Discovering life beyond the barbell / by Dana McMahan

Author Archive

Six things I learned in my bunny slope ski lessons

Finding success at Deer Valley, Utah. Photo by Whitney Tressel

When people moan about being too old to learn this sport or that, I usually want to scoff. Abilities often have way more to do with your enthusiasm and fitness level than any arbitrary number does. But I have to confess: I felt that my particular number was a bit on the high side to be tackling snow skiing for the first time. Becoming a beginner at a sport that involves careening down a snow-covered mountain on two skinny, slippery sticks — especially for someone who’s as prone to accident and injury as I am — seemed, if I’m being honest, a terrifying prospect.

In fact, by the time I strapped on and bundled up to head out into the falling snow (aptly enough) at Snowbird in Utah last week, I was as scared as I’d ever been on any rock climb, white water rapid or mountain biking path. But the lure of learning a new sport – advanced age notwithstanding — outweighed (barely) the nervousness, and I stepped onto the “magic carpet ride” conveyor belt with gusto, the first in a little band of five new, wanna-be skiers in the first-timers’ class at the resort. Between those first few moments of awkwardly navigating bunny slopes in my skis and the third afternoon of the trip when I could scarcely believe I was swishing down an honest-to-goodness trail, I learned a few pearls of wisdom from my instructors at Snowbird, Park City Mountain Resort and Deer Valley.

Read the six things I learned from ski lessons

Somebody that I used to know

That was then: ice packs after every workout, kinesiotape on multiple body parts, ice baths at home.

Sometimes people compare themselves to others, measuring their success or abilities against that of stars in their sport. I don’t. My measuring stick is what I used to be able to do, back when, you know, I was a competitive powerlifter. A record-breaking one (that’s for you Ryan, if you’re reading ; ) Despite spending most of 2012 and 2013 dealing with or recovering from one injury or another, the constant refrain in my head was that I used to be able to do more. Heavier bench, more push-ups – whatever I can do now, I used to do more.

Then, recently, I guess I had a bit of an epiphany. I was doing floor presses after spending a week eating all the things in Portland, Oregon (where I’d been on assignment).  No joke, I had to have consumed a good two to three times more than my usual daily calories every day I was there. I’d forgotten what a huge spike in strength that used to give me, and there I was doing floor presses for  the first time in ages. I wasn’t trying to go for a max — I don’t do that anymore — but I couldn’t resist when I found how easily the bar was moving.  So I maxed out.

“That’s only 15 pounds less than when I was at my strongest!” I raved to my husband, who was spotting me. “Like, my broken-down strongest,” I said for emphasis. As in the max (for two, technically) I hit just before my sports doctor told me I was out of powerlifting for good and would be going under the knife to try to repair the damage I’d wrought on my body. I could barely walk that day, it was all I could do to not scream in pain going from sitting to standing and vice versa, but there I was on the floor — because that’s where I could still lift a weight — hitting a new max. (My theme song in those days? My Body by Young the Giant: My body tells me no, but I won’t quit I cause I want more) And I didn’t see anything wrong with that picture. A little after the fact, maybe, but I do now.

Still, even with that said, ordinarily I’d have been inconsolable that I’m not still that strong, that I had it so briefly. When I missed a final attempt on that recent lift with 5 more pounds, before now I’d have cussed or cried or maybe pounded on my heavy bag. At minimum I’d have been in a foul mood. But I found myself laughing. “It was worth a try,” I said, grinning that I could even still be even this strong considering how little actual heavy lifting I’ve done in the past year, considering I was in the hospital for nine days in January and unable to lift *anything* for the first couple of months after release, considering I don’t work to the point of breaking down anymore. I’m still pretty fucking strong, and I’m glad to have what I have.

This is now: happy to be able to do cool things like go rock climbing. (Thanks to Van Brinson of World TEAM Sports for the photo)

This is now: happy to be able to do cool things like go rock climbing. (Thanks to Van Brinson of World TEAM Sports for the photo)

Why the change in heart? I’d like to say it’s that I’m growing up, or getting wiser or something  that means I can claim credit. But I can’t. I would defy anyone to meet the athletes I met at the adaptive adventure race I went to last month and come home unchanged. Were the people with prosthetic limbs or in wheelchairs or facing other “inconveniences” (as my new friend Duane called them) whining about what they *used* to be able to do?

No. Hell no. They were just out there climbing and biking and rafting and rappelling and living their lives with passion and joy.

And after seeing everything they accomplished and witnessing their attitudes, only someone who is incapable of learning and changing could still cry about not being strong like they used to be. In fact, I feel like a pretty huge jerk for all my complaints over the last couple of years. Will I ever be as strong as I was? Nope. But for the first  time, I am ok with that. And I’m happy to have found that new kind of strength.

I put a hex on you

[I use Grammarly for proofreading because I write fast and don't proofread my own blog and had a typo in my HEADLINE in my last post and that's just mortifying.]

Bed feels good. I love my comfy bed. And when it’s dark and cool and it’s just so cozy under the covers who wants to get up and go out all bleary-eyed to the cluttered garage gym and turn on a fluorescent light and start picking stuff up and putting it down?

I do!!!

I’ve been in a boot, an air cast, for the last few weeks for a sesmoid issue and not able to do much more than swim (have I mentioned I hate swimming?) and do some upper body work (which I wasn’t even really doing until last week). Yesterday my nemesis became my friend when my sports doctor let me take the boot off and “get after it” as he put it. No ballistics or anything stupid (use common sense for someone who’s had rhabdo, he said) but weights? Yes! And just before I went into the boot I had added a cool new toy to the garage gym line-up: a hex bar.

Deadlifts and back squats have been more or less out since the back injury, but I love working my legs more than anything. When I stumbled across a hex bar deadlift article and read that it can work essentially the same compound muscle groups as squats — but without loading the lumbar spine, I was all over it. Dr. McKee gave me the thumbs up (and he gives thumbs down to a LOT) so I found one used and bought it that day. After a couple trial runs it’s collected cobwebs since while I moped in my boot.

I've got 99 problems but a hex bar deadlift ain't one!

I’ve got 99 problems but a hex bar deadlift ain’t one!

This morning, fresh from being given my freedom, I couldn’t wait to load it up — lightly; I’m trying to be smart here — and get after it. My powerlifting days are over, so I’m doing sets of 8. I worked my way up to just 100 pounds — pretty much where I started with traditional deads back in the beginning. It was still dark out, my little garage speakers were blaring, I got warm enough to lose the hoodie and Flint Barbell Club top, and it was freaking awesome. I followed it with some TRX leg curls which are fantastic for working glutes without loading the spine.

And bonus: I like to finish a workout with crunches holding my 35 pound kettlebell. I always do 50, but also always have to stop at least once or twice to catch my breath. Swimming was pretty much my least favorite workout ever, but evidently it had its benefits: I did all 50 without needing a break, and still had a little left in the tank.

It’s been a while since I’ve felt  optimistic about working out. It’ll be 6-8 weeks before I’m really able to ramp back to where I’d like to be, but I guess the benefit of the hex(es) I’ve had on me lately is I can enjoy finally where I am now.


Somebody’s been missing around here. The athlete and writer that wanted to destroy limits has been gone, defeated by one too many injuries, one too many comments about inabilities and poor judgement.

I gave up. I didn’t want to talk about it, didn’t want to write about it. I just didn’t want to try anymore because it made me feel weak to go into my garage gym and try do something that wouldn’t re-injure my back or risk getting rhabdo again or hell, even put weight on my toe in the air cast I’m wearing thanks to the million and one weighted step ups and lunges that stressed a little bone in the big toe until it cracked (though to be fair, the high heels for miles in NYC that time didn’t help matters there any).

Everything I tried to do felt like a shadow of what I used to do. A failure. Why bother struggling through four lousy chin-ups, all I could manage the last time I tried, when I used to be the bad-ass who could knock them out with weights chained to my waist? Why do push-ups when I can’t do 37  in a row anymore? Why bother doing anything? I can’t do squats, my new doctor-approved hexbar that I was so excited to use is gathering cobwebs until the boot comes off. The only thing the sports doctor will let me do at this point besides upper body work is swim. And I hate swimming. I’m doing it, but it’s just a chore. It doesn’t make me happy.

No workout makes me happy like the simplest act of moving something heavy. Doing something hard. Pushing to do just one more rep when I don’t think I can. I found my passion for athletics when I fell in love with powerlifting and we know how that crashed and burned but nothing makes my heart race and adrenaline surge like wrapping my hands around that barbell or the chinup bar. But when I have an imaginary peanut gallery  criticizing me and — and sometimes not imaginary, sometimes people flat telling me in person and online that I shouldn’t be doing this, that I’m crazy, that they “don’t admire my tenacity” that I “destroyed by body” — I am afraid to do what I love. I’m afraid I’ll get hurt again, but I’m also afraid of what people will think if I get hurt again. I’m already the girl who wasn’t smart and got a scalpel in the spine and a hospitalization with a bizarre and rare injury and then a cast, all in less than two years. How ridiculous does that look?

