After the thrill of completing my first half Iron-distance race in 2013 (the now-defunct Carolina Half in the Lake Norman area), I assumed I’d do another – maybe decades of them, and at least one Ironman – once our future children were in school and my career was on track.
The certainty with which I made these predictions about my life is bittersweet to me now – sweet on good days and bitter on bad ones.
How could I have known “the day I could no longer do this” would come after that race? I was only 32.
Looking back, I’d been slowing down all summer in my training. My hamstrings felt tight and it seemed like I had to concentrate awfully hard on running to keep from tripping over my feet. Two months later, convinced I had a race injury, I saw a physical therapist, who said “Your muscles just don’t seem strong enough for someone who did that long of a race.” She recommended a neurologist.
Fast forward 8 months (and 5 neurologists) to my diagnosis. By then, I was walking with a cane after I had fallen in the middle of a downtown D.C. intersection. My voice had slowed down too, and I couldn’t clap normally. Totally bizarre.
ALS is a progressive neurological condition that inhibits the brain’s ability to communicate with the muscles. People with ALS become paralyzed as they can no longer move their muscles to walk, speak, eat, or eventually, breathe. In that time, the person’s mind stays sharp, watching his or her body die – usually in 2-5 years.
The initial shock that I was going to die came as less of a gut punch than you might expect. The news settled into my husband and me slowly, giving us a wide-eyed haunted look – too much for our brains to comprehend, but unable to look away or blink. It didn’t seem real, so we didn’t even miss work. We clung to the idea that this kind of thing happened to other people, not us.
By August, when my ALS diagnosis was confirmed, the Ice Bucket Challenge phenomenon had taken over the internet and the world learned how horrifying ALS is. I paid particular attention to the videos featuring people with ALS – stiff, frail bodies hooked up to scary-looking tubes. I couldn’t absorb that that would be me, one day soon.
About that time, I came across the 2005 NBC coverage of Jon “Blazeman” Blais at the World Championships in Kona. He is still the only person to have completed an Ironman with ALS unassisted. He was my age, 33, and died less than 2 years later. But still, he did it.
That video changed my life, as it has for countless triathletes. Jon proved that the strength of human will propels us across the finish line, far more than the body.
“If Jon could do an Ironman, surely I could do a sprint triathlon,” I thought. And so I did in October 2014. I completed the Ramblin’ Rose Chapel Hill women-only super sprint on my new recumbent trike and walked the run with trekking poles.
“Walking through the finish chute with everyone cheering and crying, honestly, I couldn’t look around. I would have lost it. People say I inspired them, but it is nothing compared to what reverberated through me from all sides. It was the very best of humanity. What is it like to have that force of compassion directed at you? It defies words. Jon Blais knew. And now I know too.”
The race changed my perspective on my journey with ALS. I felt blessed, lucky, and profoundly grateful. I wanted other people to be able to experience the triumph of accomplishing more than they thought possible, the strength of their muscles and minds, the camaraderie of the sport.
And so I created Team Drea – a group of friends and family who took on a race that represented a challenge to them as a way to raise money for ALS research. What started out as 30 team members with a modest goal of $7,500 has grown to 150 athletes in 2 years and raised $150,000. And I thought I was overwhelmed by kindness before…!
Now, Fillnow Coaching and I want to invite you to join Team Drea too. We will be doing the Spartan Half Marathon & 5k on May 6th in Davidson. So far, we have about 30 runners and will be hosting a brunch afterwards.
All you have to do is make sure to say that you’re with Team Drea when you register (the race director is personally donating $3 per runner) and fill out this form so we know to expect you. We’re asking everyone to fundraise or donate at least $50 here for ALS research.
I will be doing the half marathon on my trike. Somehow, I continue to defy the odds and this will be my 21st race since diagnosis. Last year, I completed 12 races (3 marathons, 2 triathlons, 6 half marathons, and 1 virtual race) in honor of people with ALS who have inspired me.
I will continue to race as long as I can because, well, someday I will not be able to do this…but that day is not TODAY.
Freezing hot & roasting cold, I was delirious with fever. I could not sleep nor could I stay awake. I lay quarantined in my bedroom with my eyes closed wishing sleep would come. Hoping that the hours and days would pass and health would return to me. I found solace in Audible and as I struggled to breath, I listened to “Into Thin Air” by Jon Krakauer. I found myself on my own “Mount Everest”, deep in full-blown double pneumonia. Each movement, each breath, was a challenge. I wondered what my next step should be, if I would even have a next step, how to safely maneuver through this illness and back to my family, my body and my life? After “Into Thin Air”, I listened to several other books by Jon Krakauer and others before finally stumbling onto “My Year of Running Dangerously” by Tom Foreman.
There have been a handful of times throughout my life when I decided that I was going to become a runner. Usually this goal surrounded weight loss and the desire to look good. Frequently, I would find myself in a shoe store searching for a new pair of running shoes. The desire to run would leave almost as quickly as the goal had arrived. I would eventually find that pair of running shoes discarded in a forgotten corner of my closet and they would end up in a donation pile. At this point, I typically reminded myself not to do that again, not to waste my time or money on trying to run. Every failed attempt to become a runner let my stories solidify into truth. I am not a runner. I am slow. I am bad at this. I cannot do it. I am not supposed to do this. I run weird. I have flat feet. I do not look like a runner. I am not thin enough. I am not tall enough. My knees cannot handle it. I am not a runner. That was my cycle. And as I languished in my bed drenched in sweat, foggy with fever, I was certainly farther from being a runner than every before.
Yet, as I listened to Tom’s book, something inside me shifted. As I lay hacking, coughing and often choking, barely able to speak without losing my breath, I decided I was going to run. I saw Tom’s success as my success. I saw myself recreating in my own life what he did for himself. I dreamed about running a marathon and maybe even an ultra. I had no idea how I was going to do it but my pneumonia gave me the space to dream, to believe, the want and the need to run. After listening to “My Year of Running Dangerously”, Audible kindly recommended “Running with the Kenyans” by Adharanand Finn. It was during this book, that I discovered how I would revamp my running style and form. I thought, maybe things would be different if my form was different. I decided then, that I would change from a heel strike runner to a mid-foot/forefront runner. I knew that I was going to have to start from below zero so I might as well give it a go. My running really began flat on my back, in bed, envisioning how I was going to run.
Four months later (with no actual running under my belt), I walked into Independence Run & Hike for Ladies Night. I went a bit out of curiosity and to take a step towards actually running. Elinor Fish, of Run Wild Retreats, greeted me at the door and I told her yet again how I wanted to attend one of her retreats. Barely out of the woods from the pneumonia, I was not sure if a retreat was realistic for me but I picked up the literature anyway. There was a pull that I could not shake. The idea of the retreat marinated deep within me. I knew intellectually that I needed cardio to rehabilitate my lungs but I was not thrilled about the prospect of actually doing it. Finally, I voiced my idea to Carolyn Parker, my outcome based athletic trainer and friend, and quietly asked “do you think I could run 5-7 miles by the end of October? Is that realistic for me given um my circumstances?” I did not want to place a deposit for a slot if I was still delirious. Carolyn gave me one of her classic and brutally honest answers: “Yes, IF you do NOT overload your schedule with other things.” (Totally something I normally do). Later that day, I signed up and grabbed one of the last slots for the Moab Mindful Running Retreat. Instantly, the reality hit—I was ACTUALLY going to HAVE to RUN. YIKES! (cue music—freak out!) The Moab Mindful Running Retreat was my big golden ticket to recovery, my carrot, my bait, my reward… now I was going to have to do the work and get from flat on my back to running.
Back to Independence Run and Hike for shoes and big splurge on a Garmin. The little voice inside my head tried to shame me—that is a lot of money to spend and you can barely walk. What makes you so sure that this time will be any different. However, this time, I had my WHY. I knew that my health was of utmost priority. I needed and wanted to be healthy so that I could be with my family, my community and thrive.
And then, I ran. It was awful. It was excruciating. I could barely breath and there was a lot of hacking, a lot of anguish and a lot of pain. I knew that I should not run straight but other than that and attempting to change my form, I was clueless. Two “runs” in and I was alone with 5-7 miles to earn in 5 months. In hindsight, I am so glad I signed up for the retreat BEFORE I tried to run!
Instead of throwing in the towel, I reached out for help. I wrote this email to my former Davidson Women’s Tennis teammate and friend Kelly Fillnow, now CEO/Coach at Fillnow Coaching AND Professional Triathlete Ironman and ALL AROUND Certifiable Bad***:
I am ready for some long distance coaching :))) To sum up recent events—I had a BAD winter—REALLY BAD PNEUMONIA… SO I am basically starting from scratch. Right now I am unable to consecutively run a mile… I have to walk/run/walk … my lungs are in recovery, as well as my overall endurance. I was sick from the end of January through Mid-April. I train with a certified Gym Jones trainer and I am seeing a Naturopath.
My first goal is a solid 3 mile run… this is in preparation for being able to complete 7 miles for a running retreat I want to do at the end of October… Also there are some great trail runs out here and I’d like to do an official “event” next year, 2017… I’m contemplating a 1/2 marathon as my long-term goal, like the Snowmass Golden Leaf or the Aspen Valley Marathon…
Let me know if you can fit me into your busy schedule!
Lots of love,
I felt so vulnerable and exposed, nervous to even write those goals, and even more so to send them…BUT Kelly said YES!!! And just like that, I had a Coach and she had a plan.
With that we were off and “running”… well, not exactly. My first workout was walking really: instructionsàDo the 1.0 mile Trail by your house today! Warm up walking easy for 10 minutes. Then Speed walk 6 minutes, run 1 minute. Then, do this for 2 straight miles. Make sure when you run, you don’t sprint. Just slowly increase into a jog. Try to keep your heart rate around the same as when you are speed walking.
However, instead of simply flailing around aimlessly by myself, miserable with negative self-talk, I found myself with direction, purpose and most importantly support. The workouts Kelly built for me gave me what I needed most—success exactly where I was in THAT moment and the confidence, drive and moxie to continue. Watch out—I am now swimming and certifiable.
Here are the Highlights from my Pneumonia Run:
July 30th 2016: FIRST EVER proper FOOT RACE (4 miles)
September 5th: the “Labor” Day Ride—30 miles on the bike
September 10th: Bagged my first 14er by summiting Mount Elbert (Highest Peak in Colorado, 12 miles round trip, 5,249 vertical gain, 14,443 feet) Kelly did say to “find elevation” 😉
September 18th: 12.5K Quarry Climb
October 27th—30th: Moab Mindful Running Retreat
Fisher Towers—favorite trail run
I took my first trip to Boston in November 2012. My wife had a work event there, and I thought it would be a great opportunity to fly up and spend a few days with her in Beantown. I remember getting up each morning and running along the Charles River in Cambridge and seeing the famous Citco sign on Kenmore Square. Later on that trip I became overwhelmed as I visited the Boston Marathon finish line on Boylston Street. I remember having dinner one evening with my good friend, Declan O’Beirne and sharing with him that one day it would be a dream to run the Boston Marathon. At that time Declan was CFO of one of the divisions of John Hancock, the major corporate sponsor of the marathon. He told me that he could get me tickets to ANY major sporting event in Boston, BUT there was no way he could get me an entry into the Boston Marathon. I had to earn.
