Category Archives: Breathing

Getting on the Next Pole

I sat in front of a pole vault coach on a recent plane ride. Overhearing his discussions brought back memories of my vaulting in high school.

I had no idea I’d become a pole vaulter when I went to the first track practice in my sophomore year.  The coach told us to go run a green (running around all the grass in the school, maybe a mile) as a warm-up.  I didn’t know anyone on the team as I started my warm-up run.  Suddenly, a group of guys ran up behind me and asked what my event was.  I said that I didn’t know, but I was a pretty fast runner so I figured I’d do one of the running events.  Looking back now, I really had no idea.

Immediately their response was, “You should be a pole vaulter.  It’s the best event out here!”

My response, “I’ve never vaulted before,” was met with an even quicker response of, “No problem, we can teach you…it’s easier than it looks.”

So, by the time we got back from running the green, I was a vaulter.  When the coach called my name and asked what event I was trying out for, I said, “Pole vault,” like it was my plan all along.

Fast forward a year or so.  I was stuck at 11 feet for the longest time.  No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t clear 11’ 6”.  We were blessed to have a pole vault coach, and he recommended I move to a pole that was a foot longer and rated for a bit heavier vaulter than my actual weight.

Moving up to the next pole is quite an adjustment.  It feels completely different.  Everything is off from what you’re used to.  The run-up needs to be adjusted to accommodate the additional height of the pole.  Plus, you have no idea how the pole will respond on your first jump.  In a worst-case scenario, your step may be off, the plant goes poorly, the launch is compromised, and the pole might spit you back, instead of taking you into the air.  For a high school kid, that’s a lot to consider.

In practice, I never actually took any jumps with the new pole.  I merely worked on adjusting my run-up to get the plant right.  As our next meet, against Warren High School, approached we decided to bring both my old pole and the new, longer and stiffer pole.  I remember the bus ride to Warren, wondering if I’d have the nerve to jump with the new pole in competition.

Warren had the “new” rubberized track and runways (standard nowadays).  The rubber runways added bounce and speed to my approach.  This was the perfect time for me to get on the new pole.

My coach’s advice was to block out any negative thoughts (always good advice, by the way), focus on a smooth approach, and nail the plant.  He said that if I relied on my technique, the rest would take care of itself, and I’d have no problem making my first jump.

My warmups were over and I still hadn’t actually vaulted with the new pole.  The plan was for me to take my first attempt on the new pole, and if it didn’t go well, then use the old standby pole to clear a height.

My opening height was usually 10 feet, just to establish an opening.  We decided to pass to 11 feet since our competition was good and we might need to win with fewer attempts.  Pole vault competitions are won by the vaulter who goes the highest with the fewest number of total attempts on the day.

I passed at 10, and then 10′ 6″.  Other vaulters cleared their opening heights.  My tension mounted as 11 feet came up.  He gave me the sign to pass that height as well!  So, I did.

Finally, at 11’6″ I took my attempt.  My heart pounded in my ears.  I didn’t hear anything else, except for my deep breath as I readied for takeoff.  My run up felt great.  I focused on hitting my plant perfectly and blocked everything else out.

The plant was perfect and I felt a sensation I’d never felt when vaulting. There was a noticeable pause in the takeoff and then a sudden lunge straight skyward.

As I twisted at the top of my vault I saw the crossbar whiz by and still I was climbing.  I had skied over the crossbar by at least two feet!  Everything slowed down and I reveled in amazement that I was higher than I’d ever been before.  I caught myself celebrating in my mind before realizing that I needed to let go of the pole and prepare for my landing.

I fell backward toward the pads in slow motion.  All I saw was that crossbar sitting there, motionless, as I cleared my opening height with a pole I’d never used before that day.

The cheers from my fellow vaulters (my team and the Warren vaulters) and my coach were deafening. The height I cleared wasn’t high (even by 1983 standards).  But, everyone knew that I’d just catapulted (literally) to the next level in my vaulting career.

“You flew that vault!  You could have easily cleared 12’6″ or even 13′!” my coach yelled as he patted me on both shoulders.

We decided to pass at the next two heights and come back in again at 12’6″.  Another height I’d never cleared in my life.

On only my second vault of the day and my second vault on the new pole, I easily cleared 12’6″.  My new personal record.

I don’t remember what place I finished that day.  I think we swept the top three spots in the vault and collected all the points from that event for our team.