Well, I’m back from a weekend that changed the way I look at that for good. It changed the way I look at a lot of things. And I almost didn’t go. When my sports doctor finally lost all patience with me and forbade me — because of the cast and the toe — to take part in the Adventure Team Challenge, I backed out of going to write about it. Because I was that mentally defeated. And I didn’t even have the courage to write about my decision to not go.

Thankfully the World TEAM Sports chief guy called me up and talked me into it. The full story will be on the Women’s Adventure magazine website in the coming days, so I don’t want to jump their gun, but I will say this: these people sure as hell are not sitting around boo-hooing over what they used to be able to do and calling it quits. The strength — physical, yes, but mostly mental — and grace and passion and determination of the athletes I had the privilege to watch and get to know knocked all the ridiculous self-pity and concern for what other people think right out of me.

 These are the most bad-ass athletes I've ever met.

These are the most bad-ass athletes I’ve ever met.

I saw men and women who’ve been blown up in trucks, been broadsided on a motorcycle by a car, been hit by a drunk driver, skied off a cliff to break a back, lost legs in war — I saw these people, these extraordinary athletes, go rock climbing, mountain biking, rafting, paddle boarding, swimming, rappelling, hiking through quick-sand like mud. I saw them spend three days overcoming fears, supporting one another, not giving a damn what anyone thought of them or ever told them they couldn’t do, and having the absolute time of their lives doing it. I couldn’t be any more proud to call them my friends now.

And there was no way in hell I was coming home and moping around, wallowing in my made-up misery. So I opened up the garage gym today for the first time in weeks. I swept out the cobwebs and I put my Pandora Linkin Park station on full blast and thought of my new friends and their unstoppable spirit when ‘Indestructible’ came on.

I chalked my hands and I did chin-ups — no, not weighted ones unless you count the cast, but not assisted ones either — and push-ups and I grabbed a barbell for overhead presses, and got down on the floor for some Turkish sit-ups. I breathed hard, and I said fuck a few times when it got difficult, and when I finished I felt like a new woman. Maybe not the same one I was before, in the days of one-arm push-ups and insanely heavy squats, but hopefully a better one.

Back at it!

Back at it!

‘Grace? She passed away 30 years ago’

The entire movie National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation is one long favorite scene. But one of the best is asking Aunt Bethany to say grace.

Clark: Since this is Aunt Bethany’s 80th Christmas, I think she should lead us in the saying of Grace.
Aunt Bethany: What dear?
Nora: Grace!
Aunt Bethany: Grace? Ohhh…She passed away thirty years ago…
Uncle Lewis: They want you to say grace…. The BLESS-ING!!!
Aunt Bethany: Oh.

Today is my last birthday in my 30s. I’m not one for new year’s resolutions, but I liked the idea a friend had in making a birthday resolution so I’m totally stealing that. It’s not so much a resolution as it is a word for this year. I was awake part of the night and spent some time trying to think of the exact word I need. I wanted it to be something like thankful or grateful, but also partly to give myself a break and not expect so much — too-high expectations being behind some injuries, not to mention stress — and to forgive myself when I do something wrong. I loved the name of a drink my my husband had last night at our joint birthday dinner (his birthday is the day before mine, which makes for a celebratory week!). It was called “Don’t Worry About It,” and I wanted my word to have a bit of that as well.

When the alarm went off, I had fallen back asleep. This never happens, but I woke up with the precise word I needed in my head.

It’s grace. That feels like an old fashioned word (in fact it is) but it fits everything I’m looking for.

Sunrise on the Rogue River in Oregon.

Sunrise on the Rogue River in Oregon.

I need to give myself a grace period when I need it — like now. I’m clunking around in an air cast, an ugly gray boot, because I hurt my big toe walking around NYC in high heels a few years ago and aggravated it every time I did a lunge or I sprinted or even went on a long walk. My sports doctor finally showed his exasperation with me, when he told me the definition of insanity is doing the same thing and expecting different results. So for the third time in two years I’m limited in what I can do, this time because of something as ridiculous as a tiny bone in my foot with a stress fracture. This has to be a grace period while the little bone heals, a time that I’m not working out like I like to (I’m swimming, which is another story because my flailing about in the water is the least graceful version of swimming you can imagine) but I have to accept it. And I can do it with grace or I can make myself miserable. Wouldn’t it feel better to do it with grace?

And I need to give myself grace when I’m not accomplishing everything I want rightnowthisveryminute. I’ve been freelance writing for about seven months. I’m not in every publication I want to be. But I can never be in ALL the things. If I allow myself grace I can be thankful for what I have done so far, and optimistic about what’s next.

I need to give other people grace. Other people have other motivations and they’re not always going to do what I wish they would do. That’s it. I can’t change that. Even when it’s hurtful –like the woman who commented on this blog to give me her (incorrect) theories on why I’ve had so many injuries and tell me she would “never listen to somebody who has destroyed their body in such a short amount of time” — I can let it get to me, or I can give them grace and move on. Obviously that’s not the easiest path, but, hey, I’ve got a year.

I’m under no illusion that when I turn 40 in 365 days I’ll be living in a permanent state of grace. I can’t change 39 years of a short temper and no-holds-barred, everything it takes goal-oriented nature. But I have a better chance of remembering now and then to allow myself and others grace than I do of ever being a graceful swimmer, and I’ll take that.

Let’s take this outside

Did you spend most of your life outside when you were a kid? I did. What was there worth doing inside when the weather was nice? Outside there were tire swings, roller skates, creeks, and trees. I spent as much time reading under those trees as I did climbing them, but still, I loved it outside.

TRX at the park

Atomic push-ups

As an adult, I spend too much time inside. One of the many things I love about travel is just being outside all day. But there’s no reason I can’t find ways to be in the fresh air, under the sky when I work out. So when my friend Sarah suggested we meet in my favorite park to work out one morning, I loved the idea.
We met bright and early the morning after the 4th of July – kind of appropriate, since my friend is a Marine veteran. She brought her TRX, and concocted a heinous plan to run up what we all call Dog Hill (the steep, long hill where locals like to let their dogs play) in between sets. What sets you ask? Did I mention she was a Marine, and therefore one tough workout partner?

We did rear leg elevated lunges, and single leg squats, ran Dog Hill, and repeated. Then for good measure we threw down with some atomic push-ups (feet in the TRX, knees to chest in between push-ups) and TRX rows. Don’t forget the hill runs in between. And after.  I might add that I hate running. But when a freaking *Marine* is running up the hill for the umpteenth time you can’t wuss out and whine that you don’t feel like it. So run I did. And we encouraged each other through our progressively more fatiguing sets on the TRX. To be quite honest, I felt a little like I might throw up by the time we were done. Not quite — just enough that I knew I’d had an arse-kicking workout, the first one I’d had in a while.

We’re doing it again tomorrow. I can’t wait to  get outside and get working.

Mountain bikes don’t come with training wheels

Remember the first time you rode a bike without training wheels when you were a kid? What a glorious and giddy feeling that was? Just you, your two wheels and your feet in a frenzy on the pedals, face to the wind about as happy as a puppy with her head hanging out the car window? Yeah, that was fun, wasn’t it?

Somewhere between riding the bike to elementary school and paying a mortgage riding a bike became Exercise. Cardio. Ugh. I avoided it, except for renting bikes in foreign cities to get around faster than walking. Even with a super cute hipster vintage bike complete with basket and bell collecting dust in my garage I never biked, or wanted to.

Then I got on a mountain bike. And full of enthusiasm for my newest sport, the one I’m learning in preparation for the Adventure TEAM Challenge this September, I pedaled onto the trail at nearby Waverly Park. Grinning under my helmet, I couldn’t wait to check this out. The next thing I knew I was on my back under a bush, my bike wheel spinning crazily above me, a string of profanities flooding the air as I laughed and cried in equal measures. My husband stood above me, fear and concern turning to exasperation when he saw I was more or less ok. I could still see the road where I’d entered the trail. I wasn’t off to the best start.

We rode for as long as we could that first day, stopping ever more frequently as my ragged breath couldn’t keep up with my lungs’ demands. It didn’t take long to realize that cavemen didn’t have bicycles and my usual high protein paleo-ish diet wasn’t going to cut it. Shaking, I made a gas station run for a sugary sports drink and a carb-laden energy bar.

