April 01, 2008

A Psychosomatic Semblance of Sanity

My grandfather is dead. No need for condolences. I mean, you can condole if you want, but I'm not telling you he's dead so you can give me sympathy. I have a long list of other things that I would tell you if all I wanted was sympathy. We can get to that later.

My grandfather was a gentle man with a strong character. He had great fortitude and a strength of mind that commanded respect. He was a loving and tender man. In some mysterious ways he was always the controlling force in any room, despite the fact that most of the time he remained silent, content to just be listening.

My grandfather had 9 siblings and lived longer than any of them. Which, if you know my grandfather (which you don't, but I'm trying my best to explain if you'd just stay focused), is amazing. When God was handing out the "sick" genes, somebody must've slipped on a banana peel and spilled extra into grandpa's basket. He was a magnet for disease. I think he may have gotten every sickness ever invented, and then some.

His heart wasn't so strong, so he got a pacemaker at an early age. That led to numerous open-heart surgeries and bypasses and other reasons for ridiculously sharp objects to be slicing and dicing around his chest cavity. He conquered just about every form of cancer known to man. He had allergies and sinus headaches. There are at least five doctor's who are putting their kids through college, thanks to my grandfather's fragile constitution. You're welcome.

As far back as I can remember my grandfather was always in and out of hospitals. In fact, there are no videos of me as a baby because my grandfather was in the hospital for the early months of my life. Apparently he was the only one who knew how to work the video camera. (As if a video camera is so difficult to figure out. Could it really have been more challenging than pressing the "record" button?! I guess it shows you how mechanically inclined my family is. It's a wonder we can even tie our shoes without some technical support.)

But there's one thing my grandfather always wanted - and that was to live to see the millennium. He was born sometime in the early 20th century and wanted to live to see the clock turn over to the year 2000. He was a very determined man so, of course, he accomplished his goal. And, of course, he was in the hospital when it happened.

On December 30, 1999, just two days before Y2K did absolutely nothing to a nervous world, I got the call that my grandfather was going into the hospital. Yes I was concerned, but the truth is that the incident was equivalent to, say, you telling me that you're going to the market for pork rinds. I'm concerned you're eating pork rinds, you shouldn't do that. It's not good for a healthy heart. But the fact is that you go to the market on such a regular basis, I know you'll be back and it'll be ok, though maybe you'll be a modicum less healthy than you were before.

You probably think I'm going to tell you that grandpa died there in the hospital on January 1, 2000. That would be poetic, but it's not the truth. My grandfather should've died many times before, but he wanted to live through to the year 2000 and he did, if by nothing else than sheer determination. He saw the turn of the millennium. He got out of the hospital, and was happy. He saw all his children and grandchildren and was happier. He bounced back, as he always did.

Later that year, he went to the hospital again and never came out.

[That's a very long set-up to my story so I'm really going to do my best to not ramble on. Though telling you I'm not going to ramble on is an example of me rambling on. OK, enough already.]

In many ways I am like my grandfather. I am often silent, pensive, aware. I say some of the same things he used to say. I am stronger of the mind than of the body. I am determined. And, unfortunately, I'm sickly.

Of all the damn genes in the family lottery pool, I ended up walking away with my grandfather's sick gene.

Since I was a child I've battled sickness on a regular basis. When I was five years old I got pneumonia and was sent to the hospital. (As it turns out, two floors below me was my grandfather, who got sent to the hospital at the same time for some sort of heart something or other. My family would go up and down the elevator, splitting the visiting hours between the two of us.)

As I grew older, I came down with all the basics. Chickenpox, mono, you name it I got it. My allergies were horrendous. I also seemed to be prone to breaking bones. As I reached the high school years, it was like I had a perpetual cold. My entire schooling was spent sniffling, sneezing and feeling run down. The fever would come on about 3 or 4 times per year and knock me out. If my high school yearbook had a category called "Most Likely To Get A Highly Infectious Disease," I would've won that one hands down.

