August 23, 2013

(Thriving) Chick Hill

The Peaked Mountain and Little Peaked Mountain faces.

On a hot, but manageable August Sunday I found myself in Bradbury Mountain State Park running the toughest race of the year. The course's 1450 ft elevation gain and equal loss in only 9 miles makes it one of the most challenging in Maine without factoring all of the roots, rocks, and New England rock-wall obstacles you traverse to get to the finish. Ian Parlin is a sadist in the way that any good trail race director should be. He decided to cut out some downhill switchbacks to add about 400 more feet of gain and let us all know that at the starting line. That's why I run his races. So while getting to the boundary road with the addition of a strong climb I was excited about my pace without any panic attacks. After two days of rain  the course was wet and slippery, and I was still in a large crowd of people. As we started the first real climb (on the old course that is) my left foot landed on a rock was deceivingly wet and slippery. My left leg slipped, and from the bruising it appeared to have slammed into another rock or stump: a fact I was oblivious of at the time. What I was intimately aware of was the movement of my leg.

I have broken my ankle before, and I have never felt my leg move like it did at Bradbury. The ankle rolled so extremely that my knee snapped by the strain. I was instantly sickened in the way that you feel when ice breaks underneath you. "Fuck! Its time for six months of rehab." My brother-in-law was behind me and he later said that he thought I broke my leg. For a few seconds I knew that I broke my leg. The pain and nauseous feeling put me into a walk before my mind even fully reacted. I needed to walk as far as I could with the adrenaline I had because I was in the most remote place on the course (another runner passed out nearby and it took hours to get him off the course). "How was I walking though, my leg was broken right? It had to be." I walked up the hill. It hurt but my leg was working. "How was it working?" Sick and crying from the shock and the pain I started to run. I didn't know how I still could, but I'd worked too hard to run my best time. I deserved this and it might be my last run of the year, and I knew that, for some reason, my body takes three to five hours to swell up. Let's go! (Oh By the way Let's Go is the modo of my of my Airborne Infantry Regiment. Glider up son!)

The view from Little Peaked Mountain.
Chick Hill is not actually the title of the mountain that I have been climbing a lot lately, but it is what here everyone calls Peaked Mountain, which is situated near Chick Hill. I like that about Peaked Mountain. A lot of people climb it, but few really know its actual name. Even fewer truly appreciate it. Most of its trails are overgrown, its rocky road up to the cell phone tower is the only thing that is, albeit reasonably, well maintained. Its older, perhaps better, ridge-line trail has been absorbed into the forest. The fire break/road like surfaces are as technically difficult as any trail in the area. This would be where I would reconnect to my strongest mentality. The drive to Clifton Maine has become an obsession of mine lately. The whole week I am be excited about my sole foray to the mountain. I read maps, look at Google imagery to try and find new trails to run. I was working out, exploring and fusing with the place.

Birds eye view of Acadia National Park.
Peaked Mountain felt right, it was poorly managed, in places grossly clear cut, in others the forest had claimed the trail, and it was small and underrated. It felt like me, and I was building a relationship with a place. Not the tired and common unrealistic anthropomorphizing of a space, rather I was falling in love with its flaws as well as its charms. I'd come home covered in its tall unchecked grass, at times bleeding with little bits of mountain inside my knee and palms. Weeks later I would vacuum little bits of mountain from under the door mat for almost 10 minutes. I've bled and swet into the place and carried a little of it home with me with every trip. Too many people try to shape the land, or possess it, but few are shaped by it and let themselves be possessed by the space they live in. Even fewer would feel that way about a place with a man made road, a large cell phone tower, and beer bottles strewn about at the summit. Not me, I loved the place because that felt more like me. I could see Acadia to the south and the larger peaks to the west. Running goals that this place would help me meet, but I was deeply attached to the imperfections of the space. This was life and space that defied narrative: imperfectly appropriate. It was so much more like myself, in its beauty, its unkept and unfinished nature, yet at its summit was one of the most beautiful scenes in vacationland (Maine). Peaked Mountain had recharged me in ways that I haven't felt since I went to war.

