The Donner Party Swim

7:30AM, East end beach, Donner Lake

The morning greeted us with a radiant sun rising up over the high Sierras, its rays cutting through the perfect blue sky and shining strong, reminding us that although fall was only a couple of weeks away, its summer warmth was still in store for the day. 

The swimmers gathered on the shores of Donner, surveying the water, like a sheet of glass stretching almost three miles across the length of the lake. Some, like me, had trained for this day for months, convincing themselves that the frigid water and the 6,000 feet of altitude wouldn’t get the better of them in their attempt to push their limits and accomplish what had seemed previously unfathomable. Others had decided that they would get into the swimming spirit in any way, shape, or form and be out in the open water, itself a significant challenge and accomplishment. And finally, there were all of the friends and family who would cheer and support from a kayak, paddle board or from the dry, rocky, tree lined shore.

Starting the swim, water like glass

I had been worried that the powerful and relentless winds and waves that Brita and I had swam through when we had trained here a month earlier would challenge all of us and make this feat harder, possibly even impossible for me, but thankfully Mother Nature decided to prove me wrong.  

The winds were pleasantly absent, the water was refreshingly cold yet beautifully clear, and the boundless energy and positive spirit of everyone permeated through the smiles and faces of all the swimmers and supporters alike. Even the orange swim caps with our non-profit’s name and logo plastered on the side (a last minute addition to the event that arrived just in time) looked perfect countouring everyone’s heads, marking us all a part of this magical experience which had all started as a crazy idea in my head nine months earlier. 

Quick break to refuel and warm up!

And so it was that after weeks and months of planning and training and visualizing how this would all go down, September 10th was upon me, and this goal within my larger goal of recovery which had consumed and motivated and driven me for so long was now about to be realized… 

I could write volumes about this day, I could share way too many details about everything, about the incredible community that gathered together, all the people who volunteered their time and efforts to make it a smooth and seamless experience, of the serenity of the water as each passing stroke of my arms cut through its stillness and propelled me forward, of the astounding sense of accomplishment I felt upon the completion of swimming those five miles around the lake… 

Suffice it to say that it was one of the best days of my life, one that I will remember forever, and as I think of the collective energy of that wonderful community who showed up, who took the time to drive up to the mountains and be at part of this first of all firsts, I will draw strength and passion and hope for future accomplishments and conquered objectives. And it looks like there’s a good chance that we may do this all again next year…  đź™‚

Little video capturing some of the awesomeness:

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So much more than just a swim

I’ve always loved pushing my physical limits.

There was a time, before my injury and the compromised state of my entire neurological system, when working towards a physical accomplishment like a marathon or a multiple day trek through the mountains was a significant accomplishment on its own. Now, with the daily challenges that come with life in a completely different body, it would seem logical that merely dealing with these challenges would be enough, that taking on anything beyond those day to day struggles would seem unreasonable.

I have to deal with how my body functions in its present state, even as I continue to recover function and to work towards my ultimate goal of getting back on my feet. But challenging that present state and pushing myself way past what I thought was possible is inevitable. It’s a part of my personality. I can’t suppress it and just because I’m dealing with a compromised body doesn’t mean that I’ve lost the desire to figure out where my limits are, and challenge myself further. I just can’t help myself…

Tomorrow, I take on the biggest single day physical challenge of my life. I will swim five miles around Donner Lake, at an altitude of 6000 feet, surrounded by the mountains that I’ve known, explored, cherished and loved for my entire life. Three years ago, I was too weak to get my head out of the water to breathe and could only use a snorkel to swim for a few minutes. Two years ago, I was able to swim in the pool, but I would have to take a break after every 50 meter lap and catch my breath. A year ago, I worked my way up to a 2.4 mile open water swim in a lake. And now, this…

At each of those moments, the thought of achieving the next accomplishment seemed nearly impossible. But my love of being in the water fueled me forward and my insatiable desire to prove that no one would set my limits for me but myself kept me motivated and committed to keep working towards my objective.

So after months and months of training, countless trips to the pool following my already intensive rehab schedule, innumerable occasions where I visualized how this would all go down, here I am, ready to take this on. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a little nervous, because I am, but more than anything I’m excited.

I know that swimming around a lake is not the same thing as walking independently, but I also know that being able to tackle and achieve this smaller goal gives me the confidence to continue working so hard towards my ultimate goal.

Donner Lake: I’m thrilled to see you tomorrow.