It didn’t matter to me at the time.  Overcoming my fears, leaping to a new level, delivering for my team, and creating a new launch pad for future improvement was more important to me than my place in that day’s standings.

We are being formed throughout our lives, whether we realize it or not.  We face opportunities for failure every day.  Opportunities to let fear win, for status quo to take the day.

Overcoming the mental terrorism that only we can inflict on ourselves is the key to finding that new level.  The new levels are there, waiting for us to arrive.

Once we arrive, we can choose to stay or leap to the next level.

Finding the Next Higher Gear

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If you haven’t tried mountain biking, you don’t know what you’re missing.  It combines many of the best things in life:

Being outdoors, hard work, freedom, speed, some risk, and fun.

Like many sports, it’s also a great way to find your limits, and extend them a bit.

Mountain bike trails are either climbing or descending.  They may be smooth, rough, tight, rocky, rutted, or any combination of these.

Steep downhills have always scared me.  Way too fast for my taste.  That impossible battle with gravity, choosing the safest line, avoiding rocks, and leaning far enough back to avoid being pitched over the handlebars, make most steep downhills a game of survival for me.  Definitely outside my comfort zone.

I prefer climbing.  Give me a long, steep climb and I’m happy.  Tired, but happy.  Sure, gravity’s against me, but it’s not trying to throw me over the handlebars, or off the mountain side.  I get to focus on my pedaling rhythm, staying within myself, and seeing how fast I can climb the next steep hill.  It puts my mind in a quiet place.

Until someone goes around, gives a wave, and climbs out of sight!  He may be half my age, but that’s no excuse.  He’s found a way to put both himself and his bike in the next higher gear (or maybe a few higher gears).

That’s when I noticed my habit of shifting to a lower gear as the trail gets steeper ahead.  I haven’t reached the steeper section, and yet I’m already downshifting.  One could call this good preparation.

Or, fear.  Fear of being caught off-guard by the steeper trail.  Fear of actually finding my limits.  Fear that I can’t handle the next higher gear.  Fear that I’ll blow-up and have to stop, gasping for air.

Napolean Hill was right when he said, “the only limitation is that which one sets up in one’s own mind.”

As I watched that guy climb out of sight, I decided to experiment with the next higher gear.  Catching him wasn’t my goal.  That wasn’t going to happen.  Finding my limit became my new goal.  Whenever my habit said I should downshift, I purposely clicked to the next higher gear and left it there.  Suffice it to say, I found my limit a few times.

More often than not, I merely climbed faster, and clicked to even higher gears.

Since I was climbing, I had time to think.  The question that kept rolling around my head was whether I have the same habit of preemptively downshifting in other areas of my life.

Time to find out.

 

 

Photo Credit

 

The 911 Call I Never Thought I’d Make

I had an interesting start to my day last Monday. I hesitate to write about it, but here goes.

I awoke just before 5am, trying to catch my breath. I was breathing fine, but couldn’t seem to catch my breath. It was a bit like the feeling of holding your breath underwater, and racing toward the surface for the relief of fresh air…that never came. Luckily, I wasn’t drowning, but the experience was unnerving to say the least.

I figured going downstairs and starting my day would be just the ticket. As I reached downstairs, the problem wasn’t improving. Now, a wave of anxiety washed over me. I started wondering if my arms were tingling, did my chest hurt, was I having a heart attack!? I stood there in the dark for what seemed like an eternity. My mouth went dry, and still I couldn’t catch my breath.

Is this all in my head? Is this just anxiety over not being able to catch my breath? Am I going to be one of those stories of the guy who is in (almost) perfect health, and then has a heart attack?

I have a lot of other stories to live and tell. This is definitely not the one I want to have told about me today.

I decided to call 911.

After hanging up with them, I woke Janet and told her about the situation. She is awesome in these types of moments. Calm, focused. I felt comfort in not being alone. I still couldn’t catch my breath, but she was with me, and help was on the way. They’d figure this out.

I sat in my dining room, waiting for the paramedics to arrive, wondering if I’d ever catch my breath. I couldn’t help but wonder to myself how a guy who climbs stairs as a hobby, runs trails for fun, and takes long walks on my resting days could possibly be having a heart attack. Something else must be happening. I didn’t have much time to wonder, as the paramedics had arrived (probably only 3-4 minutes after my call). They hooked me up to their EKG, and started asking me a bunch of questions. Their readings all showed a perfectly beating heart, and 100% oxygen absorption. According to the monitors, I was in good shape. And yet, I couldn’t catch my breath.