Not that I would ever want a pass into the oldest and most prestigious marathon of all time. However Declan’s statement solidified my dream even further. The standards and the demands to run this race are so high, that you have to earn it. I wouldn’t want it any other way.
But what was I thinking? At that time I had never done a half marathon much less a marathon. To be honest I had never run more than 8 miles at one setting. To make it even worse, the marathon pace that I needed to qualify was faster that any of the 5k race paces I was doing.
My running adventure had just started earlier that year. A few of my buddies and I had started running 5k races every Saturday morning. After running 6 years of cross country in junior high and high school, I was trying to find my stride after a 23 year absence. I had given it all up when I went away to college. But it be honest during that time I was never a competitive runner. I ran for the B Team in the back of the pack. My first “comeback” 5k in April 2011 was a real eye-opener. I finished in 33 minutes. That was really disappointing. I thought I could easily do one in less than 30. But I tried a few more Saturday 5ks. It was really tough at first, but each Saturday got better and better, and I eventually started seeing my times venture down in the 22-23 min range – not bad for a 40 something year old.
In November of 2013 I ran my first marathon in the Outer Banks. I trained on my own, taking the advice of friends and articles I read. Following a Hal Higdon plan, I spent a hot humid summer in Charlotte training for the big race. Initially my goal was just to FINISH, but the competitor in me knew I had to have a time goal in mind. After running my first half in Hilton Head with a time of 1:48 earlier in February, I thought breaking 4 hours was an attainable goal…..It actually was attainable. At mile 23, I was 3 minutes ahead of schedule until I had to climb the Washington Baum Bridge which connects Nags Head to Manteo. Well I forgot my rope and climbing gear. The bridge has a 4% elevation grade for 650 feet. Once I climbed the summit of the bridge, I had nothing left…zero, nothing, nada…..Somehow I found the energy to start jogging for a minute or 2….then walk, then jog, then walk. You get the idea. This continued until I found the finish line. When I crossed the line the clock read 4:03. Don’t get me wrong, I was happy to finish my very first marathon. It sure would have been nice to see a “3” instead of a “4”. When I first crossed the finish and saw my wife, my 2 girls, and my mom, I was filled with so much emotion. I cried like a baby. Ten minutes later that emotion soon turned into immense pain……I could barely stand up and found myself in the medical tent getting an IV with fluids. This was due to my inexperience in hydrating properly during a long race
What was I going to do? Check it off the bucket list and go on to the next thing…..If you would have asked me on the bridge, I would have told you ” THERE’S NO WAY I was going to do another”….but as weeks passed, it ate me up inside that I didn’t have a sub 4. So what did I do, I signed up for my next 26.2 five months later. This time Wrightsville Beach. It was a place that I knew well. We had been going there for family vacations for years. The course was flat as a pancake – one of the fastest courses in the region. No bridges in sight…At least none to climb. I continued to train myself. I was running 35-40 miles a week. I felt stronger, better prepared. This time I would go out with the 4 hour pace group. That was a better strategy. Everything went to plan. The pace leader told me that he would even finish a few seconds ahead so we could all break that 4 hour barrier. I felt strong and under control throughout the whole race. I reached Mile 24, and I could feel my energy slipping away. The pace group was a little ahead of me but still in sight. I still had time to catch up…..so I thought. At mile 25 the pace group got further and further ahead of me, and I ended up crossing the line at 4:00:47. Frustration set in. How could I have trained so hard and still miss the 4 hour barrier by less than a minute?
So I told myself let’s focus on another half marathon. The next month I signed up for RaceFest, a popular Half in the Charlotte SouthPark area. I started strong for the first part of the race. At mile 10, I bonked. Totally out of energy, I ended going back to my jog/walk routine. My racing friend, Jeff Linson, who I raced against mostly in 5ks, passed me at the final stretch of the race. Jeff had started beating me at most of the 5ks. Not only that he would consistently beat me on the final stretch. But this was his first half. He wasn’t supposed to beat me at this race. Long distance was not supposed to be his strength. I finished crossing the finish line 1:50 – 2 minutes slower than my first half marathon.
I was so irritated. Was I going backwards? What should I do?
I had just recently found at that I had been accepted into the Chicago Marathon – my third marathon. I couldn’t stand the thought of getting into Chicago, traveling half way across the country and still not breaking the 4 hour threshold.
I realized that if I was going to improve, I couldn’t continue to rely on myself. I needed professional help.
Throughout my training I ran weekly with my friend, Theoden Janes. Throughout the time we ran together, Theoden’s track record was amazing. His times were consistently faster and faster. I was hoping some of the success would rub off. I recognized that he always gave credit to his running coach Kelly Fillnow. A running coach….interesting. On a whim, I read about Kelly’s athletic and coaching achievements on her website. I was impressed.
I emailed Kelly and she agreed to meet the following week. I gave her my racing story. She agreed to help me get ready for Chicago. Immediately Kelly changed everything. My workouts, my cross training, my race strategy, my mental well-being. Before I would just out and run a set amount of miles that my plan told me to do. With Kelly, my workouts had a purpose. Whether it be speed work, hill work, tempo runs, long runs, and core workouts, there was a method and a plan. Most importantly, it was important that I worked rest days into my schedule which allowed my legs to recover. Also my long runs didn’t have to be nor should they be fast. It was really about teaching my body to endure.
I started working with Kelly in May 2014. Soon my 5k and 10k race times over the next few months started to improve. Kelly taught me the importance of having a plan for every race that I run. She taught me the importance of pacing and negative splitting. I often made the mistake of going out fast too early in the race and falling apart at the end. Now I try to go out slow at the beginning, find my pace, and then have find my kick at the end. In October 2014, I completed Chicago in 3:47 – a 13 minute improvement. At that point in time, I knew that hiring Kelly was the best running decision that I made. Over the course of 2 years I ran the following marathons:
Nov 2014 Thunder Road 3:45
Jan 2015 Charleston 3:40
Mar 2015 Wrightsville Beach 3:39
Nov 2015 New York City 3:36
Feb 2016 Mercedes (Bham) 3:34
Mar 2016 Wrightsville Beach 3:30
After my 2016 Wrightsville Beach race, Kelly told me my next race I would be in the 320s. I told her yes, but this time I’m going for my BQ (Boston Qualifying time). Never in my wildest dreams did I think I could come close to a qualifying time. My dream that I talked about 4 years ago was coming close to becoming a reality. But there was still a lot of hard work ahead. For a 45-49 year old male, the BQ time is 3:25. But since there are more qualifiers than entries, you have to be faster than your qualifying time. In 2012 the Boston Athletic Association enacted the “rolling admission” process which allows runners who have the greatest amount of time over and above the qualifying standard the opportunity to register first. In order to run in the 2016 race, you had to have run 2 minutes 28 seconds over and above the qualifying time. To date that is largest cushion you have needed. To give myself enough cushion, I planned my next marathon goal to be 3:20, a 5 minute cushion.
I was excited to find out soon afterwards that I got into the Chicago Marathon for 2016. It was exciting to go back to Chicago. It was the first marathon that Kelly trained me for, and it would be an ideal race for a BQ. Chicago is a fast, flat, spectator-friendly, high-energy race. I needed all the help I could get to improve my time by 10 minutes. The only factor is the weather – the one thing I have no control over. It could be cold and windy. It could be hot and humid. In past races, it has gotten so hot, they had to shut the race down. But it also could be just right – 40 degree overcast weather – which to me was perfect.
My training started by taking 2 weeks off after finishing Wrightsville. No running whatsoever. That was tough, but it was important to start my base off the right way. Kelly made some important changes to my plan. First was to incorporate a weekly spin class that I would do on Mondays. This helped me recover after my Sunday long runs. The classes were tough as my spin instructor, Kim, was intense….but they really helped me with my endurance. Kelly also added more trail runs to my plan. I am fortunate to have Colonel Beatty Park in my backyard. Beatty has a beautiful 6 mile trail loop which I ran at least twice a week. The trails are hard – highly technical with lots of tree roots, ditches, and twists/turns . This slowed me down considerably. My training runs – with the exception of speed work are normally in the 8-9 min/mile range. Running on the trails slowed me down to 10-12 minutes/mile. However running a 6 mile trail run at that speed felt like running a 12 miler on pavement at normal pacing. It was a great workout that worked a whole new set of muscles. One other thing, summer training for a marathon is tough – especially in the south. Running on the trails provided much needed shade and less pounding on the joints.
The one thing that I decided to do in addition is to lose a few pounds. Its not an exact science, and there’s a lot more factors involved, but there is one study that claims losing weight could increase your speed by 2 sec / mile / pound. So a 10 pound weight loss could potentially provide an 8+ min improvement in a marathon. (2x10x26 = 520 seconds or 8.6 minutes)
Even with all the miles I was doing, my weight continued to fluctuate around 175-180 pounds. I’ve never considered myself overweight but there was weight to lose as I’ve never have the best eating habits. I’ve always had the philosophy is that as long as I run, i can eat whatever. In order to lose weight, my philosophy had to change. With a few tips from a dietician I made the following changes to my daily diet.
1) No white rice, pastas, breads, or potatoes. Instead I converted that to whole grain breads and pastas, brown rice, and sweet potatoes.
2) No processed foods.
3) More lean proteins – more chicken, turkey, beans, peanut butter, protein shakes
4) More fruits and vegetables with each meal especially leafy greens providing much needed iron
5) In addition to 3 meals, I incorporated a mid morning, mid-afternoon and evening snack each day. Usually consisting of a fruit/vegetable and a protein.
6) I drank more water throughout the day. No sodas and juices. I even limited my beer and wine consumption.
Along with my marathon training over the summer and my new diet plan, my weight dropped to 160. I could feel a bounce in my step and more energy. Summer marathon training continued to be brutal. But I did a couple of long runs at Moses Cone Park in Blowing Rock. The temps were 10-15 degrees cooler and provided great hill training on some beautiful terrain. On my 45th birthday in September, I had a 23 mile long run – my longest training run I’ve ever done. Usually after any runs over 20 miles, I really struggle to finish and feel pretty beaten up afterwards. However this training run, I felt stronger than I’ve felt before. I was ready to take on Chicago.
I traveled to Chicago with my support team – my wife, Chris, my daughters Chase and Abby, my mom and stepfather, and my brother, Casey. My good friend and running partner, Paul Neumann, who has a 3:11 PR, was running Chicago as well and agreed to pace me.
Race day – October 9th arrived. Conditions were absolutely perfect Sunday AM. High 40s/Low 50s. Beautiful day. Plenty of energetic spectators. The plan was to go out 800 min pace the first 3-4 miles and then work my way to a 740 pace. Soon after we started I had forgotten how the skyscrapers and 45k runners will mess up your GPS. My signal was not accurate which forced to go out the first few miles based on feel. After the first mile marker I did a 735. I tried to slow down. At the second mile marker I did a 740. At the 3rd mile marker. I did another 740.
Clearly I wasn’t slowing down much. Soon after the first 5k we found the 320 pace group. So we decided to keep the group in our sight the whole time. And that’s what we did. I felt great the whole way. Very comfortable. I remember at mile 12 telling Paul I couldn’t believe this was almost half way over.
