Not if, but How

If you really want to do something, you’ll find a way. If you don’t, you’ll find an excuse. – Jim Rohn

This blog post has been a long time coming. It’s been really hard to put this out there for reasons that will be abundantly clear. So, here’s where my journey’s taken me over the last few months.

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When I was selected to join the MS Run the US Relay I had grand plans. It was truly the kind of perfect opportunity that life rarely, if ever, offers. When I thought about it, I could feel a surge of adrenaline pump through me. My mind spun with the possibilities, all of the amazing things I was going to do. Not only was I going to run my segment, I was going to run it with style. I was going to kick this thing in the ass! 7 marathons in 7 days. Could I do them all under 3:30? All under 8:30 min/mile? 8:00? 7:30? I joined the Relay for the cause and for my mom, but my ego quickly hopped on board too. I can’t deny that a part of my savored the attention this was sure to garner, the spectacle of it all. I liked being a part of something so over-the-top.

But it seems the fates had other plans for me. In my first blog post I wrote of the MS Relay that it would be the hardest thing I had ever done both physically and mentally. I was far more right than I knew. But not for the reasons I thought. A few weeks after joining the Relay I woke up one morning to find my entire upper back was pretty much frozen. I could barely move my head. It wasn’t that painful, but clearly something was very wrong. It was Saturday. No doctor or chiropractor was open. The schedule called for a 20 miler. So, I did what any good runner would do: I went running. As a concession to reason and common sense I took a phone and vowed to call my wife to pick me up if it got bad. 20 miles passed without me feeling the need to bail. The next day I did 13 miles. My back didn’t feel great, but I let my drive overpower my judgment. By Monday I couldn’t run 20 feet without significant pain. This was bad. A chiropractor convinced me not to run for a while. On Thursday I tried again, only to find myself walking back to the car after a mile and a half.

I felt defeated. That surge of adrenaline that I had felt was being replaced by a slow churning fear in the depths of my gut. I didn’t want to think about what this meant, but I couldn’t avoid it. Was this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity evaporating before my eyes? Was my Relay journey already over? My segment was three months away, not long at all given the training I had planned. I couldn’t afford to take much time off if I was to be ready for a 182 mile week, more than double my previous high mileage week. I spent a week just feeling sorry for myself. Resting and hoping to magically feel better.

Eventually I called Ashley, MS Run the US founder and the organizer of the Relay, to tell her what was going on. She is a great listener and her age belies a surprisingly deep wisdom. I told her that I felt “dishonest” continuing to ask for money. And she agreed that I should hold off with fund-raising for a while and see where this injury was going. But over the next few days, our talk was ever-present in my mind. Why did I feel dishonest? After a lot of time and reflection, I finally had to admit the real answer to myself: I had doubts about the Relay and about my back. Serious doubts. My mom has had three spinal surgeries. Was this it? Was this the beginning of the end for me? There was a part of me that had spun some very dark tales. I wasn’t at all sure that I could do the Relay anymore. A part of me wondered if I’d ever even run again.

Around the same time, another member of the Relay was diagnosed with a stress fracture. No running for 6 weeks. Ouch! But her reaction was the opposite of mine. She said “well, I guess this will give me more time to focus on fund-raising.” How could she be so positive about her injury when all I could do was be angry at my situation, scared for my future and feel sorry for myself? But it made me stop and think. She planned to cross-train and stay fit until she could run again.. I had been so focused on what I couldn’t do. But I needed to be focusing on what I COULD do. Certainly I could do something. I could ride a stationary recumbent bike. So, I went to the gym that day and rode for an hour. As I sat there sweating and pushing those pedals round and round in little circles, I thought. I thought about why I was doing this Relay. For my mom. And for everyone living with MS. For all of those people who’ve come up and shared with me their stories of how MS has affected their lives and the lives of those they love. Those living with MS can’t just choose to wake up without it one day. They can’t just walk away. But I could. I could walk away. I could quit. I could give in to the doubt and the darkness and concede defeat. But what would it mean to those who wake up every morning and fight because they have no other choice? I was supposed to be fighting for them, pushing my body to do a marathon everyday as a symbol of what they do everyday. No. I could not even consider quitting. The question was not IF I would do this Relay, it had to become HOW I would do it.

And I finally fully realized that this Relay wasn’t about me at all. This had nothing to do with my personal ambitions. This was about working for others. This was about setting aside ME for once. Apparently the universe wanted to make sure I got that message loud and clear. And right there my mind did a 180.

