by Dave Baker
Why do I choose to paddle? Good question… Is it the sunrise on the open ocean that you alone get to enjoy? Is it the sense of serenity from the rhythmic splash of the water as you glide towards your destination? Sure I’ll accept these, who wouldn’t? However, to quote my late dad who was an ultra distance athlete, starting back in the 70’s on why he would go so far.
“Because I can”
What follows is not your typical paddling story filled with great insight on training or advancement in gear but what motivates me, Joe Paddler, View from the back, kind of guy, to paddle. How the sport has allowed me to achieve my goals and embrace the challenges of life.
A little historical background to put things into perspective and when my life truly changed. (I think for the better)
The Doctor started off with a very memorable statement. “We should not be having this conversation since you should be dead”. My heritage had caught up with me. The onset of my heart disease and the irreversible damage to my heart took place. In 2007 at the age of 49 a major portion of my heart was destroyed, decreasing my ejection fraction (The amount of blood pumped out by the heart on each contraction) to half of a normal one. After a lifesaving operation, I was only able to walk 200 feet before becoming out of breath. I was given strict orders to never go over 75 percent effort in my training or racing – if I ever chose to race again, to break this rule, could result in catastrophic consequences due to the severity of my situation.
Fast forward to November of this year
I find myself toeing the starting line for what I would say was my greatest undertaking so far in living life. In the Mullet’s last newsletter he quoted me as saying before our run after a paddling workout. “You know how I feel about that? About the pain? I welcome the pain. It tells me I’m alive. That I DID something. That I’m doing something. That I’m living. I’ll take the pain, thank you.” and that’s truly how I feel.
Slow rewind to March
Looking on the internet with my badass sidekick for an adventure and challenge to do, we found it. I said “WOW” what a great race and a wonderful location. Little did I know then how, challenging, technical, and death defining it was.
Was it the Carolina Cup race?
Was it the Catalina Classic?
How about ChattaJack?
It was the Moab Trail half and full marathon, United States of American Track & Field (USATF) National Trail Championships running event, taking place November 7th.
Of course I would need a plan, proper training and possibly a running coach with the knowledge to keep me within the parameters set so many years ago to do this, but I was up to the task. I’d already done multiple half marathons, either combined with a half ironman or just on their own. But this was going to be different. Fortunately, sitting next to me staring into the computer was the best running coach one could have. 20+ marathons under her belt with numerous age group wins and a handful of 50k trail runs to boot. She’s gotten more people than you can count to the finish line from their first 5k all the way to qualifying for the Boston Marathon, without injuries along the way. She knew her stuff. She of course said, “No problem I know you can do this” and for her, it was another state she could knock off the list for where she has done a Marathon. Having it as the USATF Trail Championships made it even more exciting for her. So we registered ….. I had chosen the half marathon, badass of course the full.
Oh crap, what have I gotten myself into?
I live on the east coast. I don’t run up hills, let alone mountains! Boulders? Come on, really? I know when pulverized they look like sand, right?
I reminded myself to not look at the big picture overall, but the goal. To finish strong, healthy, to respect the distance and to live life on my terms and not those dictated by a disease. So I knew paddling was going to be a big part of my answer to working within those guidelines set so long ago as I took on Moab.
What did I have that would prepare me for what I was going to face? Well, the ocean and sand were prevalent. I would use both to my advantage. So with my custom Bark prone board and running shoes, a plan was made. My paddling buddy for the past 3 years, John Beasusang had already picked out the Catalina Classic to challenge himself for 2015. This benefited me with his timing as I embarked on mine. It was important to me to paddle hard, to paddle through the chop and the slop on my knees as much as possible, to build my core and balance for the race I was to face. Steep hills let alone mountains that rise for miles are nowhere to be found without road tripping to the western part of the state. I knew I needed the core strength that would have to come from our paddles to help drive my legs up the faces of the mountains and hold gravity at bay as I propelled myself down the backside to keep me from a misstep and falling to an early death.