There must have been at least 40-50 in the pace group which was really helpful as opposed to pacing all alone like I’ve done many times before. The pace leader was awesome. He wore “rabbit ears” and kept the group motivated with his cheers. He would often get the spectators cheering. Lots of great music along the way including Elvis at mile 17. At mile 21 1/2 I saw and waved to my family. At mile 23 Paul said that he was going on ahead so he could get 319 which would give him a 10 min gap and allow him a day early to register.
I was headed down Michigan Avenue – the final stretch. I was getting really tired, and I could feel that I was slowing down a bit. The pace group was a little ahead of me. I was almost at mile 25 and then I stopped. I started walking for 10 seconds. Then I remembered what Kelly told me before the race – ” put one foot in front of the other.” I started running with everything that I had. The last mile had signs 1 mile to go…… then 800m to go…….. then 400m to go. I took the left turn into Grant Park and saw the Finish Line. What a glorious sight! I crossed the line with a huge smile!
3:21:16 was my official time, 3 minutes and 44 seconds under my BQ. This also was a 39 minute improvement from the time Kelly started coaching me.
Then it hit me as I was walking down the chute…….I just qualified for the Boston Marathon! My eyes filled with tears and I was completely overcome with emotion. Still am today.
There are so many people to thank: First and foremost my coach, Kelly – who helped me reach boundaries that I never thought imaginable; my run class instructor, Meg – Kelly’s twin sister – who’s positive attitude is infectious; my regular running partners, Paul, Tom, Mike, Dianne, Theoden, Melissa, and so many others; my support crew who are there for every big race- my wife Chris, my daughters, Chase and Abby, my mom and stepfather, and so many other family and friends who cheer for me from afar.
In addition to my 10 marathon PRs and my BQ, I have made the following improvements in other races:
Pre – Kelly Current PR Improvement
5k 22:05 19:26 2:39
10k 48:45 44:05 4:40
Half marathon 1:47:45 1:33:40 13:05
And I look forward to more future PRs……
The most important thing I’ve learned from Kelly, is to always visualize your results before ever stepping to the start line. Some of the greatest athletes in the world like Jack Nicklaus and Michael Jordan visualize their shot before they even take it. Visualization does not guarantee success. It also does not replace hard work and practice. But when combined with diligent effort and proper planning, it is a powerful way to achieve positive, behavioral change and accomplishing your goals. It certainly helped in my case.
ON YOUR MARK…..
Less than an hour after some routine blood work in April 2015, the doctor’s office called me. While I do appreciate getting crisp, responsive service, when the doctor’s office calls back with test results within the hour, it is generally not going to be good news.
“Mr. Benjamin, we received very high results for one of your tests. The machine is probably broken but we would like you to come in and get re-tested.”
“Your blood glucose level. The machine tested it at 517, which just has to be an error. With a number that high, you would be in a diabetic coma!”
“Well I can come back tomorrow morning on my way to work….”
“Can you come back sooner?”
“Uh, sure. When?”
“Can you come back now?”
I knew that the machine wasn’t broken. I had been having all the obvious symptoms of diabetes for a few months: bleeding gums, unexplained weight loss, waking up three to four times each night to pee. My sedentary lifestyle and years of eating whatever I wanted had finally caught up with me. And at only 44 years old, it felt like it all happened too soon.
The rest of that day was a blur. I was referred to a GP and an endocrinologist. The scariest part was when the GP tested my foot for neuropathy with a vibrating cone. I had to tell the doctor when I stopped feeling the vibrations, so he could gauge whether my foot had suffered any irreversible nerve damage. When the nurse showed me how to inject myself with insulin and prick my finger to test my blood sugar, it was a very rude awakening.
A normal blood sugar level is between 70-130 mg/dL. Mine was between 400-517 mg/dL. My A1c, a measure of the average amount of sugar in the red blood cells over a three-month period, was 13.7%. Anything over 7.4% is considered extremely dangerous. Basically, my blood type was “Ragu”. I did some research and at my levels, the chances of blindness, kidney failure and foot amputations over the next 3-7 years were 100%. I did not like those odds. The amount of time I had left was unknown, but the endgame was certain: if I maintained my life on the same course, I would lose my vision, my kidney function and some limbs.
Eighteen months, and seven triathlons later, I finished my first half IRONMAN at Wilmington, North Carolina. This is the story of how I took my health back – and my life back – by brute force through learning how to race triathlon.
I started, in the days after my diagnosis, with baby steps. I tried to do one small thing every day to fix the problem. I got a small fridge for my office so that I could keep fresh, healthy foods handy. I joined the gym down the street from my office and signed up with a personal trainer. The gym was the scariest step for me at first. I was very certain that I would be laughed at mercilessly and made to feel, rightly, I thought, that I did not belong. But in diabetes I finally found something scarier than going to the gym. I have avoided sports my whole life, instead focusing all my energy and efforts on things I was good at, which, coincidentally all happened to involve my backside planted firmly in some kind of chair. My whole life, I resented that I was pressured to spend time on exercise and fitness when I didn’t like it and wasn’t any good at it. I wondered, “why must I spend my time on things I’m not any good at and have no interest in?” Well, it turns out that my endocrinologist had the answer: because otherwise I was going to die, slowly, and after suffering really horrible problems. So I had my moment of reckoning. With a lifetime spent on sedentary pursuits where I had a lot of natural abilities, be it school, music, writing or work, this time I gave myself permission to work really hard at something at which I knew I was going to suck.
My trainer, Jim Guimond from the Charlotte Athletic Club, was a huge key for me. Success, I learned, is really nothing more than sticking with it, even when – especially when – I really don’t want to do it. The accountability of a weekly meeting with Jim, where he reviewed all the workouts that I had uploaded to a training app that week, really helped. The plan Jim developed for me was pretty simple: do something aerobic 5 days a week and lift weights (even if the weight lifted was my own body) once a week. The goal was to get in 4-5 hours of exercise every week, through spin classes, biking outdoors, walking and swimming. I started going to spin classes three times a week and lifting weights with my trainer once a week. Persistence and consistency is key.
Even the most basic exercises were very hard at first. The spin bikes were a pain in the rear (literally!) and I was so out of shape that even brisk walking was a struggle. I feared the mockery of the athletic people at the gym and at the bike shop. I feared the sideways glances, and the reinforcement of my feeling that I did not belong. Strangely, however, nobody seemed to be paying enough attention to me at the gym to make fun of me. Everyone seemed to be very focused on their own workouts and seemed to have little time or interest in stopping what they were doing to assess my body shape and whether I was sufficiently worthy to be there. Even more strangely, as I continued in my efforts and met more people who were fit, I began to get even more surprising reactions – encouragement, praise and, most surprisingly of all, admiration. Athletes who could race 5k in under 20 minutes admired my intense efforts at changing my life by putting myself out there day after day and week after week, building my aerobic base from scratch and building a new active life brick by brick.
By June, I had started cycling outdoors on Saturday mornings with the bike club at my local bike shop. On the weekend of the Fourth of July, Jim and I tried a bike/run brick workout – where I would start running off the bike without a break between the two sports. It was pretty rough – I couldn’t do much running – but I could see quite a bit of progress from three months earlier. I thought maybe, just maybe, by end of September, I could participate in the local sprint triathlon held at a park near my house. I took a leap of faith and registered.
Ten weeks later, very early on a Saturday morning, I found myself standing on a beach by a lake waiting for the air horn to start my wave of my first triathlon, a 750 meter swim, 14 mile bike, and 5 kilometer run. It wasn’t pretty, but I finished. And I was thrilled not to come in last. I came in second to last because one guy got a flat tire out on the bike course! But I was amazed that I was able to even finish a sprint triathlon after only five months of a new commitment to fitness. I was eager to see if I could do it again, but September is the end of the triathlon season in the Carolinas. There was one more race two weeks later and, in an act of pure optimism, I registered for it but, alas, it ended up being rained out.
But I started to think, “if I can go from Type 2 Diabetes to a sprint distance triathlon in five months, how much more am I capable of?” The week before Christmas, I met with Kelly Fillnow, owner of Fillnow Coaching in Charlotte, to find out. I prepared an Excel spreadsheet for Kelly with all of my events from May through December 2015, my personal best times, and my longest distances to date in swimming, biking and running. I had heard about the popular half-iron distance race in Wilmington, N.C. called Beach 2 Battleship, held every October. Consisting of a 1.2 mile swim, 56 mile bike and 13.1 mile run, this distance seemed like a really ambitious (i.e. crazy) goal, even with a generous ten months to train. But I was intrigued. Could I possibly get myself in good enough shape to finish a race like that within the eight-and-a-half hour cut-off time? This was my question for Kelly on that December day. I would have been perfectly content with, and even expecting of, an answer that consisted of slapping me upside the head, telling me to wake up and be sensible with sticking to short distance triathlon. But instead, Kelly reviewed my chart and said, “sure!” Even though I completely misunderstood Kelly’s optimistic answer, and had absolutely no idea what I was getting myself in to, I signed up for coaching with Kelly, and registered for IRONMAN 70.3 North Carolina (Beach 2 Battleship), to be held on October 22, 2016, a date that would be fixed like a target on a dartboard for the entire year.
Uploading a few weeks of workouts at a time onto Training Peaks, an internet fitness tracking app, Kelly started me off slowly, with short swims, bikes and runs. But as January turned into February and February turned into March, she started to ramp up the intensity. I finished what was supposed to be my first international distance triathlon in April. Howling winds and 40 degree temperatures though caused the race organizers to cancel the swim and turn the race into a spontaneous duathlon instead. In May, I completed my first actual international distance triathlon at Pinehurst, NC. The run course had so many hills, I thought about stopping many times, but pushed on to the finish. In just over four hours, I had completed my first international distance triathlon. In July, I finished a sprint triathlon at Cane Creek, NC, in 95 degree heat. In August, I finished another sprint triathlon at Lake Norman, NC. And in September, on another hot, hot day, I raced another international triathlon at White Lake.
Then, on October 22nd, I lined up at Wrightsville Beach outside Wilmington, NC for IRONMAN 70.3 North Carolina – the day I had started training for 10 months earlier. And, for the first time all year, I felt ready. It was hard. Swimming in the ocean for the first time was a challenge. It was so windy on the bike course that I felt like I was pedaling backwards at times. To run the half-marathon after a grueling 56 mile bike largely into the wind took me more than three hours. But eight hours, 14 minutes and 37 seconds later, I crossed the finish line and heard Mike Reilly, the famous IRONMAN announcer shout out my name. I did it. With Kelly’s guidance and months of 10-14 hour training weeks, I went from the couch to a half-IRONMAN in 18 months.
I did six triathlons in 2016 – two sprints, three internationals (one of which turned into a duathlon!) and a half-ironman. And the craziest thing was I couldn’t wait to do more in 2017. So December of 2016 was all about choosing the races I would compete in during 2017. The formerly inseparable connection between me and the couch is a distant memory.