Check the wince. Image Credit Maine Running Photos.
Bradbury was decidedly frustrating because of the sprained ankle, but I'd been here before. I'd sprained my ankle at my first 100 mile attempt and I went 29 miles on it before deciding it wasn't worth it to risk worse injury (my main effort that year was JFK and I wanted to get to the line uninjured). I'd sprained my ankle early on Bradbury's 12 mile Bruiser and finished. In Ranger school I had the worst sprain of my life on the march to Darby and made it through the whole phase (I recycled because I was too weak with that ankle). My wife says,"if Joe's gonna sprain his ankle its gonna be in the first two miles and he's gonna finish;" she just gets me. I was frustrated because I was doing so well and I thought that I wasn't going to have an improved time.

Bloodied compression socks. TRWB
No, I was ready for this and I could still do it! I'd spent too many days on Peaked Mountain and I'd earned an excellent performance. That was different, for the first time in years I felt like I owed myself a victory. I was worth it, and I might have even owed it to Peaked for all the time I spent on it. More pragmatically the way I'd run Peaked Mountain prepared me. On my toughest 8 miler, I started by climbing the grade 8, 1.5 mile, 800 ft gain, category 3 climb up to the summit. After catching a toe I scraped up my knee and it was initially bleeding pretty bad. I pulled my compression socks over it to stop the bleeding and ran down the mountain. Halfway down the mountain I checked my leg and the bleeding had stopped. Let's go! I wanted to add some to speed to my total pace so I turned unto a firebreak that led to the actual Chick Hill. I took a left hand turn down what, I guess, was a logging road that wasn't on the map and didn't make it to Chick Hill. The initial climb made my calves all but useless so I had to rely on my quadriceps to ensure that I could hike up the summit and still be at a good ultra pace (12 minute miles).

I was busting my butt (literally) and quads to maintain nine minute miles so that my ending split would still be at running pace with all the hiking involved. I pushed up Little Peaked Mountain's summit at a good hike and ran up Peaked again. My pace on that 1900 ft total climb was faster than last years Breaker. I began to realize that I needed both the climbing calves and quads to manage the terrain at the Chick area so I started adding faster flatter running with my dog Darby and my mountain days got better and better. I felt awesome, and fulfilled.

More importantly I'd hiked so much at racing pace. Just minutes after my sprain came the south ridge of Bradbury Mountain. I was not feeling up to running that kind of grade just yet so I leaned forward put my hands on my knees and hiked. To my surprise my walking wasn't only keeping pace, but gaining on most of the runners around me. The descents were more difficult. I had my ankle fully extended when it twisted so it seemed to only really be acting up on steep downhill terrain. The down hill was easier physically, but I couldn't shred and gain speed. It was frustrating to basically lose all the calf strength I gained climbing Peaked, but I'd also focused on hiking and quad strength. Two out of three wasn't bad.

Last climb. Ian Parlin in left corner. Image Maine Running Photos.
On the descents I just kept telling myself "10 minute miles, push with quads. Run with quads on the flats, don't waste a second when your ankles don't matter." Still I was very practical about my climbs. The summit trail is foolish to run anyway. Its 200 ft gain in maybe a tenth of a mile. I just ate an Espresso Love Gu, hands on knees hiking, and I lost very little on the worst climbs. There is about a mile of descent afterwards and I would hold onto the others as long as I could and then back to my ten minute mantra. When I saw the top of the last climb I was ecstatic. I ran up ignoring the pain. I held my pace on this descent, "who cares about pain in the last mile. The pain will subside a lot more when I stop running right?" At the beginning of the last climb I'd looked at my watch and saw that I was at about an hour twenty. My best finish was 1:51:20 so I think I was also charged by what I'd done. I ran at full speed, ten minute pace be damned at that point, and caught two who closed up on me after the last descent. 1:42:21 was my finish nine minutes faster than my best time.

Where's the medic?

"I can't believe you finished the race" was how my brother-in-law greeted me. He'd beaten me and I didn't want to steal his thunder by complaining about the sprain, and imply that he'd won by default because I think he would have prevailed regardless. We made our way to a fireman who checked to see if I'd broken my ankle. Apparently I hadn't broken it and as I sit here drafting this post icing my swollen ankle, I am surprised at how well it is healing. I have subsequently ran my fastest two splits to the the top of the mountain, back to back with only time to refill my bottle so it seems like I've recovered. At Peaked I'd gotten better at small quick steps and the only good thing about the sprain was that I hadn't fell. A quick small step pulled my leg up before all of my weight was placed on my precarious ankle and it was relieved of a break or worse injury. In remembering those moments when I felt like I owed myself a great race regardless, I am reminded of why it is I race on trails. It reminds me of how tough I can be in a crisis.