John was relying on me as much as I was relying on him to get the job done. We both joked about it, but understood the importance of what needed to be accomplished before our respective races. Not showing up to a paddle was not acceptable, so the only excuse that would work was that you were dead. If it was blowing 35 MPH or more, you would still find us out paddling. John would continue on my off days to put in the paddling mileage he needed as I flipped gears and put on shoes. My hills became the sand. Not the hard pack, but the stuff you hate to just walk in, loose shifting sand that causes you to stumble as if a sniper has shot you should you not pick your feet up high enough. I gradually worked my way to climbing the Mountains as the mileage in the sand increased. I took what I had and was determined to make it work. All the while, I was being encouraged and monitored by an all knowing running Coach who knew what it would take to get me to the finish line with a smile on my face.
We all know how John did read it here. So I guess that leaves me to finish up on mine.
So lets forward back to November and my race
The time has come to take the hard work and put it to the test.
The gun goes off…..
The adventure begins….
Pictures speak louder than words and I’ll let them speak for a moment. Those captured by Competitor.com website are by far a great representation of the challenges faced that day.
The first 4.5 miles were up hill, the scenery breathtaking, or was it the climb? Didn’t matter, I was there. But for every up there is a down, some gradual and some mountain goat steep. As much as running uphill was a challenge, with gravity working against you, you’d think it would be your friend on the way down. Far from it…. It was taking every bit of strength I had to keep my feet under me or suffer the consequences of a miss step. A welcomed one would be a sprained ankle or a skinned up knee. However a lot of the route would lead to a broken limb or a tragic but spectacular fall to ones death. The half marathon followed the full course till 9.5 miles and as I made my right turn, they turned left. I truly felt for them as I knew the finish line was getting closer for me and it would be hours before they ever saw theirs. And if the terrain that was already faced by everyone was any indicator of what they had to endure, well a small prayer was said for their safe return. At the bottom of the canyon I was greeted by a volunteer who said “ Turn here, follow the stream till you see another person showing you where to go”. So I turned and then what he said hits me, you’re not running next to the stream; you’re running down the stream! And guess what? It had warmed up to just above freezing for the water temp. Oh joy!
A quarter mile into it I couldn’t feel my feet. I kept looking for that volunteer to tell me that I had found the end. A half mile later, nope…. Somewhere around a mile as I came around a bend there they were. I was never so happy to get out of the water. With numb feet that felt like I had cinder blocks tied on for shoes I was greeted by a climb up the river bank and a welcomed trek uphill on a gravel road. Wasn’t that nice of them to plan it that way so you could warm-up? (Sarcasm intended) There were more ups and downs then a hard right turn and a short steep single track up……then…. There, just 20 yards away, the finish line.
I turned around and looked at where I had been. I looked back towards the Mountains and gave my thanks to them. They did exactly what they were meant to do, they challenged me. They did their job “They make me feel alive. That I DID something. That I’m doing something. That I’m living”. I turned back and took another look at the finish line. Sure some people pass me as they sprint to the line to stop the clock after climbing up the hill, but I close my eyes and stay still and savor the moment…..Once I opened them I begin to slowly walk. It was never about the time for me but the adventure. I appreciated every bit of the journey and enjoy the accomplishment in this chapter of my life and as I draw closer to the end. I thank those that got me here, who believed in me along the way and have an answer for those that wonder why I would do this after what I have been through. As I cross the finish line with a smile on my face the words ring in my ears with their answer.
“Because I can”
I wanted to share this story with you to inspire those out there who have suffered severe heart damage that life is not over from such a medical setback. Or if you have reservations on doing something, prepare the best you can with what you have and do it. Be consistent and committed to your training. Remember the importance to never give up and live life to the fullest. Each and every day is a gift. As it has been said by so many, “There is no guarantee of a tomorrow”.
As I live life on my terms and not those being defined by my disease, I hope you will do the same and live life as a participant and not a spectator. Only you can make your own dreams come true. However, paddling and the paddling community were paramount in making mine come about and a little help never hurts does it? So, “Thank You!”
Oh, how did my badass side kick do? And yes she has a real name. Tracy now can check Utah off the list for Marathons. On top of that, she came away with an 8th place overall finish for USATF female athletes in the Marathon and is now the 50-54 USATF National Age Group Champion for trail running. Not a bad day for both of us at all!
For more information on Dave Baker, go to http://www.dbphotographicart.com