Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Cracking My World Wide Open: A Cautionary Tale

"Our life is frittered away by detail. Simplify, simplify." ~ Henry David Thoreau
It's funny how you start noticing things about the world around you that normally go unnoticed or just passed over and dismissed until something changes, and you become almost hypersensitive to that very thing. We live in a culture (the US, mostly) that idolizes "doingness". People love to boast about how much they can get done. How uber busy they are 24/7, go-go-go, do-do-do - getting shit done. This is the hero's journey in modern day America. In 1980s self-help speak, this was often referred to as living as a "human-doing". This is not "being".  We look to others who seem to "do it all" and place them on a pedestal of heroic valour. I constantly see folks on social media boast about how they wake up, off and running - doing all the things - and then crashing into bed and starting all over again the next morning - What matters most is all the doing. All that matters is getting shit done.

We work hard, we play hard, and then we sometimes party hard.

Perhaps I have succumbed to this way of thinking. I have goals and I know I don't have forever, so, it's now or never. But, somewhere along the way, I've become a human doing. Yes, I do enjoy my doings, but, there is more to life that doing and busy-ness.

Add to all the things we "choose" to do, those stresses we don't "choose", specifically, but deal with because we care about others. These are the kinds of stresses that are not really in our control: Concerns about one's children, dealing with an aging parent, etc. We can help, but we can't control the outcome. These "uncontrollable" stresses take the greatest toll of all. And some people have more deal with than others.

And sometimes existential uncertainty, slaps you in your oblivious face, wakes you up, in a cold sweat, and the question dawns on you: "What the F%ck am I doing?"

These things happen slowly, insidiously, over time. You don't even notice all the small steps that you are taking to a place you don't even want to be. Then you are there. You look back and wonder: "Am I living in a Talking Heads song???"

I am here to begin documenting something that I am choosing to share, to not live inside myself and my grief and my fear. This is part journaling and part sharing for the sake of others who may experience similiar things - things that can make someone feel alone, isolated, terrified, confused, defeated, regretful, sad...the list goes on forever.

Here is the beginning of this journey:

For the past year plus (I can't really remember when it all began) I've been dealing with some odd coughing issues, intermittently, usually mid-runs or after runs. It doesn't always happen and there seems to be no weather, season, distance, intensity correlation. In February 2018 I emailed my doctor because I found myself hacking for hours after a few runs and she prescribed me a rescue inhaler: "Sounds like you have exercise induce asthma". This based on no physical exam, or anything beyond that email.

And so things clicked along as I trained hard for The Canyons 100k. The issue was very hard to track or anticipate and I really couldn't tell whether the inhaler helped or not (note: I was also never told how to use the damn thing!!).

I made it through training with some odd but not alarming episodes.  Except for one run, out on the trails where I had to walk for about 3 miles to get things to settle down (that was a first and a bit scary because I was a bit far out for my own comfort), things were manageable. I ran through snow, and ice, and wind, up and down mountains, day after day. My aim for that cycle was to get 12,000-15,000 feet of gain per week, which, I learned, is damn hard during the winter!

I ran Behind the Rocks 50k in Moab: zero breathing issues

I made it through the monsoon of Boston 2018. No coughing. No issues.
Twelve days later I lined up for The Canyons 100k. It's a pretty tough course, with 15,000+ feet of gain and 15,000+ feet of loss. 
And, it kind of scared the shit out of me. I did have some breathing issues, but I managed them and finished the race with the time I needed for my 4th WSER qualifier.

After that I tried to recover so that I would be ready for Leadville 100 training. Did I allow myself enough recovery time? Probably not. I realize, in retrospect, that I was a bit burned out post-Canyons. This would bite me in the ass come July when I really needed to train and just didn't want to.

Go-go-go. Do-do-do.

Life is busy. Work is always there. Family demands are always there - And that right there should be a red flag: family "demands".  In some cases, concerning my not immediate family (mother) the demands are high and thankless. It can drain you dry. Just recently I did the math and realized that for the past 12 years, since my father passed, this has been a major source of uncontrollable stress that causes sleepless nights and anxiety. But what get's lost in the mix of all those "musts" are the things that bring one joy. Going for a hike with my daughter while not being barraged by my buzzing phone in my pocket. Watching a movie at night without people constantly pinging me  - needing me. Always needing me.

A Red Flag Waving: Three weeks ago I sit on the boardwalk at Mission beach, enjoying the biggest soft serve cone on the planet.

