Saturday, July 8, 2017

Adversity and Discovery

Disclaimer:  This post is not about running.  At all.  
Instead it is about something far more important. 

On July 11, 2016 my life changed forever.  That was the first day of 7th grade for my son.  It was also the day he ran away from home for the first time.  Police located him, after midnight in the parking lot of a Burger King in Durham, where he had ridden his bike.  (We live in Raleigh, so he had to ride quite some distance to get there.)  What I didn’t know at the time, and what I had no way of knowing, was that this was just the beginning. 

Over the next several months, we discovered that, in addition to having Tourette Syndrome and ADHD, he was dealing with a severe case of anxiety.  He had been keeping from us how bad it was, how sad he was, how angry he was, and how lost and hopeless he felt.  He kept it from us because he is, at his core, a kind, sweet, and gentle soul with boundless potential.  He was trying his best to hold it all together until he couldn’t.  Eventually the dam burst, and all of those feelings and problems came rushing at us at a thousand miles an hour.  Running away was not the problem. It was the symptom.  Over the coming months, the symptoms continued to manifest themselves as he spiraled more and more out of control. 

As a parent, it was the most excruciatingly painful experience to watch a person, whom I love more than I ever thought possible, engage in horrible, self-destructive behavior.  Wendy and I tried everything we could to get him help.  Doctors, medicine, hospitals, therapists, police, teachers, tutors, school counselors. We tried being super firm.  We tried being super understanding.  We tried drawing hard boundaries.  We tried being super flexible. None of it worked.  He continued to spiral, and we felt like we were losing our boy. 

He refused to go to school.  When he did go, he didn’t do his work.  He deflected and blamed others for his problems.  He refused to accept responsibility or take accountability for his own actions.  He lied to me.  He lied to his mother.  He lied to his sister.  He lied to his grandparents.  He lied to and eventually alienated many of his friends. He became irrationally angry, dishonest, manipulative, destructive, and even physically violent at times - all while Wendy and I watched in horror, still trying everything we could think of and using every resource available to us to try to help him.  Nothing worked, and he kept getting worse and worse.  It was a nightmare.  An absolute fucking nightmare. 

We knew he wasn’t a bad person.  On the contrary, he has a good heart and is a sweet boy.  I have said for many years that he can accomplish anything he wants, and can do amazing things, if he could just learn to get out of his own way.  Wendy and I just couldn’t figure out how to help him do that. 

Watching him decompensate was a very similar feeling to what I had watching Wendy struggle with her addiction to alcohol before she finally managed to get to a good place and embrace her recovery.  (As I write this, she has over six years of sobriety, and I am more proud of her for that than most people will ever understand.)

Our home became a place full of stress, fear, and anxiety.  None of us ever knew what a day with him would be like.  We were in full-time crisis mode.  It began to take a toll on the entire family, including my daughter, who is two years younger than my son and thinks that he hung the moon and the stars.  They have always been very close, but even she was becoming scared of him and anxious when she had to be around him.  We also saw the toll this was taking on her, as her grades began to slip, and she began to lose interest in the things she had always loved to do.  Nightmare. 

Eventually, Wendy and I made one of the hardest decisions a parent can make.  We had to acknowledge that we didn’t have the tools to give him the help he needed.  We acknowledged that he was going down a dark and dangerous road, one that would eventually lead to prison or death. We realized that in order to save him, we had to do something drastic.  For his own well being, and that of his sister, we had to send him away.

When he first started showing real signs of a problem, I was talking to my therapist about it because of the toll it was taking on me.  I sought help for myself because I knew that I had to take care of myself or I would be no use to him.  My therapist told me about a place called TheDiscovery School of Virginia (DSV).  He had experienced similar problems with his son and had sent him there many years ago.  DSV is a wilderness school located in the foothills of central Virginia.  It is designed to take boys, ages 12-18, who have problems with severe ADHD, self esteem, respect, anger, boundaries and other more serious issues, and help them learn better ways to deal with their problems. 