My A1c is consistently at healthy levels now and my blood glucose levels are under control. At 46, I am fitter and feel younger than ever. But I still have a lot to work on and a lot to learn as I move into 2017. I was surprised at how little weight I lost through the heavy training loads. My body shape definitely changed, but I was unprepared for how much my appetite would increase and how to fuel properly along with heavy training loads. This led to much less weight loss than I had expected, and something I am working on this off season and will continue to work on in 2017. The other aspect that surprised me was the emotional and spiritual growth that followed from the increased physical fitness. Growth in one area, seems to inevitably lead to growth in other areas.
ON FINDING AND KEEPING MOTIVATION
So for me, my impetus to get up off the couch (the literal and proverbial couch) was pretty simple: fear. As I said, in type 2 diabetes, I finally found something to fear more than the gym. But that lightning bolt will be different for everyone. I am asked a lot by active people for advice about how to get their sedentary friends, family or loved ones off the couch, especially when said friends, family or loved ones suffer from diabetes or other similar diseases that can be controlled or improved with exercise. Since I did it, they think maybe I have the magic solution to the very basic problem of motivation.
I wish I had a silver bullet solution to this very important question: how do active people encourage sedentary people to get off the couch and save their own lives. But the truth is, no one is ready until they are ready. For me, I had many, many early warnings that I ignored. I had pre-diabetes, obesity of gradual but increasing severity and constant warnings about very bad genes in my family. I made many, many furtive and temporary attempts at fitness but nothing lasted.
I had many people in my life cajoling, encouraging and even pleading with me, but I was pretty stuck. I was very unhappy being sedentary, fat and unfit. And, at the time, I did not see a realistic way to change my life. I felt it was hopeless. So what changed for me? Well, when I was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes with a blood glucose level of 517 mg/dL and an A1c of 13.7%, I heard the alarm bell ring loudly. The situation seemed so dire, and the short term consequences so severe, that I felt I had no choice.
But, even though you can’t force someone to be ready to get off the couch, I do have some concrete recommendations of what to do when someone you love has made that tentative, initial decision to be active. Here are four things you can do to encourage someone who wants to make a change to become active and to stick with it:
1) Let them know that they won’t be made fun of and that athletes will admire their resolve to change their life: mockery was my number one fear. I was astonished at how much support, encouragement and even admiration I received from athletes who somehow knew how hard it was for me to try. The cheers I got for finishing dead last in races were louder than the cheers for the people in the middle of the pack. That matters. Somehow, accomplished athletes know how much harder it is for a formerly sedentary person to run a sub-30 minute 5k (which I was finally able to do this June) than it is for the accomplished athlete to run a sub-20 minute 5k. Running a 5k in under 20 minutes is a big accomplishment, but it is a stage in the evolution of an athlete’s progress. For a sedentary person to stay active long enough and consistently enough to run 5k in under 30 minutes is a demonstration of commitment to change one’s life. Athletes recognize it as such.
2) Help them find a community: by far the biggest factor in my success this time – and what differentiated this time from all the other times – is that I found a sense of community and had so much help and support. My trainer Jim, my coach Kelly, my run class instructor Meghan, the folks at the bike shop, the folks in my run class, my sports massage therapist Adrienne (yes, I got one of those when the training load got too intense!) . . . . everyone seemed to want to see me succeed. That made a huge difference to me. So if you have someone you love that wants to become active, take an interest in their success. Take them to a weekly ride. Go with them to the gym. Help them find a trainer who knows how to meet them where they are. Help them find a community of fit people who want them to succeed.
3) If you can, buy little things to support their new lifestyle. Getting off the couch can be expensive, especially if you go the triathlon route. Imagine having to buy everything essential all at once… running shoes (proper ones), a gym membership and/ or a pool membership, wicking clothes (socks, shorts, shirts), winter gear. But it’s not about the money. In the back of our minds is how foolish we will feel if we quit. It feels good to have someone believe in you enough to spend money on you. And it doesn’t need to be a lot of money. Even a pair of good socks is a huge show of support.
4) Believe in them and tell them that you believe in them. Especially at the start when they do not yet believe in themselves. Tell them that they are worth it. Tell them that they can do it. If enough people believe in them enough, then at some point they won’t need other people to say it, they will believe it for themselves. And that is when the life transformation really begins.
MY LIFE IN DATES, NUMBERS AND RACES (slightly abridged)
10/12/1970-4/30/2015: On the couch.
4/28/2015: diagnosed with type 2 diabetes. A1c 13.7%
5/1/2015: Met Jim Guimond, my trainer at the Charlotte Athletic Club.
9/22/2015: Cane Creek Sprint Triathlon. Finished second-to-last. A1c 5.5%
12/20/2015: Met Kelly Fillnow, my triathlon coach
1/1/2016: Kelly uploads my first workout onto Training Peaks: 16 strength exercises to welcome in 2016!
4/19/2016: Belews Lake International Triathlon (40 degrees F. Turned into a duathlon). Finished Dead Last
5/21/2016: Pinehurst International Triathlon. Finished Dead Last
7/22/2016: JJF Cane Creek Sprint, 90+ degrees F
8/27/2016: Lake Norman Y Sprint Triathlon
9/10/2016: White Lake Fall International Triathlon, 90+ degrees F again
10/22/2016: IRONMAN 70.3 North Carolina. 8:14:37. Mike Reilly calls out my name at the finish line.
10/23/2016: OFF SEASON
3/19/2017: NYC half marathon
4/22/2017: White Lake Spring international Triathlon
6/25/2017: IRONMAN 70.3 Mont Tremblant
10/8/2017: Chicago Marathon
Thank you to everyone who helped me change my life. Thank you to my trainer, Jim Guimond from Charlotte Athletic Club and Kinetic Heights, Kelly Fillnow and Meghan Fillnow from Fillnow Coaching, Adrienne Anetrini from Carolina Sports Massage, Steve Dyckes, Alan Teeling and Trez Evangelista from The Bike Depot in Waxhaw, NC, all my friends in Tuesday Run Class who encourage me and make me feel like I belong and to all my friends and family who watched and cheered me on this year. This is not the end. This is not even the beginning of the end. But I do believe that it is the end of the beginning. And I am grateful.
MB: On April 11, 2014, the husband (Frank Guinn) of my wife’s best friend from high school (Kim Guinn), was in New Orleans to participate in the Ochsner Half Ironman. He and his brother- in-law (Andrew Powell) were doing a shakeout ride on a portion of the bike course that can be mentally challenging. They wanted to prepare themselves for what lay ahead on race day. A driver hit them from behind, killing our friend and severely injuring his brother-in- law.
In the days following the tragedy, we knew that Kim would go to New Orleans to either do or be involved with the race a year later. My wife, Vicki, and I decided we’d be there to support her by participating in the event in memory of Frank and in honor of Kim, her eight year old triplets, Andrew and his wife Sandra. Given the fact that swimming wasn’t where I excelled, my wife and I decided to do it as a relay. Being a strong swimmer, she would do the swim and I would do the bike and run.
My wife had struggled with back issues for several years. Shortly after the accident that claimed the life of our friend, her back condition deteriorated to where surgery was necessary. We knew then that doing this race was out of reach for her. I was going to have to learn to swim. This led me on a search for triathlete coaches, during which time I came across a story about Kelly also losing a friend in a training accident. I felt that this common thread would be a great foundation. When I met with Kelly and Meghan, I was sure that they were the right people to guide me on this journey.
FC: Before embarking on your own personal triathlon journey, what were your thoughts about triathlons?
MB: I had always been intrigued by triathlons, however the swimming portion scared me away. Running is a little easier for me, particularly from a time perspective. In most cases, you can run out your door and begin your workout. Biking often requires more planning. Additional precautions have to be taken for safety, thus it was something I hadn’t done in the last 10 years. The swim portion was something that I struggled with, mentally. I grew up around a pool, never fearing the water, though swimming any significant distance wasn’t something I knew how or even cared to do. Needless to say, a triathlon was something I didn’t anticipate was in my future. I was happy to stick with running.
FC: What have you enjoyed the most about your pursuit to NOLA 70.3?
MB: That it’s over!! I’m just kidding! Without a doubt, I’dhave to say, that I’ve most enjoyed people I’ve met along the way. Meghan has been a joy to work with. She’s always so positive. No matter what reason or excuse you have for not getting a workout in or needing to make adjustments, she always puts a positive spin on it. So many other athletes who work with the Fillnow Coaching have been supportive along the way as well. As a community, triathletes are welcoming; always willing to help or give you tips. Who else are you going to be able to drag along on a two to three hour bike ride in February or March, when it’s 40 degrees other than a fellow triathlete?
My wife and our friends also supported me on this journey by recognizing the significant time commitment necessary to prepare. We even had friends who flew in from New York, drove with me to New Orleans, cheered me on during the race and stayed with us for the week in New Orleans.
In one simple statement-I’ve been empowered by the camaraderie of so many people who have accompanied me on this journey.
FC: What has been the most challenging aspect of your triathlon journey?
MB: The time commitment has been the most challenging aspect of this journey. I probably didn’t think that part through before committing to do this, but, in hindsight, I’m grateful I didn’t.
Another challenge came early in my training, when my wife had back surgery. The recovery in the two months after was much more time consuming than my wife or I expected; bringing the need for major adjustments to acclimate to the training for something of this magnitude. Meghan helped me fine tune my schedule to accommodate the necessary training. Fortunately it was early enough in the training that I had ample time to make up for it, as the race got closer.
FC: Any inspiring words of wisdom to others?
MB: When I first met with Meghan and Kelly to discuss my goal of completing this race, Meghan said it was good that I was doing this for more than personal reasons. She said, during the tough days, it would be important to have that extra motivation. I didn’t know how true that was. It was especially so on some of those long swims, when my mental strength would wane. I had several conversations with Frank during those swims, and kept telling myself how fortunate I was to be here to go through the experience. My advice to others is to find a motivator/a purpose outside of yourself.
FC: How did your debut 70.3 go?
MB: Well, I finished! I suppose, in some sense, that was most important. When I first decided to do this, I looked up the average half ironman finishing times. I found a site that said it was right at six hours. So I told Meghan I wanted to finish under five. As I moved through this journey, I realized I had set a goal that was a bit too ambitious. I modified it to this – if everything went perfect, I’d like to be sub 5:30, but would be happy with sub 6:00 and wouldn’t settle for anything less than 6:30.
To my surprise, on race day, my swim went MUCH better than I expected. The first 40 or so miles of the bike went great as well. At that point, it was looking like it might be that perfect race. Then the clouds burned away and the sun came out with full vengeance.My mile splits almost immediately went from averaging 3:00 to averaging 3:45. The final six miles were directly into a headwind, and the splits dropped to about 4:30. At that point, I knew the 5:30 goal was not attainable. However, I also knew, with a sub 2:00 hour run, I could still make the 6:00 goal.
As I left T2, I was sitting right on four hours (or at least I thought that was the case… more to come on that topic). Right after the first mile, there was a bridge to climb. I knew after that, it was flat until we’d climb that bridge again right before mile 12. The clouds continued to disappear, causing the heat to get more and more intense. I realized that it was going to take every bit of effort I had to achieve the 6:00 goal. I settled in to keep a 9:00 mile pace, knowing this would keepme right under the 6:00 mark. If it all was only that simple, it wouldn’t be any fun!