No matter how much writing, research, and advocacy I do for PTSD I still deep down feel weak. Races like Bradbury, and days like on Peaked when I hurt myself, but still pushed on, remind me of how I respond to injuries. They remind me that I finished the Darby Queen a day after a minor surgery once and another time without all the skin on one of my heals. They remind me that I am excellent at finishing physical challenges even when I am injured. They remind me that all the stereotypes and perceived stigma about PTSD being a result of weakness are bullshit. I don't know how to be a tougher person than I am (sure there are tougher) and I have PTSD. I am both the 90% disabled vet and the guy who finished one of the toughest races in Maine despite an injury. Better, perhaps even tougher, runners called it quits for the same kind of injury that day. Physical injuries are so much easier for me, because they are concrete and have time tested solutions. Rest, Ice, elevate, and compress. With every sprain, fall, cut, and painful day on the trail I am reminded the value of recuperation, and it helps me value and manage my invisible injuries a little better. I also feel like I owed it to Peaked/Chick for what I'd learned and becoming closer to a space is helping me with all my triggers in ways that I wouldn't have expected. By getting attached to this space I am having an easier time remembering that it is not Iraq, and that helps a lot. Transcendence for me comes with effort that pays dividends in every facet of my life, but it also helps me see a place for what is is and not idealize it in ways that are unrealistic. Home was never the ideals I shaped in my mind to escape the the hell that is war, and it takes time, for me miles, and effort to recreate my sense of safe space. I'll still sprain ankles, get bloodied and bruised in my safe spaces, but every-time is an opportunity to get a little stronger, push a little harder, and value the same recovery from the wounds no one else can see.

August 9, 2013

(Thriving) The Stigma in Me: Remembering that My Strength Ultimately Caused My Disorder

My climb includes 5 total climbs and 6 of the lower section.

I have very little patience for people who believe that lessor people suffer from mental illness, especially scholars, but if I am honest with myself then must I recognize how my shame has shaped my homecoming. Lately, I have been working really hard to reintegrate the training techniques I used prior to going to war. For the last four years I'd been avoiding my old training regimen as if there was something wrong with it. A good friend of mine turned me onto ultra/mountain runner Anton Krupicka's blog and it reminded me that I was at my fastest when I lived and ran in the mountains everyday. I used to run hills exclusively, do a lot of two-a-day workouts, take few supplements, I did very little with my nutrition, save for good wholesome meals, and run in the worst environment possible, like rain, heat and cold with as little cloths as I could stand. I've never been faster than with that mentality, yet I was reluctant to re-embrace them because, at least subconsciously, I felt like my invisible wounds were the result of my weakness. I also felt like after three tours in Iraq, Ranger and Jumpmaster school that I had nothing to prove. I might have nothing to prove to the world, but I still have a lot more to prove to myself. Recently, I have been employing those older strategies and I am beginning to see some of the chains that were holding be back on runs fall off, and, more importantly, it has reminded me how my courage, strength and determination brought about my PTSD: not my weakness.

Care of Maine Running Photos.
As a kid I was always happiest playing sports. I especially loved summer street hockey and soccer because I had games on the same day. I was a halfback in soccer and forward in hockey, so those days included a great deal of running and skating. My soccer games would come first, so the first few minutes of the hockey game were the toughest. All the fresh skaters were difficult to keep up with. I could usually hold my own until the heat of the day wore on every player. Georgia summers are particularly hot, and the black top courts amplified the heat significantly, yet every game I would get a surge of energy when sweat began to cloud my eyes. Though I was certainly suffering, this would signal to me that others were as well and that is when I played the hardest. I came to remember this on Monday the 15th of July. It was the day after a PR finish (despite two pretty shitty panic attacks) at the first race of the Bradbury Mountain trail running series. Proud, but unsatisfied with my performance, I was climbing the Alfond Stadium at the University of Maine. When I began my workout no one was there, but as I continued the football team started to do some sprints.