Initially we rejected the idea as being too extreme.  Students live in the woods, cutting down trees and assembling them into shelters.  They live outside.  They get up at 0630 every morning and work hard all day.  If they work hard, they get to eat meals inside the lodge.  If not, they can eat them outside.  They have to work to earn the right to go to class.  There are no phones.  No computers.  No electronics and no communication with the outside world except through good old-fashioned snail mail.  They have to earn the right to visit their families.  It is incredibly structured but also supportive, with a focus on improving emotional and behavioral issues through a group therapy dynamic.  Students there live and work in groups of ten and have to deal with problems head on in a group dynamic.  There is no room for, or tolerance of, avoidance or deflection.  They are expected to participate and to be respectful at all times and also to work hard for what they have. 

The hard part is that the program lasts for 12-18 months, and we would not be able to see him or talk to him for the first 60-90 days he was there.  That’s right.  In order to get the help he so desperately needed, we would have to drive our 12-year-old son to the middle of nowhere and leave him to live in the woods with strangers for 3 fucking months before we could see him or hear his voice. 

On April 4, 2017, we did just that. The four of us loaded up the truck with everything he would need to survive outside for a year, drove three hours to VA, and left him with strangers.  It was easily the hardest and best thing I have ever done.  (It was a very similar feeling to when I drove Wendy to rehab and left her there.  It was hard, but I knew if I didn’t, she wasn’t going to live much longer.)

Today, July 7, 2017, I saw my boy for the first time in over 3 months.  We all drove up together for our first family visit. 

I barely recognized the young man who ran up to me, wrapped me in a bear hug, and burst into tears.  He had grown a few inches, lost some weight, gained some muscle, and had a good tan.  (Which is no easy feat for a pasty-skinned red head.)

More importantly than the physical transformation, was the person he's become.  We spent six hours with him today.  He was patient, respectful, caring, honest, and full of sincere remorse for what he had done and what he had put our family through.  He spontaneously apologized for things he did while at home that, up until today, he had never admitted to us he had done.  He told us over and over again how much he loves us and how sorry he was for his behavior.  We met with his teachers, who talked about how bright he is and how he works hard on his assignments.  We talked with his counselors and caseworker, who told us all about the progress he is making.  He talked about his goals and what he had to do to earn a visit home and what he has to do to earn our trust again.  He talked about how much he likes it there, how he understands why we sent him, and how he thinks it probably saved his life. For the first time, in a long time, I feel optimistic about his future.  I know he is in the right place, and I saw glimpses of the potential that I know is there.  I truly feel that he is on the right path.  It won't always be forward progress, but nothing in life ever is.  

At the end of the day, when it was time to leave, he was sad but was able to explain to us his feelings without drama.  He explained why he knew he wasn’t ready to come home and that he understands that he still has much work to do.  We snapped a few pictures, gave hugs, wiped away some tears, and parted ways.  We will continue to exchange letters with him but aren’t sure when we will get to see him again.  That will be up to him and his progress.  If he stays on track and does what is expected of him and continues to grow, we may have the opportunity to visit with him again in another month. 

Let me be straight.  The last year has really fucking sucked.  My boy fell apart in spectacular fashion. My daughter suffered real emotional trauma from her brother’s behavior. I struggled with severe depression and anxiety in not knowing what was going to happen to my kids. (It was so bad that I stopped running and working out entirely for the better part of a year.)  And if that wasn’t enough, Wendy and I separated after almost 16 years of marriage.  (You can read about Wendy's take on our separation on her blog,  Active Recovery, which she uses to talk about her addiction to alcohol and her life in recovery. )  I’m not telling you that for any sympathy.  On the contrary, I tell you all of this in spite of the sympathy you may feel for me or for us. We are good.  All of us.  We have been through hell and are stronger and closer for it. 

I’m sharing my story because emotional and mental health problems are real.  They are not a sign of weakness or attention seeking.  They are as real as a broken leg or a cancer diagnosis. Anyone who says differently is ignorant or a fool.  The mental health system in this country is broken.  There are stigmas everywhere and those attitudes prevent countless people from seeking help.  They are scared they won’t be understood or that they will be viewed as weak.  When people do reach out, they are often misunderstood or even openly ridiculed.  Well, that’s fucked up and has to change. 

I’m confident that most of the people reading this have experienced depression, anxiety, addiction, substance abuse, or considered or attempted suicide or other forms of self-harm.  If you haven’t, I guarantee you that someone you know, and possibly even someone you love, has.  Even if they’ve never said a word about it and appear fine on the surface.  It is everywhere and crosses all socio-economic boundaries.  