Fast forward just over a week and we were on our third trail run last night (after a few road rides to work on that pesky cardio). A couple minutes into the Cherokee Park trail and I was already walking my bike, too scared to attempt a steep drop wrapped in roots and edged with big rocks on the right, a fat tree on the left with a gnarly climb out the opposite side. I walked the bike in several more spots, growing more dejected each time. I was scared. Flat scared that I’ll fall off, or hit a tree, or knock out a tooth or break a leg or somehow end up back in the hospital. My husband raced ahead of me, For that matter every other biker we saw (nearly all male) took the drops and climbs and scary bits with flair.

It was a gorgeous night but I couldn’t enjoy it as fear and my annoyance with the fear warred, all while I tried to just stay upright on the bike. We made it as far on the trail as we thought we could manage and turned back. Approaching that super scary section going back, it didn’t look as bad in this direction so I decided to just gun it and rammed my way up the root-laden hill, roaring as I made it almost all the way before my horsepower failed to keep up with the steep incline. I ran my bike off the path, managing to keep from falling as a guy rode by grinning at my exuberance at having made it as far as I did.

A guy and girl rode by a couple moments later and we chatted for a minute about this stretch of trail. The girl was a beginner too, and said she’d walked this part four or five times before getting the nerve to attempt it. Now she made it look easy. I didn’t want to leave without trying, but was terrified. I don’t know anything about grades, if there even are, on trails to tell you what it was. All I can say is it was a precipitous drop and I could all too easily see myself being flung headfirst over the handlebars onto the rocks near the bottom.

Before I could talk myself out of it I backed my bike up the trail and aimed for the drop, my stomach feeling like it does when you’re creaking those last few inches toward the top of a roller coaster. I didn’t want to be a chicken, and I didn’t even want that negative talk in my head so I gave myself a little pep talk. Taking a cue from Muhammad Ali’s words

It’s lack of faith that makes people afraid of meeting challenges, and I believed in myself.

I muttered a few times as I maneuvered my bike, “You’re brave, you’re strong, you can do this.”

Then (purposely) with no time for second thoughts I started pedaling, remembering my motorcycle-riding dad’s admonition that you go where you look. I looked hard at the narrow strip of trail where I needed to stay, and flew down the hill and rocketed up the other side, bumping to a stop by my husband with a grin surely like the one I wore when I took that first training wheels free ride 30 years ago.

Feeling pretty proud and pleased with myself, I thought we were done. But he had other ideas. We rode it over and over until my hands weren’t trembling quite so violently with nerves. I even hit a big rock once at the bottom of the drop but stayed upright and managed to still come up the other side. And after we rode out the rest of the trail I couldn’t resist the urge to turn back and go do it one more time.

It’s still scary. I’m still afraid I’ll get hurt. There will never be training wheels or an easy, safe way to train. I just have to get out on the trails and be brave and be strong. But oh, now that I know how good it feels to take on the scary bits and come out smiling, I think I’m hooked.

(I did finally make it after a couple more tries)

Gearing up

It’s time for a new challenge.  And a new adventure. Goals with numbers land me in the hospital. How many plates can I put on the barbell and still lift it=spinal surgery. How many pull-ups can I do=rhabdo. And any goal related to a number on the scale is the last thing I want. (Hi, I’m Dana and I haven’t stepped on a scale in 7 months since the great and horrible six-pack experiment.)

So I’m gearing up to join a team with my husband and race through the high desert of Colorado on a multi-sport adventure. The Adventure TEAM Challenge this September will put me to a whole new kind of test as I climb, raft, mountain bike and hike at a mile elevation, part of a five-person team that will include two people with disabilities — one in a wheelchair.

If anything will knock me on the head and make me stop feeling sorry for myself for all the things I can’t do because of my assorted and sundry injuries it will be this race.

World TEAM Sports provides opportunities for people with disabilities to compete in sporting events. Not only does this chance help the competing athletes overcome challenges they can feel amazing about, it inspires spectators. I know, because I watched their documentary Vietnam, Long Time Coming, last year and cried repeatedly watching veterans overcome huge physical and emotional challenges to bike from Hanoi to Saigon. And I know if they can accomplish such a mammoth undertaking, then this utterly non cardio-conditioned wanna-be racer can get ready for a two-day challenge.

I’ve experienced personally how much competitive sport has transformed my life, and injuries notwithstanding, the confidence I’ve gained has made a whole new world possible for me. If I have a soapbox it’s that more people — especially women, and especially people who may not think they have what it takes — experience this change.

So I’m going to raise money – lots of it, more on that later – to join this race, and I’m going to train for two days of high-altitude sports that I am a complete beginner in now.  With maybe a dozen climbs under my belt, a few days of rafting, and a brand new mountain bike I broke in with an immediate crash, I’m gearing up for a summer of training for this blissfully number-free goal: to complete the race and not let my teammates down.

It takes some creativity: I can’t run or do lunges because of a janky toe. I can’t load my lumbar spine. And with newly re-knit muscles in my biceps, shoulders and lats (they ripped away from the tendons just a few months ago) I can’t lift to failure. My new friend is the TRX in my garage gym.  With the bad foot in the strap I can do lunges that are even harder than the garden variety. I can do hamstring curls that will strengthen my underdeveloped hamstrings. And since I’m still feeling sketchy about pull-up I can do rows on the TRX to work my upper back. I’m also loving push-ups with my feet elevated in the straps.

But mostly I’ll be on my new bike, planning climbing getaways in Red River Gorge, and hopefully finding somewhere to raft. I can’t think of a better way to spend the summer than gearing up.




My sports doctor is a good guy. Instead of washing his hands of me and saying I’m just too accident and injury prone to keep working out, he wants to help me find things that will challenge me. (I guess if I were cynical I’d just think my insurance company has probably paid for, I don’t know, at least a few mortgage payments for him. But when he waved my inches thick file at me and said he wants it to not be any bigger 20 years from now, I’m gonna go with he’s actually a good guy.)

I’ve completed my post-rhabdo sentence of boring elliptical work which I served at the nearby public gym where my punishment included watching dudes massacre proper form on lifts and young ladies perform perplexing movements with tiny weights. I got my doctor’s all clear to go back to working out just a few days before leaving for Italy. I wasn’t ABOUT to risk getting hurt before that trip so I went pretty gingerly back into upper body workouts.  But I wanted to really get back to work when I came back from Italy, and I’d be on my own. (Clearly personal trainers and I are not a good match.)

“Try a TRX,” my doctor suggested. Hmm. I tried one when I was doing physical therapy  during the Injury Chronicles Part I and remember being surprised at how challenging it was. “It’s your bodyweight, so you shouldn’t be able to hurt yourself,” he said. Ah, so that was the selling point. After all the things he’s told me I *can’t* do, it’s nice to have the seal of approval for a change, so I went right out to get one. And actually the TRX folks were kind enough to provide me with one. It arrived while I was stuffing my face with pasta and pizza and gelato in Italy.

The pizza at Da Attilio's in Naples was worth the flight.

This pizza, at Da Attilio’s in Naples, was worth the flight.

I have stopped feeling guilty about not working out when I travel. I just don’t, and that’s ok. Which is weird because I would have given almost anything just to do some push-ups from Jan 1 through mid March, I finally got the go-ahead, but once I was in Italy I couldn’t care less (although I was amused by the Italians who wanted to feel my bicep, so I guess I didn’t wither away like I feared I would).

First TRX workout

Anyway, I came back with a hard-earned pasta belly and a raring urge to get into my garage gym and just do some hard stuff. I wasn’t sure, despite my little bit of previous experience, how hard a couple of straps would actually be. Then I did a test that came in the packaging. And oh. my goodness. It’s hard all right. I noted my results (max reps in one minute) for each of these  and will check again in 30 days: Chest press 16, biceps curl 17, hamstring curl 24, crunch 28.

I like that I have no idea what constitutes a good result. It doesn’t matter. Improvement matters. Sitting in a hospital, looking at an MRI of my damaged muscles and discussing necrotic tissue with my doctor put quite the damper on my desire to compete or break any more arbitrary records. But that doesn’t mean I stopped caring about meeting challenges. So my first challenge is just to beat those numbers after 30 days.  I’ll let you know.

‘It’s not about doing something dangerous’

There’s been some radio silence on this blog lately. Allow me to explain. For one, I’ve not had much exciting in the way of working out to discuss as I wait for a post-rhabdo follow-up with the sports doctor before I’m cleared to do much of anything interesting in the gym again. My workouts consist of slogging along on the elliptical (thank goodness for my LCD Soundsystem Pandora station), watching the dudes in my new public gym massacre correct form on squats and bench in between doing their curls in front of their mirror, and doing a little bit of lower body work. No upper body allowed while my arms, traps and shoulders heal from the great, misguided, tear-the-muscles-off-the-tendons pull-up workout of new year’s eve 2012.