But I've always been athletic and have always tried my best to care for my body. As I get older, I suppose I've gotten more accustomed to the fragile nature of my attraction to sickness. Spirituality has started creeping into my life. I've dabbled in yoga, meditation and have sauntered down various streets of serenity. I've become fascinated with the minds power to heal the body. Sometimes I figure my mind may be my only hope.

Emotionally, I'm a relatively even-keeled person. But, like anybody else, I get nervous. Athletically, this most often happens about 2-3 weeks before a race. The longer the race, the greater the internal pressure, the stronger the stress.

Which brings us to Ironman Arizona. In case you haven't been counting, its less than two weeks away. I'm deep in taper mode right now. My training has been going well, all things considered. I've proved to be so much stronger this ironman training than my struggles leading up to Ironman Lake Placid.

My swimming has been better than ever. My biking is spot on. My running is infinitely better than it was for Lake Placid. My body is ready. In fact, dare I say that I've even been looking forward to the race. Especially the run. I want to see what's going to happen on the run. Back when I was training for Lake Placid, I couldn't do any runs faster than 10 minute miles. It was frustrating. I cursed a lot. It was the slowest I had been in my life. I think I cursed every moment of every step. I ran out of curse words to say so I'd just focus on one and keep repeating it. A curse word per mile - that kinda sums up my Ironman Lake Placid training.

These past months have been different. On some runs I've averaged 8:30/mile or faster. My speed runs are in the 6:15 to 6:45 range. The long (14+ mile) runs are around 9 minute mile averages, with a few 8:30-8:45s thrown in for good measure. It makes me happy. It makes me think I may be able to get the speed back that I had when I was but a young whipper-snapper. It makes me almost excited for the Ironman Arizona run.

In true sickly fashion, about 2 months ago I came down with a brutal case of the flu. I get the flu every year, like clockwork. In fact, we've now got an arrangement, the flu and me. It doesn't try to sneak up on me anymore. It just pleasantly knocks on my door. I open up and welcome it in. We have a cup of tea, maybe some crumpets, and then I let it have it's way with me for a couple of weeks. Shortly thereafter, we part ways with a handshake, a smile and a "see you next year, give my love to the wife and kids."

Since I recovered from this year's flu, I've been plagued with this crazy post-nasal drip. Sometimes that happens to me. Whenever I go biking or running I cough and cough and cough like I'm hacking out a lung, an intestine and maybe even a pancreas (assuming it's possible to cough out a pancreas, I wasn't real good at biology). The coughing is annoying - not just for me, but for everybody else around me. It forces me to stop and lean on the side of the road like I'm dry heaving. But there's nothing to heave. Just more coughs. And maybe a pancreas being jiggled loose.

Add on top of that this flu-ish feeling that's been coming on for the past couple of days. More than anything, it's frustrating. I really don't want the flu again - especially this close to my race. About 20 miles into this weekend's 80 mile ride I felt the fever coming on. I slowed down and thought of turning around. But I kept going, easy and steady, and made it through. Hopefully that won't come back to haunt me.

More importantly, I can't run. Two weeks ago I was doing a track workout and halfway through my 800 repeats, my calves stopped repeating and started cramping. I stopped, walked, stretched and tried to do a slow warm-down, which pretty much turned into me sitting down on the track in frustration as people ran around me and wondered why I was being such a numbnutz. Since then I haven't been able to run at all. The three hour run I had on the schedule for last week lasted all of 2 minutes and 35 seconds before the pain took over.

I've been going to physical therapy. Electric stim, ultra sound, massage, ice, stretch, blah blah blah. You know the drill. I've been doing my runs on the elliptical and started pool jogging this week. Two weeks out from Ironman - the Ironman where I was really looking forward to running - and I can't even dash across the street without cringing in pain. And even if I could dash across the street, I'd be doubled-over on the other side hacking out some pretty important internal organs.

The crazy thing in all of this is that I don't feel stressed anymore. People ask me if I'm nervous or anxious. No, I say in a calm tone with a hint of "what do you mean?" attached to the end, just for good measure.

