Rod Mulder — The New Normal

We started to realize that if Rod was in the bedroom, we couldn’t hear him if we were more than a few feet from the bedroom. Over the next couple of days, the house was quiet. Except for a night I spent at home in Erie, I worked out of the office while Jane and Laura did puzzles within earshot of the bedroom.

An old friend called a couple days later from Lake Geneva, WI to see how Rod was doing. After a short call, he called back announcing that he had plane tickets to come out to visit. The day before John came out, Jane and I helped Rod get into a better and more upright position in the bed. It was an engineering feat that was surprisingly similar to what they had to do to get the Costa Concordia righted. We noted that he couldn’t really roll over on his own anymore. Hospice agreed that we needed a hospital bed and it was arranged that one would be delivered on Thursday.

John showed up Wednesday and immediately I noticed that he was a better and nicer person than me. I joked that he was the nicest person I’ve ever met. No one disagreed with me. On Wednesday, he sat with Rod a couple times. On Thursday, a hospital bed was delivered and Rod moved over. Laura took advantage of a break in the weather and made a run to Loveland to attend a support group. John came over to visit with Rod and Jane left him alone. I don’t know where I was but when Jane got home, Rod was asleep in the hospital bed and John was passed out on a couch. I think this is what men who are nearly in their eighties do when they visit each other. I look forward to it.

We put the hospital bed in the dining room. After taking almost all the leaves out of the table, we turned it sideways in the room and shifted it to the side. John and I used some velcro straps of mine to tie the light fixture up and out of the way. Jane is very upset that it is not perfectly level. Jane is learning to live with disappointment.

Almost immediately, the hospital bed was an improvement. I’m probably wrong, but he is in fine health except for the brain tumor. His parasympathetic nervous system and the organs that it governs are solid: liver, heart, kidneys, digestions, et cetera. It is the systems that are controlled by his brain that seem to be failing. This includes swallowing and breathing. When he lies flat, the swallowing and breathing issues are magnified. Once propped up, he seems to be clearer and not like he drowning.

This is my blog and I feel like I need to talk about me a little. We noticed that Laura is a stress baker, Jane eats when stressed, and I like to work out. The Estes Park Aquatic Center is very close to the house. On Monday, I hit the pool and copied a workout I just recently did in Boulder. Jane and I went to MedX to work out one day that week. On Wednesday (I think), I went back to the pool and hammered out 3 kilometers straight which is the longest I’ve ever swam without stopping. It was cathartic to just zone out and swim.

About this time, I started writing daily updated to family members:

28 February:

The house is calm and quiet. Rod is in a hospital bed in the main room of their house. The dining room table has been moved over to make room.

His voice is a whisper but when he is awake, he is alert and interactive. He is, however, rarely awake. His appetite is good and he is thirsty. The latter stages typically involve little input but we have been learning that brain cancer is atypical. Whereas usually all systems shutdown together, when the brain fails first, the automatic systems and organs remain healthy causing an asymmetrical reaction that is confusing to all. His vital signs are great which contradicts his inability to move on his own. Fine and gross motor skills are failing as is his ability to read and concentrate.

There is no pain and he is in good spirits. He is concerned with the car maintenance and things around the house that need to be attended to. He loves to hear about the weather and cries whenever we read letters to him.

A friend of Rod and Laura’s for nearly 40 years came out for a visit which was very nice. He was in town for a couple days but only spent a couple hours with Rod. Curt and Carrie came up last night and brought lots of food (which they left) and had a nice but also short visit.

It looks like Jane and I are relocated to Estes Park for the duration which is fine. I think our Europe trip is off though we haven’t officially made the call. Yesterday I discovered that we had burned through all of their internet’s data plan and had incurred over $300 in overage fees. I moved quickly to get AT&T on the phone and retroactively upgraded their plan to get that knocked down to about $60 of damage. I am working with three local companies to find a solution that will allow me to keep working from here without nearly the cost. It was a real “pit of the stomach” moment when I realized what was happening.

1 March:

I am locked in the office as Laura and Jane deal with some, um, business. Yeah, use your imagination. Business was done, let us say. He wanted to make a trip to the bathroom but he doesn’t have the strength for that and the wheelchair can’t get through the doors. It was clear that he was disappointed. Still, Jane is a pro and Laura a saint. I am neither so I stayed away.

When Rod woke up this morning, he told Laura he was sad. In what I believe is just an amazingly beautiful metaphor or something, Laura decided pancakes would cheer him up. I got all verklempt. Look, we are out of tools here. This is profoundly sad and what can you do? Laura reached into her bag of tricks and pulled out pancakes.

Laura and I went to church this morning while Jane held down the fort. Before we left, Rod was talking in his sleep repeating “oh my goodness” in a surprised and delighted whisper.

At church, their friend Steve prayed for them and it was beautiful, powerful, and wonderfully appropriate. Laura spoke to some people before the service but before the last song was done, we were out the door. Laura had had enough by the end.