The heat was incredible because the aluminum bleachers absorbed and reflected the sun's rays as if I was running in a sauna. It was one of the hottest couple of days in Maine this year and many people were hospitalized at races the day before. When I looked down at the all the younger football payers I was impressed with their vigor, youth and ability, but I was most captured by their impression of me. All of these athletes, in their prime, looked at me at me with respectful head nods, and were questioning why this crazy thirty year old asshole was climbing the stadium during the hottest hours of the hottest day of the summer. These were all stronger, and in most cases tougher athletes than me, but not that day. Again the reflection of the sun off of the aluminum, the salty sweat and sunscreen combined to blur my vision, but I was on cloud nine. I was the kid playing hockey again. I began to love every minute of that misery. I became even more confident when the football team, left and I was still climbing stairs. On my last lap, I was wiped out, tired, and what I like to call wobbly (ultra runners more commonly refer to this as bonking because when your body runs out of fuel you start feeling loopy and hypoglycemic, but I think wobbly better captures how I feel), but in that almost delirium haze I knew that I'd gone as hard and as long as I could: then a little bit farther.

Somewhere in all the diagnoses and medical treatment I'd lost some of the key aspects of who I was. Sure I have been running ultras to reconnect to who I am, and in many ways I am tougher than I ever was, but I'd lost my old mentality. I just remembered running ten milers at Bragg, full out the whole time at sub seven pace without recognizing what philosophy and training regimen brought that ability. I thought I was tougher after war, but I was tough because of who I was preceding war and my mentality is what brought me through. For some reason I'd come to believe that I was weak before war and that is why I was taken out by invisible wounds. Nothing could be further from the truth. I was tough and that is why I endured so much trauma and still sought to be on the line fighting the war. My resilience is helping now, but it also caused a much more severe syndrome. I realized that I have PTSD because I am tough, not because I am am weak. It stems from my character not my weakness.

One handed summit pic with 2 liter hydration pack.
It is at the juncture between who I was before war and who I am now that I can see the nuance in my life that has changed. Recognizing this change is a vehicle for my growth. I still like to run as minimally as possible, but I sweat more because of PTSD and dehydrate faster because of medications. I carry a lot more water now, and I use sugar to to keep my muscles going in ways I wouldn't have when I was younger. This is a disadvantage sometimes that also helps me stay more self aware when I run. Now I am more in the moment, and that helps me appreciate doing something I love as long and as hard as I can. This is more than a metaphor for my writing, it is the same, it is fuel, and a constant reminder of who I am. More specifically, the elevated heart rate and heavy breathing triggers panic attacks, and my quest for longer runs at a faster pace forces me to stay on top of my treatment.

I get better at managing my PTSD with every improved time, longer and harder run because it helps me face the panic attacks that I suffer on runs, and it has also been my mechanism for grief. Most importantly, it reminds me of how, who I was before and who I am now, are different, yet my mentality prior to war has had a lot of bearing on how I survived. After seeing all the death and loss I have in Iraq I'll never fully regain that child I once was, nor would I even want to be that naive again. However, because of PTSD I'd abandoned all of who I was because I felt like I'd done something wrong to have mental illness. In remembering that sweat in my eyes, the love of climbing everyday, and wearing as little as possible I've been able to reconnect to a mentality that will surely help me grow with PTSD. Probably the mentality that saved my life in Iraq and at home.

Honeymoon Piton summit with Piton Lager. My wife has the same drive to climb mountains and run races together.
I'd ask all the readers to try and remember those moments in the time prior, to your service in combat or traumatic experiences, that inspired you to push on, work harder and generally be a better person. Though our younger naive selves may have been lost to the battlefield, at the hands of rapists or in experiences that rocked the very nature of ourselves, that doesn't mean we must lose the aspects of ourselves that helped us survive those terrible days. In our process of grief we all tend to blame ourselves, and we lose sight of what we did right. While re-embracing my own mentality I've come to realize how valuable it has been to my survival, and I would urge you all to find your stadium at the heat of the day, your mountainside, or canvas. That thing that makes you want to feel the pain of becoming better and put in the time it takes to be great. By recognizing the strength you abandoned because of PTSD you might see the ways that stigma has seeped into your life as well. Shame and blaming yourself is natural stage in growth that we'll continually deal with, but by understanding it we can find a way to climb past it when it impedes our progress. Just don't be ashamed of who you were, because those who have PTSD have suffered and survived. The aspects of your life before PTSD helped you survive and there is a lot more merit in our pre PTSD selves than naivety. Re-embracing the positive aspects of your life, before trauma, that you have abandoned afterwards will help you move forward by helping you to recognize the stigma that has creeped its way into your own outlook. At least that has been the case for me.