They recommended I go to the Emergency Room to be checked out. Since they didn’t see any imminent danger, we decided to drive ourselves (rather than take the ambulance ride).

My anxiety subsided a bit, but still I couldn’t catch my breath. It’s a frustrating feeling. I have a new appreciation for what asthmatics, and others who have chronic breathing difficulty are going through.

ER check-in was smooth and easy, and within a couple minutes, I had seen the doctor, and was plugged into another EKG machine. A few minutes later, they took blood samples, and a chest X-ray. And still, I couldn’t catch my breath. I didn’t have any pain, just a growing irritation at not being able to breathe, and wondering where this was all going.

About a half hour later, the doctor stopped by and let us know that the blood work all came back normal. There was no trace of a heart enzyme that shows up in your blood if you’re having a heart attack. The chest X-ray showed nothing. They wanted me to stay for another two hours for observation, and then re-take the heart enzyme test.

Two hours later, I was beginning to breathe normally. Almost like a light switch, I wasn’t having trouble catching my breath. The second heart enzyme test came back negative. All good news. I was definitely not having a heart attack, and yet I clearly had something that messed up my breathing. They scheduled me to have a follow-up with my primary care doctor a couple days later.

One thing I’ve learned from being around technology all my life is that problems don’t just go away. If you don’t identify and solve the root cause, the problem will happen again at a time of its choosing. That’s exactly what happened about six hours later just as I finished eating dinner. I noticed my breathing problem came back. This time, I didn’t have the same anxiety. I “listened” more closely to what my body was telling me. It was telling me that this was somehow related to digestion. So, now I’m the guy who thought he was having a heart attack, but all he had was indigestion.

With this new theory in hand, I saw my primary care doctor and we reviewed everything that had happened. She listened, probed, checked all of the lab test results, and agreed that I’m most likely suffering from some level of acid reflux. The irritation from the acid is apparently interrupting my breathing. But, just to be certain, she scheduled me for a stress EKG test.

So, Monday I have paramedics in my house, and by Friday (Good Friday to be exact), I’m hooked up to yet another EKG machine, running on a treadmill at a twelve percent incline. Finally, something fun in this process…some exercise after having to take a week off.

The goal of a stress EKG is to put your body (specifically your heart) under an intense amount of stress and monitor how it reacts. According to the cardiology nurse who managed the test, it is about 85-90% accurate at identifying even minor cardiac issues. He told me that the electrical impulses of our heart can tell a lot about its health…especially when it’s pushed to its limits.

After about fifteen minutes, my heart rate was 175, and I was feeling great. Some water would have been nice, but that wasn’t an option. I have to admit that I enjoyed hearing one of the EKG technicians say that she’d never seen anyone run at this pace or incline for so long. Stairclimbers unite! I hope I represented us well.

The nurse asked if I was having any trouble breathing, or catching my breath. I wasn’t. We were hoping to push things hard enough to cause the problem to re-occur. No dice. I just kept running, getting thirstier, and wondering how long I should keep going. He asked me to continue at an even higher incline, as one last push to see if we could trigger the breathing problem. Nothing. Just calves that were thrashed and tired from the continuous climb. I was done, and the breathing issue never showed itself. My heart rate topped out at 180.

The good news is that my heart checked out just fine. The EKG nurse told me this provides great baselines for later in my life if an actual cardiac problem arises (something to look forward to, I guess). We’re working on the “acid” theory, so I’m on a regimen of Prilosec, and eliminating acid-causing foods from my diet.

My primary care doctor commended me on having the courage to dial 911 when I did. I hadn’t thought of it that way. She said that many people ignore warning signs that their body sends them…until it’s too late.

My decision to call 911 was a response to fear. Fear of not knowing what was happening. Fear that my life that I love so much may be ending. With the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, my life wasn’t in danger. Maybe courage is taking action in the face of fear, not merely because of it. Or, could it be that abject fear pushes us to reach out for help we never thought we’d need?

As I take yet another Prilosec and wonder if acid reflux is the root cause, I certainly have a greater appreciation for how quickly our lives can change.

Carpe Diem!