Jane and I snuck out for some brunch of our own. When we got back, I got to work on the office. Rod, however, was in a talkative mood. Though his eyes were closed most of the time, he would latch onto something said and offer his opinion or even a joke. Knowing that I was working on his computers, he kept calling me back (through Laura or Jane) to tell me some hint about how things were put together. He is also very concerned that Laura get the struts fixed on her car and that we get the printer fixed. He needs to know that Laura can do Quicken, the accounts are balanced, the computers are in working order, the car running, et cetera.

To me at least, he is also very interested in the grandchildren. He likes stories about them and enjoys reminiscing. He is proud of all their accomplishments and seems to relish the fact that they are all so different from each other. Our conversations are short and end sort of abruptly as he dozes off.

Music–or should I say, muzak–plays constantly. Jane and Laura sit a few feet away from Rod and do puzzles continuously. Rod asks for cookies and sips of Diet Coke. Laura insists that he eats healthy. Jane and I sneak him cookies.

Today was his best day in a week. The last half hour was pretty rough for Jane and Laura, but until then, it was good. I hope we get more good days.

Pancakes. Who would have thought, right?

On Monday, I commuted to work in Boulder. It was a good idea the night before when the weather was predicting no snow but, of course, it snowed. The drive was OK except for the Texan that sped through the towns (where the roads were completely clear) and then slowed to a crawl when there was even a hint of dust on the roads.

I got very little done at the office beside talk to people which is part of my job so that was fine. I left at about 4 to go run a couple errands, pick up stuff at the house, and meet the St Vrain Chain Gang cycling group in Longmont so that I could get the club’s kit that I had ordered. I dropped off one of Rod’s old computers at CHaRM in Boulder and headed home. Jeremy wasn’t there and I quickly got what I needed put together and headed out the door. Up in Longmont, I actually had a call with Jeremy who wanted to talk. I reversed course and had dinner with Jeremy where we talked about his grandfather the whole time.

3 March:

Rough day today and it followed a rough night. My first impression this morning was that Laura looked sad and tired. Rod hasn’t been very communicative in any sort of conversational way. There is lots of talking in his sleep and moments of alertness that don’t stick for long.

This morning, I came down the stairs to find Laura at Rod’s bedside. We nodded at each other but the look in her eyes said that something was happening between her and Rod. I snuck into the office and kept quiet.

A little while later, I emerged with the intention of foraging for food. A few minutes out of the office convinced me I could wait. Whatever was happening was not finished. I tiptoed back into the office and waited. I learned later that he was restless but her presence calmed him.

Some of what Rod is saying in his sleep or twilight is disturbing. He calls out for help seemingly in distress. But then the moment passes and he calms down. The outbursts are wearing on Laura the most.

I spent most of the day out of the house finding the hotspots around Estes Park (a new connection will be installed Thursday morning). It has been angrily snowing all day but without much accumulation. The day has been gray and depressing which I don’t think is helping the mood in the house. Jane and Laura are doing puzzles with a vengeance.

I made cookies tonight and Jane made dinner. In the middle of dinner, Rod woke up and, um, business is now being attended to while I again am hiding in the office.

The tentative plan for tonight is to sleep in shifts with someone always in the room with Rod. He seems most distressed when he can’t see Laura or Jane.

Laura asked me to pray before dinner. I prayed for strength and patience, mercy and grace through us and for us. The task before us is sacred and terrible as well as beautiful and trying. Please make this your prayer as well.

Sometime in here we learned that my step mother was sending us a surprise delivery of some sort of food like thing. I expected a chocolates or a snack box from Harry & David. Instead, we were overwhelmed to find a feast from HoneyBaked Ham company. I had to mention that because much of the food that is mentioned over the next couple days makes reference to that particular delivery.

4 March

Another good day! It followed a good night as well!

Just a couple notes from a thankfully uneventful day:

This morning, Rod wanted hash browns. The hospice nurse came and delayed the hash browns but then Laura came to the rescue a little later delivering the good stuff.

After dinner tonight, Rod drank plenty of decaf coffee, had a piece of lemon cream cake, and ate two cookies. We talked for a bit about some of his early jobs like climbing the telephone poles when he worked for the phone company and creating the “no. 2 pencil” test grading system that eventually became the one used for the ACT.

He is in good spirits and making many corny “dad” jokes. Having a discussion seems pretty exhausting to him. Dozing off in almost mid sentence happens a lot.

I wasn’t going to write an update but then thought it would be good to ask if he had something he wanted me to pass along. It wasn’t fair to spring that question on him after talking for so long; he was pretty worn out but said he is very thankful for friends and family.

5 March

Last night was good and today was pretty good as well. Rod has a bed sore that is sometimes painful. This is happily the only pain he has and thanks to Jane, it is pretty well controlled.

Tonight Curt, Eldon, Corina, and Lauren came up for dinner. It was a difficult time for some of us but Rod was very interactive and sociable. We were prepared with a plan for if the night became too much for him but didn’t need to put it into action. We know that commotion and loud noises can be distressing for brain cancer patients. Though there was a point where we did feel we had to dial the volume down, Rod seemed to enjoy listening to the conversation around him. After everyone left, he said that listening to us made him forget about what was happening to him.

