Wednesday, June 26, 2013

The School of Hard Rocks

It has been four days since I stepped off of the South Kaibab Trail and completed a successful Rim to Rim to Rim crossing of the Grand Canyon – and words still fail me. My six year old informed his teacher that, “My Mom always hikes the Grand Canyon,” and it occurs to me that in his mind – he’s right. Since he was four – I’ve trained, hiked, recovered, trained, hiked and now recovering from making this second venture into the canyon.  So why do I do it? I think there are numerous answers to that, but mainly they all involve lessons that I’m continually learning.

I’ve learned teamwork
Twice a year Project Athena Foundation’s Robyn Benincasa, leads a group of strangers in to the Canyon and emerges with a solid, unified team. So how does a group of 20+ strangers not self-destruct under the harshest conditions most of us have ever experienced? The lessons I have learned on these treks can also be applied to life. There is an expectation that if you are having a strong moment, you lend that strength to someone that is having a weak moment. Magic occurs during that connection. It is a synaptic spark that travels across the group as the person who was once weak or struggling recovers and is again strong and well-positioned to help another person when they are in need. This process repeats itself throughout the day in a variety of events from sharing water, distracting with a joke, distributing food, giving pep talks, pulling tow lines, pushing from behind, taking on more weight to relieve someone when they are tired or even scrambling to the river to cool off clothes and gear. If this level of teamwork and concern for the success of teammates would be replicated in everyday life – businesses and people would enjoy far more success.

I’ve learned humility
My success was facilitated by so many throughout this endeavor. I’m keenly aware of the preventative efforts to keep my body from becoming the heat-induced train wreck it was during the previous year. And trust me – holding my head high while wearing an umbrella hat, ice pack in my bra and cold wraps around my neck – is a testament to swallowing pride and doing whatever was necessary to stay ahead of the ill-effects of the heat. Also – I completely agree with Robyn’s philosophy that accepting help is truly a gift to the giver. I’ll admit this year’s team was blessed with my generosity of letting people help me a lot.

I’ve learned strength
I am physically stronger than I was last year which was a stated goal. You can’t enter the Canyon and expect to successfully exit without physically preparing your body for the climb out. As exhaustion sets in, the ability to keep moving is so important. But it isn’t just about muscle strength. It takes so much mental strength to not crawl under a shaded rock and hide there forever. Mental fortitude is as important as physical – perhaps even more. I watched numerous teammates dig deep and deliver results despite exhaustion, illness, frustration and fear.

I’ve learned weakness
The sun and heat of the Arizona desert in June are too much for this gal. You can’t strong-arm heat. The sun doesn’t care about front squats and push-ups and wall balls. The sun just absolutely takes me out and knocks me around like a rag doll. I’m so grateful for the strength that I do have – for without it I would likely be selling lemonade at Phantom Ranch for the rest of my life. But I’m also grateful for my weakness, because I learned so much about myself through that as well.

I’ve learned trust
When you know you are in a situation that you cannot survive alone, you learn to depend on the ones surrounding you. My PAF nickname is Baby Bird, a name I answer to proudly. I earned this name by my willingness to listen and follow instructions. I drink and eat exactly what I’m told, and if the leaders saw me struggling, I listened and followed their advice. Perhaps I looked silly from all the preventive measures in place to protect my body from the sun and heat, but I never got sick. Considering I was sick three hours into day 1 last year, this is an enormous testament preparation and trusting the experts.

I’ve learned leadership
Successful leaders aren’t standing in front barking orders and demonstrating their strengths. The trail angles were all accomplished endurance athletes. Any one of them could have ran those trails in ½ the time it took our team to hike. Not once did any leader make anyone on the team feel like they were failing by their struggles. Instead they took on more weight, saw to nutritional needs of others while also encouraging and teaching us. True leaders facilitate the success of team members, and this is another canyon lesson that can be applied to personal and professional lives.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Game Day. Game Plan.