We are flying home that afternoon but I am still technically "on vacation". As I sit there enjoying the sights and sounds of the beach, and the warm sun shining on my winter starved skin, my phone keeps buzzing me. I glance at it from time to time. At some point , disgusted, I placed it face down on the step next me. We then get up, hit the arcade one last time, where my daughter finally wins that elusive stuffie from a claw machine on her first try (Yeesh. The trip is now a success :P  ). We return to the car, and head off to a used bookstore before a last museum stop and then the airport. Well, at some point I realize that I do not have my phone. I can't remember where I last had it, and honestly, I've never lost it before (and I travel a lot!). I keep seeing myself slap in, face down, on that concrete step. So, we make our way back to the beach. I have everything on that damn phone so losing it, while not the end of the world, would be a major pain in the tuckus. The phone is not where I left it. Uggggg. I ask at the ice cream stand if someone, by any chance, turned in a phone. The two young women looked at me oddly, then one says, "What does it look like?" Sure enough, they have it. I thank them emphatically. So grateful - but losing it also makes me aware of just how much I am tied to it, and how much stress that relationship-of-sorts costs me every waking hour.

I need to make a change.


So, being driven and focused is great. Going after your goals and dreams, is commendable. Living a good life, however, is not just about all the doing-ness in it. It's not all about the accomplishments and the badassery that so many admire and try to emulate.

Sometimes it is better to do less than more.

Sometimes doing less is more.
Sometimes slow is better than fast.

Sometimes doing absolutely nothing, which is something, is better than doing anything else.

So, one way to manage stress, for me, is to run - to be out in nature, by myself, thinking through things and having the mental and physical space I need. This has been my go-to for decades. But when running also becomes a stress, something is seriously out of whack with the Zeitgiest.

So here enters the other insidious side of the "play hard, live large, and party happy along the way" culture I find myself immersed in: Drinking culture.

I've watched, observed, followed, and analyzed the curious juxtaposition of running and drinking (completely unscientific observations over time). It seems that the running population tends to weigh heavily on the hearty drinking side of the scale. We have 'beer runs'. We have 'beer miles'. We have beer after races even if it's only 10 in the morning. We have beer after long training runs. Most running social occasions and most races involve beer. We 'reward' ourselves with a drink. We deserve it. We read all the 'research' that backs up our view that beer (or wine, or pick your drink of choice) is good for us, always in moderation though. That's what we say. We share articles on FB proving that alcohol is in fact (it's a FACT, really!!) not only okay but good. And we cheer on the guy running 100 miles chugging a beer at every aid station.

Running and beer. Beer and running. They seem to just go together.

Group runs end at pubs.

Races end with beer.
Long training days - yeah, more beer.
A stressful day: God, I just need a glass of wine or a beer.
A good day: Have a beer to celebrate...etc.

We share the jokes:

And laugh it off. We share it all over the interwebs. Our friends cheer and chuckle. We encourage each other.

And one day becomes the next. It's just a glass here, and there, and then again, why not tonight - and, uggg, that call with mom has me ready to scream... I want to shut out the world and relax, for just a couple hours. Turn off my damn brain. Stop the stress.

The ultrarunning community tends to come down on two very opposite ends of the drinking spectrum: Those who are "sober" (usually former addicts) who have channeled their addictive personalities into running, and those who proudly share their excesses in both drinking and running. They "run to drink".  Most live upstanding lives - work, family, hard running, etc.  A lot of us believe that running allows us to  get away with sins that would kill our sedentary friends.

Well, it ain't so. 


A Cautionary Tale: Where is this all taking me? Well, it has, I believe, taken me to a very scary place. A place I would love to help others avoid. If I can share my story, maybe it will help wake others up before it happens to them.

Last week, as I fought off the flu, I had to go in for an echocardiogram to rule out a cardiac cause for my ongoing coughing issues. Note: I am pretty functional. I ran a 100 miles in brutal conditions (with a PR) in November with minimal coughing. I've been training for the Black Canyon 100k since the end of November (again, was that adequate recovery???. Probably not!). I've had a couple pulmonary function tests and they have shown nothing. Well, the echo results, as the terrifying email reported, were "not good" per my doctor: "reduced cardiac function". This is called "heart failure". Yes. Heart fucking failure. Now, to be honest, that sounds a lot worse than it is, at least for now, but it is very serious stuff!
 It's also given the general name "cardiomyopathy". Google that and you will start to shake and cry and nash your teeth at the curses that the gods have bestowed on you. Your life will change in an instant and none of it will make any sense. You do not experience shortness of breath and decreases exercise tolerance. You do not experience leg and foot swelling. You do not experience any of the symptoms of heart failure, and you are. The organ you both value above all others and the organ you take for granted day in and day out, is not doing well. You receive the most jarring and unwelcome wake up call you can fathom.

The question is: Will this be what I need to save my own life? Or is it too late? Or, is this just bad luck and it's all out of my control?

