. Some come back with PTSD, some with missing limbs, and some without the ability to see. Major Scotty Smiley is one of those individuals who lost his eyesight on the battlefield when a suicide bomber detonated himself near Scotty’s Stryker vehicle. Rather than let his disability define him, Scotty has made a career of redefining what is possible and defying the conventional wisdom regarding what blind people can and can’t do.
Major Scotty Smiley summits Mt. Rainier.
I had the honor of talking with Major Smiley, or “Scotty,” as close friends and family call him. A few months back I came across his story on the Ironman website. A video showed a blind man talking about how he decided that he should run an Ironman triathlon as one of many arduous endeavors he has overtaken to share his story. I wound up ordering his book, Hope Unseen, which chronicles his life story from childhood to combat and back home again.
Scotty grew up in Pasco, Washington and enjoyed playing just about every sport available. He excelled in football and wrestling in high school and credits his training for instilling values in him like independence and dependence.
Scotty learned to be independent in wrestling, taking responsibility. “When it came down to it, I either beat the other guy or I didn’t and it was on me,” he noted. He knew that his coaches could get him so far with training and motivation, but it was up to him to deliver. Playing football taught him dependence on other teammates. In order to win, he remembers having to make sure everyone was operating on the same page and that the team was only as strong as its weakest link.
Besides his involvement in sports, Scotty Smiley was raised a devout Christian. He recalled how his mother encouraged her children to read the Bible and practice the teaching of Jesus in their lives. Forgiveness would play a major role in how Scotty dealt with his homecoming and blindness.
Into the Army
After high school, Scotty was accepted to the Military Academy at West Point and began his training as an Army officer. He wrestled for a year, but decided to focus on his studies after his freshman year because of the rigorous academic load each cadet must shoulder to become a commissioned officer in the Army. Not too long after graduation he married his high school sweetheart, Tiffany. Scotty received further training in infantry tactics and completed Ranger School without having to be recycled or repeat any of the training in which many soldiers wash out.
Kristy (Webb) Graham, Edward Graham, Scotty and Tiffany at Ranger School graduation, Ft. Benning, Georgia.
In 2005, Scotty and his unit were deployed to Mosul where they patrolled the streets in Strykers. By this time in the war, suicide bombings had started to increase and were a common tactic against American forces. In his book, Hope Unseen, he recounts in detail the experience of leading soldiers in Iraq.
On April 6th, 2005, Scotty encountered the man who would detonate his own body and send Scotty into a world of darkness.
Major Smiley awoke in a bed in Walter Reed Medical Center, Tiffany and the rest of his family coming to visit him as soon as they could. Dazed and disoriented, Scotty had nightmares of being in Iraq and would yell out for his Oakley sunglasses. Painkillers and PTSD blurred the lines of dreams and reality as he endured surgeries to remove shrapnel and unsuccessful attempts to repair his eyesight.
He didn’t believe in himself at this point and recalled feeling abandoned by God. Doubt, despair, confusion, and self-pity made his sightless world feel even darker. In addition to losing his eyesight, Scotty had to regain function in the right side of his body and deal with a traumatic brain injury (TBI) caused by the explosion and shrapnel. In short, he was fortunate to have survived the blast at all.
“I felt guilty then and feel guilty now as I remember questioning God in such a way. It goes against everything I grew up believing. But what you believe can change when your world is blown apart. I couldn’t run from these feelings or thoughts.” –Hope Unseen, pg. 103
Despite this, friends and family were there to return the encouragement and strength that Scotty had shared with all of them before being wounded. He was visited by a young boy he had taught in Sunday School while at West Point. The visit was a pivotal moment in Scotty’s recovery. It helped him to realize how many people still looked up to and genuinely cared about him. Soon after he decided that lack of sight would not stop him from getting out of bed and attempting to shower on his own.
Jeff Van Antwerp visits Scotty at Walter Reed.
After being transferred to the V.A. Hospital in Palo Alto, California. , the rehabilitation continued. Scotty began lifting weights again and learning to walk with a cane to guide him. He endured the humility of basic cognitive testing that included adding up change. His mind was filled with thoughts of how far he had fallen in less than a few months.