We, correction, I went through an incredible amount of the ham tonight. Two helpings while everyone was here and then after they left and my shame could be limited to just Jane and Laura, I attacked it again.

Rod and I chatted for a while after everyone left. The conversation covered topics like his first beer, time working the fields in his youth, and what they did for fun when he was a young adult in northwest Iowa. He’s been teaching me to swear in Dutch. From swearing he segued to reciting a verse from a hymn.

Jane and I are going to make a trip to our house tomorrow to pick up supplies (Brachs Chocolate Stars, for instance) while the nurse and aide make their respective visits.

Rod Mulder — The Beginning

One Sunday in January, I got a call from my brother-in-law Greg. He had a conference in California that he extended so that he could visit his in-laws. On Sunday afternoon, he had started helping Rod set up his laptop computer and was stuck. Rod wanted it to do “something” but couldn’t express what it was exactly that it was supposed to do. There was frustration on both sides and it seemed like maybe I would have something to offer. From where I sat in Colorado, I could sort of feel what he was trying to do but I couldn’t figure out how to make it happen. After a couple phone calls, text messages, and glasses/bottles of wine, Greg and I gave up.

Greg went home and sent his wife Linda back out. She stayed for about ten days in Palm Springs during which time Rod and Laura decided to come back to Colorado. They all left California the day President Obama flew in for a golf vacation. It also happened to be Valentine’s Day.

Jane and I picked them up from the airport. We hadn’t seen Rod in almost two months and the change was striking. His face was puffy from steroids but the rest of him was thin and gangly. The wheelchair didn’t fit him. It was designed for width and not length. He looked uncomfortable as he slouched in the chair. His big feet didn’t fit well on the rests and he seemed at risk of sliding right off the seat. I couldn’t help but think about the time at our house when he seemed to be listing drunkenly off our couch.

In the car, he was quiet and seemed very tired. His voice was mostly a hoarse whisper. We picked up Chick Fil-a on the long drive from DIA to Estes Park. Once home, he went straight to bed. The neighbors had prepared the house with some food and had turned up the heat.

Jane and I stuck around to make sure they were settled. Rod fell and we had to help him up not so much because he couldn’t get up but because the fall had sort of wedged him between the bed and end table. He walked with a walker quite well.

We thought maybe we should spend the night but weren’t sure it would be necessary. We had packed a little just in case. Since it was Valentine’s Day and all, we thought we should do something so we decided to go up to the Stanley Hotel’s Whiskey Bar for a drink before heading back home. It was undecided if we should spend the night so we said we’d be in town for an hour or so in case Laura felt like we should stay.

We got the call. This changed our plan of attack considerably. We had more time and made many friends at the bar. We also discovered something we now call “bar bacon”. This is the special bacon that they have in a tray for Blood Mary’s. It is candied and just awesome. Everything is for sale at the Whiskey Bar except when it is free. Yum. There was also German chocolate cake which I suppose I should mention even though it had no bacon in it.

We spent the an uneventful night and repeated the “we will be in town for an hour or so” move the next morning. We went to the Egg and I for yummy waffles and more bacon before heading down the mountain. Before we left, Rod wanted to go upstairs and sit in his chair. I walked behind him up the stairs. He wobbled and swayed a couple times but with the firm determination of proud Dutch man, there was never any doubt he would make it. I was less sure about the descent. Once he was in the chair, however, he was exhausted and clearly about ready for a nap.

Sometime in the midst of all this, we learned from Laura that the doctor in California had said to her that Rod had three months on the outside. She was going to tell Rod the news Sunday.

On Wednesday, they talked to hospice. On Thursday morning of that week, Rod was distressed as is common when one commits to their impending death. Jane felt it was time to go up to Estes Park and she wanted me to go with. After a couple fits and starts, we got out the door and arrived early afternoon. We wanted to be there when the hospice nurse was there but we couldn’t move quickly enough. Rod was pretty sure he was going to die that Thursday and when a determined Dutch man puts his mind to something, well, we thought it was a real possibility.

The neighbor had helped move Rod’s chair down from the loft and Rod was sitting in it wearing his red “Chicago” hat which I appreciate. Curt (eldest) and Carrie came up with their son Steven for dinner. We sat at the table and Rod stayed in his chair but participated in the conversation. At one point he called out “John 3:16” which wasn’t really part of the conversation at the moment. Carrie took the bait and had us all recite the verse though it was funny because we all said slightly different translations. It was like saying the Lord’s Prayer in an inter-denomination service and no one can agree on trespasses, debts, sins, ….

We snuck off for a family meeting while Steven had some time with Rod alone. Carrie ran things and pointed out that if you see changes over months, then a person has months to live. Weeks, then weeks. But if days, then only days. The difference between Saturday the Thursday that Jane and I noticed made us concerned that time was short. We talked about visitors but just two days before Rod had a visit from a close friend and then asked for no more visitors–EVER! It was speculated that the time to communicate with Rod was probably very short.

