When the hurricane hits we must dig deep into our toolbox of storm-weathering tactics. As someone who has trained since I was a boy, I receive much of my peace, joy and sense of contentment from what I do physically. The need to go, combined with my love for wild spaces, has been a most potent recipe. Few things bring a smile to my face like self-propelled outdoor adventures. If I can share these journeys with my seven-year-old daughter, my cup overflows. The dopamine flooding my brain that occurs when my body’s in motion serves as a conduit to my sense of self.
It’s safe to say that the saga I’ve endured with numerous overuse injuries, ailments and ankylosing spondylitis flares over the course of the last three years has presented a “sense of self” catharsis of sorts. I’m likely treading on thin ice with my publisher writing this blog, five months from the release of my next book Be Audacious: Inspiring Your Legacy and Living a Life That Matters, as its pages burst with stories of overcoming adversity while, in part, chronicling my struggles to accept my physical circumstances.
In a blink of an eye I went from a strong and healthy athlete, brimming with vitality, to someone grateful for the times I can stride without pain through a grocery store. From leading twenty-mile day hikes with clients, climbing the winding roads of 10,000+ foot passes on a bike, bombing through the trees at Bridger Bowl and training for an epic 600-mile stand up paddle adventure to being happy when I can walk swiftly through airports and navigate the streets of Denver, Boulder and Salt Lake City without a limp in my stride has represented a spiritual transformation. It simply is what it is. I do my best each day to remain positive and to focus on what I can do.
While my heart has never stopped yearning to be deep in the backcountry, grinding my way up big climbs in search of summit views, this simply hasn’t been my reality the past few years. I’ve learned to accept and look forward to my swimmer’s high, mindless cardio sessions and full body blasts at the gym. Last summer, after four surgeries in eight months, I was back on the sticks, rowing my raft and drift boat down the Greater Yellowstone rivers I love! Though my ailing Achilles didn’t allow for big climbs, I was back in the saddle of my Bianchi. It was a most glorious summer indeed, a bountiful reunion of spirit and place.
My hopes for much of the same this summer have remained high. Hope is the critical word. When you live with ankylosing spondylitis, where unannounced flares assault the body at the most inopportune times, you learn to live in the moment and recognize the risk of planning too far ahead. For much of the last two months I’ve been battling through migraines associated with neck pain that my physical therapists attribute to the past twelve months, during which I’ve spent five hours a day, five days a week sitting in front of my laptop, writing and editing my manuscript. I’ve been in a writer’s Iron Man mode, grinding each day from the perch of my favorite coffee shop with the mission of completing the next book in one calendar year. I met my deadline, but I’m now paying the price of bad ergonomics.
Now, you may be asking yourself: why the diatribe on this brilliant spring morning on the first day of June? After two years of storm weathering and fighting to regain my health and vitality, the six days a week in the gym rehabilitating my body appeared to have paid off. I’ve been taking risks by actually planning adventures that have helped inspire my road to recovery. Unbeknownst to my family and friends, I’ve spent the winter planning a three-day, self supported bike tour with my bride and seven-year old daughter. Through all of the surgeries and time spent hobbled up on crutches, they have been my foundation. Providing them with love, support and stability has been my purpose. In this I’ve been unwavering. But I’ve missed our desert hikes, Sunday morning surf sessions and powder days. So the idea of pulling off a multi-day bike tour has represented more than a three-day adventure; it has represented hope that I can still pull off something big.
June 21, 2015. Summer solstice, Father’s Day and my six-month wedding anniversary. The Tri-fecta. It’s been a day I’ve had marked on my internal calendar since New Years Day. It’s only been in the last two weeks I’ve finally shared my plans with my crew. Believing in the power of positive visualization, during each of my twice weekly PT sessions for my neck, I’ve envisioned June 21, 2015, the final day of our three-day ride, back in the homeland, my place of birth, North Idaho. I’d decided to push through any discomfort in my neck to make this trip a reality. The idea of celebrating summer solstice with my daughter and newlywed wife, having pulled off our bike tour, has provided a powerful incentive. As bad as the neck pain has been at times, I’ve simply been grateful that my chronic Achilles wasn’t slowing me down.
So when I awoke today, Day Three of my most recent Achilles flare—eighteen days from the start of our bike trip—my memories of 14+ months (over the course of the last three years) spent on crutches or in a walking boot due to the same ailing body part triggered PTSD-like flashes of despair.
We all have our triggers, things that cause angst, melancholy or depression. My Achilles tendon is my kryptonite. When it flares, my mind tends to go into the gutter. But this is the beauty of going through shit. It forces us to expand our tool-kit for positively coping when our brain is hijacked by fears, worries, and the worst-case scenario.
Though the storm sucks, when it hits, the beauty of metaphorical storms is that we have some control over their duration. Actually, we have a lot of control. Am I going to be bummed out if I can’t pull of this long-anticipated journey with my girls? For sure. But where I put my focus, energy and attention will determine how long and hard the storm of disappointment hits. Hardship builds resiliency, durability and adaptability. These are essential traits to develop for those pursuing the audacious path.
We all have our Achilles heel—mentally, metaphorically and perhaps even physically. The key is to endure the initial storm surge and then turn our focus to that which we can do, what we can control.
It is my hope that I may still be able to pull of this adventure that has occupied my day time reveries and my restless nights. That is the power of hope in the form of adventure, it hijacks cranial habitat and infuses our inspiration to dream. You can bet over the next three weeks, I’ll be seeing the whole gamut of professionals who have, in the past, helped me reclaim so much of my physical life, from acupuncturists and chiropractors to physical therapists. And I’ll keep assembling, at least mentally, our supplies and plotting on the map.
After all, if June 21 is a no-go, maybe the end of August, just before Kamiah starts school, would be even better. Late summer in North Idaho is pretty hard to beat…
Let it go, and let it flow…
Michael W. Leach