There is such a thing are cardiac fatigue, but this is still a subject of much speculation. I do not have "athlete's heart". That could be good or bad. Who knows yet. But I am convinced that stress is killing me - I remember screaming this at my mother a year ago. She dismissed it as histrionics. I'm done with that. I'm a worrier - I need to learn how to let things go - that's in progress. AND I have been "self-medicating" via alcohol. I don't drink a lot, but it's too much. I've known this for a while but when you are entirely functional and dealing with life, it's easy to keep dismissing that little voice saying that something isn't right here. The truth is that "moderate" drinking, especially for women, amounts to much less than most actually drink. For a woman, cardiac alcohol toxicity is shockingly low. One pint of IPA (usually a higher alcohol %) is about a third to a half of a small woman's weekly allotment in the "moderate" zone.

Obviously we all need to make these choices for ourselves. It never occurred to me that I might be killing myself with my seemingly moderate consumption. My increasing reliance on it for "relaxation" was actually the most concerning for me - but had I looked a little deeper, I would have probably listened to that little voice sooner.

So, I still have many tests ahead of me. I had to pull out of Black Canyon 100k since the chance of dying right now is a bit high on the risk scale for me, and for now my running future is very up in the air, never mind my very life. I am still allowed to run. But I am choosing to take some non-structured time. If I feel like running, I run. I run as far as I want to, up to 10 miles which my doctor agrees is okay "for me". I am letting things go, or trying to. I am setting boundaries at work. I am trying to re-cultivate some of the things I enjoy that I've missed through all my driven busy-ness these past ten years. 
And, I have decided to stop drinking completely for some time to come. Perhaps for good. I don't know yet. 

I pray that my heart can be healed, can recover, and that I can return to the running I love. Our heart is the most important muscle in our body, and yet we treat our quads and hamstrings with much greater regard and concern and care. We feel them. When they are sore we rub them and rest them. But we don't feel the soreness in our hearts - we don't give them massages and warm baths. When we sleep, our hearts keep working. They never stop, until they do. Only then are they noticed.

I am sharing this only because I feel that I am not so unusual. I am like so many out there. We rarely learn from the experiences of others, but perhaps someone out there, who feels as I do, or did, will take heart and change course before it's too late.

Time will tell how this goes. My number one desire it to stay alive for as long as possible for my daughter. If it weren't for her, I believe I would feel differently about things.

To be continued - I hope...


  1. Oh my gosh, how scary!! Thank you for sharing, and I agree with so many of your points.

  2. Hey there, buddy. Hugs. Good long, teary bear hugs. Beer, yes, hard relationship here too. Lots of “I deserve...” that I’m been discerning, thinking on. Still dealing with some weird weight issues that only really bother me like every OTHER day. Thinking about the stress bit too - have a little less (or different?) lately but always need to examine the levels. Come on up here and we’ll go sit in a pebbly beach somewhere and drink iced tea... (or hot tea depending on when you come)

  3. Our hearts hold so much for us; we do have a tendency as women, and runners, to let the load creep up to unbearable before we step back and consider our own pain, our own needs, our own care. We are so strong for so many that the ones who know and love us best can't fathom our vulnerability and miss the clear signs that we need support- lots of it, more of it, yesterday and tomorrow. Over our protests, even. But, at the risk of being corny- take heart ❤��... you can attend and heal that amazing heart of yours. I've seen the care you extend without a thought to others; if you can reflect just a tenth the effort & intention back to your own beautiful self, your heart will refill and rebound, I am sure of it. Be well, friend.

  4. Caolan thank you for sharing.... so many things ring true. Take care, don't let the feeling of invincible (something we runners have) keep you from doing the right things. You have given me many reasons to self examine.

  5. I am glad you kept pursuing the cough and that you now have a chance to "fix" this, hopefully. I will be thinking of you and wishing you a speedy recovery. I can't imagine how you must be feeling, although you did a good job trying to explain it, I imagine the reality is so much more difficult. Hugs!

  6. Hi Caolan i ran across your blog while i was looking for positive and uplifting articles to read in my spare time and yours was very moving and gives lots of hope. I hope youre in good health and going strong. Im commenting because im going through struggles of my own at the momment and thought maybe you could share some inspirational advice with me if you had a second. You said you enjoy talking philosophy so i figured you might be someone appropriate to talk to. I was hoping you might even give me some clarification about one statement you made in your blog. Please let me know if have a minute to respond. Thanks , jim

  7. Is there an email i cant contact you at?

  8. This sort of appears completely greatest. Each one of these small info tend to be produced as well as plenty of background info. I favor which a great deal. crack


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