But for two, I’ve been cray busy getting my freelance writing work going  since being laid off from my day job at the end of January. Every day I’m hustling, trying to drum up more work, and furiously scratching out stories for my local gigs, plus stuff for relish magazine, the Chicago Tribune, Food Network magazine, and — and Exciting stuff! The best part about it is getting to talk to all kinds of fascinating people. The highlight so far? Interviewing the space jumper Felix Baumgartner. You know, the guy that free fell in SPACE?

I wrote a story about his National Geoographic Adventurer of the Year people’s choice award, and got to ask him a few questions for NBC’s

What struck me the most was this:

“It’s not about doing something dangerous,” Baumgartner said. “It’s about finding challenges that are meaningful to you, approaching them in a thoughtful way and, hopefully, expanding your boundaries.”

As we know, some of my challenges have been — while not remotely in his realm — a bit insane on some level. And I’ve paid the price.  Squat 200 pounds as a barely 100-pound woman and end up undergoing spinal surgery. Decide to start training for the Iron Maiden challenge (24 kg pistol squat, single arm overhead press, and weighted pull-up) and on DAY ONE do a workout so extreme I land in hospital for nine days with rhabdo, and on rehab for months. Two catastrophic injuries in one year, as my doctor describes it, and I’m finally paying attention. I don’t want to keep getting hurt, but I’m not satisfied without a challenge.

What I learned from the man who jumped out of a balloon 25 miles above the earth is that you have to be smart about it. Approach challenges in a thoughtful way, he says. Granted he has an enormous team behind him, but I have my own supporters in the form of family and friend, and you, dear readers.

Through years of careful planning and preparation he achieved his singularly exceptional dream. And that’s inspiring to millions to reach for their own dreams. I’ve always reached for mine, but my trouble is I don’t know when to back down. And that’s as important as knowing when to reach.

I don’t know what my next physical challenge will be. I’m bound by multiple limitations I’ve caused myself, but I’ll find something to work toward again. In the meantime, I’m reveling in a new type of challenge:  becoming a writer, not just as a hobby, or sideline, but as a way of life. It’s the scariest thing I’ve ever done, but also the most meaningful. Detractors are coming out of the woodwork, and some days I painfully understand the adage ‘be careful what you wish for.’ Planning to make this my career and not return to a 9-5 job feels sometimes as petrifying and exhilarating as taking that free fall leap into space. But thanks to adventurers like Felix blazing a path I have the confidence that I can make it happen.

Exploring the body vital

Our bodies are with us throughout our lives

to  help us experience ourselves

and the world around us

They show us the limits of our experience

yet represent the starting point

of our boundless potential

I had the chance to visit the BODY WORLDS Vital exhibit yesterday in Louisville for a creepy, intimate, and illuminating look inside the human body.  I’m sure I would have found it intriguing no matter what — these are actual human bodies, preserved and displayed in a way to show you how your insides all work — but a week after coming too close to being a specimen myself, I was especially fascinated.

The body’s muscles, laid bare

Bodies were positioned to show them in motion — running, dancing, lassoing, and this beautiful scene of a man lifting a woman over his head.

I don’t think often enough about what’s going on inside my body. It’s there, it does its job, and only when I am in panic mode do I pause to wonder just what’s going on. In the hospital with rhabdo, statistically speaking I had something like a one in 12 chance of my body shutting down permanently because of kidney failure. I doubt I’d ever even given my kidneys a passing thought before. I got to see what kidneys actually look like yesterday, and read with way more interest than I ever paid in science class, that the body’s entire volume of blood passes through them 15 times an hour.

It’s a marvel that we function from minute to minute, let alone the decades that most of us have here.  I got to talk this week with one of my favorite writers, Andrew Pham, a man who has biked the length of Vietnam (you should read his book about it – Catfish and Mandala) and he said that he wants to be the 80-year-old guy still running and swimming. This is the kind of wisdom I’m trying to instill in my frenetic little brain.

I’ve no interest in blaming or torturing myself for being hurt working out, but I do have only myself to hold accountable for not letting it happen again. If I tear down everything that is so carefully constructed in my body before I’m even 40, I won’t be able to use my body for its born intent – to experience the world.

We’re born to move and I want to keep moving.

It could always be worse

My brother, visiting from out of town, pushes my IV on a walk around the hospital. Awesome ensemble I  am wearing isn't it?

My brother, visiting from out of town, pushes my IV on a walk with my mom around the hospital. Awesome ensemble I am wearing isn’t it?

There was a prisoner in the room catty-corner from mine in the hospital.  He had his own guard day and night.  I thought I had it bad, but I didn’t have a guard – I had family and friends who came to visit. I got to come home at the end my my nine days in the hospital with rhabdo. This guy had to go back to prison. It could always be worse.

I allowed myself one time to say “it’s not fair.” And I won’t repeat it. Because that’s a soul-sucking cycle of misery to get caught in. A lot of things aren’t fair. A lot of people have it a lot worse than I do. I missed a trip to Africa and Paris. They’ll still be there later. I’ll have a mammoth hospital bill, even after insurance. So we won’t replace our 80 year old windows this year, and all the money I’m not spending on personal training will go toward the bill.  I can’t exercise for a while. Yes, I love to work out – it makes me feel good, and confident, and happy. Being strong and fit is part of my identity. But I can still do a lot of other things I love to do. Pet my dogs. Watch a movie in bed with my husband. Yack on the phone with my mom for an hour. Read. Dream about travel.

Goody bag from a visiting friend

Goody bag from a visiting friend

I don’t know how I can really deal with the second catastrophic injury (my doctor’s description) in a one year stretch, but I don’t really have any choice. it doesn’t exactly make me feel better to remember it could always be worse, but it can snap me out of a pity party. And I know from last time that once I start to wallow in woe-is-me, it’s a hard road back out. So I just have to not start down the road. And I do that by being thankful.

I listed a lot of people I was thankful for in a Facebook post, but they are all my heroes right now, and deserve mention again in a more public place.

I feel like I have so many people to thank, but I have to start with my mom and my husband. Between the two of them I was as comfortable as was possible, got the moral support I needed to not be terrified every time I got bad news, was well fed with off-campus food, got foot rubs and back rubs, my pillows fluffed and my hair washed. I could go on and on, but really, just having the people around me that love me the most in the world made a very scary, very miserable nine days bearable. I’m a very lucky daughter and wife.

Another round of people to thank: Dawn Geiger for staying with our dogs so Brian could stay in the hospital room with me. Sharon Dunne Gillies for bringing me sushi and company. Jonathan Dennisand Thommy Browne for bringing me a coke and a smile. Liz Solheim Huot and Jesse Huot for hanging out in the hospital room like it was any other night we’ve hung out eating and chatting (sorry the fruit and cheese selection left a bit to be desired).Jesse Hendrix-Inman for bringing us a hospital picnic dinner. Beth Newberry for sitting with me during a scary procedure and bringing the ultimate goodie bag. Constance Ard for helping me take my mind off feeling sorry for myself. Deb Rountree for sending a box of goodies from my favorite treat shop and Please and Thank You for delivering them. Keith Brooks for being at the right place and time when I needed to cry – and for macarons! Sondra Powell for chocolate and coffee. My boss for visiting to make sure I knew not to worry about work. My brother for making the drive from Somerset and making me a bracelet I wore for good luck. My dad for coming up from Somerset to give me a big bear hug that can only come from a daddy. Tracy Kitten for a late night pick-me-up visit. And all of you, you know who you are, for well wishes and prayers and calling and emailing and texting to check on me -especially those of you who made me laugh!. (I didn’t know FB limits how many people you can tag – hope you all see this). If I’ve forgotten anyone I’m sorry – I have been on rather a lot of meds.
So, so, glad to be home and counting my blessings to have so many people that care about me.

Also, I’m glad my arms no longer look like stuffed sausages.

My doctor's low-tech way of reducing swelling: arms over the heart.

My doctor’s low-tech way of reducing swelling: arms over the heart.


What the hell is rhabdo? Or, shouldn’t you be in Zambia?

I should be on a plane bound for Lusaka, Zambia, right now – a work assignment, followed by a weekend of thrills at Victoria Falls, and four days in my favorite place in the world, Paris. Why am I waking up in a hospital bed for the fifth morning in a row then, tethered to an IV pole that’s my lifeline, bewildered and shattered?

All I wanted to do was get stronger at pullups. I’m pretty badass with chin-ups, if I say so myself, pounding out 10 (see janky video here) after that inane NYT article came out that said women can’t do pullups. But pullsups are a lot harder. Not even similar, really, and I got the idea that I wanted to train to do a 53 pounds weighted pullup this year.