Grand Canyon
It's finally here! A day I've been waiting for since last year! I'm in Phoenix a day early  to rest up before meeting up with the Project Athena crew tomorrow. Justifying the hotel's pool deck as heat training - has given me the luxury of time to think. I've been comparing my perspective from this year's R2R2R trek to the preparations for last year's. One benefit I have this year is the experience from last. So I'm already one up for myself in that regard. Last year I was excited, nervous and admittedly naive about what was in store for me. I was still cross-wired as to what I was trying to accomplish with my fitness goals. In fact this time last year - I doubt I would've used the term "fitness". I was still aiming to be thin. I was so focused on no longer being overweight and trying to attain a certain size. This time last year I was still using food as both reward and punishment for efforts instead of as fuel. I did take my training for last year's hike very seriously - but I made a few crucial mistakes. I had fixated all of my training on hitting distances and time. I was mainly only doing cardio to complement the hiking. This time last year - my motivation was an internal fear of not being able to stop a  family cycle of poor health. This time last year - I was still apprehensive about meeting up with a group of strangers to do such a team effort. I just couldn't imagine feeling comfortable in the midst of strangers. The interesting thing about being in a situation where you have to depend on each other, you get past the "stranger" status very quickly. In a few hours I'll reunite with several of those same "strangers" that I now blessed to count as friends. There are quite a few of us returning for this year's hike. So a year later - am I a year wiser? I believe so. My stated goal for this year was to be stronger, suffer less and enjoy it more. So what is the difference?

Strength is Different
My focus this year has been on strength training at Capital City CrossFit and overall fitness that includes nutrition as a vital component. I now view food as fuel and have a better understanding on how certain foods help and hinder me. I know I'm stronger than I was last year. I'm banking on that strength to increase my endurance so that my body doesn't break down as quickly as it did last year.

Nutrition is Different
Last year when I was beginning to suffer - I was listening to about 20 people telling me to do about 30 different things. I was popping a variety of supplements, gu, magic water, sugar, grains, basically anything anyone handed me. All well-intended, but my mistake was not knowing how my body would react to certain things, or not knowing what my body needed at different times. I swelled like blow fish and suffered from extreme nausea. This year I have a clear nutrition plan - dried fruits, nuts, jerky, coconut chips will be used and the oreos, cornchips and fragile fruit will be left at home. I now know that grains, dairy, gluten and synthetic supplements like Gu doesn't make my body happy. Last year when we stopped to buy our trail food, I was literally buying anything that anyone else was buying - I had too much food, and I had tons of "wrong food" for me.

Schedule is Different
This year, I'll talk and look around - but I'll do it while walking. I intend to make stops very minimal. Let me restate that - I plan to hightail it like a scalded dog until I'm safely in the shade of the North Rim. Last year - as I was struggling - I was begging to stop and rest every few minutes. I understand now that frequent stopping is detrimental. My plan is to keep moving forward at every possible moment. Now I completely understand the lyrics of Rodney Atkins song, If your going through hell. In the song he sings of the need to just keep going - don't stop and if you are lucky you might get out before the devil knows you are there. I'm not sure of the background of this song or if Adkins is a fellow R2R2R trekker - but he certainly wrote the theme song for the effort.

Motivation is Different
Last year I was on a personal journey to honor the loss of my father. And while that was my conscious goal - I believe I was really on a subconscious manic-quest to draw an imaginary line and end a family cycle of poor health and indifference. This year, my motivation is to be a stronger teammate, suffer less and enjoy the experience more.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Recipe for Awesomesauce: Add Carrots

People are motivated in different ways. Take my husband as an example. He is most motivated when he’s pissed off – or what he calls “The Red Ass”. When he is frustrated, he has unlimited strength and power that I stand back in awe of. I’ve watched this man physically push an entire set of kitchen cabinets up a huge staircase. I’ve witnessed him be so focused on a goal that he literally repaired a car on the side of the interstate with a Pitching Wedge. It was a moment that would've made MacGyver himself proud. Over the years I’ve seen him push through adversity, pain and injury to accomplish physical goals – to the point it is a given that he’ll finish. And while I really admire his ability to convert negative energy into positive motion, I cannot do that. In the carrot vs stick scenario – I’m a total carrot girl. "Red Ass" breaks me down, a drill sergeant could put me in a fetal rocking position with one glare. I attended a kickboxing class a few years ago – the trainer was known for his brute approach. I completely crumbled and failed to thrive in that environment. However, others around me – loved it. I have always absorbed my energy from those who surround me. If I’m around cold, negative or mean people – it affects me. Perhaps that is why I’m loving CrossFit. It is a dynamic like no other I’ve been a part of. It is an intense atmosphere, there are hard core athletes doing amazing things yet it is a very supportive and welcoming environment. CrossFitters encourage your efforts, acknowledge your accomplishments and celebrate with you. That is the awesomesauce for me. I’m a few months in at this point, and I’m seeing newer people come in from the On Ramp cycles, and I get so excited for them because I understand the accomplishments they are going to soon start experiencing. Then I look over and see the people that are more experienced – and they are so strong, so calm, so determined – yet still smiling. Then I look over at “the cool kids” (this is what I call the people that can do the muscle-ups and the handstand pushups and the double-unders with ease) and I’m excited about the many accomplishments that still lie ahead for me.

