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Is this All I Can Do?

17 October 2017

I am not good at evaluating my accomplishments. Now that the half-Ironman is behind me, and I’ve rested for a month, I’m looking for a new challenge. Looking back, I wonder if the things I’ve done are all that difficult. I worked for nine months to be ready for the half-Ironman. I worked like hell, and I did it. I finished toward the bottom of finishers in my age group, but well ahead of all the men who didn’t start.

I’m a racing tourist. I’m just there for the experience and the finisher’s medal. I’m there to push my sad, soft, metabolically suspect body from the beginning to the end and try to chase a greatness that I will never achieve. I feel compelled to do things that most other people will never even try. I try to do this in most realms of my life. Education, work, travel, even music. And now racing.

So I’m starting to think about the next big thing. I look back: is this all I can do? I have this tendency to down-regulate all of my accomplishments in retrospect. Half-Ironman races aren’t that hard, I don’t think. Easier than the marathon. It seems strange to say that swimming for close to an hour followed by biking for three-and-a-quarter hours is easier than half a marathon. But I think it is.

Running a full marathon is definitely hard. Running a trail half-marathon is definitely hard. And yes, the long triathlons are definitely hard. Even an Olympic triathlon is a long morning of work. But somehow, looking back at all of it, I don’t remember the hard part. I remember the long pain of the Marine Corps Marathon. But the Philadelphia Marathon wasn’t bad at all. Just a long day.

It all comes down to training. Do you put the time in? Then race day won’t be so bad.

So what’s next? I have a couple ideas. I want to do another marathon. I might want to do a full Ironman. And I want to do an ultra marathon. I saw that there’s a 40-mile trail race around Mt. St. Helens, which would be meaningful. I was there when it erupted, and going back to run it might be emotionally meaningful.

I need to find something bigger to do. Because looking back, I still wonder: Is this all I can do?

Weinstein and Trump.

13 October 2017

This kind of thing persists because people protect it. Specifically, because we men protect it. Because, at a deep and important level, many, perhaps most, men admire men like Harvey Weinstein. He had wealth, an eye for film-making, power. He worked hard and rose to the top of an industry. And yes, he was constantly surrounded by (seemingly) fawning beautiful women.

Very, very few men don’t envy and admire that. Most of the men loudly condemning Weinstein today admire that. Most, three weeks ago, would’ve traded places with Harvey in an instant. Not that the average happily married man would necessarily give up what he has now to trade (though many would), but if given the opportunity to go back and take that path? Yeah. The average young man, unattached, starting out? Yeah.

The same is true looking at Trump: a serial sexual abuser, an accused rapist, a disgusting and stupid man, who nevertheless has the thrall of a third of the country. Because he has wealth, power, and spent his life surrounded by beautiful young women. Nothing more. He has no moral center. No ideas. No competence. But he is admired.

Men have basic, base instincts with regard to sex, violence, and power which we almost all share. It’s at a hormonal level. One of the most enlightening things I’ve ever read about it was a first-hand account of a trans-man taking testosterone for the first time. Similarly, the brilliant trans-man comic, Ian Harvie, shares about the experience in his special. Men with normal hormone levels think about sex regularly. We are incapable of sequestering sexual (and other) thoughts to so-called “appropriate” times.

What we are capable of is learning, preferably in late adolescence, to isolate those impulses and thoughts to the background when they are inappropriate. To refuse to act on them. To create a barrier between those thoughts and the resulting actions that we might pursue if we were barbarians.

Being a socially adept male within a community means spending the time to look at ourselves, and the effort to change how we behave. Often this process is very painful for us. Routinely, it involves being physically dominated by other men when we act out. Express too much interest in a woman with a boyfriend? As an adolescent (even later), that will often result in a beating. It is incredibly difficult for us to learn these lessons in a non-violent way.

But it is long past time that we men started having the conversation about how to be men in a constructive way that honors the fundamental nature of manhood without allowing it to be enveloped with victimization. There is nothing wrong, inherently, with male sexual aggression. Many women are highly interested in that*. What is wrong is when male sexual aggression is expressed outside the context of an explicitly consenting interaction.

There is also nothing wrong, inherently, with the male penchant for violence and physical domination. It needs to be put into a proper context. We need a military. We need police. And we need sports. I have channeled that need, the need for physical mastery, into endurance athletics. It’s not violent, how I manifest it. But make no mistake, it’s fueled by a need to express myself as a man. It’s about dominating a challenge.