I like having strong arms!

Training commenced Monday morning, new year’s eve. Not unlike every other workout with my trainer, whose approach is to go to complete muscle failure, I pulled — doing pullup after pullup, some unassisted, then with spotting, till I couldn’t do anything more than hang there, then seated rows, lat pulldowns, tricep extensions, curls, and more until I couldn’t even straighten my arms. I knew I’d be hella sore. I could barely get my coat on or off the rest of the day. But that’s just par for the course for the way I trained in 2012.  It’s how I developed the arms that I’m, I know, inordinately proud of.

That was it. I thought. Then I woke up that night, arms screaming sore, back and abs also incredibly sore. My arms were so sore it felt more like a charlie horse in the bicep. Tuesday was the same. I couldn’t straighten either arm. Wednesday I was in agony. I pulled off my sweatshirt before bed because my arm felt puffy, and no lie, almost passed out. My ears started to ring and my vision went dark around the edges.  I don’t handle shock well. My right arm looked like a textbook case of elephantitis. My husband packed it in ice and convinced me to see a doctor the next day instead of go to urgent care immediately.

I debtated in the morning going to my family doctor, urgent care by my office (to be quick) or my sports doctor, Paul McKee. The others wouldn’t even know what a pullup was, but he is notoriously behind schedule. I called though, and had to good fortune to get in on a cancellation.

Talking about this bizarre happening on Facebook, a friend asked if I’d ruled out rhabdo. My heart froze. I didn’t know much about it but had heard of it from my days at Crossfit. It was bad news.I went early for my appointment and got right in. “I’m worried about a couple of things,” Dr. McKee said. “Don’t say rhabdo,” I pleaded. “I’m worried about rhabdo,” he said.

“The thing is, I’m going to Africa. Monday.” I replied. Things started happening quickly then. A “STAT” blood test, immediately followed by an MRI. Once out of there my bloodwork was back. McKee was admitting me to hospital. He met Brian and me at his office. His words were sort of one big scary string. CK levels of 41,000 (normal is one hundred). Liver damage. Danger of seizing. Of acute renal kidney failure. ICU. Heart attack. I couldn’t even cry it was so surreal. I had only done a few pullups. You don’t die from doing pullups.

I spent my first night in the hospital, breaking down the moment Brian shut the door behind him.

My body’s job was to take in massive quantities of fluid and flush out the toxins the damaged muscles were flooding into my bloodstream. McKee was playing a delicate balancing act. Not enough fluid and the myoglobins (the toxic proteins from the breakdown of the muscle) would damage my kidneys. I already had liver damage. Too much water and I’m in equal danger. I assured him repeatedly that I drink a *lot* of water. Up to a gallon, most days. I can handle it. I lay in the hospital bed in the dark room and in the glow of the IV pole watched the fluids flow into my arm. I pictured the liquid flushing out the goblins (that’s what I like to call them). And in the morning, the number was down by almost half. I might still be able to go to Africa. We had a long talk about blood clot risk, and about what to do if I had a relapse in Zambia (get off the continent, he said).

But in the afternoon the numbers had risen 50%. “I’m taking the decision from you,” he said. “You’re not going anywhere.” Five minutes later a nurse arrived to take my blood pressure. It’s usually about 100 over 65. Now it was 212 over 100.

That was Friday. It’s Tuesday now. We’ve been chasing down the goblins (the CK) and the liver number, balancing sodium and potassium, and he’s pounding me with as much fluid as he would a college athlete twice my size. My kidneys are rock stars. I wish I could get them a present. They are taking every once of fluid and pushing it on out, carrying the toxins with it. My level was 10,000 last night. When I get to 1000 and hold for 6-12 hours I can go home. The amount of fluid he’s giving me would put most people into ICU, McKee says. I can’t begin to express how grateful I am that for years I’ve been such a heavy water drinker.In fact, if I hadn’t been drinking my usual copious quantities all last week I could well have gone into kidney failure before even seeing the doctor. Even still, I saw my doctor just in time – my body was already shutting down when I got to him, he tells me now. “I think I was in a lot more danger than I realized at the time,” I said. “You were,” he says.

So what the heck is rhabdo anyway? and how does it take you from this:

    © John Adkins Photography

© John Adkins Photography

to this:

Here’s how I understand it. When you work out, you tear your muscle down a bit. It rebuilds, and that’s how you get stronger. The small amount of myoglobins pass through your system and don’t hurt anyone. When you completely decimate a muscle, like I did to my bicep, bracchii and lat, your body is infested with the stuff.

This LA Times article has some good information:

It’s difficult to know when vigorous strength training has crossed the line and athletes are at risk of rhabdomyolysis, Clarkson said. Tiny tears occur in muscles after any strenuous workout. The healing of these micro-tears, which causes the soreness people feel after hard exercise, is what prompts the muscle to become stronger.

But the tears release a protein called myoglobin into the bloodstream. If too much myoglobin is released, it can build up in the kidneys and impair function. Treatment includes intravenous fluids and sometimes kidney dialysis.

Dehydration increases the risk. Eccentric exercise, in which muscle fibers are lengthened as they contract — such as with squats and push-ups — is usually involved in triggering the syndrome, Clarkson said.

However, some cases of rhabdomyolysis also appear to involve a coach’s or trainer’s enthusiasm for working athletes to the brink of collapse, Hawkins said.

It seems it’s a tricky little monster. It’s not like there’s a barometer in your body that indicates when you’ve crossed the line from killer workout to actual killer workout. I didn’t know, my trainer didn’t know, that we’d crossed that line.

I want to be furious and devastated and sick and full of regret, and feel foolish, but I can’t take the energy away from recovering to do any of that. I know the time will come, when I start physical therapy with two pound dumbbells, and I lose my popeye muscles, and I dwell on the travel opportunity of a lifetime that I’ve lost, to feel all of those things. But for now, my job is to rest, let the water do its job, and take comfort where I can in my friends and family and dogs (I got to sneak a little visit with my Alba outside the hospital last night)

Trying out supplements – any tips?

supplementsMuscle & Fitness sent me some supplement samples; I’ve always relied on just eating good food for fuel so I’m not sure where to start. I have two sets of this sample so I’ll pick someone who gives me some good tips to have the other set.

Rock the CatBa

Since falling in love with climbing this summer I’ve thought and talked ceaselessly about climbing in Vietnam. The fairytale HaLong Bay, home to some 2,000 (or 3,000 depending who you ask) islands in the Gulf of Tonkin, is a neverland dream for climbers. Even newbies like me. Look at this place!

I started writing the folks at Asia Outdoors months ago, freakishly excited to get in on one of their climbing tours.  When the day finally came to get to Cat Ba Island, naturally everything that could go wrong did, but though a trip I thought would take an hour took seven, we got to their office just before they closed their doors to sign up for the next day’s trip. I was going climbing again! Even amidst the chaos and beauty and craziness that is Vietnam, and suffering from food poisoning, I was consumed with excitement to take on these mysterious rocks.

We boarded a little boat and set out from Cat Ba to cruise through a floating village on our way to a stop for lunch. I restlessly picked at rice while I enviously watched climbers on a nearby island. Could we CLIMB already? Though I was more than a little hesitant that the two guides had only one year of climbing experience between them, and put together were barely as old as me, I couldn’t wait to start.

At last we set out for Moody Beach, an impossibly perfect little island featuring some beautiful — and imposing — walls. Tom and Than, our trusty guides, set up the first climb and asked our little band of travelers who wanted to go first. You can probably guess who leaped up first.

The first route was an easy one they said, meant just to give us some confidence and serve as a refresher for those of us who hadn’t climbed in a while. Though in fact it wasn’t difficult, even an easy climb is still an adrenaline rush, and my heart was racing when I landed back on the beach after the first climb. Each of the next three were more exciting than the last — all 5.8s, the same grade I’d climbed in the Gorge this summer. A 5.9 remained as the light began to wane and the clock ticked toward time to leave. Tom turned to me with a grin. He knew what my background was. “Do you want to try the 5.9?” he asked. He needn’t have even asked.  “It’s not about finishing the route, it’s about making the moves,” he said. And it was a long climb – the tallest of any that day. Two independent climbers had failed to ascend.  But I wanted to get as far as I could.

I harnessed up, and went straight at it. THe difference I could immediately see in the easier climbs and this was that it was pretty much non-stop hard all the way up. Never mind the red ants and the rock that crumbles in your hand – the holds were few and far between and I’d hardly call any of them good. It was a long, long climb – the further I went, the further away the top anchor appeared. I was afraid I’d run out of time, but I didn’t want to rush. I talked to myself the entire way up — I like the pep talks — and just kept going. Shaky arms meant I had to take one rest up high, but I was pleased to not fall. It seemed to take ages, but I just kept climbing and climbing. “You’re going to get it!” called my husband when I got near the top. “I know,” I thought. “I never planned not to.” And I did, hitting the anchor with a grin that stayed on my face all the way down.

