Warning: This is going to be a long post. Grab some popcorn!
First things first. This blog is now officially two years old. Hurray!
Seems like just yesterday, September 2011 when I left for Oxford to begin to live life on my own terms, and what an experience it has been. It is also a year since I left Oxford to embark on a new phase of life, but I digress.
Today’s post is really about how I l almost missed a major milestone today.
But then, I am also a strong believer in big, hairy, audacious goals. I am of the opinion that if your dream does not scare you, then it’s not big enough. So, not having run a mile ever before, I decided to sign up to run a marathon, actually the Chevron Aramco half-marathon of 13.1 miles (over 21km) just 9 months away. While that date is still a few months away, some of that journey is chronicled here.
How I almost missed my first training
Today, August 31 was supposed to be my first day of formal marathon training. I had signed up for the 24 weeks training program with the Runners High Club and having missed the first four weeks due to fasting and then vacation, I was joining in Week 5 , and today was supposed to kick off with a 5-mile easy-paced run at Memorial Park. I had set out very early in the morning after my prayers, and for some weird reason, headed for the park on Memorial Drive, near Katy. It was not until 30 minutes later when I realized I was at the wrong location. I was at Terry Hershey Park in Memorial Drive, while I was supposed to be at Memorial Park, about 30 minutes away. By the time I got into my car, and drove to the right location, and then had to walk a mile (as there were no free parking spots nearby), all the teams had taken off. At that point, I was about to just enter my car and go back home, or simply sit down and wait for the other runners to return in another hour when I remembered the story of Michael Block, and that is the subject of my post today.
In preparing for the marathon, I had spoken to a few runners, and one of the books that came highly recommended was The Non-Runner’s Marathon Trainer. It is a book I actually think everyone should read regardless of whether you are a runner, entrepreneur or employee. As long as you have goals in your life to achieve, this book will help you. And I am going to share with you one of the most inspiring stories from that book, the story of Michael Block. Except for a few edits, and my own comments in red color, I will be quoting verbatim. Again, it is very long, but worth your time!
Let me introduce you to Michael Block. If anyone had any excuse not to ever think of participating in a marathon, it was Michael Block.
A high school track star in both cross-country and the 2-mile, Mark set track records in the state of Iowa that stand to this day. After high school, he went to the University of Northern Iowa on a cross-country scholarship, and between two workouts routinely ran 14 miles per day. In 1986, in his first year of college, Mark was involved in a near-fatal car accident. When the paramedics arrived, they crawled inside the car but could not locate a pulse on mark. Although all initial indicators pointed to his death, they started resuscitation efforts and to their surprise managed to get a pulse. As quickly as possible, Mark was stabilized at the scene, extricated from the car, and transported to the nearest hospital
A CT scan revealed head trauma, a broken neck, and a partial cut of the spinal cord. As the trauma of the injuries settled in his body and swelling increased, his condition worsened. He needed more sophisticated care than the local hospital was able to provide. In grave condition, he was airlifted by helicopter to Des Moines. En route, Mark suffered cardiac arrest. The transport team managed to revive him, but things looked very bleak for him as the helicopter landed.
For the next several days, Mark’s condition continued to deteriorate. As the swelling around his brain and spinal cord increased, spinal shock set in and he stopped breathing. He was resuscitated again and hooked to a respirator. He had shattered his second, third, fourth and fifth vertebrae and desperately needed surgery to repair them and the cut in the spinal cord. But his condition was so tenuous that he would not have survived the surgery. For two weeks he lay in a coma paralyzed from the ears down with respirator breathing for him. When surgery could finally be performed, the vertebrae were so badly damaged that they could not be repaired – only realigned and reinforced. For the next month, Mark lay paralyzed from the neck down, respirator dependent, and extremely disoriented due to the severe head trauma.
The Recovery Process
It was at this point that Mark started the recovery process. He remembers it this way:
You wake up and you’re surrounded by people of authority, doctors and nurses, telling you what you can’t or won’t be able to do: “you’re paralyzed from the neck down, we’ll have you in the hospital for three to four months, and when you leave you’ll be in a wheelchair – hopefully, an electric wheelchair if you can regain some use of your hands. You’ll require assistance in all activities of daily living; basically you’ll be totally dependent on somebody else.”
That was the crucial moment, for me. Being totally out of control of myself; being totally dependent on others. It was terrifying. The fear of living that way the rest of my life motivated me. I remember thinking, “What do I have to lose?” I turned the energy of fear into the energy for recovery.
