Monday, February 16, 2015

I Know Why The Race Sherpa Sherps

This post has been on my mind for some time now. In fact, I have probably written a number of versions of it my head more than a few times. As to why I have waited so long?? Well, there are a number of reasons, I suppose. I could use the excuse of not having the time, but frankly, as busy as I am, I have found the time for more trivial things.

I guess part of the reason is that it is really just a personal story, and not one that I feel compelled to share with the rest of the world. That said, being the significant other of Rose Wetzel Sinnett has put me in some sort of "limelight," and while I am not prone to draw attention to myself, sometimes that attention is inherited.

As such, a number of people have asked me why I haven't done a Spartan Race yet. While the real answers would best be conveyed in a long chat over coffee, or bourbon, I will briefly touch on three different reasons, for all of those who care. For those who don't, feel free to stop reading right now, as you probably won't find the rest very interesting.

First, I can't breathe.

I mean, yes, sitting here, typing this out, I can breathe. But something is wrong with my breathing. And that something gets compounded dramatically as my need for oxygen increases (ie during fast running, with high intensity exercise, etc). I don't mean a little bit, I mean a lot.

Like many stories, this one changes over time as more and more information is gathered. I used to pin this issue down specifically to July of 2013. I had been training for a 35k trail race in Washington called Angel's Staircase. On July 4th I met a friend at Discovery Park to run two hours of repeats on the south bluff trail. Three days later I did an 18 mile trail run/speed hike in the Cascades. Two days after that I woke up tired and thinking "I don't care if I ever run another step in my entire life."

Being a trainer and coach, I recognized it right away. I was displaying classic over-training symptoms. My heart rate would become elevated during even easy exercise, my strength plummeted, and psychologically I just didn't care. The thing was, I didn't think my total stress load was high enough to put me in to over-training, so I was a bit perplexed.

I took two to three weeks off and then just started to do really easy stuff. My breathing issue became more and more noticeable. A number of people shared their thoughts on what they thought I had done to myself. Some of the points seemed possible, others just didn't add up.

By November I was still doing very minimal stuff. My cardios were really chill and my lifting was pretty lame. My grip strength was all but gone, which I recognized as a possible sign of CNS fatigue. Then I made a fateful decision...

Rose had decided to run the XTERRA Trail World Championships in Hawaii. Rather than just go along for fun, I decided to do it as well, even though I was really in no condition to race it. We spent about three weeks training hard in the cold, rainy mountain weather; pushing really hard on the inclines. I could do it, but I was maxed out doing it, whereas I could tell Rose was only going about 75-80%.

The race killed me. I finished decently, actually, but the climbing and the hot weather piled on top of whatever I had going on pushed me way over the edge. I was done; physically and psychologically.

It was in January of 2014 that I realized that I was not breathing normally at rest, either. I made an appointment with a sports medicine doc who was mostly concerned about a heart issue. My labs were normal, my resting EKG was normal, my resting HR was still around 47 (pretty normal for me when I am training), and my chest xray showed nothing unusual. Their next play was an echocardiogram and/or a cardiopulmonary exercise test. The problem with being self-employed is that my insurance wasn't going to cover very much of anything, and I wasn't convinced they were going to tell me anything other than "you seem to have problems breathing," so I didn't do it.

Rather than go in to detail of the next eleven months I will just say that I have investigated a number of possibilities: stress, too few carbs, mold exposure, other environmental toxin exposures, lung parasites, etc etc etc... My strength is slowly coming back, but far far from what it used to be. My breathing...well, that hasn't really come back on-line yet. I do my best to work around it.

I mentioned at the beginning that the story has changed over time. Looking back now, I don't think July 2013 was the acute event. I actually think it started before that, and that maybe it was an escalating breathing issue that pushed me in to that place that looked like over-training. I have since had other labs drawn, outside of the standard tests, that show that there is definitely something going on. So the mystery, and the investigation, continues. I have some intuitions that I continue to pursue.

So, in summation, my health and fitness have become my priority, and doing races has very little appeal to me (for more than just this health issue; see below).

Second, I find a lot of fulfillment in being a sherpa.

If you have never had the opportunity to play the role of sherpa, without having to think or worry about all that is involved in racing, you should try it. I know that many of you have indeed done this. I have read the race accounts of pacers and support teams and you can see it in their words...that sense of duty and satisfaction of being helpful. It really is a beautiful thing. Rose has traveled to and won a number of races that I wasn't at. She is fully capable of doing it all on her own. But when I go, I can take over all of the logistics, and all she has to think about is the preparing and the racing. It's fun. It builds a sense of team. I am 48, and I have been an athlete my entire life. I have no problem hanging out in the shadows. That said, I am enormously grateful for all of the amazing people I have met in the Spartan community who have made me feel included, from the top elites to the slowest open runners. It has been such a privilege to be a part of that world. Interestingly, it is precisely because I haven't been racing that has allowed me the opportunity to get to know so many people.

Genuinely...thank you for demonstrating such kindness.

Third, ????

This is the tough one. The one that is perhaps the most difficult to explain.

It is possible that this point of view is tainted because I haven't been feeling the greatest. I acknowledge that. But as of now, through the lenses that I currently wear, even if my health was much better, I don't know how many Spartan Races I would do. It's just not where I am at right now. As I mentioned above, I've been a competitive athlete for most of my life, but at some point (probably around age 32 or so) I made that journey more private. The "why's" would take too long to explain in this already too long blog post. The 35k trail race I signed up for back in 2013 was the first real "race" I had agreed to do in a long, long time. For the last fifteen years my primary competition was my watch and my former self. No competitors, no spectators, no entry fee, no podiums.

In addition, the flame that used to stoke the fire of athletic competition is now pointing in a different direction. I still enjoy sports and is part of my current career...but my focus is on other aspects. And the intensity is just as strong.

I LOVE to see how empowered people get by doing these races. As a trainer and coach, I have seen the same thing happen with clients. But success in the athletic arena is not how I find my own personal empowerment right now. I still love being athletic; it is still an integral part of my life; but with my focus elsewhere and my health and fitness on the ropes, I've decide to dedicate my time and energy in other ways.

So why does the Race Sherpa sherp?


As with any question about a person, the answer rarely lies in assumptions and speculative narratives. If you want to get to the real reasons behind why people do what they do or don't do, ask. And more importantly, listen to the answers. Because some answers won't be as straight-forward as they seem.

We all have histories and stories that make up who we are. Or more accurately, who we believe ourselves to be.

Listen. Listen.