On Friday, Rod slept until 5 PM. Initially, he was restless but a yummy pill at 3 AM was just the ticket and then some. He was exhausted from the day before. Grandkids in Waco, TX and Grand Rapids, MI were interested in having a Skype call with Rod but he never woke up all day. We feared that he wasn’t ever going to really revive and interact again.

Late Saturday afternoon, Rod woke up finally and wanted to talk even! We moved with a purpose and after some mistakes largely caused by massive amounts of adrenaline, we got FaceTime conversations going with the two grandkids. The conversations were as one would expect. It is extremely difficult to be thrown into a situation like that have something profound to say. Real life isn’t like the movies. In real life, we talk about the weather, school, work, and sports rather than those nasty feelings. Instead, two men sitting for an afternoon watching football communicate about their marriage troubles without ever mentioning their wives. In real life, we communicate between the lines.

He spent a couple hours awake and responsive but withdrawn. This I know to be actually common among the terminal. They are shutting down their lives which means distancing themselves from their loved ones because it is sad and painful to be in contact with them. They shut the door and walk away. Reopening the door means that they will have to mourn the loss again. As the person makes the transition, the whole family has to be respectful of where in the mourning process each person involved is. He was deep in the process whereas the rest of us were just getting acclimated.

My notes that afternoon:

Wow, everything happened at once. Boring day and then he woke up! Asleep again now but for about an hour, he was awake, responsive and engaged. Not just engaged; he was everything we know and love. He isn’t getting out of bed. Sleeping all the time and getting weaker. We had to help him sit up. This is a big change from just two days ago. I am playing music off Google Play that I would never buy. Oak Ridge Boys, Gaither, … It is going totally going to screw up my recommendations. We are doing OK as well. The storm is big and nasty. …

The weather was indeed intense. We hunkered down and I tried to keep the snow from piling up on the driveway. It was a nice lazy day. We ate meals in the bedroom to be closer to Rod. There was hints about getting out of bed but the closest he got was sitting at the side of the bed.

Rod Mulder — Prologue

This got long and rambling as a single entry so I decided to break it up a little. As I read through my initial draft, I realized that it was about more than just my father-in-law Rod. It is about me too but why shouldn’t it be? It is my blog after all. I am not reporting on just something that happened to some folks I met at an airport bar. This is family and when a family member passes, it affects everyone in the family.

To be blunt, my father-in-law is dying. We knew something was wrong about a year and half ago. I first noticed that he repeated the same jokes. Then, at our house one time he had trouble with the stairs. Another time, he was “listing” on our couch. Rod is a big guy. Sorry, he is a big gangly guy. He is the sort of person that doesn’t fit in or on furniture. On our couch that night, it was like he had been drinking but no, that wasn’t the case.

Then, while watching a professional bike race that rolled through town, he passed out. Then he did it again. A couple hospital visits later and he was given a clean bill of health for every part but his head. He was in great shape and even greater health except for the brain tumor.

Surgery was necessary. He couldn’t drive anymore. There were interesting out of character moments. He was having trouble expressing himself. He was more than a patriarch; he was a man that all of the men in the family wished we could be. Calm, reasoned, smart, faithful, friendly, loyal, and loving. When his youngest daughter called him with bad news decades ago, the first thing he said to her was, “I love you”. I was terrified of him for the first year I was part of the family. It wasn’t until years later that I felt I could relax around him.

The surgery was as successful as those things are. Jane had worked the night before and was asleep in the waiting room while we all fretted. It wasn’t until she saw her father recovering in ICU that we all relaxed. Jane was in her element, calm, smiling, and chatting with the nurses using nothing but acronyms. We all knew instinctively that if there was a problem, she wouldn’t be smiling. We went to dinner and left her there. I almost had to break into the hospital later to bring her overnight bag to her so she could spend the night.

Rod recovered but the surgery knocked him down a little. He looked older and a little frail. He was frequently hoarse and had trouble communicating sometimes. He was also cold much of the time and though not in pain, he was not energetic. He was tired and though thin and thinning, he wasn’t hungry. I was surprised when watching a football game with him that there were no snack foods. What is football without piles of heart attack producing foods? Not having numbing in one’s left arm and chest tightness while watching the fourth quarter is crime in six states.

Laura and Rod knew the tumor was back before the scan was even scheduled. They were quiet about their suspicious until after the scan. Another surgery was scheduled and Rod handled that one with ease. The doctor gave him a year from the first surgery and he was holding steady after 13 months. Never one to be average, no one thought he would only make it a year.

Christmas was a miracle. Eric got off work for the first time since he started working at the ski resorts. Kelsey came back from England. The Smiths (all but Andrew) had seen Rod and Laura over the summer. After Christmas, Laura and Rod headed to Palm Springs where Rod would be warm. He was cold all the time in Colorado but in Palm Springs, he could be warm. Because of many doctors appointments, the trip was delayed a couple times but they finally headed out.