So, here’s my message.  Don’t give up. Don’t be silent.  Speak out for yourself.  Speak out for your loved ones.  Speak out for those who can’t.  Don’t be afraid to take a leap and make a change.  Ask for help.  Demand help.  Get help for someone who needs it. 

Things that seem insurmountable usually aren’t.  As an ultra runner, I learned to truly embrace the Buddhist tenant of impermanence.  It applies to all facets of life.  The fact that all things are impermanent is not a bad thing.  It allows you to truly appreciate the good while you have it because you know it won’t last.  Similarly, it allows you to tolerate the bad because that won’t last forever either.  It is this philosophy that helped me navigate the last year.  Through all of this, I am stronger.  Through all of this, my family is stronger. 

From adversity comes the opportunity for discovery.  You just have to be able to figure out what lesson there is to be learned.  This adversity, along with Wendy's struggle with alcoholism, have motivated me to try to make a difference and not just sit back and complain.  With that in mind, my good friend John and I have decided to transition my coaching business, Transcend Endurance Running, into a non-profit that offers free coaching and support for people and their loved ones who are or have been struggling with mental health, PTSD, or substance abuse issues. It is a small step but one that I hope will aid in removing the stigma from mental health.  Much more to come on the development and mission of Transcend Endurance Running.  

Stay strong.  Be loud.  Believe it can and will get better.

July 7, 2017

As a post script, I must say that I’m so very fortunate to have supportive people in my life. I’m so very fortunate to have Wendy as the mother of my children and my dear friend.  Even though we couldn’t make it work as a couple, we are kicking serious ass as friends and co-parents.  I can’t imagine dealing with the last year without a healthy, supportive relationship with her. 

Team Ray. July 7, 2017.  

Monday, May 15, 2017

Leadville Trail 100 Run

One Step at a Time

November 4, 2015

Last Wednesday night I set out to do something that I had never done before and that I didn’t know if I could actually do.  My plan was to run the Tuna Run 200 Relay Race that starts in Raleigh, NC, and follows 200 miles of back roads to Atlantic Beach, NC.  Instead of running it as part of a relay team, my plan was to run the entire 200 miles by myself. 

Okay, I guess I have to address the obvious question, “Why would I want to run 200 miles all at once and by myself?”  The answer is complicated.  While I have completed dozens of marathons and have multiple 100-mile finishes under my belt, I felt the need to push the envelope, to try something ridiculous and out of reach.  Something that scared me.  Running twice as far as I had ever run before certainly qualified as scary, at least to me. 

The second and much more important reason I decide to do this was to raise money for Healing Transitions, which is a non-profit organization whose mission is to offer innovative, peer-based, recovery-oriented services to homeless and underserved men and women with alcoholism and other drug additions.  The program is specifically designed to rekindle a person’s hope, desire, and ability to live a meaningful and productive life. 

As many of you know, my wife is a recovering alcoholic who struggled with her addiction for two decades before she finally got the help she needed.  I have seen first-hand the devastation and destruction that addiction can bring.  I have also seen that there is hope and recovery from this terrible and often misunderstood disease.  I am incredibly proud of my wife and all that she has done to get and stay sober.  While she is in a good place now, there are many who aren’t, and Healing Transitions helps those who need it the most.

I could think of no better charity to support and no better metaphor for both life and recovery than running 200 miles.  The journey was guaranteed to be hard, seemingly impossible at times, but one that could be accomplished with the right mindset, by being in the moment and by taking it one step at a time.  In short, I was running to honor my wife, and all those like her, and to help those who are still sick and suffering from addiction to drugs and alcohol.


Most of my race reports go into tremendous detail about my experiences during the run.  This will not be one of those reports for two reasons.  The first is that this was such an amazing experience that I could write 100 pages and not accurately express what I experienced and learned.  The second is that it took so freaking long, and I was out of it for a lot of it, so it would be impossible to reproduce an accurate and compelling narrative.  So instead, let’s just hit the highlights.  (There are still quite a few of them.)