Over the following weeks I spent a lot of time on that recumbent bike. And I started hiking the steepest trail in Boulder, Fern Canyon…and I hiked it a lot (8 times in 15 days at one point). It’s 2700 vertical feet in less than 3 miles. Hiking that trail fast was as good a work out as running, maybe better. And I started walking everywhere. To work and back, 5 miles each way. 20 miles on the weekend. I was running again: little bits here and there. But I simply didn’t have time to ramp my running back up to the volume needed to run 182 miles in a week. And quitting was not an option. Maybe I could run some of the 182 miles, but I wasn’t going to run them all. Again, it was time to set aside my personal ambitions, my ego and my pride. This was about getting it done for others. Sometimes we must focus on what exactly our goal is with extreme clarity. To finish. That was the only goal. Everything beyond that was just my ego talking.

This has proven to be incredibly difficult. I hate the gym. I find no joy in sitting on a bike that doesn’t move, staring through a pane of glass at swimmers doing laps in a pool, breathing hot, sweaty, stale air. It’s awful. As for walking? It’s fine, far better than that bike. But it doesn’t feed me the way running does. The endorphins are lacking, the feeling of wind on my cheeks, the steady rhythm of my footfalls, heart and breathing. It’s not the same. The training for this Relay has not been fun. It’s been hard. Far harder than running those many miles would have been. Or at least very, very different. But perhaps that’s apropos. Living with MS isn’t easy. Waking up in pain isn’t fun. Struggling to walk or see isn’t fun. Each day that I trained I was reminded that this is not about me. It never was. Apparently that was the lesson I was meant to learn through this journey. It was always clear to me that this Relay would be transformative, but I could never have guessed how. I suppose if life simply taught us the lessons we wanted to learn, we wouldn’t really be able to grow.

And so tomorrow I leave for Barstow, CA, a small, unglamorous town in the middle of the desert that I’d never heard of. There I’ll start my segment of the MS Run the US Relay. I imagine it will be a pretty nonchalant affair. No screaming, cheering hoards of adoring fans. No one asking for my autograph. No starting gun. Just me and Ashley and my wife and daughter. And my will to do this. I honestly have no idea what my Relay segment is going to look like. I don’t know what my body can give at this point. Though better, my back is far from healed. I’m going to cover the miles. That’s all I know. It won’t be sexy. It won’t be glamorous. And it definitely won’t be pretty. But the ugliest finish is better than the prettiest DNF. I’ll invoke an old ultra-running adage: “Run. When you can’t run, walk. When you can’t walk, crawl. And when you can’t crawl…do it anyway.” After all isn’t that what life is? Just moving forward at all costs?

I will be only a vehicle. My Relay segment will be about my mom…and Becky…and Sue…and Terri…and Bill…and Michelle…and Jill. It will be about all the people who’ve told me their stories, who’ve come up to me and shared how MS has touched their own lives. And about their brothers and sisters and friends who’ve suffered and who’ve died.

I will run and walk for those who can no longer run and walk due to this terrible disease. I will move forward always and move us a tiny bit closer to a cure.

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7 marathons in 7 days – MS Run the US Relay

To this day the memory of that moment feels vivid and distinct, as if it happened last week and not 10 years ago. The ring of the phone. My step dad’s voice. “Mom has MS.” I remember crying into the phone over and over again. “It’s not fair.” Like most people, I knew almost nothing about Multiple Sclerosis. Visions of wheelchairs, hospital beds, a feebled body, rapid decline and even early death broadcast themselves across every surface of my mind.

And indeed MS is fully capable of exacting such a devastating toll. It can rob you of almost everything, mental and physical. But my mother has been lucky, in relative terms. She’s had access to great doctors, the latest medications, she completely overhauled her diet. And she’s a fighter. No joke. Not a lot has been easy for her in life. Not her childhood. Not working her way through college. Not working full-time in the male-dominated corporate world of the 70s while raising me as a divorced single mother. It seems as though her life experiences created for her a virtually impenetrable suit of armor, a seemingly unstoppable will and a determination that simply does not yield until it’s met its goal.

So, when she was diagnosed with MS, she did what came naturally: she went into fighting mode. Her fighting spirit manifests itself in the language she often uses. “MS in a non-issue.” “It’s not a part of my life.” She recently told her doctor, “I’m not going to have any more relapses.” Her doctor laughed. But she was absolutely serious. Many people, especially her doctors, simply don’t understand such seemingly illogical statements. But I get it. It’s a statement of intention. It’s a statement of will. It’s a battle line drawn in her own terms and beyond which MS shall not pass. While her doctors may not understand her attitude, they can’t explain how she has fared so well. I suppose no one can. MS is a disease that is not yet well-understood and affects people very differently. But I like to think that all of that fight in her is a big part of the reason.