Water: From Failure to Success — Part 1

There might not be a Part 2 to this blog post. It seemed that a telling of the tale to this point was appropriate before it drifted into the abyss of my mind.

In September of 2013, I had a success moment racing in the aquabike category of the Inverness Triathlon. An “aquabike” is the first two disciplines of a regular swim-bike-run triathlon which allows those of us that can’t run anymore to compete without risk of further injury. My injury is arthritis in my right great toe that has caused all manner of nasty in my right knee, hip, and back.

The Inverness Triathlon was very short (sprint, as it is commonly called) involving a pool swim. I killed on the bike getting the third fastest bike leg of everyone competing (even the full triathletes). My swim wasn’t bad but my transitions cost me dearly. Still, I was pretty jazzed about the experience and immediately signed up for the very next aquabike opportunity which was a week away. Unfortunately, it was an open water swim and would require a wet suit. So, I bought a wet suit online but the Colorado floods happened and FedEx stopped delivering. I didn’t receive the wet suit in time and didn’t even start the race.

Surgery took me out of competition last spring followed by much travel and other obligations in June. The first race opportunity in 2014 was in late August at Aurora Reservoir called My Way or The Tri Way which allows everyone to choose their disciplines and the order of attack. I decided to do swim-bike-swim where the first swim would be with a wet suit and the second not so much. I had a solution for my transition issues a year before. I was also feeling very strong in the water and my fitness on the bike was more geared toward laying down significant heat for shorter distances (< 20 miles). I was even feeling good about the open water because of some positive experiences in Mexico where I had some good long swims.

There was much talk at the starting line about how everyone was looking forward to the bike or run legs because apparently no one feels strong in the water. I've learned that this is what all triathletes say. At the start, everyone that was starting with the swim jogged down to the water's edge adjusting goggles along the way. I had been in the water already doing a little warmup. That did plenty to ease my nerves. The course was a big 'U' shaped thing with giant orange buoys on the way out and back and equally giant yellow ones at the right turn points. They were glorious and huge.

Things went just fabulously for the first, let's say 100 yards or so. Then I decided that I needed to be sure of my course because I was feeling people around me. What if I was swimming off course? So, I looked up using forward breathing as we had practiced in the pool. There was nothing familiar in front of me. No buoys visible or boats or land or anything besides green water. There were people around me but I could not tell what direction they were swimming. There was a raft in front of me to my right so I figured that this was a course marshall or life guard or something. I corrected my course to the left to give the raft a wide berth.

Head down in the water I swam on only a little confident that I was going the right direction. I popped back up after 10 strokes to discover that I still didn't know where I was but that the raft was still to my right but behind me now. Head back down, I swam on. Hands on my legs confused me. Though it was comforting knowing I wasn't alone, I felt like I might be in the way. I tried a couple strokes of forward breathing and took a mouthful of water. No problem. I do this all the time in the pool.

I choked a little and missed a good breath. The wet suit was tight. I measured myself carefully when I bought it almost a year ago. Since then, I had changed my lifting routine to heavier weight and lower repetitions. The result was good upper body muscle growth that probably made the wet suit too small and a lower body fat percentage. Shirts fit better and I was so dense that I could easily sink to the bottom of the pool by merely exhaling.

The tightness of the wet suit made the missed breath seem more crucial. The nerves of the race had me swimming hard and fast. My normal distance stroke of 3/4 catch-up hadn't really materialized and I was windmilling. I tried to slow down. I can sink to the bottom of a pool if I exhale. I wonder where I would sink to if I exhaled entirely? The water was green even through my red goggles. It was completely black under me. Nothing there at all. Red + green – light = black. An abyss and I was wearing a black wet suit.

I decided I should be sure I knew where I was going so I went vertical and treaded water. I was more than 45 degrees off course. The happy buoys of life were well to my right and I was so far off course that I was drifting behind the entire field. The raft behind me was being pulled by a swimmer and the passenger was a smiling child. They were also off course.

Course corrected I started again but couldn't breathe. The wet suit seemed to force the air out of my lungs. I tried to swim by the numbers counting strokes and kicks. I couldn't maintain the rhythm because I needed more air. I felt like I was gasping for breath.

I checked course again to discover that I was again well off course. I wasn't alone but I was out of answers. I couldn't breathe and I couldn't stay on course. I looked back at the shore and was surprised how far away it was. The first orange buoy looked far away and small but the beach did as well. I felt like was barely staying afloat in the water. If I exhale entirely, I will sink like a stone. I cannot get air, so…

"Breaststroke," I thought. Breaststroke is my strongest stroke though I can free faster. It didn't work. I still couldn't breathe.

I've never been good in any body of water besides a pool. One time while snorkeling, I was in the water and thinking I need to be back on the boat. Near me was a little girl with her family and she was having a complete melt-down. There was crying, screaming, panic, and all manner of attempts by parents to calm her. I quietly swam back to the boat. Who were the people on the boat concerned about? Me or the child having the freak-out? Me. Something in my eyes said I was at the point of panic if I didn't get out of the water.