In order to participate in civilization, men need to teach men not just how not to behave (and we need to start doing that immediately), but also how to channel our base aggression, testosterone, violence, and sexual impulses into productive, positive environments and expressions. This consists of several simple concepts:

  1. The principle challenge in being a good man is in self-mastery.
  2. Conquest is appealing: conquer yourself first, then the world.
  3. Sex drive and aggression are only good things if you use them productively.
  4. Other people are humans. Don’t victimize them.
  5. Stop enabling and covering for men who don’t respect 1-4.

This may seem like an inexpressibly simple list. But they are incredibly difficult, especially for young men, to grasp. Going beyond “I want” to “I am” is a stunningly difficult upheaval in the paradigm we boys are just naturally born with.

Teaching boys to be men, fundamentally, means teaching boys to reframe what feel like external struggles into internal struggles. And internal struggles are astonishingly hard. Confronting them requires the willingness to take ownership of our failures, our wrongdoing, and our outcomes. No externalizing blame. No excuses.

But, when we do that, we find we become what we have always wanted to just take: content, successful, desirable, and accomplished.

___________________________________

*But the ones who aren’t have the right not to be – and all of them get to choose the situations in which they are or aren’t.

My First Spartan Race.

9 October 2017

Saturday, BB and I joined three members of my work group at MECMC and competed in the Spartan Race up in Philadelphia. Held in the baseball stadium, it was a lot of silly fun and a brutal 90 minute workout. There were 21 or 22 “obstacles” we had to negotiate over the course of about a 3.5 mile “run” which was really a lot of stairs and jogging up and down ramps.

Some of the obstacles were legitimate obstacles: walls anywhere from 4′ to 8′ we had to climb over. A rope climb (I couldn’t do it) and swinging monkey bars (I couldn’t do them). I failed at three obstacles: the above two and the spear throw (I misjudged the length of the cord and came up short). Each obstacle you fail you can circumvent by doing 30 burpees. The first two times on concrete or asphalt, the third time on the outfield grass. I don’t know how fit YOU are, but for me, 30 burpees is a lot and takes a while.

Some of the “obstacles” were really just strength or cardio or endurance challenges. We carried a 40 pound sandbag to the top of the stadium and back down. The same with a 40 pound jug of water. We did 20 box jumps and 20 medicine ball slams with a 25 pound ball. I needed a boost from a teammate to get over the 8′ wall. But I had a fabulous time, and despite being about 15 years older than some of my teammates, I did great and really enjoyed it.

BB had fun too and thinks she’d like to do it again. I would too. I’d like to try one on a course where they get you wet and dirty, which they couldn’t do at the stadium, of course. I need to work on my upper body strength, big time. Rope climbs are crazy hard, and I just couldn’t do it. Not a chance in hell. My arms and shoulders were sore yesterday and still are today, but not awful. I just need to lose weight and increase strength.

A lot of the people there were current or ex-military. There was a team of West Point cadets. My starting line group included a female Marine who looked like she could finish in 30 minutes and not break a sweat. I see the appeal. The course looked and felt like a slightly easier, slightly shorter version of the boot camp you see in movies.

It was a lot of fun and we’ll definitely do it again. But for now, I have to get back to running. Half marathon in six weeks. Time to go get fit.

The Promises.

5 October 2017

Last night in my men’s meeting, the chair talked about the promises. AA has a passage called “The Promises” and they’re among the most widely cited words in all of the program. Even non-alcoholics have often heard of them, or recognize it:

If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are half way through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us. We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.

Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us—sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them.

Alcoholics Anonymous, pps 83-84

As I know I have many non-spiritual readers, I always like to remind people reading this that “God” as referenced in AA is always “as you understand him”. Many people in AA are atheists or agnostics – and always have been, going back to the earliest members. “God” is short hand for “a power greater than yourself”. Whatever that means to you.

Talk to anyone with some time in sobriety, working the program, and you will almost certainly find they agree that “the promises come true”. They certainly have for me. There are times I regret the past. There are times I am still baffled. There are times I feel useless. But they are the exceptions now. Most of the time I feel happy and confident, I am not afraid of people. I am able to devote myself to causes that support others. And the things I could never do for myself are somehow being done – I am capable in ways I never was before.

But the promises belong in a specific place in the program, and they’re there for a reason. The promises are introduced in the book during the explanation of how to take step nine. Step nine: “Made direct amends to such people whenever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.” (“Such people” refers to step 8: Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.)