Mark’s recovery process started with him unable to move or feel anything below his ears. His goal was to walk again. The only major part of his body that still seemed to be working was his brain. So that’s what he started exercising first. He began with what he referred to as kinetic visualization. Although at the time he could not get his body to walk, he could walk in his mind. He practiced remembering what it felt like to walk. He laid in bed and visualized feeling his legs, his feet, how it felt to pick up first one leg and then the other and feel the pressure of the ground as it met each foot. (It’s amazing how it takes experiences like this to appreciate what it takes to make the simplest of gestures that we do a million times a day)
Like an athlete mentally rehearsing a performance, Mark mentally practiced moving his fingers and toes. It was a mental process of kinetic re-education by which he hoped to reconnect the neural pathways running from the brain to the intended muscles. As Mark puts it, “I still had the control center – my brain. It was just a matter of getting the connections going again…finding the “phone lines” that were down and getting them hooked up again so that the message could flow through. I would lay there and visualize something as simple as moving a finger or toe.”
Victories were found in reclaiming the ability to do the simplest things. Going from being flat on his back to being able to sit up with passing out took months. Being able to hold a spoon or a glass meant the difference being dependent on others or being able to feed himself. Being able to push the elevator button was a huge step!
Think about the activities of daily living…the things you do and just take for granted. Like brushing your teeth, being able to feed yourself. There are just so many things involved with doing anything – it’s never just an all or nothing situation.
When you are surrounded by people constantly telling you, “No, you can’t do that,” there comes a definite point where you have to make a decision, “OK, I’m going to go for it and do it, or I’m going to believe what they tell me and accept my limitations.” It’s up to you. Are you going to accept the limitations they are putting on you through their beliefs, or are you going to find out for yourself what you may or may not be able to do?
Six months later, Mark walked out of Younker Rehabilitation. But that is where it gets even more interesting.
Registering for the Marathon
One year after his accident, Mark returned to the University of Northern Iowa to resume his studies. A few weeks later, he read an article in the university newspaper about a class which was to be offered the following semester called the “Marathon Class.” An informational meeting was being held that week for all interested persons.
The minute he read about it, he knew that this class was just what he needed. He needed a structured mental and physical challenge of this type to help him get his self-confidence back. He just had to get into that class.
He left for the meeting way ahead of its scheduled start time. He wanted to be there before others started arriving so that he wouldn’t feel embarrassed when he walked in with his cane. As he parked in the handicapped parking area nearest to the meeting site, he became more and more frustrated with the situation. What was he doing? How could he expect to run a marathon when he couldn’t even walk 20 feet without a cane? This was absolutely ridiculous! This just wasn’t possible given his limitations.
Suddenly, the irony hit him like a lightning bolt. Here he was doing to himself what he had perceived his doctors and nurses doing to him in the hospital: accept your limitations and learn to live with them. Because he hadn’t accepted it then, he was walking when he should have been in a wheelchair. And if he didn’t accept it now, who is to say that he wouldn’t find a way to do the marathon? He was going! He reached for his cane…and stopped. “Screw it,” he thought. “I’m not walking into a marathon meeting with a cane. If I can’t get there without it, then I don’t belong in the class.”
Staggering 20 feet at a time, Mark inched his way the few hundred feet to the meeting site by balancing himself against the outside of buildings and the walls of the hallways. He barely made it in time to find an empty seat. By the time the meeting started, the room was packed. There were over 80 people there hoping to get into the class, but fewer than half that many available slots. The instructors, Forrest Dolgener and David Shitsett, explained the class requirements: Students would train for and run a full 26.2 mile marathon. You either finished or you didn’t. If you finished, you got an A; if you didn’t, you got an F. Training was provided for both physical and mental components. If you followed it, you would finish. If you didn’t follow it, you wouldn’t. It was that simple. Only those who were serious should stay; once you were in the class you were committed.
Most people stayed, including Mark. Thirty names were chosen from the hat. Mark’s was not one of them After the meeting ended and the room started to clear, Mark stayed behind hoping to talk with the instructors to see if they would reconsider letting him in. He told them briefly what he had been through.
“Can you run at all?” Dave asked him.
“Well, not yet,” Mark replied.
“What’s your current level of activity?” questioned Forrest.
“Right now, I can walk about 20 feet without having to stop,” answered Mark.
Dave looked at the young man standing in front of him. He remembered Mark from his year of collegiate cross-country, and now knew why he hadn’t been back to team since. If this young man, who wasn’t even supposed to be walking wanted to try a marathon, he sure wasn’t going to tell him no. After consulting with Forrest, Dave told Mark, “Here’s what we’ll do. You go home and think about it overnight. Tomorrow, if you still want to try this, be in my office at 2:00 and we’ll talk more about it. OK?” “OK,” beamed Mark. He didn’t even need to think about it – he’d be there.
It was a few minutes after 2:00 and Dave was starting to wonder if Mark had reconsidered, when he heard a strange sound coming down the hall. Unable to place the step-slap-drag sound, he listened as it slowly approached his office. When it stopped, there stood Mark in his doorway loaded down with what appeared to be files of paperwork.