“I’m Ranger and scuba qualified. I dodged flying bullets. I wanted to pick up the change and hurl it across the room.” –Hope Unseen pg. 144.
Anger towards the suicide bomber in Mosul still weighed on him. By blowing himself up, this man had taken not only Scotty’s eyesight, but his independence. Scotty remembered the teachings of Jesus and how forgiveness was a central theme. Holding onto anger and resentment was not going to help him move forward. By deciding to forgive this man and let go of the anger, Scotty recalls how much lighter he felt. He is convinced that this act of forgiveness was a crucial step in his recovery.
A Swell of Confidence
After returning to his duty station in Ft. Lewis, Scotty and Tiffany took a vacation to Hawaii to visit family friends and get away from the hospital life. It was there that he had an audacious thought. Scotty decided he was going to surf. His close friend and fellow Army officer, Jeff Van Antwerp, agreed to take him out and give it a go. Following Jeff’s voice and guidance, Scotty paddled out. After ignoring the doubts his mind sent him, urging him to quit, he felt the surge of the perfect wave and hoisted himself up on his board. He rode five waves that day and had an epiphany.
“…I was learning that if I believed in myself, asked God for help, and reached out to others, I could overcome my limitations. And I did it.” –Hope Unseen, pg. 158
Hitting his Stride
His journey did not stop with surfing. Scotty went on to summit Mt. Rainier, wakeboard, earn an MBA at Duke University and taught at West Point. He was the first blind active-duty soldier in the history of the Army. In his book, Hope Unseen, he recalls encountering many obstacles and doubt along the way, but each time he forged ahead and blazed his own trail. Scotty retired from the Army in 2015 after earning the rank of major.
Many people would be tempted to pat themselves on the back after such an impressive list of accomplishments, but the phrase “slow down” does not appear in Major Smiley’s vocabulary. He decided to run an Ironman triathlon after being convinced by his brother-in-law, Andy Cooper. For those unfamiliar, and Ironman involves a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride, and a 26.2 (marathon) run. “I thought he was insane at first,” recalled Scotty.
Scotty and Andy trained together until the time came for the Coeur D’alene Ironman. Just in case the course length was not difficult enough, the event saw a record high temperature of 105º that day. Despite wanting to quit multiple times, he found the strength to continue because the race wasn’t just about him. During the first half of the run, Scotty began to slow down and wanted to quit. It was then that his wife, Tiffany, reminded him of the motivation for going on:
“You’re not doing this for yourself! You’re doing it for those who didn’t make it back.”
Scotty ran the second half of his marathon even faster because he found renewed purpose and thought of an Army value he had embodied his whole career as a soldier: selfless service. Scotty made a decision to continue despite the doubts or discomfort. Just like years ago in his bed in Walter Reed, a choice was before him. He could choose to sit in his PTSD and depression and let it control his life, but the world was not going to stop. He had to make a decision to move forward, no matter how small the steps were at first.
Celebrating at the finish line with his wife, Tiffany.
In talking with Scotty Smiley it became very apparent that self-pity was not part of his identity. He focuses on the now and what is to come instead of dwelling in the past. Like many veterans, he doesn’t want or need pity. When encountering an obstacle he pauses only long enough to figure out how to climb over. Today he can be found taking care of his three boys, working as an investment banker, giving motivation talks, and training for his next endurance event. I hope to race with him one of these days, but either way his story has inspired me to continue pushing the limits of what I think is possible.
To read the full story, order Scotty’s book Hope Unseen.
Two of the common difficulties for veterans readjusting to civilian life are anxiety and depression. Sometimes the feelings come after a major life change like exiting the military or returning from war. Other times they are longer lasting symptoms that can accompany other problems and warrant a diagnosis of PTSD. Either way, anxiety and depression can be a heavy burden to carry.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary offers a couple definitions for anxiety, one being:
“an abnormal and overwhelming sense of apprehension and fear often marked by physiological signs (as sweating, tension, and increased pulse), by doubt concerning the reality and nature of the threat, and by self-doubt about one’s capacity to cope with it.”