We woke up to a clear sky in Waconia, Minnesota, the white rising sun promising a hot day. The world is getting bigger -more expansive- as we move west from New England. Dense trees still line the horizon, but they are distant now – no longer obstructing the view of the huge sky, or creating an arching tunnel of branches above like they did in New England.
The swim for Minnesota was moved to a 25 meter outdoor pool at Life Time Fitness. I’d heard of this company for a long time, but I’d never actually been to one. It was enormous. I stood there in awe imagining what it be like to have a facility like this to train at during the cold winter months in Flagstaff. The sauna alone was almost a big as my favorite training pool – a 16 meter indoor facility. Of course at 16 meters, all of the turning becomes dizzyingly monotonous, but the water temperature hovers at a warm 84 degrees -for rehabilitative purposes – making it the only venue where I can spend more than an hour during the winter without getting hypothermic.
James stood there on the large sunny deck. It was a new day, but it wouldn’t officially start until he plunged into the water and began to swim. There was hesitancy in his eyes – the kind of nervous dread that creeps in and weighs heavy on its host. It isn’t a fear of the unknown – like a crying naked baby preparing for his first shots on the cold sterile paper that covers the padded chair. It is rather a dread that comes as you prepare for something that you know intimately – fully aware of how excruciating it will be and yet knowing that it is inevitable – having already made up your mind to accept the pain, but still wishing there was another way out.
It’s that same dread that builds up in my chest and throat the hours and minutes before an important race. Not a race where I hope for a personal best or a potential victory, but rather the kind of race that dictates whether I will be able to pay my bills over the next few months. There is an absolute knowledge of how bad it is going to hurt, yet the element of choice has already been removed. It is a burden that accompanies the perfect understanding that there is no plan B – grimacing under the heavy knowledge that I am fit, fast, and have no excuse to not execute. It is not a fear of the unknown, but rather a fear of what is known absolutely. The kind of fear that fills my eyes with anxious fire and has me retching my pre-race meal all over the starting line, just seconds before the gun goes off.
A crowd had gathered, analyzing the Iron Cowboy’s every move. He slowly climbed up onto a starting block to add a bit of flare to the daily routine. The wingmen Casey and Aaron came through yet again, and added the comedic relief to the otherwise heavy situation. Dawning their worn speedos, they two bearded men climbed up onto the same starting block –using James as an anchor. They carefully balanced as the three of them swayed back and forth, trying hard not to fall, but hoping that if they did, it would be into the water and not onto the hard concrete. James turned to the pool and leaned towards it, falling into a dive where gravity was responsible for most of the work.
He was mirrored on both sides by the two wingmen who took the dive with a bit less grace – Aaron was angled out in a way that made one think he was aiming for a neighboring lane, and Casey pointed heavenward, as if attempting to dive into the bright blue sky above, rather than be confined to the laws of physics that subjected the mere mortals around him.
The dive was successful, in that no one was seriously injured. James hit the water first, followed by Aaron and then Casey -who broke the surface of the clear blue with flailing arms that seemed surprised to make contact with water. It was as if Casey was fully certain that if he flapped hard enough, he would actually fly – perhaps a notion he picked up from the 1st grade students he teaches while not engaged in his true vocation as an Iron Cowboy wingman.
James began to swim, his tight, sleepy body slowly warming and waking as he pushed along lap after lap. It was apparent to any onlooker that something was not exactly right with his asymmetrical form -his left arm reaching, before catching the water and propelling his body forward, with his right arm falling into the water half way through the stroke and then sinking to his side. It had been like this from the very first days of the trip – the crippling shoulder pain forcing him to swim with a single arm. On the first several days he actually let his right arm hang limply at his side while his left arm did all of the work. Now he lifts his right arm up and forward as much as he can, but it serves only for balance rather than for any forward propulsion.
I had heard about Jame’s struggle in the early journey, but I wasn’t sure how much of it was embellishment or exaggeration. Then I saw James in Flagstaff on day 7 of 50, as he swam next to Casey in Lake Mary – a muddy reservoir that is dry for part of the year. I watched from the shore as they moved through the water. My body covered in goosebumps and a knot formed in my throat as my eyes focused in on James and I saw that he really was swimming with only one arm – the other arm floating lifelessly at his side. It was in that exact moment that I no longer doubted that James would finish what he started. “He will absolutely complete this,” I told my wife Steph that night after I got home. “I’ve never seen anyone more determined to accomplish anything in my entire life.” I continued. “Barring disaster, James will make it to 50.”
James finished the 2.4 miles in the Life Time pool and struggled to climb down into a heated whirl pool. As he sat there, he looked up with a grimace and said,
“I can’t even describe how excruciating this is. The swim is the hardest part of the entire day.”
He painfully raised his bent elbow to the side, but stopped with a jolt as his arm formed a 70 degree angle at his armpit with the lateral side of his torso.
“I can’t even lift a fork to my mouth.” He continued, a fact that I knew was true from watching him eat over the last several days, a task that consisted more of moving his bearded face towards his stationary hand rather than the opposite. The crippling pain James felt in the first few days of the journey had not let up, rather James just doesn’t talk about it anymore.