I wish I could have taken on a 5.10 but it was time to go. It’ll have to wait now till spring and the Gorge. But now I know I’m ready!

For fun I strapped the GoPro to my helmet on one of the climbs. For some heavy breathing and maybe a few swear words, check it out!

Listen to your body (and take your vitamins!)

Things have a way of coming back to bite you. “I’ve never cancelled a workout,” I’ve been known to say. In the two+ years of my life as an athlete, I’ve been fortunate to not be sick enough to miss a workout (while I’m home anyway — I was miserably sick with a sinus infection while in Paris and Morocco last fall, but that was a scheduled deload time anyway).

Well, never say never. I came down with a viral infection so nasty last week that I cancelled all my weight training for the week, and skipped my mid-week boxing lesson (my new sport this month).  I took off a whopping three days from working out and thought that was sufficient. Back to boxing I went Friday evening, telling myself the cardio would clear my nasal passages and maybe I’d even sweat out some of the sickness.   For good measure I went for a lesson Saturday morning. Then I slept 11 hours that night and felt progressively worse all day Sunday.

Why? I didn’t listen to my body.  After a drastic two and a half week diet getting ready for a photo shoot earlier in the month my usually robust immune system was fried. My body was exhausted. I work full time, train 5+ days a week, balance multiple freelance jobs and am planning two international trips. Eventually something’s got to give.

My husband, who came down with the same bug I did, listened to what I said, not what I did, and cut out his workouts. He’s feeling much better than I am now. We leave next week on a trip that starts with a five-hour car ride, followed by a 14-hour flight, plane change, six-hour flight, and arrival in a city that’s a 12-hour time difference.  I want to go into that gauntlet as healthy as possible. And as difficult as it is for me to skip workouts, that’s just what I have to do. After work my body wants nothing more than to lie quietly on a couch or in bed and read or watch movies.  I have to override the scared voice in my head that tells me I’ll get weak and soft by taking time off. I know perfectly well that I can take time off and still be strong. I was out for two months when I was injured, and came back stronger than ever! Still, it’s a loud voice and I really have to fight to drown it out.

I’m downing tons of water, eating lots of green and orange veggies, and taking my vitamins. Speaking of, now’s a good time to note that I did some traveling back in August that I thought for sure would end with me being sick, but — I think thanks to some super duper vitamins I was taking — I never felt the slightest bit puny. I had the chance to sample GNC‘s Women’s Ultra Mega vitamins, and I’m pretty convinced they kept me running when I was overdoing it. Duringthe month I took the fistfull of vitamins every day I flew out to San Francisco, slept (or not, actually) on a futon for several nights while attending a conference that lasted about 14 hours a day, ate nothing like my usual diet, then flew straight to Oregon for a camping trip for five nights, then back home and straight to work.  I almost always get sick when I travel like that, but I felt healthy as a horse when I got back. My hairdresser also informed me I had an abundance of new curls  coming in. I can’t be sure it was the vitamins, but the packets contained a cornucopia of health-boosting ingredients, so they couldn’t have hurt. In fact, maybe I need to get another month’s supply to as insurance for this next trip.

Either way, I’m going to listen to my body, be kind to it, and give it what it needs.


In which I wait in line for two hours to shoot a machine gun

ShebangI’m not a gun person. Not even a little bit. I was terrified the first time I shot one, so I shot a whole bunch in order to get over that. I worked on my aim a little over the summer with a trip to the Linden Sportsmen’s Club with the guys in my husband’s family and found that I’m terrible with a pistol, but fairly good, thank you, with a rifle with a scope.  Even with that bit of practice under my belt though, and my brother (a licensed firearms instructor and gun collector) behind me, I was still a little shaky when I took the Tommy gun at the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot.

Clearly the worker assigned to me was apprehensive about me as well, a tiny speck of pink in a sea of large and heavily armed men, as he took the gun away, explained how to stand, handed it back and told me where the trigger was. I may be wearing pink, I wanted to say, but I’m not a dumb girl. I know where the trigger is, I just don’t want to put my finger near it on a MACHINE GUN until I’m ready to fire. [Technically I shot a submachine gun, but whatevs]

I shot with some trepidation at first, then found it wasn’t so scary after all; in fact was kind of fun blasting away at a car, boat, washing machine and drinking fountain out on the range (even though I had no clue if I was hitting my targets). So I fired away for a moment,  then wondered what the heck was wrong with the weapon. It wasn’t shooting anymore.

Turns out 40 rounds go extremely fast in an automatic. At $40 to rent it, that was the most expensive per-second entertainment of my life. But the adrenaline jolt was in line with the ticket price – my hands shook and my heart raced as I left the range.

I can’t speak to everyone else’s motivation for waiting in line to shoot a crazy-ass gun. But for me, shooting isn’t so much about learning the sport of target shooting as it is about facing fear. Guns scare me.  A lot. And I guess there’s not a scarier gun than a machine gun.

Walking the line between fear and adrenaline draws me to other sports; rock climbing, white water kayaking, and every time I find I can face a fear, I feel that much more equipped to take on the next challenge.

The Tommy gun was a favored weapon among Chicago mobsters in the 1920s, though it was originally developed with the ambition of helping end WWI. Read more

And bonus! I’m also now equipped to document my adventures in a new way – video. Thanks to the super cool people at GoPro, I can now record this quest to share in living color. I’m still learning how to use it (and the Mac and iMovie I got to edit) but I foresee a LOT of fun with my new tiny and amazing camera.

Help me pull a plane for the Special Olympics

I wasn’t involved in sports or athletics as a kid (except for a year in 7th grade as the last cheerleader to learn every move). Knowing what I know now about how transformative athletic training can be, and what an incredible boost to self-confidence it is, I wish I could go back and do a lot more in sports. I can’t, but I can help kids who would really benefit from athletics.

I’m going to pull a plane for the Special Olympics. A 147,000-pound UPS Boeing 757 cargo plane!

Ok, so not all by myself ;) I’m joining the team at my gym, Absolute Fitness, to raise money for Special Olympics Kentucky. Will you go to this page and make a donation to support this fantastic cause? Even $5 will help. My goal is $250 by next Friday. Thank you so much for your support!
Go here to donate

The Paris effect

Paris is a magical place. In many ways of course, but in one very particular, and very happy way. I can eat as much as I want there and not gain an ounce. How can this be? you ask. I ask too. And there’s no logical answer. Yes, I walk a lot. And on my weeklong trip last week I rode a bike several miles a day. But really, I checked the math on an exercise calculator, and the numbers don’t add up.

I ate every day as if it were my last day on earth. Macarons, oozy creamy cheeses, piles of baguettes and croissants and pain au chocolat, cafe creme with sugar, desserts every night, wine with lunch and dinner and before dinner and after dinner, sausage, steak, pasta, and did I mention daily foie gras? Honestly, I ate so much that one day I went to the pharmacy for something for an upset tummy. But I want to devour Paris, and since  I ate with utter reckless abandon. One day I ate an entire wheel of Camembert. Fried. As my first of three courses.

And when I got home I weighed precisely the same as when I left. Now I don’t like to weigh – when you’re building muscle the scale doesn’t really mean that much, but I wanted a basis of comparison. So I weighed and I measured my waist before I left, and not only did I not gain weight, my circumference even shrank a bit.

So yes, I walked a lot. I rode a bike. I climbed 700 stairs on the Eiffel Tower. I even did a pretty tough workout with a fantastic personal trainer from Waite fitness. But all that could have only been a drop in the caloric bucket.  The only reasonable assumption I can make is that it’s magic. The magic of Paris. Clearly I must move there.



‘Camembert frit’

Un pique-nique


After (complete with the new macaron tattoo)

I went rogue and lived to tell the tale

I was scared to try white-water kayaking. Flat scared. I heard my Rogue River rafting/camping guide’s somber warning about evacuations and was chilled. If I got hurt, it would not be a quick hop in an ambulance to a hospital. We were talking hours – if not days – from civilization by foot, through the Northwest Pacific wilderness,

The guides’ descriptions of what happened if you caught your foot in between rocks while in a rapid haunted me. The current was so powerful it could knock me down while standing in ankle deep water. Those seething rapids could be death traps. Damn right I was scared. The truth is, I’m scared of a lot of things, especially since spinal surgery six months ago. I’ve wondered if my adventurous spirit survived the scalpel. It was one thing to go rock climbing, securely anchored to the walls and my belayer. This was wild. Anything could happen in the water.