I’m a newcomer to ultrarunning, I’ve only done one 50k and two 50 milers. But there’s one lesson I’ve learned unequivocally: even the idea of quitting, the mere possibility of failure, must never enter your mind. With willful ignorance I see a set of outcomes, all of which include at least the measure of success which is finishing. I always have specific time and place goals, sure. But finishing is a given. I’ve already decided that I will finish my first 100 miler in 2013. And I will.

Just as my mother knows that her statements are not factually true, I’m fully aware that any number of things beyond my control could stop me. I could break a leg. I could get horribly sick. My body could shut down. Much stronger people than I have failed to get to the finish line of a 100 miler. But there is one thing that is within my control: me. My attitude. My will.

And of course my mom knows she has MS. She has not completely escaped its effects. Her energy level is lower than it used to be. Her eye site has deteriorated somewhat. And she had to change careers as she could no longer handle the crazy hours demanded by a corporate, upper-management job. But seeing her fight, seeing her refuse to give in, seeing that battle line drawn has inspired me deeply. I try to be as strong as her. Maybe running ultras is a way of testing my will. I don’t know.

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Life is strange. Every once in a while, a door is opened right in front of you. One feels compelled to enter. It’s almost irresistible. Some call it God. Some call it fate. Some call it chance. I don’t know what it is. What I do know is that when it happens, you must enter. You must listen. If you turn your back, the door will close and likely won’t ever open again.

Last year I ran the North Face Endurance Challenge Madison 50 miler. It wasn’t even on my race schedule. I only signed up a few weeks prior in order to get a qualifier for another race. The North Face EC Madison just happened to be on the qualifiers list and fairly near my parents. And yet, this seemingly inconsequential decision turned out to be life-changing in a way I would never have imagined. During the race, I started talking to another runner. It turned out he lived and ran in my hometown of Boulder last summer. After the race we exchanged several emails. I had seen him running together with a woman for much of the race. I had wondered about their relationship, but it turned out he barely knew her. Her name was Ashley, as he explained “the Ashley behind MS Run the US.” He sent me a link to the MS Run the US website. When I opened it, I could not believe my eyes. Ashley had run across the US to raise money for MS. And now her organization was planning a Relay run across the US to raise even more money for MS. And they were looking for runners. The universe slapped me in the face…hard. This was IT. I knew right then that I had to do this. The fit was too perfect and the way it was brought into my life too much to deny. I could use my greatest passion, running, to help my mother and all of those battling MS. I could use the fighting spirit I had learned from her to help fight for her, with her. Up until now running has been for me a largely selfish endeavor: I go off into the mountains for hours at a time and bask in their glory. To get away. I love it. But any benefit to the wider world is tangential at best. It’s time that I use my running to a more selfless end: to help others.

And so I will. So, the journey begins. A journey that will carry me 182 miles, 7 marathons in 7 days. From Barstow, CA to Las Vegas, NV. Across desolate desert. And come what may, I WILL finish.

This will undoubtedly prove to be far and away the hardest thing that I have ever done, both physically and mentally. It will require all of the fight in me…maybe more. But it won’t be as hard as what 2.1 million people living with MS do every day of their lives. My mom is an indomitable fighter. Everyone living with this disease is. But I can walk. I can run. It’s easy for me. All I can do is hope that a fraction of their strength will carry me across the miles. My mother can no longer run. Many with MS can no longer run. Some can no longer walk. So, I will. I will run for them. Along with 21 other runners, we’ll fight and run…all the way across the country.

The MS Run the US Relay has the tremendous goal of raising $500,000 to help end this disease. 100% of funds raised through the Relay and its Running Partners go directly to the National MS Society for research into treatments to help improve the day-to-day life of those living with MS. and an eventual cure. We run to end this horrible disease which has taken far too much from far too many. Please help all of those living with MS by supporting my 182 mile run and the MS Run the US Relay. I have pledged to raise at least $10,000 by the end of the Relay in September. I hope to raise even more.

Only with YOUR help can I do this. It may be terribly cliché, but no amount is too little. Every bit moves us forward. Just as our 3000+ mile Relay journey is merely millions of single footsteps, so we can only achieve our ambitious goals with everyone’s help. Give generously if you feel so moved. But better to give $1 than nothing.

Please donate here: http://www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/msruntheus/jayrawlings

There are also many ways that you can support the Relay and my efforts which won’t cost you a cent:

  • Spread the word! Tell your friends, post this to Facebook. Pass this on to anyone who may be interested. The more people who hear, the more good we can do.
  • Follow my blog: https://outrunningmyself.wordpress.com. I’ll be posting regular updates on the Relay
  • “Like” me on Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/JayRuns4MS
  • Follow me on Twitter @JayRuns4MS
  • If you would like to give time rather than money or think you know of any other way to help, please get in touch with me or leave a comment on my blog.

Thank you all for your support. I want to say that I can’t wait for the journey to begin, but in fact it already has.