Monday, June 10, 2013

The Dangers of Maybe

The past week I've seen a few pretty cool things at CrossFit. Everything from a woman lifting her heaviest deadlift three times, to watching two of the guys lift a bar with so many weights that I couldn't calculate what it was. Now granted they are two of the more elite athletes at the box - so I'm by no means calling that a "normal" feat. What I took away from watching them wasn't about their ability - it was their attitude. All three successes had one thing in common - there wasn't a "Maybe I'll get this" thought as they approached the task. Success really has no room for "Maybe". Maybe is weak. Maybe by it's very usage means lack of commitment. I know that looking back on my fitness journey the Maybe approach was used for a few reasons. Maybe when I was scared. Maybe if I wanted a predefined reason for failure. Maybe if the attempt would somehow replace the lack of accomplishment. Is "Maybe" the biggest obstacle to overcome? I think so. In big things in life we have to set goals with certainty. There wasn't a Maybe approach to my education. I didn't approach my marriage with a "Maybe" in my mind. I certainly didn't approach motherhood with "Maybe". I don't use "Maybe" in my professional life - so why have I allowed it for personal fitness goals? I'm trekking rim to rim to rim of the Grand Canyon next week. And, as vast as the canyon is - there is no room for "Maybe". I know now that if Maybe is in my mind - or in the minds of my teammates - we will certainly experience more adversity during our trek. Maybe only opens the door for failure.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Higher Ground

Today I hiked my favorite place, Pere Marquette. I’ve been trying to get here for two months, but the weather hasn’t been agreeable lately. Pere Marquette is located at the confluence of the Illinois and Mississippi rivers both of which are flooding due to insane rain levels. We found the back entrance to the state park, as the main entrance is underwater. In fact the trailhead of Goat’s Cliff was under water too. This was the main trail I needed to hike – for the incline work. We took a back trail and aimed for the top. The bugs were beyond insane – but thanks to a likely lethal dose of combining 3 different repellents – we stopped looking like dinner to millions of mosquitoes and buffalo gnats. The day was awesome – we had the entire park to ourselves. 12 miles of intertwining trails – with a few trees to climb over and what we call mud-skiing, we had a blast. I can really tell the strength difference from CrossFit. My pack when fully loaded isn’t heavy anymore. The trees we climbed over were more of a playground challenge than a deterrent. If we came to a fork in the trail and one way was up and one way was down – we went up. We zigzagged all over that park. I love that we’ve reached a point in training that what used to seem laborious – now feels like fun.  We’ll be lucky to escape the wet trails without malaria, but I am grateful for the day to play outside. 

This picture was taken from McAdams Peak. MS River at top, IL River in middle, All the rest is flooding.

Monday, June 3, 2013

At 5,000 feet – shouldn’t the view be better?

Today I had to do something I had been dreading – I climbed 5,000 vertical feet on a treadmill trapmill. I’ve avoided this day for months. I’ve played guessing games with the weather for too long. We’ve had our 5th wettest May on record and that hasn’t been conducive for getting my training hikes completed. I had one remaining hike to log – travel wasn’t an option for this one. With all the rivers flooding and trails overgrown – it started looking like the trapmill was my only option. So I found a local gym that had machines that would track vertical distance, sadly this gym also smelled like sweaty gym socks. I bought a day pass, briefly explained what I was doing to the uninterested kid at the front desk, climbed on and away I went. I know people get excellent workouts everyday on treadmills, and that is great for them. For me – a treadmill is an evil necessity used only to escape weather. Between texting with my friend, who was also completing her climb on a treadmill 800+ miles away, and discovering that I had never finished Celia Rivenbark’s audiobook You can’t drink all day if you don’t start in the morning I survived the challenge. Her sarcasm was the magic bullet I needed. With ear buds in place, I zoned out and started my climb at 20% incline. I was in a closed room with no windows, no air moving and nothing to occupy my flea-sized attention span. With Miss Celia telling stories in my ear (and yes more than a few awkward, but actual, LOL moments), I completely blocked out the curious onlookers. I’m sure I looked odd to them on a treadmill wearing a fully-loaded backpack, but I didn’t care. I was on the mission to hit 5,000 feet as quickly as possible and get the heck out of there.


  • Sarcasm has always been my “Go To” coping mechanism – I just never realized the training benefits of it.
  • The monotony of the treadmill made me appreciate the variety you get from CrossFit.
  • Boredom was my biggest challenge. Thankfully hoofing it for a few hours at 20% incline wasn’t the hard part.