I couldn't get pulled out of the water. Even if I didn't finish this thing, getting pulled out of the water was a level of failure that I was not prepared for in any shape or form. I figured that if I did get out to the kayaks and the police boat circling at the yellow buoys, they would undoubtedly see the panic in my eyes even if I didn't fully feel it and force me out.

I turned back to shore and swam slowly back. It surprised me how fast I got out there and how long it took me to get back. The official on the shore was nice enough saying that complete and total freakout meltdowns happen all the time (why was I alone, I wondered to myself). Another person was very insistent that I answer in an affirmative complete sentence that I was OK. I assured her (a nice older woman) that I was. The next wave ran past me in to the water as I worked my way back to the transition area. The nice folks offered to let me do the bike leg but I declined. My heart was racing and I still couldn't seem to breath. I was over halfway home in the car when my heart rate returned to something like normal.

I love challenges and I really love it when I find things to learn and conquer. I don't have to win–it actually doesn't make me happy when I do–but I love playing the game at a high level. This defeat could not stand. I was in a foul mood the rest of the day and after much introspection, I decided that I could conquer this. It was a matter of acquiring a skill and attacking my fear.

The following Tuesday, I was awake at 5 AM and in a wet suit at Boulder Reservoir shortly after six. I've been in the company of the Boulder psychos far too often. From cyclists to triathletes to runners to climbers to freaking 9th level yoga masters, Boulder has no shortage of people that take their sport and themselves far and away too seriously. The people in wet suits that gather at the Res before dawn, well, I was honored just to have seen these nut-cases in their natural habitat. The next level ones rode their bikes out.

On Tuesday, I just swam the shore line twice and received some simple awesome instruction from the leader, Jane, and a very helpful person in a kayak. Red goggles before dawn are bad, flip flops are good, and I pull to the left in the water even more than I do politically. I celebrated not freaking out Tuesday morning with a donut on the way to work.

On Thursday, I was back again even earlier. The goal was simple: the short loop. There are three courses set up: the shoreline, a short loop and a long loop. I think the short is 650 yards and the long is over 1200. Clear goggles helped see the buoys significantly better and some adjustment to the wetsuit helped with the tightness around the chest. I wore a pink cap and the kayaks knew to look out for me which they did. There was no panic but I did have a ferociously difficult time keeping on course. I can breathe ambidextrously but favor to the left meaning that my right arm got better pull merely due to rotation. Swimming in a pool with narrow lanes has given me a sprint racer's stroke with arms that go directly over head and not out in a 'Y'.

I was pausing every 8th or 10th stroke for a course correction breaststroke stroke. That was OK but I wondered if I could switch to three stroke alternate breathing. This seemed to work to keep me moving on target and forced me to relax into the swim. The nice people in the kayaks followed me but didn't seem to think that I looked like I was having a panic meltdown. As I got close to the last buoy, I realized that I was actually swimming faster. There was a crowd standing in the water preparing to head out so I switched to breaststroke so that I could keep my eyes up and avoid uncomfortable collisions.

I had successful swam a 650 yard open water course in a wet suit starting before dawn and I hadn't run into anyone or got in anyone's way. I had to suppress coming out of the water punching the sky in victory. Jane even pointed out that my breaststroke looked really good. 🙂

Thursday's donut had sprinkles.

I have more practice to do but the unknown is conquered. I might not be good in the swim part of a race, but I am confident I will finish next time. Unfortunately, the Res closes on Labor day and even through Boulder Aquatic Masters say that they will be doing the open water thing on Tuesday and Thursday of the first week in September, no one was sure that it was really going to happen. If it does, Tuesday will be two laps of the short course and Thursday will be a single long course lap.

There is at least partial success here and I think I needed to write about that and celebrate it a little. I need to see what happens next before I can claim that this dragon is slain. Time to sign up for another race, I think.

Mountain Unicycling as a Hernia Diagnostic Tool

Mountain unicycling is simply awesome. It is really tricky but not very dangerous. Extremely low impact until it isn’t, of course. Uses piles of muscles and requires balance. As it would turn out, it is also an excellent way to discover you have a hernia.

I don’t know the science of what happened. I’m not a scientist per se. Nor am I doctor per se. By “per se” I mean, yeah, I know what I’m talking about and you may as well listen to me as much as any medical professional that wasted a huge amount of time and money going to a diploma factory. Oooo, fancy, fancy. Are we all not experts in the human condition? Is not the human condition one governed by science? Is not science the basis of medicine? Are not doctors just people like the rest of us? So, yeah, just call me El Doctor.