But the drive to experience something new, tackle a new adventure, was too great for me to resist. On the second morning of the five-day trip, I took to the river in my own “duckie,” an inflatable single-person kayak. After seeking advice and counsel from more experienced kayakers, I headed out, heart pounding, telling myself to keep paddling, no matter what, as that seemed to be the common thread in all the advice.

I did not run this rapid, but it looks impressive doesn’t it?

Left, right, left, right, I paddled toward the quickly approaching rapid. Two new friends were headed for a steep drop over a rock ledge. “Help us!” one called. I barely knew how to steer, and bumped into their double kayak, accidentally (but luckily) pushing them into an eddy and safety. And immediately plunged over the waterfall myself, into the swirling frenzy of the rapid.

“Paddle, paddle, paddle!” I yelled to myself, digging in, pointing the tip of my kayak perpendicular to the waves. Water crashed and foamed, tilting my little boat crazily, but I paddled madly and sailed out into smooth current to find a bald eagle perched overhead, solemnly observing my escapade.

I’d pushed my limits, faced my fear, and couldn’t be happier (especially when a a seasoned guide told me later I looked like a pro river runner!).

This became a theme of the trip, as every day new challenges arose. I hiked fearsome trails, flung myself off high rocks into swirling water, and climbed a rope to contemplate, trembling, a daunting plummet down a natural water slide. I shot down the slide, splashing into the clear, dark pool, then popped up like an otter, laughing my head off.

But the scariest point of the trip wasn’t a rock jump, precipitous hike, waterslide, or even the hair-raising class 3 rapids I ran. Under a brilliant blue Oregon sky, as placid as the river is wild, I leapt out of the boat one morning into Devil’s Staircase to “ride the wave train.”

My trusty guide Jeremy told me the rapid was swimmable if I cared to jump in. Nobody else was doing it, but I cinched up my life jacket and double checked my helmet, then dropped into the roiling water in safety position on my back. The thundering waves swept me away, submerging and tossing me about like a bit of driftwood. I gasped and choked in the great swells, water rushing in nose and mouth. I hurtled down the river, desperate to be spit out at the foot of the staircase. I emerged from the wild ride into a calm current where I drifted along, finally catching my breath.

Another raft paddled by. “There’s someone in the water,” someone on board said. “That’s Dana,” replied our youngest camper, a seven-year old boy. “She’s adventurous.”

It turns out I still am.

I went white water rafting on assignment with OARS – if you want to try it yourself, check out their website.

Going Rogue

I tried camping once. My husband and I registered for a tent and camping gear when we got married, with high hopes of romantic camping trips – on his part. I’m not a camper. We set up the summer we were married in my parents’ back yard like a couple kids at a slumber party. When the first creepy crawly bug joined us I fled the tent for the safety and comfort of AC and a bed in my parents’ guestroom. I don’t remember what ever happened to the tent.

I’m headed now on an assignment to camp in southwest Oregon. For five days I’ll raft the Rogue River, and spend my nights with nothing between me and the wild outdoors but a sleeping bag and a tent. I’ll have no internet, cell, electric, or shower from Monday morning to Saturday night. My job is to write a candid account of the experience for the outfitter’s catalog. O.A.R.S. is an adventure company that guides travelers on adventures around the world. They wanted a travel writer with no camping experience for this assignment, and I definitely fit the bill!

With almost no time to think about it – I got the assignment the night before I left for a writing conference in San Francisco – I threw some things in a backpack, and tossed and turned all night with excitement and apprehension about both trips (I’d be heading straight to Oregon from San Francisco). What had I committed to? I require three pillows, a fan, and a 68-degree room in utter darkness – preferably on a pillowtop mattress with 100% cotton 600 thread count sheets — to sleep. I smooth Dior skin cream on my face daily, don’t leave the house without mascara, and I’m addicted to social media. And I’m seriously headed accoutrement-free into a river that runs through Hellgate Canyon, so named for its resemblance to the gates of hell during flood season? I’m going to pitch a tent at night? Bathe, such as it is, in the river?

It seems I am! A frenzied shopping expedition online with my order shipped to San Francisco has outfitted me with hiking shoes, a rainjacket and a headlamp (which I’m given to understand will come in handy when I need to leave my tent at night to step behind the bushes). I’m taking a great book to read, a notebook and pens, and a mind most curious to discover how I’ll react to this altogether new and unusual world I’ll inhabit this week.

Two years ago I don’t think I’d have had the nerve; wouldn’t have trusted in my own gumption to stick it out. I’ve learned though, that I can do whatever I decide to do. Nevertheless, wonder is tinged with a fear I try to suppress. What if my back hurts jouncing along on a multiple-day whitewater rafting expedition, or is even re-injured? Then there’s the toe I learned a week ago has arthritis and a bone spur. I was limping painfully before I left. A steroid shot and some prescription anti-inflammatories are helping a bit, but what will happen when I hike for hours along a rough trail? What if I get a migraine? Or sick? And I’ll miss my husband terribly.

But behind all those worries is determination, and an urgent need to live the life I want to live, not the one that worry consigns me to. The media detox will do me good. Five days in the wilderness with fellow adventurers, endless trees, blue sky, sunshine, wildlife, and a rushing river my companions is a beautiful respite to the many hours a week I spend eyes trained on a computer. Time in the evening to just think – free of distractions like glowing screens and piped in entertainment – may lead to any sort of revelation. Or none at all, which is ok, too. Just clearing my mind may be quite enough. I might work out, but I’m not to stressed about keeping to a program or a schedule. I’ll eat what’s in front of me, not fretting if it’s white carbs or an extra helping of dessert. Even without my presence on Facebook or this blog, the world will keep on spinning. And will be waiting, just where I left it, when I emerge from Rogue River.

Get over it

Fear often keeps us from what we want, whether it’s a major life change or the perfect photograph.

I attended an amazingly good travel writing conference this weekend, one packed with some of the most important movers and shakers in the field. The faculty was chock full of editors and agents and writers I wanted to meet.

Besides offering the opportunity to learn to be a better writer, the conference promises connections that could well help a writer land assignments they’d never snatch otherwise. But the faculty doesn’t necessarily come running, open arms, to random conference participants. I’d have to muster the nerve to walk up, introduce myself, and engage in hopefully witty and memorable banter so they’d recall me later when my pitch lands on their desk.

I’ve never been good at that kind of thing. I’m a lively, mile-a-minute talker when you know me, but planting myself in front of a stranger, especially one who has the ability to give me career-making assignments, is flat terrifying. It’s far easier to skulk around, linger back, and twiddle with my phone while the gutsier writers attach themselves to these people.

But on the first afternoon of the conference, a talented and immensely successful photographer (we’re talking National Geographic) fielded a question one of the participants put forth. “What if I see a great shot of a person while I’m traveling and I’m uncomfortable taking their photo?” I waited for his answer.

“Get over it,” he said. And moved on to the next question.

I liked that about this conference. Honest, no BS answers. An editor at a major travel website told us, and I quote, “sometimes writers not as good as you will get assignments because they are ballsier than you. They have teflon skin and ‘no’ rolls off. They keep coming back and pitching. The shy, sensitive writers give up.” I’ve lamented, and even cried, more than once lately at the number of rejections I’ve endured. But his words were a challenge. You don’t break a powerlifting record by being meek and giving up. You don’t work your way up to 10 chin-ups, or a single arm push-up, or a double body weight deadlift by listening to the voice that says you can’t do it.

So with both these lines of wisdom in mind, I applied myself to the conference like I have to my workouts. When I could catch a faculty I wanted to meet, and that “oh, I can’t bother them, what will I say, I’m going to annoy them” refrain began, I told myself to get over it. And before I left, I’d met with every one I’d wanted to. I’d lunched with them, had dinner, tasted bourbon, joked, shared stories and found that they are just people too. Yes they live the life I crave and are immensely successful, but they’re also just people. And regardless of what opportunities may or may not arise from these connections, I’m proud that, scared or not, I got over it.

‘It is what I make of it’

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Here we are taking a break from sightseeing in Athens. Not sure who this fellow is.

I’d like you to meet Holly. We’ve worked together, traipsed around Italy, Greece and Turkey together, cooked and ate together, and in general had more adventures than our fair share. We have inside jokes, can talk for hours on the phone (or in a car careening around Monaco), and when I was at my lowest point this winter after being injured, spending a month and a half at home, having surgery and losing powerlifting, she showed up at my door as a complete surprise (she lives an hour and half away) bearing one of my very favorite dishes, bagna cauda.

I was able to forget for a while how much I hurt and how sad I was, as Holly let me regale her with travel stories, laughing her head off at my tales. I don’t think she realized how much her visit meant to me, but I hadn’t laughed in weeks. She’s like that — always giving, always helping. So when she decided it was time to start giving back to herself, and taking better care of herself, I was honored she would ask for my help, and couldn’t wait to help guide down a path I knew she would love.