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Two wild horses

Recently, more and more time in each session of my rehab has been dedicated to doing a variety of exercises in a standing position. This is following on the work I’ve done using the Neuro Kinetic Pilates method that I’ve learned in Maui and almost always using the Core Align, an amazing piece of Pilates equipment that allows me to push my limits in a standing position while remaining safe and secure and minimizing the risk of falling. (See this previous link to remember what I’m referring to)

By finding new ways to establish movement through my lower body, I’ve encountered a new challenge. I call it the shakes. Put simply, my legs start to shake… and shake… and shake… and just when I think I may be done, my legs shake more. The video below is a perfect example of what I’m talking about and it occurs after some 15-20 minutes of doing squats or lunges or any of the other exercises I’ve been doing recently to target my quads and improve my standing stability.

It took me a while to really understand what this was. At first, when I would tell some people experienced with SCI, they would shrug it off and say that it’s simply clonus and just another typical example of the cervical level injury that I suffered. Clonus is defined as “involuntary and rhythmic muscle contractions” and it is commonly seen in many people with spinal cord injuries. But, like the doctor testing your reflex by tapping your knee with a hammer, clonus is also a reflexive result and can be tested for and replicated by a practitioner. After doing these tests with me, the PT scratched her head in confusion and confirmed that I definitely didn’t have signs of clonus.

So what’s with the shakes?

As with nearly everything else in my path of recovery from SCI, I’ve had to figure it out myself.

To put it as simply as possible, until recently, the controlled movements that I had in my legs were all based on a single movement pattern. Since I was first able to start bridging and standing up independently with a walker, I’ve contracted my leg muscles using a specific pattern of engaging them and it’s gotten me really far.

But since I started doing some new standing exercises a few months ago that target completely different muscles, I’ve established a new pattern of movement and carved out a new neurological pathway. Muscles that haven’t really contracted or have only had minor contractions and been overpowered by other dominant muscles are finally being forced to contract. And since my spinal cord can’t manage the communication between my brain and my legs as effectively as possible, those muscles start freaking out and shaking like crazy. It often feels like I’m trying to stand on two wild horses hell-bent on roaming the countryside.

It takes an extraordinary amount of mental effort for me to keep working these new patterns and strengthening these new neurological connections but it’s a great sign that I’m able to gain new movement and work underutilized muscles that are being forced to step up to the plate and show their stuff.

While I get annoyed with the shaking since it forces me to slow down and struggle through the movements, I still take it as a positive thing. If establishing new neurological connections, gaining strength in previously underperforming muscles and finding new ways of movement mean that I have to deal with two wild horses shaking like crazy, then so be it.

Another anniversary

This morning I woke up a bit unsettled, a bit more tense than usual. I’ve had a heavy feeling all day so far, wondering just how crazy it is that time has passed the way it has.

It was exactly four years ago today that my life changed forever. That three decades of knowing my body in a particular way and understanding how I interact with the world got turned on its head.

In some ways it feels like very little has changed and that it was still only yesterday that I was climbing up mountaintops and biking all over town. I still dream every night that I am walking, running, playing sports (I just dreamt of playing in a competitive soccer game last night) and having access to my body as I’ve always known it. Sometimes I have more vivid dreams with more symbolism and meaning, like walking through my college campus and pushing an empty wheelchair. And I never stop thinking and visualizing of my goal to walk, of wanting so badly to move through the world at six feet tall again. None of it is distant; in fact, it all feels very familiar.

Yet in some ways it feels like four years has been eternity. Four years of waking up with some disappointment every morning, with frustration that my day will include challenges and discomfort and pain that I never thought I’d have to face, but that I have no choice but to meet those challenges head on, deal with them as best as I can and move forward.

I’m not going to lie and say that I’ve gotten used to it. I haven’t. I still don’t think I ever will and that’s fine because that will continue to motivate me. Acceptance can lead to apathy and that’s a dangerous road that I’ve never wanted to take. I know that’s not the path for everyone but it is for me. I can’t help that the fire in me still burns strong. That the frustrations of daily challenges can’t match the even stronger feelings of wanting to overcome those challenges, and wanting to reach my goals. I can’t help that four years of navigating through this very different life has not led to me wanting to throw my hands up and say that the doctors were right.

The truth is, they weren’t right. They said I’d never get to where I am now. My rehab doctor told me that instead of focusing on recovery options outside of the hospital, I should go on a cruise or a vacation with Brita and try to have fun. He told me not to worry too much about my spinal cord healing because it was unlikely that it would.  So even though where I am at this moment is not nearly as far as I want it to be after four years, I can’t help but recognize that it’s only from working my ass off and staying true to my intentions and commitment to my goal that I’ve gotten this far.