Before the swim started, I was so anxious, I’d forgotten to set my watch to the multisport setting. As I headed from the swim to the bike, I looked down and noticed that, when I hit reset, it didn’t switch to transition. I wasn’t positive my time was right! As I crossed the finish line, the clock was showing around 6:18. I thought I had entered the water about 18 minutes after the first swimmer, so I was hoping that was right. I asked my wife and friends if they knew the time difference, but they couldn’t be certain. It wasn’t until later that afternoon that I knew for sure. The official time was: 5:58:25. Though I didn’t make the perfect race goal, I succeeded in achieving my secondary goal. I’m quite pleased.
FC: What inspired you to get through the tough patches of the day?
MB: I’ll have to answer that in stages. The thing that helped me get through the swim was the knowledge that every stroke was taking me a little bit closer to being able to get out of the water. On the bike, there was relief knowing that the swim was over and the run was ahead.
The bike route took us past the spot where our friendwas killed last year. Passing it the first time gave me chills, even though we were on the opposite side of the road from where he was hit. We’d ridden out in the car the day before, but passing it on the bike was a different feeling. Then, as I came back by and passed the spot where, one year ago he was hit, and then inches past to where he never made it, my mind went tour fallen friend, Frank, his wife and their eight year old triplets. I recognized the depth of emotion that Kim would experience as she reached that same spot on her bike, hoping it would somehow be healing for her. To know that, even though he hadn’t completed that journey the year before, she had. For those who were riding in Frank’s memory, when we crossed that point, we were all finishing what he was denied the year before.
One of the most heartwarming, inspiring stories of the race was that Andrew completed the course, crossing the finish line in spite of the injuries he sustained just one short year ago. His wife, Sandra, also finished the race at the same time as her sister, Kim, who, in spite of losing her husband last year and raising three girls, was able to find the time to train to prepare.
FC: So….the big question is, are you going to do another one?
MB: I’ve run one marathon and, after that, I jokingly said I ran two in one day; my first and last, unless something monumental were to occur. I never thought I’d participate in a triathlon, let alone a half ironman. Having a friend killed preparing for one certainly qualified as monumental, though not in a positive way.
At this moment, I’d have to say I don’t think I’d do another Ironman, full or half, but, as the past has taught me, you never know what challenge or motivation might be just around the corner to change all that. For now, I’m going to ‘retire,’ knowing that, while it wasn’t the perfect race, it was a complete race, and one which was done with a keen awareness that life is short and can never be taken for granted.
For those interested in donating to a fund that was established for Kim Guinn and her girls, please go to
FC: Thanks for your time, Matt. We are so proud of all you have worked so hard to achieve. You truly honored Frank and his entire family! Prayers to Kim and her girls.
Blog 11: Yoga and Endurance Athletes by Lynne Ray (PT, PYT, CSCS)Yoga is an excellent supplement to the schedule of an endurance athlete, and one that is often overlooked. Yoga increases flexibility, builds stability and strength, all well known facts. Additionally, a regular yoga routine can also enhance mental focus, deepen breathing patterns, prevent injury, and offer a form of recovery non-impact exercise.
Endurance athletes need properly aligned bodies so that they may be as efficient as possible when training for long distances. Thus proper hamstring and hip flexor length as well as gluteal strength are essential for maximal performance. A consistent practice of yoga helps one elongate their tight, shortened muscles, and build strength where needed. Musculoskeletal balance can be achieved through yoga.
Yoga focuses on stability before mobility. Ensuring core strength is a priority of yoga. With a strong, stable core, endurance athletes improve their running posture and protect their hips and back. In the long run this creates a healthier, and more competitive athlete.
Yoga teaches deep breathing techniques, pranayama. Studies have revealed that deeper, focused breath allows one to perform at a higher work load with less lactic acid build up. Which in turns allows an endurance athlete to race harder and recover faster.
Mental endurance is necessary for all multi-sport athletes. Yoga has meditative techniques that will train an athlete to focus during those final miles of a long race. Yoga may require a participant to hold a difficult posture, asana, for prolonged periods of time which not only builds endurance strength but mental endurance.
Considering the countless hours endurance athletes spend swimming, biking and running, the minimal time spent practicing yoga can reap maximum benefits. Yoga should be an essential part of an endurance athletes training program.
ABOUT PYTA-Professional Yoga Therapy Approach:
PYTA offers a unique yoga practice taught by licensed physical therapists.
We provide bio-mechanically sound, evidence based yoga within the pentagon of wellness – spiritual, physical, intellectual, emotional and social.
Reach your individual optimum fitness level with us!
Lynne Ray’s bio:
A native of NC, Lynne received a B.S. in Exercise Science from Appalachian State University, and a B.S. in Physical Therapy from UNC-Chapel Hill. Her interest in active lifestyles and a holistic view of health led her to yoga, where in 2013, she completed her medical therapeutic yoga certification at Professional Yoga Therapy Studies with Ginger Garner, PT.
Lynne uses her Physical Therapy knowledge to not only rehab patients with injuries, but to set new athletic goals for themselves through individualized personal training. Her special focus is treating the young and aged, active and inactive.
In 2004, Lynne’s interest in pregnancy, labor and delivery prompted her to pursue her doula certification from Doula in North America (DONA). She assisted with 13 hospital‐based labor and deliveries.
Lynne worked in Orthopedic/trauma inpatient care and Orthopedic outpatient care for 6 years at CMC, and has combined this experience with her holistic approach to patient care.
Lynne has three children, and is very active with the triathlon community in Charlotte. In 2010 she completed in the Coeur d’Alene Ironman and in 2012 she completed the Mount Tremblant Ironman. She was named a USAT All American in 2010. She’s a proud member of the 3T Triple Threat racing team.
Donna F, a customer says:
” I decided to take a class for just the basics, and I found the instructor Lynne to be wonderful, she is patient, kind, positive and most of all informative, taking the time to make sure everyone is positioned correctly. I never dreamed I could do yoga. I have not felt this relaxed and energized in a very long time. When I leave yoga class, I feel like I can take on the day ahead with a positive attitude. I cannot wait for the second session to start. I just left my regular MD checkup. The doctor said he has not seen me so happy and full of energy.”
Sport Yoga class information:
This sports yoga class targets advanced asanas with a focus on breath and presence of mind. This class is much different than your typical yoga class. It is taught by an experienced Physical Therapist offering a hands on approach. We will introduce students to the fundamentals of PYT yoga such as TATD breath, arm spirals, as well as mindfulness tools for the inner game. If you run, bike, swim, play tennis, want to heal or prevent injuries, or just want to deepen your yoga practice, this class will help you get more out of your favorite sport.
301 East Tremont Ave, Suite B
Charlotte, NC 28203
All Fillnow Coaching clients receive 15% off the 4 week packages!
MR: Anytime! Happy to be on board!
FC: So how did you get started in triathlon?
MR: It was a gradual transition. I started running in high school. I started cycling in college and continued to run. After I graduated in 2007 with my Masters, I did duathlons for a number of years. Then I needed a new challenge and that was swimming. It certainly was a challenge for me and in 2010 I did my first triathlon (Florida 70.3.)
FC: You had immediate multisport success, winning your debut professional duathlon (2008 ITU Duathlon National Championships) and then qualifying for your pro card in your second triathlon. Quite impressive! What is your favorite workout and why?
MR: My favorite workout is either a long ride or a long run exploring new trails and roads. I love the adventure & exploring side while testing the limits of my body on those long endurance days.
FC: There is nothing better then getting lost on new trails during a long run!! So what is your daily diet like?
MR: I normally eat 5-6 meals a day. I eat granola with almond milk in the mornings. Followed by lots of snacks. Guacamole with chips, some type of nuts, PBJ, protein shake, banana, etc. I am not super strict with my diet though. If I’m hungry and see something in the refrigerator, I’ll eat it! I probably eat 6-8,000 calories a day.
FC: That is awesome! I think you need to challenge Michael Phelps to a swim/eating/bike/eating/run/eating contest. I can train you. The highlight of my coaching career is preparing my client for a 34:03 5 miler while eating a dozen donuts along the way. He holds the North Carolina Masters record. As we are on the topic of food, what is your favorite splurge?
MR: You can’t go wrong with Ben & Jerrys! Phish Food or Half Baked
FC: Yum! You must try the Peanut Butter Half Baked — gobs of peanut butter mixed in with cookie dough and fudge brownies…..I guess we must move on from salivating over ice cream flavors…What’s the craziest race schedule you have ever completed?
MR: Back to Back Ironmans. In 2012 I raced Ironman Mont Tremblant and finished 3rd. That next weekend I flew across the country and raced Ironman Canada. Everyone thought I was crazy but I ended up winning it! I kind of shocked myself and everyone else.
FC: A podium and a win in back to back weekends – wow that is fabulous! Will you be recommending back to back Ironman races for your clients?
MR: Ha, ha.
FC: What drives you?
MR: Knowing that today is a gift so I try to live each day as my last. I learned that lesson at a really young age when I lost my mother to ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease) when I was 13.
FC: I am so sorry for your loss. It is wonderful to see how that tragic experience has shaped you into the man you are today. So how did you meet your wonderful and beautiful fiance, Gillian?
MR: match.com haha! No it wasn’t that way. Gillian and I met through mutual friends…through triathlon. Gillian used to do triathlons but now she supports me and I wouldn’t be the athlete I am without her!
FC: I think she deserves the Sherpa-of-the-Year-Award. What is a quote you seek to live your life by?
MR: “The way you get meaning into your life is to devote yourself to loving others, devote yourself to your community around you, and devote yourself to creating something that gives you purpose and meaning.”
?Mitch Album, Tuesdays with Morrie
FC: Love that quote, and what a great book! So what do you love about coaching?
MR: I love helping people achieve their goals! It’s rewarding to know that you’re part of a dream that became a reality.
FC: We cannot wait for you to be a part of those realities! What most excites you about being a part of the Fillnow Coaching Team?
MR: Who wouldn’t want to be surrounded by you girls?! Haha. All of you are great and it’s important to be with a good group of people who you can trust and rely on as well!
FC: Ha, ha, we are beyond thrilled to have you aboard! Welcome aboard Matt!
Overall Female Place = 155/494
Age Group Place = 20/42
“I love you, O Lord, my strength. The Lord is my rock, my fortress, and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold. I called to the Lord, who is worthy of praise, and I have been saved from my enemies.”
Pre-race for me began about 6 years ago after being diagnosed with a rare bone disease in my right knee that would require a bone transplant to replace the 2 inch hole in my femur. I had all intentions of playing college basketball, but the injury stripped me of the dream. Six knee surgeries later, doctors told me I would never run again. The road to recovery was a long and hard one for me – I was bedridden for months, struggled with depression and addiction to pain pills, and grew restless with the fact that I would never be able to compete again. After years of physical therapy, I discovered the sport of triathlon and proved the doctors wrong. After my first sprint race last summer, I had officially fallen in love with the sport of triathlon! With the support of my family, coach and doctor, I registered for Ironman Louisville. Without having ever done an Oly, 70.3 or even a marathon, I knew that the journey would require a lot of hard work, but I was excited to work towards my goal of becoming an Ironman and overcoming my injury. Dream big, right?!
