run bike swim

you can’t always get what you want

July 31, 2017

You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometime, you just might find… you get what you need. – The Rolling Stones

Last year my heady goal was to complete a full Ironman. This year my goal was simply to “have fun” which is to say: race in a handful of half-Ironman’s (and other distance triathlons), compete in a Spring marathon (for the sole purpose of qualifying for the Boston Marathon — no big deal) and place in age group and/or PR as much as possible. You know… have fun.

Perhaps relative to my previous year’s goal none of this seemed questionable or unattainable (or stupid). I planned out my 2017 race calendar forking over race fees left and right. This was going to be a great year. And then the cold, dark New England winter arrived and with it a prolonged state of back pain prohibiting even a modicum of normalcy in all facets of my life.

I repeatedly told myself that this was only temporary, and I still had plenty of time to recover in time for the race season. Unlike previous back episodes, which may have lasted three to four weeks, I was facing three to four months of debilitating pain. And longer.

Month-by-month I watched my races (and race fees) vanish in the air. As my peers ascended, podium-ed and PR’ed I was spiraling on a downward trajectory of health and fitness.

I did what I normally do when things flare up and sought refuge in the Boston medical community. Most notably, I saw three of Boston’s top spine doctors. I visited with a rheumatologist to rule out osteo and/or psoriatic arthritis. I even saw a urologist to rule out kidney stones. And then of course, chiropractors, physical therapists, an acupuncturist… the list goes on and on.

After blood work-up, X-rays, MRI’s and even a bone scan the diagnosis was essentially the same: “You are ridiculously fit.” “You are structurally sound.” “Your blood is that of a 21 year old.” One of the spine doctors, while actively scanning my MRI, gushed at the amount of back muscle I had (there’s no good way of telling this anecdote without sounding like a chump, but it was very flattering).

I decided to chart out my back history as an infographic spanning the past few years. I divided the months into color-coded segments corresponding to back health, e.g. red for severe immobility and green for no restriction. I then noted every single procedure or doctor I visited with along the way. Not only has this turned out to be an extremely valuable reference, but it has also been an enlightening introspective into causal connectivity.

spine history simplified 2

So what was going on in May of 2016 whence the narrative turned red? (My mom’s husband passed away.) What happened post-Ironman in November? (The election followed by tertiary family fall-out.) What’s been happening since? A lot.

It’s taken a fleet of medical attendants, a plethora of tests and procedures to come to this conclusion, but I’ve finally accepted that my problem isn’t a symptom of a physical nature. I’m not suggesting the pain isn’t real or “physical”, but rather that the cause might be the software… not the hardware. As someone else put it, “you look like a gymnast, but your brain is flabby.”

I started researching the mind-body connection and there is no shortage of texts as it relates to back (or neck) pain. While there is no definitive evidence or knowledge of why some people experience pain as a manifestation of repressed negative emotions, tension or other stress, it is incontrovertible that there is a direct correlation.

Perhaps one of the biggest changes I have made is to stop telling myself that something is wrong with me, physically. Thus, the healing process has become mental. When I am out on a run and I feel a tweak or twinge–I’m able to understand that the message has nothing to do with disc degeneration and everything to do with a daily stressor or other life problem needing of attention.

I’ve started meditating, specifically taking advantage of my sport club’s roof deck. I’ll lie on a yoga mat and listen to the unusually quiet hum of the city. I’ll pick out different sounds such as the cry of a seagull, a barking dog or distant siren. I’ll look for familiar shapes in the clouds. It really has become one of my favorite things.

2015 I was crushing it all year–and I miss this. But I am trying to be more thankful for what I am able to do today.

For most of this year I’ve been telling myself how bad my race season has sucked. I had to bail on my marathon and start-of-season half-ironman. My first 5k of the year was only 19:11–40 seconds slower than my PR. My 10k was even worse–a full six minutes slower. I only won 3rd in masters at my favorite trail race. Talk about debilitating self-feedback! It’s really no wonder that I haven’t been able to heal.

Since switching up my mindset I have been able to get back to some of the training that I love–swimming at Walden Pond, biking around historic Massachusetts towns and running all over Boston. The expectation is less about a preconceived end-result and more about the ability to enjoy the moment. And when things don’t feel ok, I understand that I am not injured, but that I need to refocus my attention.

Today I raced my first tri of the season. It was only a sprint. The amount of pre-race anxiety I put myself through was honestly no different than any marathon, Ironman or half-Ironman I’ve attempted.

Differently than the season that I planned for is that I signed up for this race just a few weeks ago. I wanted to put the joy of my Walden swims into practice and to participate with the tri community in a really well-organized race. I did PR by about a minute which is not much in terms of Sprint… and the swim was not my best, but in the spirit of what I am currently physically capable of… I competed well and I am happy with what I was able to do. [HOWEVER, in previous years I started in the 2nd swim wave (Men 30-44) but recently turning 45 was shuffled into the second-to-last wave of old-timers. (Really?! That’s the bump?) OK, ok, I know… breathe. Clouds. Light wind.]

I don’t know what the rest of the season looks like for me race-wise. I have a standing date with Ironman Maine 70.3 at the end of August. Will I get there? Not sure. Does it matter if I don’t? No.

While one doesn’t always get what one wants, it is possible to get what one needs. For me? Just a little swim… a few miles on the bike… a run… and a bit of meditation.



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