Step nine is a step that most alcoholics dread. And some few are far too eager for it. Step nine is the last of the action steps prior to the “maintenance” steps of 10-11-12. When you finish step 9, you should be ready to enter into your long-term recovery. But there’s a lot of work to do before you get there.

When we talk about the promises, we should be careful to let those new to sobriety know that this is the result of long and hard work, assiduously done, over months or years. It’s not a quick fix. Yes, when we get sober, most of us see dramatic improvements in our health, wellness, and circumstances rapidly. But not all of us. And not in a complete way.

Walking through the steps – trudging through – is required. We learn how to manage. We learn how to cope. We learn how to help others. And we become people worth trusting and investing in and relying on. I worry sometimes that prematurely introducing newly sober people to the promises without context might discourage them when they don’t see results immediately. Well, results are rarely immediate. They’re the outcome of work, time, and diligence.

A Letter to my Coach.

28 September 2017

Hi Marcy,

I just wanted to sum up my thoughts about the past nine months. It’s been an amazing challenge, in a challenging time. And one I don’t think I could have achieved without your guidance.

One of the principal core aspects of my self that I’m proud of is my ability to just keep going. When things are hard, or boring, or frustrating, or confusing. This is, I think, why endurance sports and ever-increasing distances appeal to me. I have never been fast, or agile, or graceful. But I can suffer and persist.

This has always served me well. As a child of a broken and occasionally abusive home, I have always needed to be able to put my pain in the background and trudge forward through whatever comes. As an alcoholic in recovery, I have had to proceed steadfastly through often difficult emotional territory to maintain my sobriety.

But until the past four years, I never applied this innate gift to the field of sports or fitness. Because I wasn’t dextrously gifted, I assumed that sports were outside the realm of potential achievement for me. But as I grew in sobriety, I learned something crucial from my experience:

The only thing it takes to be good at something is the willingness to be bad at it.

And so I started being bad at running. And being bad at cycling. And even though I was bad at it, I kept doing it. Sometimes ashamed, sometimes demoralized, sometimes injured, sometimes ambivalent. I kept on being bad at it. Until, as time went by and my education flourished and I met people who knew more than I did and I learned and grew, I slowly got better.

I have to make regular conscious decisions not to be ashamed of my ignorance and inadequacy. I tell myself: it’s ok not to know things. No one ever taught me this before. And then I go learn.

But some challenges are too big to just go take on alone. And half an Ironman is one of those. And so I decided to look for someone who knew more than I did, who’d done it before and would be willing to teach me. And I found you.

This was one of the biggest challenges I’ve set for myself. And yet, strangely, I still had a sense of shame about lacking the education I needed to accomplish this. I felt as though I should somehow just know what to do, to be able to muddle through the way I have with so many other things.

So there was a weird false pride I had to swallow to hire a coach. And I made that conscious but difficult decision to expose my ignorance, to be vulnerable with the truth of what I didn’t know, and rely on you to lead me the right way.

Few times have I ever placed my trust so well.

As Milton wrote, long is the way, and hard, that out of darkness leads up to light. But the way does lead, and I had a leader in you who knew the pitfalls of the trail, and understood the difficulty I was attempting, and respected the distance I had to go. Rather than frighten me with the length of the way, you inspired me with your passion for the journey.

And so when I stood on the dock, excited and afraid, there was one too-constant companion that I did not share a starting line with that day: doubt.

And after a day’s worth of pain and effort, now I have something that can never be taken. After a year’s worth of dedication and commitment, I have become something that will be a part of me forever.

I still see myself in the mirror sometimes as the fat boy. The smoker. The drunk. The child. The quitter. The loser. The cutter. These are faces staring back at me that I do not get to expunge. But they are joined by new faces you helped me shape.

Athlete. Finisher. And slowly, as the long work of my rehabilitation from fear and abuse and addiction and obesity and self-harm is slowly done, I am renovating myself, that face in the mirror, into the face I’ve always aspired to see: the face of a man.

Just that. I don’t have lofty goals. I only want to be a man in my own eyes, instead of a boy. This is all I’ve ever wanted. Finishing a race doesn’t make me a man. But committing to something daunting, being willing to admit my ignorance, to be vulnerable, to work and work and work, to stumble and cry and then get up and work again – that gets me closer. Closer than I’ve ever been.

I know you only signed up to coach me to the finish line of a half Ironman. But you did so much more.

Thank you.

– Dr. 24hours

The Lingering Goodbye.