The night before the race included a family dinner in attempts of carbo-loading and an early bedtime. The alarm went off at 3am on race morning, and I snuck away for some quiet time to reflect on the day and to eat a hearty breakfast of bagel with peanut butter and honey, banana, and bottle of Ironman Perform. We loaded the car and made the journey to the race site. We arrived to transition at 4:30am, and I was able to fix up my bike and began the long walk to the swim start. Louisville is unique in the fact that the swim is a wave start, which is first come first serve basis, so my goal was to get in line as soon as possible. By the time I settled in, I figured I was probably in the middle of the pack and would be in the water around 7:15am. I got comfortable, ate a bonk breaker and Powerade, and chatted it up with some fellow racers in line. At 6:50am, the gun for the pros went off and our line began moving and my heart began racing. Here it was, the day I had been waiting for.
In preparation for Ironman Louisville, my coach also encouraged me to memorize Psalm 18 as a way to keep my focus on Him throughout the day. As the line made its way to the docks, I began reciting this in my head to settle my mind and my heart.
Swim (2.4 miles): 1h 15m 44s
“He reached down from on high and took hold of me; he drew me out of deep waters. He rescued me from my powerful enemy, from my foes, who were too strong for me. They confronted me in the day of my disaster, but the Lord was my support. He brought me out into a spacious place; he rescued me because he delighted in me.”
“Go, go, go!!!” Once on the docks, the volunteers were yelling at the athletes to jump into the water as quickly as possible. The line moved fast once on the dock so I was glad I was pre-warned about the high energy swim start. When jumping in, I was sure to go feet first and held my goggles so that they did not fall off when getting in the river. After having just learned to swim 10 months ago (literally, I was an anchor before I took swim lessons with Coach Tracy Palmer at The Sport Factory in October), my goal for the swim was to stay CALM on the docks and then to PACE myself once in the water.
The first third of the swim was actually upstream, against the current. The first few buoys were within a barrier island so the current wasn’t too bad. I stayed to the left, near the barrier island, in order to avoid the stronger current on the right. The swim upstream was very congested so bumping into people was a bit of a nuisance. Once we passed the barrier island, the current picked up a bit. I also found it a little hard to sight at this point. Upon reaching the turnaround point, I fought my way around the buoy and began the homestretch to the swim finish. I was glad to see that the congestion of swimmers dissipated on the way downstream, and I was able to use the current to my advantage. The swim finish was at the Crab Shack Restaurant so it was super easy to sight on the blue roof of the building.
Before I knew it, I was finally at the swim finish! Getting out of the river was a bit tough because the exit was on a steel staircase with just a couple of volunteers helping swimmers out of the water. My only word of caution is to be careful here. People are shoving each other and anxious to exit so don’t get caught up in the madness.
After analyzing my Garmin data, I found it took me about 42 minutes to go the first 1/3 of the swim course upstream and just 33 minutes to go the last 2/3 of the swim course downstream.
T1: 13m 11s
There was about a 2-minute walk/run from the swim exit to the transition area. The fans (including my friends and family) were cheering all the athletes on so I was able to get re-energized on the way to T1. I didn’t really know what to expect in transition, but the tents were definitely a madhouse. I was able to strip out of the swim skin, put on my ATC tri kit, and head out the door with all of my bike equipment.
Bike (112 miles): 6h 50m 06s (16.39 mph)
“To the faithful you show yourself faithful, to the blameless you show yourself blameless, to the pure you show yourself pure, but to the devious you show yourself shrewd. You save the humble but bring low those whose eyes are haughty. You, Lord, keep my lamp burning; my God turns my darkness into light. With your help I can advance against a troop; with my God I can scale a wall.”
The name of the game on the bike was to PACE myself! My goal was to just get settled in and not to get too stressed out if the roads were crowded. I knew the first 10 miles along River Road would be fast and flat so I was able to get my legs spinning. Around mile 3, I had heard that there would be a BAD set of railroad tracks, and sure enough, there were several riders already there changing flats so I took it really slow across the tracks. Around mile 20, we turned right for a down and back stretch. This was brutal! There were two very steep and long climbs with a TON of riders. I paced myself on the uphills and worked the downhills as best as possible. I did a lot of training in Cartersville so I was pretty stoked to see that all of those hilly rides paid off. After the down and back, we completed two loops which also had a couple of pretty steep climbs and rolling hills all along the way.
Around 9am, the sun began creeping out from the clouds, and the temperatures began rising. My goal was to drink one aero bottle (32 oz) of water every hour, one bottle of IM Perform every hour, and one salt tab every 30 minutes. Louisville’s high DNF rate is often attributed to dehydration so I was determined to not let it get the best of me. I began refueling about 15 minutes into the ride with a Powerbar the first hour and a deliciously warm Gu gel every 30 minutes after that. At the halfway mark of the bike, I was able to put down another PowerBar and a banana before I began yet another regime of one Gu gel every 30 minutes.
The last 10 miles along River Road were once again fast and flat so I was able to push it with a high cadence in order to get my running legs going. Be warned, though, River Road (especially coming back) is very rough with a ton of potholes! My overall bike average was 16.39 mph so I was very happy with that. In fact, I finished the bike almost 40 minutes faster than what I had anticipated. You may attribute that to the Zipp 404/808 race wheels I put on the bike, but I would like to think my training had paid off too J I averaged between 18-19 mph on the in/out along River Road and more around 15-16 mph on the remaining hilly portions of the bike course. In the end, I felt amazingly strong getting off the bike so I was glad to know that I hadn’t pushed myself too hard, despite finishing a lot quicker than what I had planned.
T2: 12m 39s
After dismounting the bike, we once again had a good little walk back to T2. The walk was kind of frustrating because it seemed like it was a lot of wasted time, but my family and friends followed me along the fence talking, smiling, and encouraging me, which was definitely the motivation I needed before heading out on the longest run of my life, literally. Once in the transition tent, I was able to change my bike gear for my running gear and headed out for the run in the 100 plus heat index.
Run (6.2 miles): 5h 0m 39s (11:28 pace)
“It is God who arms me with strength and keeps my way secure. He makes my feet like the feet of a deer; he causes me to stand on the heights. He trains my hands for battle; my arms can bend a bow of bronze. You make your saving help my shield, and your right hand sustains me; your help has made me great. You provide a broad path for my feet, so that my ankles do not give way.”
My goal for the run was to start SLOW! So slow, in fact, that I wanted my first couple of miles to be my slowest splits of the day. Within just a short mile, I was able to find my running legs and settle into a nice pace of about 11:00/mile. My strategy was to run every mile and to walk through the aid stations as I refueled.
I didn’t really feel myself ever hit the “wall,” but after analyzing my splits, I definitely hit it around mile 18 where my splits jumped from 11:00/mile to 12:00+/mile. The heat was just flat out excruciating, and the aid stations were very limited on wet towels (if they even had any at all). In an effort to keep my body temp down, I shoved ice everywhere I could (pants, bra, hat, on wrists, you name it). As I progressed in the run, I quickly realized that my cardio endurance wasn’t going to be what slowed me down. Instead, I could feel my glutes and quads screaming at me. They were done, and I still had a long run ahead of me. That’s when I knew this was going to be mind over matter.
As the miles trekked away, I could definitely feel the dehydration and nutrition catching up to me. The coke seemed to work okay, but the chicken broth came up as fast as it went down. Nothing appealed to me so I tried to shove any nutrition I could down the hatchet at each aid station. In the end, I think my haphazard efforts of nutrition were a huge reason why I bonked near the end of the run. My original goal was to do 8oz of water and one Gu gel plus one salt tab every 30 minutes (every 3rd aid station) and IM Perform/coke at the other aid stations. The heat messing with my stomach and my mind led me to not really being consistent or precise with what I was putting in my body. I definitely will need to work at managing my running nutrition better during my next Ironman.
With the sun setting, I finally reached the finish line at 4th Street Live and heard those words I had been training so hard to hear, “Jennifer Johnson, You are an Ironman!”
“He gives his king great victories; he shows unfailing love to his anointed, to David and to his descendants forever.”
After taking pictures with friends and family, I went to collect my morning bag, grab some pizza, and hopped on the shuttle to pickup my bike. In transition, I ran into the Crossmans, and as we chatted, I felt the dehydration quickly catching up to me. So, it was back to the medical tent I went. After blacking out, the doctors hooked me up to some IVs for a couple of hours. After several bags of fluids and even more bottles of chocolate milk later, I was finally released and headed back to the hotel around 1am. The next day we loaded the car and made the long long drive back home to begin the recovery process.
- Be more methodical with run nutrition in order to prevent hitting that “wall” later in the run.
- Get an IV of fluids for hotter races, even if you don’t think you need it immediately.
- Be more assertive with the volunteers in the transition tents. I lost a LOT of time in transition because the volunteers just slowed me down.
- Visit the entire swim course before the race in order to get a better idea of sighting. I only visited the swim finish so I struggled finding buoys to sight off of at the beginning of the race.
- Hard work and faithfulness pay off! Thank you God for the opportunity to compete again! Pslam 18:29b, “With my God, I can scale a wall!”