What seems to have happened over the Moab Mountain Unicycle Festival weekend was that the nagging curious sensation I was feeling to the left “down there” was aggravated. My innards decided that they would rather be outtards and the rest of my body disagreed. I suspect that two aspects of unicycling or unicycling as I do it which is bad and awful and makes children cry and is so horrible it is easier to watch puppies be eaten by a snake than watch the abomination that is me on a unicycle caused my hernia to become oh so very obvious that weekend:

  1. I hold my breath when I mount the unicycle. I heard you gasp. Screw you; this isn’t easy. Part of my “process” is that I hold my breath (I can feel you rolling your eyes) when I mount the unicycle. As I lay on the table while Rosemary the one armed ultrasound technician told me to flex, I realized that flexing so that the insides want to be on the outside is the opposite of how I usually flex. i usually flex to suck in my gut not the opposite. I am generally disinclined to do the opposite for fear of a) looking fat or b) farting or worse. However, as I worked on my technique I realized that holding my breath helped.
  2. Back to the insides wanting to be on the outside, if something was pushing rather directly and aggressively on, say, one part of my body in a way that was for lack of a better word, rearranging the insides, that could possibly cause pressure on weak areas of the overall vessel. I suspect that the saddle of the unicycle was delightfully the exact sort of Medieval torture device one would seek to produce exactly this reaction.

Holding my breath pressurized my body cavity and then when the additional pressure of the saddle was applied to the–again for the lack of a better word–undercarriage, the result is that my insides make an escape attempt. This is just my theory but as implied above, science is so much more of an art really. What I’m saying is that I’m stating facts here.

Surgery is scheduled for the 9th of April. The hernia is small and the pain rarely occurs and when it does, it is almost always tolerable (except when unicycling). With only minor changes to my lifestyle (no unicycling, for instance) I could go years if not decades without treatment. Such a trade-off did cross my mind except that there seems to be a nerve or two involved that are misfiring creating strange sensations like heat among others that are indescribable but usually not painful. As I discussed this case with other “doctors”, we decided that this could become a serious complication if the nerves continue to misfire. The risk is that could become chronic pain based on nerve damage and not an actual mechanical failure.

“<giggle>, he said ‘chronic’.”

My mother isn’t going to get that joke.

A picture of me doing the thing.

Moab Mountain Unicycle Festival 2014 — Day 3

It was a beautiful day in Moab. The sun was out and though it wasn’t very warm, at 5000 ft. a little sun goes a long way.

After packing up the campsite, I went foraging for food like my ancestors would have. The Moab Diner is closed on Sunday so I was forced to eat at the heathen Pancake Haus across the street and it was atrocious. Truly the good and righteous make better breakfast.

The plan for riding was to meet some folks back out at the Bar M Loop and instead of doing the loop, riding over to the Rusty Spur and hitting it and Sidewinder a couple times. I wanted to get some video and few pictures. I actually took this picture of the Bar M area from the Chuckwagon the night before during the “golden hour”:


It is a big mesa on the north side of the Moab valley. I was meeting some people whose names I have embarrassingly mostly forgotten. Our leader was a local named Jason who brought out his wife and two kids. They were on bikes and immediately ditched us. A nice family of five (all unicyclists) of which the son’s name was Tristan. They are a very nice family with some skills on the wheel. The youngest daughter when she got moving would spin like a hummingbird. Amazing. Also, some Canadians I met the night before joined us. The older guy ran and the young man from Edmonton rolled. Awesome, happy, friendly, nice and generally superior people.

At the Rusty Spur turnoff.

At the Rusty Spur turnoff.

Almost immediately after we started rolling, I realized something was wrong. I’ve been having some on and off lower abdominal pain for a couple months but when I was in saddle, it hurt way worse than ever before. Something about the pressure of the saddle “down there” was very not cool. It was as if the pressure on the undercarriage was causing extreme pressure on the front of my abdomen.

The first stretch isn’t technical but it is a long slog along a gravel road. I just suffered through it hoping that whatever was wrong would abate. My back loosened up nicely and my legs even started playing nice but the lower abdominal pain just got worse. I found if I pushed down on the saddle handle with my right hand, I could rock back a little and relieve the pressure. That was at best a short term solution.

A couple of us turned off onto the first entrance to the Rusty Spur and hit the red single track:


At a rise in the trail, I pulled out my Drift cameras and set them up at a couple locations and then took a little “proof” video of myself doing the thing:

The day was beautiful and I was unicycling well (for me) but the pain was getting very intense. I was becoming nauseous which is one of those signs that should be heeded. At the southernmost point, we regrouped and I announced my intention to get back to the car the with the most direct route possible. From that point, we overlooked the Sidewinder trail below us. Perfect single track paralleled the cliff edge and called to me to take the risk.

I did not take the risk. Instead, I bid farewell to the other and took the straight and boring gravel road back to the car. It was a stunningly rare moment of good judgement on my part. On the way back, I had to stop and walk for couple minutes because of the pain.

It is Monday in Boulder and the doctor can’t conclusively say whether it is a hernia or not. I will have a battery of awful tests that hopefully will turn up something treatable. The term “sports hernia” was mentioned but it was also mentioned that not everyone believes that those are even a real thing. It hurts which I would say makes whatever we call it very much real to me.

I did decide over this weekend that I need to carefully keep unicycling in the category of “things I do for fun”. It isn’t something I should do to stay in shape or for fitness or even consider it a sport. I should absolutely not compete. It is fun and it is a whole lot more fun when I don’t take it too seriously. It is meditative, beautiful, calming, and takes me into nature in a way hiking probably does for most people. Since I can’t really hike anymore, this should be my replacement.