25 September 2017

My father survived his brush with death last month, and has now largely recovered physically, and even mentally. He’s capable of listening and engaging in conversations. He’s not slurring nearly so badly. And he doing less in the way of what I can only think of as “recent hallucinationing”. Meaning, he never seems to actively hallucinate, but he often would talk about conversations that he’d “recently had” with doctors or other people who he imagined told him things. Conversations that never happened.

He’s been moved to a secure wing of a nursing home in Tucson, because he keeps trying to hurt himself and escape. He’s completely unaware of how helpless he is. He thinks he can take care of himself, or that his partner or my sisters could take care of him. It’s delusional, in the extreme. But it makes him very depressed, because he doesn’t understand why he’s in the place he’s in.

And as long as he’s incapable of basic physical tasks like transferring from a bed to a chair, or a chair to a car, he can’t be moved. And he won’t try to do those things, because he thinks he can already do them. He won’t engage with physical therapy. Now that he’s not drunk all the time, he’s doing a bit better mentally, but it took a long time. The last month or two has to be a bewildering, Kafkaesque nightmare. I feel terrible for him.

Now, he’s become convinced that he is going to go live in a cabin in the woods at my little sister’s house. He’s further convinced that I am standing in the way of this. He wants to do this because he’s convinced that his partner is having orgies without him. My sisters are amenable (against my better judgment) to the idea of Dad moving to a nursing home nearer to where they live, but Dad can’t understand that they mean a nursing home and not this self-constructed cabin (it’s a nice cabin, but it’s in no way appropriate for anyone with any kind of special needs).

Dad is in a debilitatingly quixotic state of mind, and I’m convinced that within a month or two of moving to where my sisters live he’d be demanding to go home to Tucson again. I think my sisters are insane to entertain the idea, and I’ve told them so. I can’t in good conscience participate in that course of action, but I also won’t oppose it. I know they want what’s best for dad, and are doing what they think is right. They’re closer to it than I am. I’m allowed to disagree, but meddling or insisting would be inappropriate, and I won’t attempt to derail anything they choose.

So I’ve sort of come to a “on their heads be it” decision. Dad is in a place where he’s safe, well-cared for, and close to the woman who’s essentially been his wife for 25 years. He’s unhappy, but I doubt anything can be done about that at this point. Dad hasn’t been happy in years except in small and diminishing intervals. I feel terrible for him, and I kind of think the best thing would have been for the sepsis to kill him. He talks constantly of suicide.

This is all part of how we’ve turned dying into a long miserable slow cruel process. Half a century ago, my father would have died several years ago as a result of his stroke, and uncontrolled diabetes. But modern pills and treatment have kept him in a miserable limbo, existing in a state of semi-viability. The condition he’s in now could last a decade, with skilled nurses taking care of him. A decade of misery and depression, infirmity and rage.

What Now?

20 September 2017

There is always a swale of emotion after a huge goal race. Especially, in my experience, a new race. Whether it’s a new distance, a harder course, new sport, or whatever. I felt it after the Pittsburgh half marathon, after the Marine Corps marathon, after my first Olympic triathlon, and now I’m starting to feel it after the half-Ironman. You work so hard for so long to achieve something you never thought you could, and then you do it. And then it’s over.

I have a few races planned. But I don’t have any specific goals. I’m signed up for a Spartan Race in about three weeks. And a 5km charity race. And BB and I intend to run the Philly half-marathon again. But for me, I don’t really have any intention for those races other than to run them and have fun. The Spartan Race is new, but it’s a novelty. Obstacle course races seem interesting and fun, but I’m not sure they’re in my wheelhouse from a “lifetime goal” perspective.

In some ways, I feel like I can quit a part-time job. I’ve been training about 10 hours a week for more than 9 months. Long runs. Long rides. Long swims. Speed work. Gym work. I still don’t look like Brad Pitt in Fight Club. Yes I somehow imagined that would happen. Yes I’m disappointed it didn’t. No I never thought it was a realistic outcome. But I’m pretty obviously in the best shape of my life.

Right now I’m fit, strong, and as capable as I’ve ever been. Not bad for a 43 year old man with my history of abusing my body. I need to rest but I don’t want to lose it. I’m definitely taking time off from long endurance runs and rides. But not too much. I have a half marathon in two months, and I’ll be ready for it. Even if my goal is simply to get to the end and collect a new medal.

My life is possibly going to be changing significantly. I’m starting to look for a new position, as things at MECMC feel like they’ve plateaued. I’m seeking. I always want new challenges. New opportunities. I don’t like sitting still for long. It’s not the right way for me. Routine can be good, but stagnancy is not. I need to keep growing.