A couple weeks ago, I suddenly lost my way. I was traveling to Dallas, TX for work and spent the entire week doing something that I typically don’t do. I got lazy. After a few days of rationalizing why sleeping-in was better than training because I was tired, worn-out, dealing with a time change (one hour to my benefit, no doubt), and over-worked, I found myself at the end of the week having convinced myself that taking a week off was probably good for me. I got an email from Coach Meghan who noticed that TrainingPeaks had been missing me. She wondered why I had not posted any of my training recaps since Monday. So I sent her this email:“Hi Meghan! Thanks for reaching out. I had a difficult week and responded by being way off on training. Besides the travel to Dallas, I found out that one of my close coworkers was diagnosed with stage 4 colon and liver cancer… It’s not often I respond by not exercising but this time I did… I appreciate you checking in and keeping me on track. I have also been rethinking my goals this year. While I am enjoying the tri training, I am really missing having more runs and running race goals. My heart is just not set on the Olympic tri distance anymore. Maybe if I knew someone else doing it with me it would be different.”I went on to explain my new goals, ones that were more in line with where I was at that present moment and are somewhat more realistic with where I am today, 15-weeks post- invasive foot surgery. I sent the email on Monday afternoon while waiting in the airport on a 2-hour, weather-delayed flight. I had another week of travel ahead, this time to two cities– Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, GA. Once on the plane to D.C., I settled in and started reading a book that my business coach suggested called, The Business of Belief. It was a quick read and quite captivating, not an adjective I generally use when reading a business book. I got close to the end and found myself shocked by what I was reading in the chapter titled, “What Ever Happened to Dreams?” It gave a scenario of a teenage called Jake who was insecure and overweight. One day, Jake had a dream. He started working out, and going to the gym daily, and each day, he improved and dreamed bigger and accomplished new goals. His mind was filled with visions of change and success. He worked at his dream with everything he had in him. He tried new things and made adjustments to his unhealthy diet. And it worked! His desire and discipline transformed him! “His dream became his reality.” One day, Jake forgot how to dream. He viewed the weights as reality of pain and discomfort instead of instruments of possibility. He became bored and decided to cruise for a while. He created a new reality that made him feel comfortable and he stopped growing. He became tired of hard work and he rationalized his new, content routine. And just like that, his dream became a distant memory.This story got me thinking. What was my dream when I asked Kelly Fillnow to coach me in November 2012? My dream was to run a marathon. Why? Because I thought I couldn’t do it. I worked hard at that dream. Sometimes I had good training days, and sometimes they were absolutely lousy. But I kept at it regardless of the weather conditions or the crazy work and travel schedules or the early morning alarm clock ringing. And I lived my dream when I ran my first marathon in April 2013. But I didn’t stop. I kept nurturing my dream into new realities; a second marathon, several half marathon PR’s, and my first triathlon.I was recently texting one of my friends who is training for her first Ironman race. I asked her how the training was going and got a response that was indicative of what I assumed. She was exhausted, and worn out from the delicate balance of work, training, and time with her husband. I could relate. However, coming off of my foot surgery recovery, my training load for an August sprint triathlon paled in comparison to hers. Our realities, however, had intersected. She was feeling the same kind of fatigue I was experiencing that week I lost my way in Dallas. Unlike me, she used it to her benefit, pushing harder and closing-in on achieving her dream. I used it as an excuse to slack off, give myself a break, and sleep-in instead of heeding the traditional 4:20am training wake up call. My self-awareness had been turned off and I was slipping into a comfort zone.Real dreams don’t just happen. They require time, perseverance, purpose, awareness, accountability, and sometimes- a lot of times- fear and pain. If you’ve missed any of these realities while chasing your dream, you’ve just experienced a phenomenon called “luck.” Jake’s story is a lesson to each of us. Reality is what we make it. Dreams are what we work hard for. If we stop dreaming, we are left to exist inside a mediocre comfort zone and we just end up coasting through life. So in retrospect, when I ask myself, “whatever happened to my dream?” I am reminded of the feeling of crossing that 1st marathon finish line…and the 2nd….and the 1st triathlon….and all of the small dreams achieved in-between that led to the big dreams.By the time you look back and ask yourself, “what happened to my dream?” it may be too late. You may be so far into the comfort zone that you forgot the why or worse, put yourself back into the mental state that tells you, you can’t. When you are there, there is only one certain outcome; you won’t. Do yourself a favor. Don’t lose your way.Here is how the chapter of the book ended….(I love this):“JRR Tolkien once wrote, ‘A single dream is more powerful than a thousand realities.’ Reality is for wimps.”Beth HernandezMatthews, NC
Fillnow Coaching athlete since 2012…and still dreaming big
LW: The pleasure is all mine, Kelly! I am so excited to be joining this group!!
FC: Can you describe your athletic background?
LW: Athletics has always been a big part of my life, ever since childhood. I played a few different sports in high school (field hockey, basketball, swimming) before running found me, and I became excited to develop my abilities as a cross country and track athlete at Duke. I was tremendously blessed to have phenomenal high school and college coaches who not only developed my athletic talent and my personal character, but also fostered in me a love for running that has only grown stronger over the years. Both of them are still huge mentors for me today, and I would not have achieved ANY high school or collegiate accolades without either of them! Justina Cassavell, my high school coach who built a dominant program at Voorhies High School in Glen Gardner, NJ, recruited me from the high school hallways and coached me to win our school’s first (of many more to come by future Lady Vikes!) state title on the track in the 3200m and our 4x800m relay team also won a national title and set a state record my senior year. It was a great way to leave high school! At Duke, I had some absolutely tremendous teammates who pushed me athletically and challenged me in every other way, and I found my event in the 3,000m Steeplechase, winning an ACC title, an NCAA East Regional title, and earning two All-American honors in that event (and one more in the flat 3,000m indoors). I was also incredibly fortune to be a part of some of history-making women’s cross country teams, and served as a three year captain for our teams that won back-back ACC and NCAA Southeast Regional titles (2004, 2005), finished 2nd and 3rd at the NCAA Cross Country Championships (2004, 2005), and held a #1 ranking for the majority of our senior year (’05). I competed at the USATF Outdoor Championships in the steeplechase, finishing 7th in 2006 and 6th in 2007, earning a spot on the US Pan American team! My time at Duke was so much fun!!! Upon finishing my collegiate eligibility, I trained for one more year for the 2008 Olympic Trials. After running in the Trials, I turned my full focus to coaching!
FC: Wow, one star athlete! What do you feel is your biggest accomplishment to date?
LW: The experience of competing in the Olympic Trials is definitely second-to-none. It was an experience I will always cherish. Honestly though, I am much more of a team person, so my favorite running memories all revolve around any of our best team accomplishments: from winning the national title with my high school relay team, to the conference titles in women’s cross country at Duke and making it to the podium at NCAAs, I am the most proud of any efforts that require coming together as a team and striving towards excellence together. There is nothing like going through the ups and downs of an athletic season with teammates. It creates a bond that cannot be explained or duplicated in many other ways and even the every day struggles are some of my very favorite memories.
FC: What drives you?
LW: I have found my true passion lies in bringing success out of other people. I care deeply about the people I work with and am driven to help them become better versions of themselves. I feel so much gratitude for what my high school and college coaches did for me (as well as my parents, teammates, siblings and friends) and I want to be able to impact people in a similar way. Sometimes it just takes one person to see potential and believe in you, and I want to help others see their own potential and be in a state of constant self-improvement in as many facets of life as possible! I want to challenge others to live in a positive state of mind, make the most of life and thrive in their current circumstances, wherever they are!
FC: As your former teammate, I always admired your commitment to the team, your hard work ethic, and your life balance. Any tips on staying balanced?
LW: Life balance is hard! There are so many demands on individuals in our society today, and this is not getting easier. We only have 24 hours in a day and need to make active choices as to how to spend our time or the days and weeks go by and priorities can get skewed, often unintentionally. My biggest tip is to be intentional with your time! I like the quote: “Run the day. Don’t let it run you.” We do not always have the ability to control every detail of our lives (and this is a good thing! Surprises and change, both positives and negatives, are only opportunities to grow!) but living a balanced life requires thought and intention as to what your priorities are and a determined commitment to follow through on the things you prioritize, even when “life” gets in the way. Value people over material things, be inflexible about the time you have set aside for the people in your life that matter the most and then work the rest of it in and embrace the unexpected because it will come! Develop a winning mentality: the ability to view adversity as a positive challenge for growth and always find the things you have to be thankful for. They are always there!
FC: How did you decide to get into coaching?
LW: Quite frankly, coaching fell into my lap. After deciding to stay at Duke to train for the Trials, a position opened to work as an assistant coach for the women’s cross country program (an easy transition to be working for my former coach who I tremendously respect and admire!). Coaching was an excellent fit for me as I had studied psychology and education as an undergraduate at Duke (both very relevant in the coaching profession!) and have a strong love for college athletics, working with people and being active. I have been SO fortunate to work with some incredible athletes and phenomenal people in my coaching years at both Duke and TCU. College kids are so fantastic, and I loved every single minute of working with them!
FC: What excites you most about your new path?
LW: I am so excited to take my collegiate coaching experience and apply it in a new context! Fillnow Coaching has already done so many incredible things and positively impacted the lives of so many people in the Charlotte area (and beyond) that I feel very fortunate to be able to jump on board with something that is already thriving! Kelly and Meghan founded this company on principles that I strongly believe in, and we all share similar visions of how we want to help others and continue to expand Fillnow Coaching. Charlotte is a city that provides incredible potential for the business to continue to grow, and I have heard nothing but good things about it! I could not be more excited to be moving to such a thriving city but more importantly to be joining forces with two of my favorite people who have started something so great over the past few years. The opportunity to continue working with people and share my passion for living a healthy lifestyle is very exciting to me. Whether it is coaching the marathon or triathlon clients or helping someone run a 5k for the first time, I am very much looking forward to providing structure, accountability and enthusiasm for the clients I work with as a part of Fillnow Coaching. It is going to be so much fun!!
FC: Welcome aboard, Liz. We are beyond excited!!
Four months ago I set out to find an adventure. I had accrued ample vacation days and had the urge to travel off the beaten path. The thought of resorting to some quite beach resort bored me to death; I wanted something intense, something different. My research pointed me to only one option: Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa. This decision came despite the fact that I have no real experience camping or hiking, little to no existing gear, and more obviously, I was not in any sort of aerobic shape.The internet has an overwhelming amount of information on climbing Kilimanjaro. I read for days on end countless blogs covering am array of amazing mountain top experiences plus the depths of tragic tails of failure and misery. All seemed to have their approach, their strategy to get to the summit. There are well over 100 guide companies that operate on Kilimanjaro with most featuring seven unique ascent routes to the summit ranging anywhere from five to ten days in trip length. There are also varying opinions on the best time to go. The mountain is accessible year round, but each month has varying conditions with respect to temperature, precipitation, cloudiness, and of course, crowds. Each month seemed to have a comparative advantage over the prior. The same pattern existed as well on how to physically prepare and what gear is essential. It is then no surprise that when my internet search concluded with respect to all things Kilimanjaro, I was frozen, paralyzed with data overload. Because options always vary, I focused on the following facts to guide my decisions:
Committing to the Climb
In order for this adventure to be real, it needed to be booked. The park requires that every climber have A registered guide company leading the expedition. I decided on the factors below that were most important to me in my selection process:
The above criteria made the selection process much less daunting. After talking with representatives from several companies I confidently selected Tusker Trails, an American company that differentiates themselves in the marketplace by having High Altitude First Responder (HAFR) guides along with essential medical equipment and defined emergency processes and protocols. After conferring with Tusker, I choose the seven day Lemosho route, which has the highest percentage of summit success. This particular route includes an extra day for altitude acclimatization as it traverses across the mountain before attempting the summit. By the end of October I had authorized my deposit with Tusker Trails, officially committing that I would be attempting the summit on the morning of January 23rd!
Preparing for Climb
The exhilaration of the imminence of climb quickly turned to panic with the realization that I had a little bit over two months to prepare for what would be no doubt the most physically challenging endeavor I have ever pursued. This premonition was heightened as I was forewarned that my chosen Lemosho route deploys a “hike high and sleep slow” acclimatization strategy that puts an extra emphasis on physical preparedness as it is one of the more strenuous routes. As I had progressed into adulthood, I had slowly transitioned from playing sports to watching sports. I came to the conclusion that my sedentary lifestyle was by no means capable of handling the task of Kilimanjaro preparation. I needed help.
I have known Kelly and Meghan since high school and they have been great friends as I moved to Charlotte in 2011. Without much hesitation, I reached out to Fillnow Coaching. I knew that I needed to get insanely fit in a short amount of time. Kelly was a friend that I trusted, bus just as importantly, she had a track record of proven coaching success. Preparing to climb a mountain couldn’t be much different.