I WILL continue to fight. I WILL continue to dream. I WILL continue to have faith that improvements and changes will continue to come, and that I will reach my goals. I know so much more about healing, about healing my own body and recently, I’ve been paying  more attention to healing my mind and spirit. I have come a long way since the first days after this injury when I was struggling just to survive, when making it through a day without a disaster was a cause for celebration. And now, armed with four years of experience, knowledge, triumphs, setbacks, perspective, and a stronger and more determined spirit, I continue to move forward.

And so the journey continues…

Getting out into nature (again)

The beginning of summer has always been a period of excitement for me. The anticipation of what outdoors trips I will take and what new mountains, lakes, rivers, trails and campgrounds I will discover has been a motivating factor to do one of the things I love to do the most in life: get outside and explore nature.

But since my injury, all of this has taken a new meaning. Backpacking on remote trails and high mountain passes have had to take a backseat to my full-time schedule of recovery with the intention and hope to be able to get back out onto those trails one day. Camping weekends are harder to pull off and take more advanced planning when I don’t have the same freedom to dig up all of my gear by myself, pack up the car and hit the road, and have faith that I will work everything out somehow. Spontaneity is difficult to come by since I always need to ensure that I’m not forgetting the many things I need to get through each day, not to mention how to manage my exercise and physical challenges when I’m outside of my usual surroundings.

So far, I would say I’ve made a pretty solid attempt at getting out into nature as much as possible. I’ve gone camping numerous times and reminded myself of that magical, nostalgic smell of a nylon tent, sleeping bag and the surrounding trees. I’ve cross-country skied and made it a few miles out from the nearest parking lot or paved road. And I’ve off-roaded onto some dirt trails (with some pushing help) and challenged the integrity of the wheelchair tires. But none of that has compared to the joy of exploring nature in the water.

As part of my training for working up to a 6-mile swim in September, I’ve become more and more comfortable spending long periods of time in various bodies of water, especially lakes. On a recent trip to Minnesota, to celebrate Brita’s brother’s wedding, we had the fortune of staying at a house that was on one of the state’s 10,000 lakes (it’s not hyperbole, there really are lakes everywhere) and of course, we jumped in and swam around for over an hour each day.

IMG_2188It wasn’t just the bright, translucent, blue water and its perfect temperature (just cool enough to be refreshing but comfortable enough to stay in for a while) or the serenity of the trees and lush green surrounding the lake that I enjoyed, it was the moment of popping my head out of the water and realizing that I was IN nature. I wasn’t a passive observer of the beauty around me, I was an active participant, literally in it. And while it wasn’t as remote as it used to be when I could hike for miles in miles in the mountains, it felt just as profound.

I’m grateful for the fact that Brita has always been a swimmer and thus needs no convincing me from me to get into water. And because we are limited in what physical activities we can fully do together, not only have these swimming adventures fulfilled some of our instincts for nature, but they’ve also allowed us to have another way to spend time together and enjoy each other’s company.

So get out there and enjoy the incredible awesomeness of the outdoors and remember that there can always be new ways to connect with nature and fulfill whatever inner instinct you may have.

Swim like a cannibal pioneer

Throughout my journey of recovery from spinal cord injury, as I’ve maintained my focus and commitment on reaching my ultimate goal of getting back on my feet and walking, I’ve learned the value of setting and working towards smaller goals. The proverbial mountain I’m trying to climb is bigger than anything I’ve ever experienced and I have been, and continue to be, in it for the long haul. I’m proud of the progress I’ve made and the accomplishments that I’ve achieved (all of which I was told I wouldn’t do) but I would be lying if I said that my journey has been anything but arduous, full of challenges, breakthroughs, moments of immense frustration and moments of unparalleled hopefulness.

Because of the immensity of my goal, I have found focus and comfort in setting smaller, more attainable objectives and working towards those. The best example of this was the months and months of hard work I did that was dedicated to the moment I would be able to finally stand up on my own and ask Brita to marry me.

I’ve previously shared my newfound love of being in the water and swimming largely because of the freedom I feel from the weightlessness and the relief of pain from not having to deal with gravity and its impact on my body. Last summer, I set a goal to complete a 2.4 mile open water swim and I thoroughly enjoyed the process of training as well as actually completing the swim. But I remember that the moment it was over, I was already looking ahead to the next challenge. A couple months later, during a trip to visit friends, Brita and I swam in Lake Tahoe’s smaller, slightly warmer, less sexy and well-known but still gorgeous neighbor: Donner Lake.

Since I was seeking a new swimming challenge and wasn’t quite able to find an existing event that could serve the purpose (the swims weren’t long enough or they were relays with too much distance or the water temperature and other conditions were too challenging), I decided I would make up my own event and the answer couldn’t be more obvious.