Moab Mountain Unicycle Festival 2014 — Day 2

I don’t camp well. The usual problem is too much or not enough stuff or clothes. Of course, I always seem to have the wrong stuff and I can’t find anything even if I remembered to bring it. I find also that around about 4 AM, I wake up freezing cold even if I was way overdressed when I got in the bag.

Imagine my surprise to wake up at 4 AM and not be cold. That was nice though being up at four was annoying and I believe caused by the chickens next door. I like the idea of free range happy chickens but I do not support the range being anywhere near me. They are noisy, smelly, and inconsiderate animals with no sense of time or boundaries.

I found breakfast food at the Moab Diner after being told by a local that the Pancake Haus was to be avoided. The idea of a diner tickled me. I was hoping for pancakes and someone to make me feel uncomfortable by calling me “hun” way too often. Success was achieved on both goals.

The Munifest gang met at Slickrock for a group picture. We split up after the shoot. The options included Porcupine Rim, Slickrock, and Bar M which was the easiest of the three. I probably had the fitness for Slickrock or Pork Rim, but not the skill. A couple dozen of us took the Bar M option and headed seven miles north of town to the trailhead.

It was in the low 40s at ride start (10 AM ish) and blowing out of the north. The roll started with a long mostly flat or slightly uphill section for over a mile. It was a good warm up and we regrouped before the trail got interesting. We had the option of doing the Rusty Spur loop which forked off at the regroup place. It looked like mellow single track so I figured it would be fun. Apparently I alone thought it would be fun. The rest of the group was feeling nervous about just doing the route as planned and folks were already looking for ways to cut it short. There are many ways to cut it short as it turns out.

The Rusty Spur was pure awesomeness. Bright red dirt cuts a single track through sage and buffalo grass. Most of it was ridable by even a hack like myself. At the southernmost point, the trail turns back along a cliff overlooking the northernmost edge of the Moab valley. As I started back north, a fellow unicyclist and retired 3 star general from Durango caught up with me by cutting the corner. I like to think that Donny saw my adventurous nature and felt drawn to a kindred spirit but I have no idea why the 63 year disabled veteran was thinking. Donny is the nicest person and seemed to be having too much fun. We rolled back to the main trail and Donny headed back confirming that the better part of valor is living to fight another day. I continued on the Bar M but decided that unless someone has a great idea, I am coming back to the Rusty Spur with camera(s) Sunday morning.

The eastern edge of the Bar M affords an unobstructed view of Arches. It is miles away but the spires and arches are visible as well as the nagging feeling that one can’t get there from here. Something unseen like a canyon or 10 seemed to be in the way.

The Bar M loop trail is a jeep trail and pretty easy. A couple climbs had me off the uni but there were few obstacles that threw me. After a couple miles, I started catching and passing the back of the pack. First were three teen boys of varying abilities. Then I caught the father of one of the boys wondering where they were. Next was a boy riding a Qu-Ax unicycle like mine. He and I had talked earlier about how our unicycles are the heaviest out there but since they are built by Germans we aren’t allowed to complain. He was having a rough time but wasn’t giving up. I caught his parents (dad riding, mother walking) around the next corner. They are from San Francisco area but no, they don’t work for one of those companies.

They took a shortcut back to the trailhead and I stupidly kept going. Near the northern edge, I took the “Cliff Option” which put me on only partially ridable trail next to a nice little cliff into a notch canyon. It was very good and on the horizon one could see a band of copper in the side of a mesa. I thought I had lost the trail but thanks to some mountain bikers who also thought they were lost, we puzzled out where we were.

On the way back south, the sun came out and I stopped briefly to take the sleeves off my jacket. Then I got confused and ended up going the right way but on the North 40 trail which I could not roll after being out there for so long. Maybe if I was fresh I could have put up a fight but being so tired, it was mostly just hike-a-uni.

I had to really focus at the car to decide how hungry I was. I thought maybe food before shower would have to happen. I brought Fig Newtons with me and was absolutely delighted by them on the ride back into the town. I decided to leverage that calorie intake to take advantage of the empty campground and low demand for the showers. It was amazing how stiff I became just driving seven miles back to camp. Staying warm was also trickier than it should have been on a 63 degree sunny day.

Shower accomplished, I headed to Moab Brewery to see if I could get the table with the outlet near it. And beer. Or the other way around. Whatever, both things are important. Bar food and beer made me happy. I drifted back to camp and accidentally sat in my comfy chair. When I woe up, it was time to go to dinner back at the Bar M Chuckwagon with the Munifest folks.

Dinner was rustic but nice and during the slideshow I was surprised to see a couple excellent pictures of myself.

Thus ends day two. There was no impact damage today but some of the dismounts were fairly jarring. My back was angry earlier but seems to have mellowed for the time being. I am walking with a limp because my right foot is very not good but even with that nonsense, I am feeling pretty good.