“It hurts like hell.” He told me a few days before. “Nothing has changed. The only difference is that I just stopped bitching about it 3 weeks ago.” he said, with a scowl on his face. “I hate complainers, and there is nothing I can do about it, so now whenever anybody asks, ‘how’s the shoulder?’ my response is, ‘it’s fine’. But it’s not any different than it was in Vegas, or Flagstaff. I’m literally swimming that damn thing with one arm.”
“It’s fine.” I thought to myself as I watched James cringe with each slight movement, his arm tucked protectively against his body, as if being suspended by an invisible sling. By “Fine” James meant that the issue was beyond his control – not, that his shoulder was better. This is a trademark of an individual who is well versed in the concept of human potential and the boundaries of its limitations. James knows that he can only afford to focus on things that are within his control. Allowing his mind to fixate on anything outside of that realm is simply a waste of energy – both emotional and physical. If there is nothing he can do about an issue, there is no point dwelling on it. The shoulder is in the exact same shape as when he started.
Early on he had allowed hope to enter the picture and he spent a considerable amount of emotional energy bolstering the possibility that there could be an improvement in his shoulder’s function, and a decrease in its pain. After failed attempts, however, he realized that it was no longer worth the effort. His shoulder would continue to cause him excruciating pain and there was nothing he could do about it. The only thing he did have control over, was whether he complained about it or not.
Knowing that complaining would do nothing for his shoulder, he simply kept his mouth shut and lifted his arm as far out of the water as possible during the swim so that people would stop asking about it.
“Nothing has changed”, I repeated back to myself, allowing the words to sink into my mind, and hopefully burn themselves into my being. “The only difference is that I stopped bitching about it.”
With the biggest challenge of the day already complete, James met up with a strong group of cyclists and began the 112 mile ride on a shaded bike path. The day was hot and the accumulative exhaustion began to sink in. As if reading the Iron Cowboy’s mind, the trusty wingmen came to the rescue yet again and lightened the mood. Decked out from head to toe in aero gear and Iron Cowboy kits, Aaron and Casey joined along for the ride, punching a hole in the wind for James atop a bright red tandem road bike.
The group finished at a lake side park and James quickly transitioned into the run. The sun beat down hard, the light shining off the lake creating an amplifying effect – as if we were small little ants trying in vain to find shelter to avoid the searing beam of light that through a magnifying glass.
I ran alongside James pestering him every few minutes to keep drinking, salt crystals forming a shiny white dust on his muscular back. We ran on paved roads that passed farm land – corn and soybean crops spreading out over the rolling green hills, with red barns, traditional metal windmills and silos popping up between thickets of untamed trees.
We ran back along the lake to join up with the large group who had turned out for the Iron Cowboy 5k, including Sunshine from the television show The Biggest Loser.
While James addressed the excited crowd, I slipped away towards the lake. I took off my shoes and fell into the cool water. The heat, grit, and salt of the arduous run melted away with a pure renewing sensation. It felt like the physical manifestation I had hoped for as a child, but never received, as I underwent the spiritual cleansing of symbolic new birth through baptism by immersion. I lay there motionless in the Minnesota Lake trying to soak it all up, then arose out of the cool living water – cleansed and reborn. I pushed my dripping feet into my hot dry shoes, and joined the throng as it moved resolutely down the road – running forward in solidarity with the Iron Cowboy.
I joined James, Lily, Lucy and Sunshine as we ran along together through the upscale neighborhoods that rested alongside the pure, blue lake. We moved down the road and everyone listened with excitement as Sunshine told of her experiences as a television star. “What did you win?!” Lily giddily asked. “Well I won a car.” Sunshine calmly responded, “But most importantly, I won my life back.”A spirit of inspiration hovered above the group as we hit the turnaround and pointed our feet back in the direction of the start.
I looked at Sunshine, literally casting a ray of love and light on everyone around her –the choice to change her life playing out directly in front of me as she ran down the long road. She knew that what she had accomplished would only be temporary if she didn’t continue down the same path that had brought her to her present state. It comes about through a consistent effort over a long period of time – a very long time; a lifetime in fact.
Be patient as you start your journey. Transformation is possible but it takes hard work. As the Iron Cowboy reminds us, it requires “doing lots of little things, consistently, over a long period of time”. Remember that when you feel like you’ve reached a plateau and you are struggling to stay motivated. Just because the results aren’t coming as fast as you would like, doesn’t mean you are doing it wrong. The key is to keep moving in the right direction.
Put your energy into elements that are within your reach and refuse to complain about things that are outside of your control. Think long term. If you have only recently arrived on your path to self improvement, the first thing you need to change is your concept of time. Think no longer in terms of seconds, minutes, hours and days. Think rather in terms of weeks, months and years. The path to change is one that requires slow, steady, consistent, adaptive progression – over a lifetime.
Remember Sunshine. Take responsibility for your choices, keep a smile on your face, and win your life back.