  • I started at 7pm Wednesday night, one hour behind the only other solo runner, Jeff Bell, and 35 hours ahead of the first relay team.  My goal was to make it to the finish line in 70 hours or less, which would mean getting there before 5pm Saturday. 
  • I had an INCREDIBLE crew, made up of friends and coworkers who took time away from work and loved ones to help me.  I was, and remain, truly humbled by their selfless sacrifice. 
  • I ran through Wednesday night and all day on Thursday, taking only short breaks for food and gear changes. 
  • I caught and passed Jeff about 20 miles into the run, wished him luck and told him I expected to see him again before we hit the beach.
  • I covered the first 100 miles in a bit over 25 hours, which was right on schedule. 
  • Around 27 hours I finally decided to lie down in the van for a 20-minute nap, which turned into a 25-minute nap.  That nap was trippy and weird with lots of strange dreams and amazingly vivid images floating around in my head.
  • I continued on through Thursday night before stopping a couple of hours before sunrise to sleep for two hours. 
  • When I woke up from that nap my body was really pissed off with me.  It must have thought we were finished and tried everything it could think of to convince me to stop.  This was the one and only time during the entire run that I threw up.  That’s real progress for me. 
  • As the sun came up Friday morning and my circadian rhythms kicked in, I began to feel much better. 
  • Friday was a very long day, especially when I allowed myself to think that I could be at it until 5pm on Saturday.  When those thoughts would occur to me, I would push them aside and just keep moving forward.
  • By this point my body decided to try everything it could think of to get me to stop.  My feet hurt, my shins hurt, the backs of my knees hurt, my quads hurt, my hips hurt, my back hurt, my shoulders hurt, my neck hurt.  It seemed like my body kept trying different combinations of pain to get me to stop.  The pain shifted around but was always present. 
  • Instead of allowing the pain to cause suffering, I focused on the pain as a sensation that was neither pleasant nor unpleasant but just a sensation without judgment.  During an event like this, when you really focus on pain long enough it begins to change into something else, something less unpleasant.  It’s like saying a word over and over again until it loses all meaning.  “Tartlet, tartlet, tartlet.  The word has lost all meaning.”
  • By Friday my crew had decided that I shouldn’t be alone, so someone was always with me to make sure I didn’t get lost or wander into traffic.  That was probably a really good call on their part.
  • The relay teams started in waves at 6am on Friday, so by Friday night I began to wonder when they would overtake me. 
  • As Friday afternoon and early evening wore on, I began to get more and more excited as the miles to go got smaller and more manageable.  Up to 175 miles in, I would not allow myself to seriously consider how far I had to go.  If I did that at 115 miles in with 85 still to go, I was worried my head would break.
  • Instead of thinking about how much farther I had to go, I focused on where I was at the moment and concentrated on one step at a time.  When things got difficult, and they did several times, I did two things:
    • I simply counted my steps as long as I could before I lost count and had to start over.  I would repeat this simple action over and over again to keep moving forward and take my mind off where I was or how much more I had to go.
    • I constantly reminded myself that things would get better.  No matter how good or bad things are at any given moment, there is one thing you can count on, neither will last. 
  • Late Friday evening Jeff caught me at an exchange zone.  He was able to move a lot better than I was at that time and pulled ahead quickly.  I was a bit disappointed because I had hoped to finish first and set a new course record, but I was really happy for him that he was having such a great race, and I knew I was still in good shape to finish the run. 
  • I caught him at the next exchange zone and we headed out together before he quickly pulled away from us.  I didn’t expect to see him again until I crossed the finish line sometime Saturday. 
  • Early Saturday morning, a couple of hours before it got light, I slept for another 20 minutes. 
  • After my wake up call, I headed out into the darkness again.  By this time I was completely fried.  The nap had not done much to rejuvenate me.  Mike and I kept making progress.  Ever forward.  We crossed the bridge over the Inter Coastal Waterway and onto Emerald Isle.  It felt good to finally be at the coast, but I still had a long way to go.
  • I took a quick break at the first exchange zone after the bridge and ate a bacon and egg biscuit from McDonalds.  I thought the fat and protein and carbs would be just what I needed.  I sucked it down, got up, and teetered off into the gray dawn. 
  • John was with me for this leg, and I was a walking zombie.  We just walked along at about 3mph, both of us fried from lack of sleep.  I felt high, my eyes couldn’t focus, and everything I looked at looked like something else.  The light was playing serious tricks on me. 
  • At one point John stopped to quickly relieve himself, and I sat down on a water meter and promptly fell asleep.  He came back, woke me up, and we kept moving.
  • With 15 miles to go, the sun was finally up for the third time on this little adventure.  It didn’t have the same effect that it had the first two mornings.
  • At the next exchange zone, Jeff’s crew was still there.  My crew said Jeff had already come and gone and that his crew was just getting a little sleep.  I said I needed to sit for two minutes.  I was cooked.  Like an exposed nerve or a wire stripped bare.   Before I knew it two minutes was up, and it was time to move again.  I just wanted to be done.  This was a definite low. 
  • Mike and I headed out again, with about 15 miles to go.  My mind was playing tricks on me.  I know the beach is flat, but I was so tired, and everything hurt so much, that I swear it looked like we were constantly going uphill.  I argued with Mike about it as he tried to convince me that it wasn’t much of a hill at all, just a mild grade.  I told him he was wrong and put my water bottle down on the ground, completely convinced that it would roll back down hill, and I would prove my point.  Instead it just sat there.  Okay, point taken.
  • With about 10 miles to go we came to a bench.  It might as well have been a king size memory foam mattress.  I told Mike, “I need two minutes.”  I sat down, put my head on my knees, and was asleep almost instantly.  Since we had taken longer to finish this leg than we should have, Tim came back to check on us.  He pulled up and saw me and thought it was over, that I was done.  Mike waited two minutes, called my name, and I woke up and headed on. 
  • My feet, knees, and back were killing me, and I was developing a blister on the ball of my right foot, but I had less than 10 miles to go, so I just kept on moving. 
  • With a little less than 8 miles to go, we were passing a gas station and saw one of Jeff’s crew coming out.  I waved and asked if he had finished already.  She looked surprised and said he was about a mile and a half behind me, that he had been asleep in the van at the exchange zone at mile 185.  I wished them luck and said we would see them at the finish.  As soon as she was out of sight, I turned to Mike and said, “We have to go.”  I started to run for the first time in hours.  It was around this time that we began to see evidence of the first relay teams.  I cruised into the next exchange zone and headed out with Tim with 8 miles to go. 
  • I was able to run/walk at this point, and my walking pace was a little better than 4 mph, which seemed like we were flying.  After a couple of miles Tim peeled off, and I picked up Mike again for the final three miles.  By this point I was running – not fast, but I was moving.  The more I ran, the better I felt.  The pain in my hips and knees went away, and the blister on my foot stopped hurting completely.  I continued to pick up speed as I got closer to the finish. 
  • I hooked up with what was left of my crew – Tim, John, and Mike – with a little over a mile to go.  Mike ran with me to the finish, while John flagged down another crew’s van and caught a ride to the finish for himself and Tim. 
  • The finish was something I will never forget.  I was floating and feeling no pain.  I crossed the line with my arms in the air and felt amazing.  No fatigue, no soreness, just elation.  I hugged my crew and got lots of congratulations from all sorts of different people.  Strangers came up to speak and shake my hand.  It was surreal.  I’ll never forget it.
  • Final results:  201.5 miles – 64 hours, 50 minutes, 39 seconds.  New course record.