Though I toyed with the idea for quite some time, it’s only recently that I finally put the pieces together and decided that my new challenge would be to circumnavigate the perimeter of Donner Lake, which by my best Google Earth estimates, comes out to 5.8 miles.

Yes it’s more than double what I did last summer, yes it will be at 6000 feet of altitude, and yes with my steady but very slow pace of swimming it will likely take me the equivalent of a cross-country flight, but I couldn’t be more excited about it. I want the swim to be about so much more than just my personal commitment to work towards this goal (I’m going to do that no matter what) so I’m inviting friends and others to join me in this endeavor. Whether swimming is completely new or a familiar activity, working towards a personal goal, whatever that may be, is what I want to encourage.

The non-profit that a few friends and I recently established (more to come on that on a future post) will be organizing the swim and raising money for our mission. If you’re interested in participating, you can join as a swimmer or non-swimmer (there are options to kayak, paddleboard, or just simply hang out, cheer and support), just comment on the post or contact me individually.

Because it’s in Donner Lake, near Donner Pass and everything else named Donner, the swim is the Donner Party Swim. For those of you not from Northern California who didn’t hear the story of the Donner Party pioneers (yes there was cannibalism involved) a thousand times as a child, educate yourselves here.

Before my injury, with a fully functional body, I could barely swim a quarter of a mile in the pool before gasping for air and calling it quits. Two years ago, I could swim no more than a couple hundred meters but only with a snorkel and many rest breaks. A year ago, I thought it would be nearly impossible to swim 2.4 miles in open water. Now, it’s time to work towards something much bigger and more challenging, to prove that I can do it, but also to remind myself that this will be just another step in my larger journey of recovery and reaching my ultimate goal.

Walking on water… I mean… IN water

Finally a new blog post! Yes it has been a while and I’ve received more than a little flak for not posting a recent update so here I am.

Last summer I wrote a post about my newfound love for swimming and for being in the water. At the time, I had trained for, and completed, a 2.4 mile open water swim and since then my love for being in the water has not only remained steady but increased.

At the end of most of my swims, I usually spend the last few minutes standing, doing squats against the pool wall, bobbing up and down and playing around, and just trying to move my body in an upright position and challenge myself in ways that I can’t do on land, for fear of gravity getting the better of me and tumbling into the ground. In the past, I would try to walk in the pool by leaning my hands on Brita’s shoulders for balance (and in turn challenging her balance with my sloppy grabbing/leaning/pushing/pulling motions) and she would step my legs for me with her hands and keep me upright with her knees as I tried –and likely didn’t succeed– to look somewhat competent. Not too long ago, one day when Brita was out of the pool and I was lingering in the water, soaking up (pun intended) every last bit of the floaty, weightless, aqua goodness, I tried to give walking a go by myself.

In chest high water, I was able to keep my balance by thrashing my arms and pushing the water around as I would lean forward, back, or to the sides. Then I could concentrate on trying to take steps, which is still the missing piece of my walking abilities on land. It was ugly, and I was probably straining way too many muscles and contorting my body like a slow motion Frankenstein, but I was able to take a few very labored steps. While this has improved a bit over the last few months, it’s hard to work at it consistently because of the logistics of the pools I’m in, the varying depths of the lanes, fatigue, etc.

Recently, I spent a few days at Neuroworx, a state of the art non-profit neurological rehab center that I went to shortly in 2013, not too long after my injury (my posts here and here) and had the great fortune of using their incredible therapy pool. With parallel bars in the water, underwater cameras at every angle, and a floor that raises up and down and functions as a treadmill, this thing is BADASS. After doing some core exercises, we decided to turn on the treadmill at a very slow speed and see how I could walk.

Now let me take a moment to be clear and avoid any misleading or false hope.

I am still cranking and pulling with my back more than I ever should. Pulling my legs forward is extremely challenging and takes all of my effort. I’m holding onto parallel bars for balance. I’m supported by the water and the lack of gravity makes it a lot easier to move. At this time, I am NOT able to replicate this on land. You can’t see my upper body but my walk is still ugly and slightly less, but still undoubtedly Frankenstein-esque.

So with all of that said, here’s my water walking.

Not great, but not bad right? I’m pulling one leg through and maintaining support on the other leg, I’m not falling over (mostly thanks to the parallel bars) and once I get started and in the rhythm, I can keep this going for a couple of minutes.

Everyone always asks me what this feels like, does it feel like I’m walking and the answer is simple: I don’t know. It doesn’t feel completely natural or controlled but it’s also not a random, disconnected, spastic movement. I know that I’m compensating my weaknesses by walking in a very unconventional way, but at the end of the day, I’m taking steps. I’m propelling myself on my own two feet. And it still feels pretty damn good.