“I’d started to think maybe you weren’t coming,” Dave teased.
“Couldn’t find a handicapped parking place, so it took me a little longer to get here,” Mark said, smiling.
“What do you have there?” Dave asked, nodding at the stack of papers mark was trying to balance in his free arm.
“Medical records,” Mark replied. “Thought I better bring them in case you had specific questions about my condition.”
As his guest sat down, Dave looked at the huge stack of paperwork Mark had just deposited on his desk in wonder at all this young man must have gone through. Over the next hour, as the details of Mark’s story unfolded, Dave’s respect and admiration for Mark’s determination deepened. While he had concerns about how Mark would hold up under the physically demanding training, he certainly wasn’t going to deny Mark the change to try after all he’d come through to get to this point.
Through the course of their conversation, it became clear to Dave how important it was to Mark that he be measured by as many of the same criteria as possible as were expected of the rest of the class. Mark needed to have an A or F goal just like the rest of the students, although an entire marathon in just one semester of training was clearly unrealistic for Mark given his present level of activity. As a way to test the waters Dave said, “Well, you know we’re not going to let you off easy.”
“Good! I don’t want you to…that’s why I’m here,” Mark answered with a sense of relief. He was so tired of everyone trying to impose their negative limitations on him that being challenged is exactly what he needed and hoped he would get from Dave and Forrest.
“I’ve thought about this, and I’ll you in the class, but we have to decode on what would be a reasonable goal. If you’re not able to run, can you walk?” Dave said.
“Well, yea, I’ve walked two miles, but with lots of stops to rest,” Mark replied.
After some discussion about realistic but challenging goals and possible alternative training methods, the two agreed that Mark’s goal would be to walk a 10K (6.2 miles). He would train with the rest of the class, and while they would run, he would walk. Dave recalls:
So, we sent Mark home with the same pre-training instructions as all the other students: by the time the semester began in mid-January they had to be able to jog (or, in his case, walk) for 30 minutes without stopping in order to be ready to begin the formal training.
On the first day of class we met in the UNI-Dome (the University’s indoor stadium), and they all did it…including Mark. A leg brace had replaced the cane, and he was very unsteady. He dragged his right leg with every step and was very slow, but he did it.
From then on, every Saturday when we took the class out for their long run Mark was there and he walked over the same course that everybody else ran. We adjusted his distance commensurate with his goal, but he was on the road for at least as long (usually longer) as the rest of the class.
Under Forrest’s supervision, Mark cross-trained by lifting weights and riding a stationary bike. But for Mark, the main thing was the walking and he pushed himself – occasionally beyond his capabilities. There were a few times when he got himself in trouble:
I would walk on a straight road out into the country, so that there was only one way to get back and that was to walk back. Often on the way back my legs would start shaking so badly I would have to stop and stretch and rest before I could continue. One time I walked out so far that I couldn’t make it back. I had to stop at a farmhouse and ask for help. They must have been able to tell I was in pretty bad shape, because they gave me a ride back into town.
At mid-semester, the class did a 13 mile run – a half marathon – as a kind of mid-term progress check. As usual, everyone started together that morning and headed out into the country for the out-and-back run. Afterward Dave and Forrest sponsored a get-together for the class with soft drinks and sandwiches to celebrate their accomplishment. As Dave remembers:
We were all sitting around talking and laughing when somebody asked where Mark was, and I realized that he hadn’t come back yet. It was getting pretty late and I started to get worried because he should’ve been back by then, so I drove out along the course we had used that day to check on him.
When I found Mark, he was on his way back and extremely tired, but still walking. I pulled up alongside him and said, “Mark, what are you doing? It is almost noon!”
“Well, I’m not done yet,” he replied
I asked him to tell me where he’d walked. As he described his route, I mentally calculated his mileage. “Mark, that’s seven miles!” I informed him. “Get in the truck…you’re done for the day,” I laughed.
As we headed back into town, I said smiling, “You know that this means, don’t you?”
“What?” Mark asked.
“Well, you just walked your final exam, so you’re going to have to increase your goal. Do you think you can do 10 miles?” I challenged.
“Well, I don’t know,” he answered.
“Good, let’s do 10 miles then,” I said. And that became his new goal for the marathon, and he continued to train with the rest of the class.
As the marathon approached, Mark got excited and nervous. He was going to be walking among hundreds of runners down the streets of Iowa’s largest city. What if something happened? And yet, he felt that he could do more than goal. He talked with his parents about it and they encouraged him to just walk his 10 miles and get his A for the class. The high school team he had helped coach during his year of recuperation was there for the Drake Relays and they encouraged him to do the same. Suddenly he felt he was being confronted by the same limiting attitudes he had been working to beat since his accident. And it made him mad. He decided he was going to do 13.1 miles…if everyone else was doing a marathon, he would do a half-marathon. When he informed Dave of his decision, after first reminding Mark that his goal was to do ten, Dave added, “But if you want to do 13, great. Go for it!”