            Before I can say anything else, I have to acknowledge my incredible crew – Dottie, Mike, Rob, John, Tim, Andy, and Jonas.  You gave up days of your lives to come help me accomplish a dream.  You all worked your asses off and never, ever complained about anything.  You functioned on little to no sleep, not exactly gourmet food, and less then stellar conditions, but always put me first.  I’m honored and humbled to have had you all in my corner and can honestly say that there is no way I could have pulled this off without you.  Thank you.  Thanks also to Karl, who showed up in the middle of Wednesday night to run a couple of legs with me as a complete surprise.  It was an awesome pick-me-up, and I really enjoyed having you out there for a couple of hours. 

            I also have to thank Wendy, who never blinked when I said I wanted to do this.  You were behind me 100% of the way, and your support made it possible for me to put this together and pull it off.  I did this for you, because I am so proud of you and what you have accomplished.  I know how hard your struggle was and how hard you have worked to become not just sober, but happy, joyous, and free in your recovery.  I want others to know that there is no shame in addiction, and that there is help and hope out there for those who need it.  When times got tough, and they certainly did, I thought of you, and others like you, and your struggles, and it gave me strength.  I love you and am proud of you.  That being said, I’m not doing this again…

            Thanks to everyone who donated.  Together we raised over $4,000.00 for Healing Transitions.  It's not too late to donate.  If you are interested in making a contribution, you can do so here.