Kelly developed a customized 75 day training plan with stamina and endurance goals that accommodated my crazy work travel schedule. The cross training approach assured that no two workouts were the same. The plan incorporated day hikes, varied runs and walks, spin classes, the stair climber and elliptical, numerous lower body strength exercises, dynamic stretching exercises and much more. Kelly constantly fine-tuned to my every changing travel schedule and plan progress. All workouts were systematically logged online and tracked with summary heart rate data. The plan would have been of little value if it was not accompanied with accountability. Rarely a day went by without an email or text from Kelly with a message encouraging me on my progress or reminding me of my goals. Time flew by and before I knew the climb was upon me. I worked extremely hard for two and half months and was in great shape. Kelly last admonition to me was to enjoy the journey.
As I started up the mountain, there was nagging thought of doubt or fear of failure. I had to constantly remind myself that I had done everything in my power to properly prepare for success and now it was time to enjoy the journey. I was climbing alongside great guides, I was in great physical shape, and I had been to every REI in the state of North Carolina to ensure I had all the essential gear and swag.
The climb started in the rainforest (7,700ft) full of colobus and blue monkeys. After two days we progressed to the heather and moorland zone (12,000ft) where the vegetation gets sparse before entering the alpine dessert (15,000ft)
Twice daily my oxygen saturation percentage and pulse were checked along with my lungs for fluid (high altitude pulmonary edema). I started with 98% oxygen saturation and resting heart rate of 72 bpm. After six days on the mountain, we had reached Barufu base camp under the summit. My oxygen saturation hovered around 82% with a resting pulse of 100 bpm.
We made our final push to the summit during the frozen wee hours of January 23rd! It took a grueling 7 hour vertical climb to reach Stella Point, which is 90 minutes from the summit of Uhuru Peak. A combination of mild sleep deprivation and the continually thinning air of the ascent made every movement a challenge. The final day was much more difficult than any climber on our team anticipated. The weather cleared and we stopped for a short lunch at Stella Point. The final segment was the most difficult and most beautiful. We hiked along the shrinking Furtwangler Glacier taking in views on the African plains on all sides. Fighting dizziness and fatigue, I summited along with the whole expedition team at 2:30pm! We were able to spend 30 minutes at the peak celebrating and taking pictures before heading down. My oxygen stats were checked once more at the summit, an astounding 73%. The other four climbers on my team had similar stats, even some in the low 60% range. Most hospitals put patients on oxygen if their saturation percentage dips below 90%. Fortunately, our most serious symptoms were pounding headaches and nausea, but nothing too serious to prevent anyone from the summit.
It took only two days to descend to town of Moshi where I showered first, then toasted beers with my four fellow climbers. We smiled as we saw new arrivals walking around town, knowing that they did not yet know what was in store for them.
As I write this blog, I am one month removed from the start of the climb. There are no words to fully describe the experience. A majority of the time spent on the mountain was not enjoyable. It was grueling, but It was rewarding. An accomplishment that I did not achieve alone. I was dependent on the support from Fillnow Coaching as well as the porters that carried the teams gear. I was dependent on the countless friends and family who gave me endless support and encouragement that fueled my confidence to take the challenge to pursue a goal that was outside my comfort zone. Those who came alongside me for this journey contributed to an incredible life experience for me, one in which I had determined the goal, risen to the challenge both physically and mentally and reached the pinnacle. I now know that the summit represented a zillion little victories along the way since that October day when I set my sites on the journey up Kilimanjaro.
Blog 4: BelovedCoach Meghan
January is a time of new beginnings, but my heart is always heavy this month. I am grieved when I think about my dear friend Aimee’s short life, but then I am reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote, “It is not the length of life, but depth of life.” Four years ago, my dear friend Aimee died suddenly in a terrible car accident on her way to teach her 4thgraders. Aimee’s name means beloved, and she was loved by so many people. It was easy to love her because she loved others unconditionally. Her middle name is Elizabeth, and it means “fullness of God.” Though she didn’t have a long life, she embraced the gift of life.
I’ve learned so much from Aimee’s life that I will never forget.
1. Work hard. Aimee poured her heart into teaching her precious 4thgraders.
2. Set goals. Aimee set goals to play the guitar and race a 10K.
3. Dream big. Aimee had dreams of going on the mission field in a foreign country.
4. Do something extraordinary with your life. Aimee was fluent in Mandarin Chinese!
5. Do the little things well. Aimee didn’t grumble when she had to cook and clean, in fact, she enjoyed those tedious activities because she had a servant heart.
6. Laugh. Every day Aimee laughed and laughed and laughed. She refreshed our souls.
7. Be still and rest. Aimee found a balance in life and knew the importance of relaxing and renewing one’s mind & body.
8. Be vulnerable. Aimee embodied vulnerability with close family and friends. She was humble and open in a life-giving way.
9. Be all there. Aimee didn’t live her life on autopilot. She questioned things, learned from situations, and engaged others.
10. Be generous with your time. Aimee would drive to another city on a regular basis visiting an old lady who became a dear friend to her.
11. Be faithful in the small things. Aimee would not back out on plans. If she said she was going to be there, you could fully rely on her.
12. Let your heart smile. Aimee had a beautiful smile that started from her heart.
13. Don’t settle. Aimee had multiple guys interested in her, but she was patiently waiting for the one who would sweep her off her feet.
14. Don’t waste your life. Aimee barely watched television. If she had free time she would be stimulating her mind reading or spending time with a friend.
15. Get comfortable in your own skin. Aimee would wear a hoodie to dinner and not worry what others would think about it.
16. Make granola and eat a lot of ice cream. Aimee would spend time baking fresh, healthy, homemade granola for someone she loved. She also loved to splurge on ice cream.
17. Be amazed, not jealous. Aimee cared about your life and shared in your successes.
18. Radiate joy. Aimee had true joy that was not dependent on circumstances.
19. There is no place like home. Aimee longed to go home.
20. Have an eternal mindset. Aimee fully embraced life in the present, yet she kept her eyes up.
I feel blessed to have known Aimee. I hope she also inspires you to live a life of passion embracing every day.
Blog 3: Live in the Deep and Overcome Fear
This season our company has been focusing on living a life of no regrets. I’ve learned from my mistakes of holding back and not diving in with full surrender and passion. I remember far too well having my scuba diving gear on and my feet dangling off a boat almost touching the Pacific Ocean. The friendly Australian guide kept encouraging me to jump right in the vast ocean and explore the Great Barrier Reef with him. Even his charming accent couldn’t woo me in that water. I had crazy fears that a shark would attack me, or that I would be swallowed by the sea never to be seen again. I made the choice to stay on the boat instead of exploring the deep unchartered waters where a whole new world was awaiting discovery. We have a tendency as C.S. Lewis once said to keep on “making mud pies in a slum because [we] cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea.” As we boldly step into the New Year, we want to stop making mud pies and start experiencing the real adventures of life.
Being imprisoned by our own fears is debilitating. Do you fear criticism, failure, rejection, or death? These fears can be imbedded so deep that they’re hard to even know that they exist inside of us. We don’t need to let our fears control and sabotage us. If we want to truly live a life of no regrets, we have to overcome our fears and live in freedom.
The first way to overcome our fears is to have faith. Dr. E. Stanley Jones said, “I am inwardly fashioned for faith, not for fear. Fear is not my native land; faith is. I am so made that worry and anxiety are sand in the machinery of life; faith is the oil. I live better by faith and confidence than by fear, doubt and anxiety. In anxiety and worry, my being is gasping for breath—these are not my native air. But in faith and confidence, I breathe freely—these are my native air.” We must go back to our design and embrace faith, not fear. Breathe in faith and breathe out fear.
Another way to overcome our fears is to stop focusing on our circumstances and have a heart of gratitude. Ann Voskamp, author of One Thousand Gifts, emphasizes the word eucharisteo, which means thanksgiving. It comes from the root charis, meaning grace, and the Greek chara, meaning joy. We can conquer fear when we look beyond our circumstances and focus on grace, thanksgiving, and joy. Gratitude journals help diminish fears giving fresh perspectives on how to live abundantly through the struggles of the day.
An important way to shatter fear is to reflect back on our lives and see the good. This becomes a refining moment, because we remember how far we’ve come. Flee from the “if onlys,” and “what ifs” and learn to trust in the today.
Sometimes the way to overcoming our fears is to fail at what is paralyzing us. Failure does not have to be final. When we just go for it, and we fail, we are refined, strengthened, and motivated to reach new heights. When we fail at what we once feared, we are one step closer to success.
Instead of residing on the seashore making mud pies, have the courage to jump into the unchartered waters. Go live in the deep. That’s where true life is found.
Blog 2: Live Your Dream; Remembering Sally
Ah, regret. A feeling many of us know all too well. Those harsh words we wish we could take back, those hours wasted on Facebook the night before a school assignment due date, those cookies you baked and thought you could “only eat one”. We spend so much time wondering how life would be if only we had done this instead of that, sometimes it seems we will drown ourselves in it. But never fear – I once thought the cycle of fear and regret was inescapable, but there is a way out, a way to create a life that you would be happy with if today was your last day.
Less than a year ago, my life was very different than it is today. I had an impressive resume, a well paying corporate job, and a bustling social calendar, but I never felt fulfilled or truly happy. One day I came across a quote that read, “If we don’t change directions soon, we will end up where we are going.” I realized that the longer I stayed in my daily routine just because it was comfortable and familiar, the further I was moving away from living a life that made me happy. Making changes is usually uncomfortable because as human beings we don’t like uncertainty, but I knew that if I didn’t step out of my comfort zone and tumble into the unknown, I would eventually regret it. To be sure, there were hiccups and days of doubt along the journey, but I am grateful for those moments because they’ve given me the chance to live the life of my dreams. These are a few of the guidelines I put into practice to create a life of no regrets, hopefully they can help you too!
If you’re saying ‘what if,’ stop it! Just stop! You can’t change your past; Not only is it impossible (science is not there yet, Doctor Who fans), it is also counterproductive. As far as I’m concerned, “dwelling on the past” is nothing more than a euphemism for beating yourself up over things you can no longer control. Our thoughts are everything; whether they are constructive or destructive, they determine our destiny. Instead of allowing negative thought patterns to take over by self punishment, channel that energy into going forward. If you keep looking behind you, you can’t see what’s in front of you.
Recognize what is, rather than what could be. When we use a map to determine directions to get somewhere, the starting point is just as important as the destination. The same applies to the journeys of our lives; we have to know where we are coming from in order to get to where we want to be. Identify where you are exactly, and own it. Make peace with that place, know that there is no such thing as failure if you learn something from it. Instead of looking at something as a regrettable mistake, celebrate it as a lesson learned, a tool that you can forever use.
Appreciate the present. The best way to release yourself from the agony of what might be is to open your mind to the beauty and wonder of the world around you. What is life but a series of little chances for happiness? There is joy to be found in every ordinary moment, look for it.
Get clear on what you want and prioritize it. If your mind is full of random, scattered wishes, that feeling of fulfillment and accomplishment will forever elude your grasp. Take the time to sit down and think about exactly what you want. Be specific, write it down, and put it in a place where you will see it every day.
Take action! Stop postponing the life you want; if you don’t start right now, then when will you? Always remember that every moment in life is a choice, choose the path that will bring you more into alignment with your goals. Don’t be afraid to fail, everything you could ever want is waiting on the opposite side of fear. Today is the first day of the rest of your life, take control and create your own destiny!