I’m not a coach, nutritionist, or any other sort of health and fitness professional. But what I could offer was support, encouragement, accountability, and sharing tips for things that have worked for me. Right from the start she was willing to try everything I suggested, and did what I said to do, even when she thought it was crazy. (I’ll never forget the night I gave her 100 burpees and she texted me periodically throughout the evening to tell me how many she’d done, until she finished. I’ve never seen such determination!) I mainly hoped she would find how amazing it felt to challenge your limits and to grow stronger. Luckily we’re good enough friends that I could be stern and demanding, and push her hard, and know she wouldn’t hate me for it.

It’s been a couple of months or so now, and I couldn’t be more proud of or happy for my friend. She has made significant changes that aren’t easy for anyone, stuck with it even when life intervened, acknowledged when she did backslide and worked on ways to continue to improve her approach to health and fitness. And last night she texted me a photo of her first weights that she’d just bought! I can see why people like to be trainers — it’s w wonderful feeling to know I had any part of her success. We haven’t been able to work out together yet, but she’s coming over in three weeks and I can’t wait to hit the garage gym together!

I asked her to write a guest post for my blog and share what the experience has been like for her so far.  Here, then, is Holly.

Why did you decide to make a lifestyle change?

Because I was tired of being stagnant and average.  AND…I needed something different, challenging, something to shift my attention to.

What goals did you set at first?

Reduce the sugar intake – whether it be in drinks or food.  Drink 2 32oz bottles of water a day.  Exercise 5 days a week – and actually just be more active period.  Setting a 1200 calorie diet and using a phone app to track it (and my exercising.)  And just being able to cross my legs without having to hold it to keep it from slipping (stupid, I know but it’s true.)

What was the hardest change you made?

Honestly….none of the changes I’ve made thus far were hard.  Once one makes the decision to do it just happens effortlessly.  And I made the decision to stop eating the foods I had been eating.  A friend of mine (you) gave me some tips on how to make some good protein packed energy foods and not snack.  But the workouts I do are extremely hard (to me) but hard in a good way – just challenging and that’s what I want.

I want to push myself to my limits (which change as I get stronger with each exercise) and be sore the next day.  So hard = good!

What kept you going?

Honestly…one thing kept me going and still keeps me going.  One thing that I would rather not mention.  Just pushing through…that’s all.

Love the feeling of accomplishment – for nothing other than just knowing I can do it.

What was the most fulfilling change you made?.

Exercising to the point of actually pushing myself and making it a challenging workout.  Not your average everyday leisure exercising.  I actually look forward to sweating and I don’t like “not” exercising.  But I don’t think of it as exercise…I think of it as a hobby, just something I do in my free time – like going to the movies.

What results did you see first? 

My lack of craving sweet foods and even food in general during the day.  Then…I noticed I could start taking my pants off without unbuttoning them.  Honestly…that was a shocker one day.  I guess I just kept going and going and then realized that my pants don’t fit anymore and were literally hanging off me.

What goals have you met? 

Putting a stop to my sweet tooth and eating so much sugar!!  That was number one.  Honestly…I used to CRAVE birthday cake and want to actually go to the store for just that.  But now…I have a slight craving maybe once a month?  HUGE goal for me.  1200 calories a day (switched it up by adding a few hundred calories here and there), I’ve drank more water in the past 3 months than did all year LAST YEAR, and I can now cross my legs effortlessly.

What are your next goals?

I need to sit down with my trainer and come up with another set of goals.  I’m thinking endurance, something different, outside of the box.  Not sure yet.

What would you say to people who also want to make a change and want to know how you have done it? 

“BECAUSE I’M EATING GOOD FOOD AND EXERCISING MORE DUMBASS!!!!  It’s not rocket science.  It’s common sense!!”  That would be my no holds bar response.  But…honestly…my response would be “You know what to do, you just need to put your mind to it and make the decision.  It’s not whether you CAN do it or not, it’s WHETHER you want to or not and what your priority is.”

What’s the best part about changing your lifestyle? 

It’s not the compliments that I get – “OMG, you look so skinny” because ‘skinny’ is not what I’m going for and I’m actually pretty shy about that and don’t like that type of attention.  I don’t do the stuff I do for others or to get the attention.  It’s not the fact that my clothes fit better and that I’ve actually been able to go buy new cuter stuff.  And not even that I just feel better all around.  This may sound weird (I would probably roll my eyes if I heard someone say this too – so it’s ok if they roll  theirs at me) but

I feel more empowered.  Realizing this is my life and it is what I make of it – and I have the power to make that CHOICE.

I went to Flint Barbell Club and all I got was a Tshirt. Just kidding – I got a bench PR!

As much as I love our garage gym and as amazing as my trainer is now, I really, really miss being around powerlifters. When I saw my husband’s old classmate from Flint, Michigan, was opening a barbell club, I immediately started following along on facebook. This looked like a cool place – exactly the kind of club where I’d want to work out.

I wrote to one of the partners, Marvin Coleman, who’d graduated with Brian’s sister (after noticing we had several Facebook friends in common – strength sports is a small world) and he was kind enough to ask me some questions about my powerlifting background, injury, and current training. He asked to see a video of my bench, and invited me to train with him when we went up to Michigan. He was the USAPL coach for the men and women open bench team so needless to say I jumped at this opportunity.

I’ve been doing the Wendler 5/3/1 bench program and seeing great progress, and luckily the timing worked out that I would try for a new max while I was there.

I walked into the gym with my husband and my nephew (who’s a very strong 13 year old that would make a great powerlifter) and felt immediately at home. With the back garage door open, sunlight poured into the space full of all the equipment a powerlifter, bodybuilder or MMA fighter (they all co-exist here) would need. I love the smell of a gym in the morning! Seriously, this is a dream gym.

Marvin asked me to warm up like normal and try my max. Despite the bench itself being a Cadillac among benches, I was nervous, and when Brian handed me the 105 pounds, I knew immediately I didn’t have it. We still haven’t worked out his hand-off technique, and I fight him for the bar. That’s no excuse, but it affects me. I was really disappointed. Since coming back from being hurt I’ve wanted to get back to my previous max of 105. With my feet up on the bench it takes a lot more upper body strength than it did before, but it’s been a milestone in my head to tell me I’m back.

“Do you want to try it again my way?” Marvin asked. That’s why I was there, so back to the bench I went, with a new, much wider grip, the bar aligned lower over my chest, and a tshirt rolled under my back to allow a little arch while still supporting my spine.  It felt bizarre. Negative thoughts crept in that there’s no way I could mix things up, go back through another warmup, and have enough left to hit 105.

But we kept at it, adding another shirt to the roll under my back, Marvin guiding the bar out to where he wanted it when my autopilot brought it back up nearly over my head. I got up to 95 pounds and did three. Surely I’d have nothing left. Not for nothing has this guy coached at a high level though.

“If you can hold 155 pounds for 10 seconds you can bench 105, no problem,”  he said. And sure enough, the guys loaded 155 – a weight I’d never have dreamed I’d hold above myself – and I braced myself against the weight.(My abs were incredibly sore the next day!) I made it 10 seconds. A rest, and back under the bar with 105 — which suddenly felt light. So wrapped up in the experiment we’d just done, I didn’t even really think. I just listened for Marvin’s cues, lowered the bar, paused in true competition style at the bottom, being sure not to relax, and started pressing. With some grunting and a lot of pushing, the bar slowly, if slightly crookedly, rose under my own power.

I’d done it! And, as Marvin was quick to remind me, I’d done it after two warm-ups, a failed attempt, and ten seconds under 155 pounds. “You’re strong,” he said. “It was all mental. And technique.”

Then we had the thrill of working out with Marvin and the other lifters. I was at least as excited, if not more, than my nephew, to be training alongside guys who are moving upwards of 500 and 600 pounds on the bench.  I wasn’t originally trained by a powerlifter so this one morning at the gym was like going to school. I wish I’d known the right set-up a year ago!

It was a great feeling to have reached my goal. This was the first goal I set for myself after surgery, and I did it ahead of schedule. It will do wonders for my confidence. But even better was working with Marvin and the guys (and gal) at Flint Barbell. They took me seriously, went to a lot of trouble to help me, and Marvin is going to help both Brian and me with a program and wants to see us back in a few weeks. I walked in a newcomer, with lingering feelings of being broken, and walked out feeling like a lifter again. And with a cool Tshirt, to boot!

Fun with chains. I love this place!

The next best thing to my PR was getting to bench 135. Even with three boards I would have never thought I could move that much weight, but it was SO FUN. My long term goal is to bench that much without boards!


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