 

Diary of a Competitive Stairclimber

I’ve been a competitive stairclimber for about five years. This means I train on a StairMaster pretty much year-round for one or two stairclimb races each year. Races generally start on the ground floor of a skyscraper, and end at the helipad. The Willis Tower race (formerly Sears Tower, in Chicago) finishes on the 103rd floor, where they have crazy observation windows that allow you to step out into “space” outside of the building. [Note to self: next time I compete in the Willis Tower climb, don’t spend the prior day tourist walking with Janet all over Downtown Chicago. Do that after the race!]

Like most sports, there are elite competitors, and then, everyone else. Elite climbers make it to the top in amazing time, often climbing a floor every 8-9 seconds. I’m usually in the top 15-20% of my age group (40-49), with a 12-14 seconds-per-floor pace. Unfortunately, I can’t say my lack of speed is an age thing, since more than a few of the elite climbers are in their mid-40’s.

During my first stairclimb race I was lucky enough to get passed by an elite climber. He had raced earlier in the day, and was taking a “leisurely” training run during my race wave. I took note of his technique as we approached the 40th floor of a 63-floor climb. He took two steps at a time, pulling himself up hand-over-hand on the handrail. He made it look pretty easy as he passed, so I gave it a try.

It was definitely much faster, and got my upper body into the climb. It also meant more muscle groups would need oxygen. I lasted about three floors before going past my personal “red line.” I was forced to stop and catch my breath, before soldiering on with the standard one-step-at-a-time method. I had seen the secret, and knew I’d have to train differently to prepare for the two-at-a-time technique.

People have asked me how I’m able to climb without hurting my knees. Climbing stairs is great for your knees, lower back, and hamstrings. It’s a low-impact, heavily aerobic exercise. We only climb, and never descend. That’s what elevators are for. Climbing creates long and stretching strides, focusing the work onto your muscles and soft tissue, and away from your joints.

Which brings us to today. My fifth year climbing the Aon Tower in Los Angeles, benefitting the American Lung Association. After the question about knees, the next question is some variation of, “Doesn’t it get boring, just climbing stairs? What are you thinking about during a race?” I suppose it’s the same things other endurance athletes think about during their races.

To definitively answer this question, here’s a brain dump of what I was thinking earlier today as I “raced:”

Only three runners in front of me to start. Ten second intervals.

“Good luck on your first race. Do you want to start in front, or behind?” Steven answers that he will take off behind me. I put in my earbuds and fire up my iTunes StairList (thanks to Jennifer for creating this list many years ago).

Ten seconds to start. Remember that I am starting on the 20 minute mark.

I love the quiet just before the start. Go!

Save Ferris! Nice choice, Jennifer!

The start is different than previous years. We entered a different door and hit stairs immediately.

No rhythm for the first 3 or 4 floors, until we get into the main stairwell.

Fifth floor. First person passed.

Two steps at a time. Nice rhythm.

The first ten floors are always the hardest, even though I just did about 20 floors of warm-up before the race.

Tenth floor. Steven is right behind me. Awesome! How cool is it that my son-in-law is running this race with me! He’s gained ten seconds on me already. Stud!

Move to the outside! Why do slower climbers never move to the outside like the instructions say? There goes my nice rhythm.

Back on track. Water stop!

“Sorry, we ran out of cups.” Well, that’s a real mind-f***. It sure is dry in this stairwell! I take a quick swig of water from my hand.

That’s not a very sanitary thing to do. 100’s of climbers are touching these rails, sweating on them, and you just took a swig of water from your hand after using those same rails.

16th floor! Where’s Steven? He must have slowed up.

18th floor! Focus on two-at-a-time.

I wish I hadn’t forgotten my gloves. I’d have better grip on these handrails.

Nice mandolin. Perfect time for a little string quartet music. Nice choice again, Jennifer.

21st floor. One-third done. I wonder how my pace is. I’ve passed a bunch of people.

It would be great if the stairwell would change direction. Turning left over and over is making me dizzy.

Deep breaths. Focus on two-at-a-time. This is comfortable. Passing more people.

30th floor. Nice cheering section. Is that a clapping toy? Cool. It sure is dry in this stairwell. My lungs are burning!

Water stop! Amazing what one Dixie cup of water does. Quick back stretch.

Two-at-a-time. Steady pace.

Takin Care of Business. BTO! Rock on!

1-2-3-4. Turn, 2-3. 1-2-3-4. Turn, 2-3. 1-2-3-4. Two-at-a-time still working!

45th floor. This thing is almost over. Look at that crowd of people ahead…all in pink shirts. That’s a big team!