You see, I've been racing triathlon for about 16 years and have just about reached a point where I'm almost starting to notice some patterns.

There are a few things that seem to happen to me on a regular basis during the weeks leading up to my races. First, I feel like I'm getting sick. You know, fever, run-down, all-I-want-to-do-is-lay-on-the-couch type of sick. Secondly, my legs stop working. And when I say "stop working" I mean that I get a debilitating injury. It's normally the calf or achilles that puts me out of commission for a couple of weeks. On top of that, even if I could actually go for a run, I sometimes come down with an annoyingly rambunctious cough that limits me from doing any exercise whatsoever. Then there's the surprising symptoms behind Curtain A. I never know what they're going to be. One year it was a slightly sprained wrist. For another race I came down with such incredible back pain the days before, that I was left completely incapacitated. I literally could not stand up the day before the race. I had to spend the entire day laying flat in bed or on the floor.

When all of this happens, I tend to do what any normal person would do - I freak out. I get frustrated. I complain. I get angry. I get short-tempered. Then, somewhere in there, it slowly transforms into a sort of serenity. I start recognizing that I can't change what I can't change. It is what it is. Which is apparently where I am right now.

Miraculously, come race day everything usually feels fine. Sure the calf may not be as strong as I'd like it to be, but I can still go the distance - whatever the distance. More importantly, the back doesn't hurt (I PR'd that race), the legs don't give out, the coughing stops (I PR'd that race too). It's as if some TV preacher reached out his miracle-making hands, touched my forehead right before the starting gun, uttered some speaking-in-tongues gobbledy-gook and, kla-pooooie, I was relieved of all my ails. Constant miracles (which might be a good title for the book I'll never write about my racing experiences).

After the race, the symptoms never return. The coughing is gone, the back feels fine, the legs are perfect. Through it all, I come to realize these seemingly real problems are psychosomatic reactions to stress. And I realize that the power of the mind never ceases to amaze me.

Fast forward back to today. And I can't help but wonder if these injuries, this sickness, this cough - these symptoms that feel so real... are they? Will they just miraculously go away again or, this time, this year, do I really have these health problems?

Yes, looking at the patterns that emerge again and again in my pre-race history, I can't help but think that all of these problems are in my head. I can't help but wonder if I really pulled a muscle in my calf or if it's a psychosomatic reaction. I can't help but question whether or not this cough will magically dissolve the moment I toe the starting line.

But here's the problem, if it's all a psychosomatic reaction, then I can't possibly be as relaxed and calm as I'm feeling now. These reactions must be from stress. There must be a ball of anxiety growing inside me that is filtering pain throughout the various limbs of my body. But I feel normal. I feel relaxed. Which leads me to a fear that this feeling of serenity might be a farce.

After all, there are only two ways to explain all of this. Either my body is really and truly falling apart and my mind is staying in the peaceful sense of serenity that I've been hoping to achieve. In which case, it's going to be a painful, coughingly frustrating Ironman.

On the other hand, maybe it's my mind falling apart behind the scenes. Maybe my body is just a victim - an outlet for the hidden fear that shoots with a silencer through my veins. And all this serenity hooey that I've fooled myself into may just be some sort of psychosomatic semblance of sanity that helps me survive.

I suppose I'll figure out the answer when I get to Arizona.
It is what it is.


IronMin said...

Great post - I can honestly feel the depth of how much you've learned about yourself through the years & through triathlon. Maybe this will be a new dimension of you that you are discovering. I think your race day will be your day, and you will do what you set out to do. You sound completely prepared, which is an inspiration to a newbie like me! Hang in there...the light is at the end of the tunnel.

Eamon said...

Really interesting, and without meaning to sound patronizing, well-written post. Your grandfather must have been an inspiraiton to your family the way he battled on.
I have had various health problems. I know this might sound obvious, but worth saying / reminding, that eating healthily and exercise really make a big difference. They won't necessarily prevent or cure but they can make one feel a lot better.