They decided that Mark would start at the half-marathon point, and walk to the finish line. After everything was in place, Mark started telling people that he intended to walk 13.1 miles. Everyone encouraged him to just stick with the first goal of 10 miles and get his A. But as Mark explained, “They missed the whole point. I wasn’t doing this for the grade. I had taken this class as a challenge to better myself.”
Defy your own expectations!
Later that night, Mark decided that he wasn’t going to start a mile 13 after all. He was going to start at mile 11, and walk 15 miles. In all honestly, Mark wasn’t sure he could make it that far, but he decided he would either defy all expectations, including his own, or fall flat on his face trying. Mile 11 it would be. He told no one, except for a new friend from Des Moines, Bill Kunz. After reading Mark’s story in the local newspaper, Bill had contacted him with a request to meet him and help him in any way possible. A wheelchair user himself, Bill had a special empathy for Mark and what he was trying to accomplish.
The next morning at 7 a.m. (one hour before the official start of the marathon), Mark met Bill and another friend, Carol at mile 11. With Bill cheering him on, and Carol walking with him, Mark being his “marathon.” Before too long, the leaders caught and passed him and sometime after that the fastest of the class members caught up to Mark and passed him as well. Pretty soon, Dave Whitsett, who was running the marathon along with the class, came running up beside mark. “How are you doing,” he asked. “Great,” Mark answered. Dave looked at his watch and looked at mark. “Where’d you start?” he asked. Mark only smiled. Dave knew something was up, but he didn’t say anything. He just smiled at Mark before he pulled away. Hours later, Mark was still walking. He remembers the last few miles this way:
Most of the course was closed up. The water stops had been taken down. Traffic control had been terminated. Normal traffic had resumed and cars were flying by me; people were yelling at me to get off the street not realizing I was in the marathon. Most of the other runners had finished hours before. I’d already been walking for eight hours. I was getting dehydrated, weak and wobbly. My legs were really aching. Carol was still walking with me, and the pastor from the student center on our campus had come to help me, too. At this point, he was driving ahead of me helping to control traffic at the intersections so that I didn’t have to stop, plus he brought me water which was a big help because I was starting to get dizzy from dehydration.
When I got to the last mile, some of the people from the class were still there to cheer me on. At Dave’s insistence, the marathon officials had kept the finish line setup up and were there waiting for me. As I walked that last mile, my family and friends and some classmates walked with me to show their support and encouragement. By that time I was so fatigued that I had to concentrate very hard just to keep going. I had to consciously think left, right, left right to keep my legs moving…since the accident, walking had never been an automatic thing – every step required deliberate thought. It was getting really tough. My legs were continuing to shake and wobble, I was getting nauseated from dehydration, and my whole body was tingling from fatigue. But I could see the finish and there was no way I was not going to finish. Even if I had to crawl, I was going to cross that finish line.
It took me 8 hours and 33 minutes to do it, but I made those 15 miles and got my medal. Afterwards, Dave came up to me and asked, “How far did you go?”
“Fifteen miles,” I said.
He gave me a look that seemed somewhere between reproach and happiness and, for a second, I didn’t know if he was going to knock me out or hug me! Then, with a huge grin on his face, he proclaimed, “Fifteen miles!” and gave me a big hug.
“Yeah, I knew if I started there, I’d finish,” Mark explained. “There was no way I wasn’t going to finish.”
Still smiling, Dave told him, “I knew something was up because when I passed you, I knew you should’ve been further along if you had started where you were supposed to. Fifteen miles! Congratulations Mark.”
In retrospect, Mark had this to say about the whole experience:
The moral of my story is that you never knew what you can do until you try. If you listen to what others say, you may not try at all. If you listen to your body, you may quit too soon. What your mind believes, your body believes. Your mind is the key.
In case you have gotten this far, as I stood at Memorial Park this morning, I knew if I went back home , i was probably going to find excuses every way through my training program and never complete the half-marathon come January. I asked myself what was my excuse,if Michael Block could complete 15 miles despite his limitations.
Standing at Memorial Park, I remembered Michael Block, and encouraged, I plugged in my earphones, and with Sudays & Shuraym blasting away, I began my slow run. Less than an hour later, I had completed my 5-miles run non-stop , and energized for the rest of the journey. To Allah is all Praise.
I had just learned another life lesson. I may truly have excuses not to achieve any goal, but it does not matter!
Focus on your expectations, not your limitations. Focus on the possibilities, not the probabilities.
A worthy inspiring read. Shows how important determination, also how we have taken for granted many aspects of our daily lives