I see an elite runner as I turn. He’s not close enough to pass yet, but he will be in another floor. Just doing a training run…two-at-a-time, of course. There he goes. Stud!

50th floor. Mark Anthony. Not my favorite song right about now. A bit too slow. Two-at-a-time is still working! Awesome. Only 13 more floors!

52nd floor. My lungs are burning. They named this race right. Fight for Air!

Last water stop before the finish. Big crowd here. Only ten floors to go.

1-2-3-4. Turn, 2-3. 1-2-3-4. Turn, 2-3. 1-2-3-4. Two-at-a-time still working! Not as fast as the elite guy. I’ll just have to train at a higher level. He’s gone.

59th floor. Only four to go. Two-at-a-time working! Move to the outside! What’s the deal? A whole bunch of people all of a sudden. I wonder if I can get past all of them in four floors.

1-2-3-4. Turn, 2-3. 1-2-3-4. Turn, 2-3. 1-2-3-4.

Color change. 61st floor! New direction on the stairwell. Push to the finish!

Last turn. Bright sunlight. Here comes the roof!

Stay focused. Push to the finish. Man, my lungs are burning!

Finish line! Clock minute is 34. What was my start minute? Oh yeah, 20. 14 minutes. Dang it. Slower than last year. Hey, that’s Garth Brooks. The song is almost over.

What a view! First time I can remember it being clear and bright at the finish of this race. Look how clear the Hollywood Sign is.

Next event is in late-September. The US Bank building in Los Angeles. It’s about 75 floors. That event has always conflicted with something else. I plan to climb it this year. Time to ramp up my training. More StairMaster, more trail running, more rope climb, more squats, less ice cream (hey, let’s not get crazy!).

Bring it on!

Bob_and_Steven

Hollywood_Sign

View from the helipad

Sea Turtles, Conversion Ratios, and Time

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I was in Kona last week.  I could write paragraph after paragraph about how awesome the Big Island is.  How the island has nearly every climactic zone on the planet represented.  The stark beauty of its huge lava flows, the serenity of its beaches, the fun I had boogie-boarding for the first time in 30 years.  Maybe in another post…

For me, the most memorable part of our visit was snorkeling with sea turtles.  Their fins are like wings in the water.  Sea turtles don’t just swim.  They soar and glide.    Every movement is graceful.  Effortless.  Each movement has a purpose.  Theirs is a plan that unfolds in slow motion before your eyes.

Did I mention that they’re holding their breath?  In yet another almost effortless motion, they pop their heads above water for about three seconds to take a new gulp of air.  With only three seconds of air, sea turtles can stay underwater a long time…3-4 hours.

Three seconds of air providing hours of underwater time.  How’s that for a conversion ratio?  Consider the value sea turtles extract from such a limited supply of air.

Think about your resources.  What are they?  How much value are you extracting from them?

I submit that time is our most precious resource.  It marches on, relentlessly.  You can’t speed it up, or slow it down…and you can’t buy more of it.

One can’t talk about time without a few quotes on the subject:

“The bad news is time flies. The good news is you’re the pilot.” Michael Altshule

“Time is really the only capital that any human being has, and the only thing he can’t afford to lose.”  Thomas Edison

“Don’t say you don’t have enough time. You have exactly the same number of hours per day that were given to Helen Keller, Pasteur, Michaelangelo, Mother Teresa, Leonardo da Vinci, Thomas Jefferson, and Albert Einstein.”  H. Jackson Brown

The only thing you get to do with your time is choose what you do with it.  Choose wisely, and be sure to spend some of it snorkeling with sea turtles.

Photo Credit:  http://www.wallsave.com

Remembering to Breathe

Nearly all sports are the same (at least on one level).  It doesn’t matter if that sport is soccer, baseball, golf, archery, skeet shooting, curling, downhill skiing, long distance running, ice skating, motorcycle racing, or competitive yodeling.

They each start with the same fundamentals:

  • Relax and stay loose
  • Calm your mind
  • Visualize success
  • Bend your knees
  • Don’t forget to breathe.

One could make a case that each of these fundamentals are of equal importance, but my money is on the last one.  Consciously remembering to breathe puts us in the right state of mind to remember the other fundamentals.

We each face challenges on a daily basis.  Some are small, and some are huge (at least from our perspective).  Here’s a strategy for tackling each of them:

  • Relax and stay loose
  • Calm your mind
  • Visualize success
  • Bend your knees
  • Remember to breathe!